Posted in 1280s, 1290s, Dante, Middle Ages

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.

Posted in 1280s, alternative history, Dante, Middle Ages, Writing

WeWriWa—Stunning news


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 now 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’ve skipped ahead quite a bit, to Part III, near the beginning of Chapter XVI, “Permanently Broken Bond.” My intention wasn’t to write this book out of order as I did with my other alternative history, but it was the only way I was able to start pulling up in my lagging NaNoWriMo wordcount. Some parts of books flow faster and more effortlessly than others.

It’s now 1287, and Dante is 22 years old, married for the last two and a half years to Gemma Donati. He lost his father as a teenager, and Brunetto Latini became his guardian. In turn, Dante also helps with the upbringing of his much-younger halfsiblings Francesco and Gaetana (Tana).

I was in the middle of studying Averroes’s Aristotelian commentaries with Ser Brunetto during the eleventh day of November when Tana came running into the room, her face a deathly shade of grey and her hair in an advanced state of dishevelment. Immediately I leapt up from my chair and hurried towards my dear little sister.

“What happened, dolcissima?” I put my hands on her shoulders. “Is something wrong with Francesco or your mother?”

Tana shook her head. “They’re both fine, God be praised. It’s Madonna Gemma who’s in a terrible state. She’s in labor.”

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

“But how could that be! She’s only about seven months along!”

Tana crossed herself. “She assumed it was just a passing pain or her imagination, but then she started making funny noises and retreated to your bed. My mother sent me to fetch you, so you wouldn’t be surprised when you came home and saw your wife in labor so early.”

“Some ladies have false signs before the delivery,” Ser Brunetto said. “I’ve read about this kind of thing in the writings of Avicenna, Trota of Salerno, and Haly Abbas.” He shut the book. “If this can’t be stopped, perhaps the child will survive. There are cases of children surviving a premature birth. Whatever happens, it’s all in the hands of God now.”

I pulled my hood over my head and took Tana’s hand. “Perhaps everything will be normal by the time we come home.  We shouldn’t tempt the forces of evil by thinking only of negative outcomes.”

Posted in Books, Dante, Divine Comedy

Misquoting Dante

Imagine my complete mortification and embarrassment when I discovered earlier this year that this famous Dante quote is a 20th century fabrication! Despite always checking alleged Buddha quotes against FakeBuddhaQuotes, I nevertheless took this one at its word and never thought to look up the actual chapter and verse citation.

What makes it more than embarrassing is that I used this quote several times in the books formerly known as The Very First and The Very Next, as the guiding principle of Cinni’s father’s life, a moral imperative which compels him to bring people out of the lions’ den and to the safety of the U.S. before the Nazis devour them. He even has a framed calligraphic print of it in his office.

Finally, I got curious and Googled it, expecting to find a citation so I could see it in full context. Nothing of the sort, only multiple quote sites (and a few other places) trotting it out as a Dante quote. No chapter and verse at all.

First of all, Dante considered betrayal the worst of all possible sins, not neutrality. The Ninth Circle of Hell has four rings, each for a different type of betrayal—Caïna (kinfolk), Antenora (city or country), Ptolomaea (guests and hosts), and Giudecca (benefactor or master). Also, there’s zero fire down here. Instead, the sinners are punished by being frozen in an increasingly more brutal lake of ice.

Neutrality isn’t punished in Hell at all. All three afterlives have rejected such people, and they’re condemned to forever aimlessly run after a banner to nowhere and be constantly stung by wasps and horseflies in Ante-Inferno. The blood from the bites mixes with their tears and drips to their feet, where maggots collect in the pus.

These people took no sides in life, either for good or evil, and just passively drifted whichever way the wind blew, only caring about their own self-interests. Dante is disgusted by them, condemning them as evil and cowardly, in comparison to how he feels pity, respect, sympathy, even love for many of the other souls he meets in Hell.

Over the centuries, many people have seized on this episode in Canto III as support for their various causes, including abolition of slavery; ending nativist, xenophobic immigration quotas in the 1930s and 1940s; the U.S. ending their isolationism policy during early WWII; and the Civil Rights Movement.

By WWI, the fake quote had begun appearing with a slight difference from the modern version. In place of “hottest,” the words “darkest,” “worst,” and “lowest” variously appeared. The first known instance of the “hottest” version appearing in print was 1944, in a book by Henry Powell Spring.

From there, it gradually took on a life of its own, being quoted by politicians, activists, clergy, and laypeople alike. Before long, it came to be believed as fact, despite not appearing in a single English translation of The Divine Comedy, nor any of Dante’s other works.

Rather than doing a second edition of the book formerly known as The Very First and rewriting the pertinent parts of the book formerly known as The Very Next, I included a note about this in the front matter of TVN, concluding by saying Mr. Filliard will tell Cinni in the third book that he was duped by a fake quote, and impressing upon her the importance of always vetting sources.

In addition to fake quotes, there are also quotes taken out of context. This happens with many quotes from many sources, and they’re eaten up by people who care more about quick, easy sources of inspiration than checking the lines before and after. Particularly if a quote comes from a novel, play, or epic poem, you should look up the full context. E.g., is this the author speaking in his/her own voice, or a line of dialogue? Is it a standalone line, or in the middle of other lines which might radically change your interpretation?

And if it’s a translation, is it literal, close to literal, rendered in a forced rhyme scheme, or presented with some creative touches to adhere to blank verse iambic pentameter or sound prettier?

Take the quote “Follow your own star!” This is spoken by Brunetto Latini in Canto XV of Inferno, in the middle of his mutually reverential conversation with Dante. Sure, many lines throughout the poem can apply just as well to all of humanity and readers’ personal situations, but not this one.

The full context:

“And he to me: ‘If you follow your star,
you cannot fail to reach a glorious port,
if I saw clearly in the happy life;

and if I had not died when I did,
seeing that Heaven so favours you,
I would have given you comfort in your work….'”

Given Dante’s belief in astrology and how proud he was of being a Gemini, I’m inclined to believe “star” refers to his Sun sign; indeed, Mark Musa translates it as “constellation.” Thus, a very specific context! It’s not even a standalone line.

People who pass along fake quotes, misquotes, and quotes out of context aren’t deliberately ignorant. In fact, many times they’re very well-meaning and had no reason to doubt the source they found that line in. But just like with urban myths, these quotes become that much harder to debunk when they’re constantly trotted out as factual.

Posted in Dante

Brunetto Latini

Brunetto was born to a noble Tuscan family in Florence (Firenze) in 1220. His father was Buonaccorso Latini, and his grandfather was Latino Latini. By 1254, he was the scribe for the elders in the Florence municipality. Brunetto also was active in the city’s political life, and belonged to the Guelph party.

So respected and beloved was Brunetto by his fellow Florentines, he was part of a delegation sent to the court of King Alfonso X of Castile, Léon, and Galicia in 1259 or 1260, to plead for aid to the Guelphs against their Ghibelline enemies. The mission wasn’t a success, and on his way home from Spain, a student from Bologna told him about the Guelphs’ recent defeat at the Battle of Montaperti.

With this rival party in power, Brunetto was forced into exile. He lived in France from 1261–68 and worked as a notary in various cities. During his French sojourn, he wrote Tesoretto, an Italian encyclopedia, and Li Livres dou Trésor, a French encyclopedia. The latter is regarded as the very first encyclopedia in a modern European language. Brunetto also translated four of Cicero’s works into Italian.

Illuminated page from Li Livres dou Trésor

When the political situation improved in 1269, he returned to Florence and served in a variety of high offices for the next twenty years. In 1273, he received compensation for the wrong done to him, in the form of being appointed Secretary of the Council of the Republic of Florence. Brunetto was one of the most frequently appointed speakers in general councils.

Following the death of Dante’s father, Alighiero di Bellincione, between 1281–83, Brunetto became Dante’s guardian. Dante and many others identified Brunetto as his teacher. There was a clear bond of love and intellectual kinship between the two.

Brunetto passed away in 1294 or 1295, leaving a daughter, Bianca Latini. His tomb is in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Florence.

Despite the powerful love and respect between mentor and mentee, Dante depicts Brunetto in Hell, in the Third Ring of the Seventh Circle. However, he’s treated more respectfully and lovingly than almost anyone else in The Divine Comedy. Brunetto is also only the second person in the poem to touch Dante (the first obviously being Virgil), and the only one who addresses Dante with the familiar form of “you.”

Dante lovingly speaks of Brunetto as his teacher and mentor, and offers to sit with him while the rest of Brunetto’s group runs off. Brunetto has to refuse because he’s condemned to keep aimlessly moving. He then tells Dante’s future.

Panel about monkey from the bestiary section of Li Livres dou Trésor

Brunetto’s section of Hell is for people who’ve been violent against God, Nature, and art, and unfortunately (given the attitudes of the era) includes gay men. But there’s zero evidence beyond rumours that Brunetto was gay or bisexual, and Brunetto himself expressed homophobic views in Tesoretto. So what is he doing there?

Some scholars believe Brunetto was truly placed in that part of Hell because he was violent against art and his native language. He did, after all, write an entire encyclopedia in French instead of Italian. Others feel it’s proof of how even the greatest of people may be guilty of private sins (whatever they may be).

Brunetto’s tomb, Copyright Sailko

In recent years, a love poem some believe Brunetto sent to poet Bondie Dietaiuti was discovered, but the intent may be open to interpretation. After all, many close friends in bygone eras expressed their love for one another (both physically and in words) in ways that suggest romantic or sexual feelings to modern people, but weren’t seen as such historically, let alone considered in that way by the friends themselves.

Dante not only doesn’t condemn gay men as deviants, degenerates, perverts, etc., he also puts an equal number of gay and straight men in the Seventh Terrace of Purgatory, for the lustful. Everyone in Purgatory is guaranteed eventual entrance to Paradise, so Dante clearly had a much more modern, nuanced view of homosexuality than most people associate with the Middle Ages.