The discovery of Dante’s handwriting

I recently was alerted to a July 2021 article in The Daily Mail, corroborated by the more serious U.K. paper The Times and several other sources, reporting that a British-born, Florence-based nun named Julia Bolton Holloway discovered a few manuscripts almost certainly written by Dante in the 1280s or 1290s. While researching manuscripts written by students of Dante’s dear surrogate father and guardian Brunetto Latini in several libraries, Sister Julia found some which we have very good reason to believe were penned by the Supreme Poet.

These manuscripts were located in Florence and the Vatican, dated to Dante’s student days, when he was copying books and treatises on government. In the days before the printing press, everything was handwritten, and it was quite common to copy other people’s work for one’s own education or personal library.

Some of the manuscripts from Brunetto Latini’s students were also transcriptions of his own lectures and writings on philosophy, politics, law, government, rhetoric, science, and ethics, greatly influenced by things he learnt while in exile in Spain.

Sister Julia was a professor of Medieval Studies at Princeton before answering the call to become a nun. One of her great passions is Brunetto Latini, whom she’s studied for fifty years. After taking the veil, she moved to Italy and ran the English cemetery in Florence. She also lived for awhile as a hermit in Tuscany. But always, her love of the Middle Ages endured, which was what led her to making this miraculous discovery.

According to Leonardo Bruni (ca. 1370–1444), a historian, humanist, and statesman of the early Renaissance, Dante’s handwriting was Cancelleresca script (Chancery hand), with the same idiosyncrasies as those in the documents Sister Julia discovered. These documents are also the only ones among all the manuscripts written by Brunetto Latini’s students using Cancelleresca.

Cancelleresca was developed by the Apostolic Chancery, a department of the Roman Curia responsible for the Pope’s books and censoring documents. It’s a form of blackletter, known as rotunda script in Italy and with origins in Carolingian minuscule. Among the unique features of the Italian form of this script are uncommon spellings and abbreviations (e.g., milex instead of miles, qui represented by a line under the letter q). It was also less angular than other forms.

The most calligraphic form is officially called minuscola cancelleresca italiana, and eventually began to be used for books instead of government communications like charters.

Sister Julia believes Dante’s father, Alighiero di Bellincione degli Aligheri, taught him to write in Cancelleresca.

In addition to being the only documents written in Cancelleresca, out of all the other known samples from Brunetto Latini’s students, they’re also the only ones written on cheap parchment instead of the more upscale vellum made from calfskin. Though the Alighieris were minor nobility and always had enough money to live comfortably, they also weren’t an über-rich Florentine family like the Portinaris or Falconieris.

Thus, Dante didn’t have the same financial means as the other students. After his father died in the early 1280s, the family’s finances also became more precarious, and Dante had to earn money through selling letters of credit his usurer father had on unpaid loans, charity, loans, and income from family farmland. As Forese Donati, one of his best friends, joked about in the six tenzone they exchanged in the first half of the 1290s, Dante wasn’t exactly a wealthy man, or even bourgeois.

Tana (Gaetana) and Francesco were Dante’s much-younger halfsiblings, to whom he was very close

Sister Julia says, “The handwriting is schoolboy-like in the early manuscripts, but the writing is in excellent Tuscan,” and feels it “provides an insight into his genius.”

The big square imposed on a circle represents God, an idea which Dante later expressed in Canto XXXIII of Paradiso, pondering the geometer who can’t find the principle to square the circle as he gazes upon three circles representing the Trinity.

Given how Dante rescued many women from historical oblivion by recording their names and stories, and how his overall treatment of women is lightyears ahead of the majority of his contemporaries, it feels only fitting that a woman should discover these manuscripts and figure out he wrote them. The good you put out always comes back to you.

WeWriWa—Ser Folco’s business wraps up

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m sharing from my alternative history, with the working title A Dream of Peacocks. It starts on May Day 1274, when Dante met his great love and muse Beatrice Portinari, and will give them an eventual happy ending, with lots of Sturm und Drang.

This comes right after last week’s excerpt, when Beatrice’s father Folco discovered not only that his daughter is very ill and injured, but that her husband beat her because he believes she was committing adultery. In the middle of his rant against his son-in-law and his own poor judgment in arranging the marriage, Dante’s stepmother comes into the room.

My stepmother smiled at Ser Folco. “I presume you’ve come to take your stricken daughter home. This scandalous arrangement can’t end a moment too soon.”

Ser Folco stopped in his tracks and stared at her. “Scandalous? You dare call human decency scandalous? Have you been speaking with my son-in-law Simone de ’Bardi? Who knows, perhaps you’re one of the women he’s been sleeping with in secret.”

Monna Lapa gasped and ran out of the room, almost tripping over her skirts.

“She refused to help Bice last night,” I said, hoping she overheard and felt even a smidgen of shame.

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish the scene.

“When she saw me carrying Bice into the spare bedroom, she accused me of bringing her there for illicit purposes. Thank God, my eight-year-old sister volunteered her feminine assistance without complaining.”

“I’d be more than happy to give you one of my maidservants,” Ser Folco said. “It’s not fair to make a child provide all the assistance.” He pulled his cloak tighter around himself. “I think my business here is just about concluded. Praise Christ no one harmed Bice when she was walking alone at night, and that she collapsed where she did, when she did. I don’t want to think about what might’ve happened to her in different circumstances.”

I saw Ser Folco to the door while my siblings went to eat their morning meal. Once I bid him farewell, I dashed upstairs to check on Beatrice.

She was still deep in sleep, and her face hadn’t lost any of its redness. I made the sign of the cross over her, sank onto my knees, and began reciting every Biblical story and prayer I could think of about healing. All our days are numbered, but I couldn’t bear the thought of my immaculate dream being taken away before she was even midway our life’s journey.

WeWriWa—Ser Folco reacts

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m sharing from my alternative history, with the working title A Dream of Peacocks. It starts on May Day 1274, when Dante met his great love and muse Beatrice Portinari, and will give them an eventual happy ending, with lots of Sturm und Drang.

This comes a bit after last week’s excerpt, when Beatrice’s father Folco came to the house. Beatrice has been in the house since last night, very ill and injured, and now in a deep sleep. Each successive detail about the situation shocks Ser Folco more and more, and he’s about to learn the most unexpected thing of all.

“Now that I know you’re in complete agreement with me about Simone being cruel and sinful, there’s one more important thing I must tell you. Bice said he beat her because he believes she’s been committing adultery with me.”

Ser Folco jumped up and paced back and forth, his fists clenched and his face white. I sat terror-stricken for those long silent minutes, praying he didn’t believe the accusation. Beatrice’s reputation would be destroyed if this wild story began circulating, and it weren’t as though Fiorenza was known for being a city full of virtuous people.

“I cannot believe I married Bice off to that pearl among men or even considered him as a suitable husband for any of my daughters. Cilia and I didn’t raise adulteresses.” He fixed his gaze upon mine. “I would vouch for your character to anyone. There’s absolutely no proof of such an accusation, and all of Fiorenza would know about it by now if you were having an affair.”

The ten lines here. A few more follow to finish the scene.

The tight, invisible grip on my insides slowly loosened. “You have no idea how relieved I am to hear you don’t believe it. I would swear before Christ I’ve never been alone with Bice since she was married, and when we used to walk alone in your garden as children, nothing inappropriate ever happened.” Given the severity of de Bardi’s accusation, I had no desire to give it any credence by admitting I kissed and caressed her before the wedding. “Anyone who’s seen us interacting or heard us speaking since her marriage knows we behave with the utmost propriety, without a single hint of an illicit relationship.”

“Perhaps Mone made that accusation to cover up his own adultery. People often privately commit sins they loudly preach against and accuse others of. God knows, we live in a very sinful city. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn Mone slept with other women in secret.” Ser Folco began pacing back and forth again. “Mone and I will have many things to talk about when he returns, including annulment. If the law won’t punish him, we will. He can’t behave so inhumanly and slander Bice’s character without any consequences.”

Ser Folco continued ranting against de ’Bardi and cursing his own poor judgment, calling de ’Bardi the foulest, the most insulting words ever hurled at any scoundrel. I nodded my assent to each and every curse. In the middle of his righteous tirade, Francesco, Tana, and Monna Lapa came into the library.

WeWriWa—Ser Folco arrives

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m sharing from my alternative history, with the working title A Dream of Peacocks. It starts on May Day 1274, when Dante met his great love and muse Beatrice Portinari, and will give them an eventual happy ending, with lots of Sturm und Drang.

This comes right after last week’s excerpt, when the family manservant Galfrido (an entirely fictional character) returned to the house with Beatrice’s father Folco, whom he was asked to summon. Beatrice has been in the house since last night, very ill and injured, and now in a deep sleep.

“Please have a seat, Ser Folco,” I said. “Our conversation may last a long time.”

“Do you need money?” he asked. “Are your in-laws no longer providing financial assistance now that you’re a widower? Some filial loyalty and Christian decency.”

I shook my head. “It’s hardly a secret that my family has had problems with money for some time, but we’re still able to live fairly comfortably regardless. We just have to go without things like private tutors for my brother and multiple servants. Don’t you know me better than to think I’d ask you for money? I’m not a shameless beggar.”

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish the scene.

Ser Folco lowered himself onto the red velvet cushioned bench opposite the chairs. “What do you want my assistance with, if it’s not money?”

I had a seat to his right. “Were you aware that your son-in-law Simone de ’Bardi recently sailed for Cyprus on business?”

“Yes, we discussed the voyage and what he’d be doing at our Cypriot office for several months in advance. Manetto, Ricovero, and a number of other relatives accompanied him.” He looked at me closely. “I wasn’t aware you had a close friendship with Mone.”

My insides clenched as I recalled yet again what that demon had done to the lady I love most of all in this world. “I barely speak to him or see him. We don’t attend the same church or live in the same neighborhood, and he’s never invited me to his home. The few times I’ve encountered him were at your home when we were both guests.” I fought off a wave of bile rising up my throat.

WeWriWa—The morning arrives

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m sharing from my alternative history, with the working title A Dream of Peacocks. It starts on May Day 1274, when Dante met his great love and muse Beatrice Portinari, and will give them an eventual happy ending, with lots of Sturm und Drang.

I’m skipping ahead a few pages from last week’s excerpt. Beatrice has spent the night in the house after collapsing from illness and injury, and then falling into a very deep sleep. Because she’s too severely and extensively injured for bloodletting, her only course of treatment thus far has been cold rags to bring her body temperature down.

The moment the first slivers of light began breaking across the sky, I jumped out of bed, ran upstairs to Galfrido’s room, and pounded upon his door. In all the years he’d worked for my family, I’d never awoken him or taken advantage of my authority over him, but urgent times necessitated unusual measures.

Galfrido opened the door and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Without wasting a moment, I firmly grasped his left arm and pulled him into the hallway.

”You must hasten at once to Ser Folco’s house and tell him to come here,” I said. “Say there’s a very complicated, sensitive situation I need to discuss with him, but don’t provide any details. If I had the money, I’d pay you extra for inconveniencing yourself last night and this morning.”

“There’s no inconvenience in the life of a servant,” Galfrido said as he adjusted his cloak. “Doing as my master demands is just how my life is ordered. It doesn’t feel like a hardship or annoyance to me, since I’ve never known anything different.”

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to complete the scene.

He pulled his hood over his head. “I’ll return as soon as I can. God willing, Monna Bice will still be in this world.”

After he departed, I hurried to Beatrice’s room and peered in. Now that it was daylight, I saw how red and rashy her face was. It wasn’t merely flushed, as I’d interpreted it last night. To make sure she still drew breath, I entered the room and put my right thumb and forefinger over the veins in her neck. Praise God, there was a pulse.

Since there was nothing else I could do to help her, I went downstairs into the library and took my favorite book off the shelf. Though I knew The Aeneid by heart, reading it offered a more intense, personal connection to my dear Virgil’s ancient words than recalling them in my head or reciting them aloud. And even if I still failed to find solace in them for want of being preoccupied by the turmoil seething in my life, I nevertheless loved the full-page illustrations, fancy letters, and little drawings in the margins.

The door creaked open just as Aeneas had lost his dear Creusa. I shut the book and stood up to face Ser Folco, who walked ahead of Galfrido.

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