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 Dante, Middle Ages

A Medieval-style rap battle and a stone woman


Between about 1283–1308, according to the estimations of scholars, Dante wrote about 102 poems, called the Rime (rhymes). While there are 109 transcribed at the Princeton Dante Project, some of the ones included were written to Dante as part of a poetic correspondence. Among these are three poems by his childhood buddy Forese Donati, seen above behind the rock.

Numbering LXXIII–LXXVIII (73–78) and written between about 1293–96, these are a really fun portion of the Supreme Poet’s literary canon. So many people can only think of him as someone who was very serious all the time, with no lighthearted concerns. Yet in these playfully insulting canzone, the Medieval version of a rap battle, Dante emerges as a fun young man with a great sense of humour.

Translation: Forese sucks in bed, and doesn’t even sleep with his wife that often either.

Tana (Gaetana) and Francesco were Dante’s much-younger halfsiblings.

I love how this fun exchange of jestingly insulting one another’s shortcomings ends with Forese essentially saying, “Let’s call the whole thing off and go down to the pub for a drink.”

These are the kinds of poems which should be used to introduce young people to Dante. So many teachers immediately throw students into the deep end with the densest, most sophisticated and advanced masterworks instead of gradually easing them in with poems and stories that are more lightweight and easier to understand.

A lot of negative first impressions stay with people for years, sometimes forever, and they have no interest in trying to read a book or author again with more mature eyes, nor to check out less intense works. The damage is already done, and you get clowns who leave simplistic, childish 1-star reviews bashing a book because they were forced to read it in school and decided they hated it.

Then we have a whole other cycle of poems painting Dante in a much different light than his popular image—the Rime Petrose (Stone Rhymes), written around 1296. Scholars haven’t figured out if Petra, the woman they’re dedicated to, were an actual woman, a fictional creation, or mere symbolism.

Whomever this Petra may be, Dante’s feelings for her are the cardinal opposite of his feelings for Beatrice. This is no courtly love or tender longing for an immaculate dream denied to him by Fate. There are images and desires in these poems that are quite erotic, sadomasochistic even.

Petra is called the Stone Woman for good reason—her heart is as hard and unrelenting as stone. Indeed, the word petra is used over and over again in these poems, even when describing other things.

Rhyme CIII (103), which closes the cycle, has the most unrelenting language of all. It opens with the line “I want to be as harsh in my speech as this fair stone is in her behaviour,” and only gets stronger from there.

Check out the closing stanzas:

“Once I’d taken in my hand the fair locks
which have become my whip and lash, seizing them
before terce I’d pass through vespers with them
and the evening bell: and I’d not show pity
or courtesy, Oh no, I’d be like a bear at play.
And though Love whips me with them now, I would
take my revenge more than a thousandfold.
Still more, I’d gaze into those eyes
whence come the sparks that inflame my heart,
which is dead within me; I’d gaze into them
close and fixedly, to revenge myself on her
for fleeing from me as she does: and then
with love I would make our peace.

“Song, go straight to that
woman who has wounded my heart and robs me
of what I most hunger for, and drive an arrow
through her heart: for great honour
is gained through taking revenge.”

Obviously, this is in no way representative of Dante’s normal oeuvre or way of expressing himself, but it does show he wasn’t all high-minded philosopher, serious writer, and romantic lover. He’s essentially telling Petra, to quote the chorus of the Nine Inch Nails song “Closer,” “I want to fuck you like an animal.” Those have got to be the most violently, explicitly erotic lines he ever wrote!

You can peruse all the Rime at the Princeton Dante Project, under the Minor Works linked to on the far left. They’re all worth reading, and help to paint a fuller picture of the Supreme Poet.

Posted in Books, Dante, Divine Comedy, Middle Ages

How Il Convivio became La Commedia

Il Convivio (The Banquet) is an unfinished book Dante wrote from about 1304–07. Its title refers to the banquet of human knowledge contained within, which he intended as an encyclopedia similar to those written by his dear mentor Brunetto Latini, Li Livres dou Trésor and Tesoretto. The first part serves as a general intro, and the next three parts each have a long poem followed by a commentary or allegorical interpretation serving as a jumping-board for many different subjects—astronomy, politics, linguistics, history, science, mathematics, nobility, virtues, philosophy, theology, love.

Unless we miraculously discover Dante’s original notes for The Divine Comedy with dates, and/or a secondary paper trail such as letters or journal entries, we’ll probably never know when exactly he began composing his magnum opus. However, some scholars believe he may have been working on it as early as 1304, or even started it before his exile and resumed writing after a Good Samaritan reunited him with those precious pages.

Thus, he may have at one point been writing Il Convivio and La Commedia simultaneously.

Obviously, Dante ultimately abandoned Il Convivio to focus solely upon his magnum opus. Yet this unfinished book wasn’t written in vain, since many of the ideas expressed therein found their way into the Commedia. Not only that, the Commedia is in many ways an extension of Il Convivio. If it were just an ordinary epic poem about the afterlife and Dante’s spiritual reformation, it wouldn’t be peppered with so many historical figures, astronomical calculations, geographical references, or philosophical and theological points!

Dante’s great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida degli Elisei, the poem’s fifth-most recurring character after Statius, appears from Cantos XV–XVIII of Paradiso and merits 550 lines. During his lengthy addresses to his descendant, he entreats Dante to be brave and reveal the whole truth, however unflattering, about well-known people. By only including people of renown, he’ll ensure lasting fame and power for himself and his poem.

Think about it. Would the poem have had the same impact if everyone Dante met were Guido and Gianna Nobody down the street, or purely fictional characters? It was easier for his audience to grasp all these deeper lessons precisely because he used real people everyone knew, both contemporaries and important historical figures. Besides, Dante always presents this as a real story, and many people absolutely believed him. (I’m inclined to believe he may have experienced at least some of these things in dreams or intense visions.)

Sure, these aren’t household names to most modern people, unless they’re Medieval history scholars, but Dante’s original audience didn’t need any footnotes to know who they were or the details about their lives.

Additionally, his original audience was Italian. Of course he primarily used people from their native land and Classical Antiquity. It wouldn’t have had the same impact if the poem were peopled with Germans, Russians, Englishmen, Chinese, Turks, or Egyptians. In an era long before instant mass communications and easily-available translations, people knew more about their own backyards than the wider world.

Dante did intend his poem first and foremost as a religious instruction manual to help other people who lost the way just as he did. But many of the components don’t relate to theology at all. They’re in there to finish the encyclopedic job Il Convivio started and celebrate the banquet of all existing human knowledge.

Posted in 1940s, Dante, Historical fiction, Writing

WeWriWa—Dante’s empty tomb

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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 now sharing excerpts which, as you’ll see in a few weeks, are related to a new project I’m researching, an alternative history set in Medieval Italy. This comes from my hiatused WIP The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees, which follows a group of young Shoah survivors from Hungary, France, Czechoslovakia, and Italy as they readjust to the land of the living and decide where they ultimately want to settle.

It’s December 1945, and the friends have gone to the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence before departing for Paris. This was where young doctor Caterina was apprehended by the Nazis in November 1943, after attempting to hide by Dante’s empty tomb, a place she always felt safe.

They proceeded inside the basilica, and Caterina led the way to the tombs it was famous for. She had to explain who most of these Florentine luminaries were. The others were familiar with Galileo, Michelangelo, and Machiavelli, but not people like Ugo Foscolo, Leonardo Bruni, Eugenio Barsanti, and Vittorio Alfieri. Finally, they came face-to-face with Dante’s empty tomb, waiting for his bones for over a century.

On the left was a figure representing Italy, holding a scepter in her right hand and pointing up at Dante with her left arm. On the right was a figure representing Poetry, holding a crown of laurels in her right hand and prostrated, grief-stricken, over the sarcophagus. Dante himself sat atop the monument, his chin resting on his right hand.

“What does the inscription on top say?” Eszter asked. “I assume the Roman numeral on the bottom refers to either the year this was created or Dante’s lifespan.”

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

“That Roman numeral is 1829, the year this tomb was built.  The words on top are a quote from The Divine Comedy, Canto Four of Inferno, ‘Onorate l’altissimo poeta,’ ‘Honor the most exalted poet.’” Caterina traced the engraved words. “Perhaps when Dante’s bones return from Ravenna, they’ll add the following line, ‘L’ombra sua torna, ch’era dipartite,’ ‘His spirit, which had left us, returns.’ No matter where his bones are, I believe this is where his spirit resides. Souls aren’t bound by the location of their physical remains.”

***************

Eszter only asks about one Roman numeral because the ones on the left and right sides weren’t engraved there in 1945. They were only added in 1965, to mark Dante’s 700th birthday. Though I’m in no hurry to get old, I have every intention to be in Italy for his 800th birthday in 2065, when I’ll be 85.

Posted in 1940s, Historical fiction, Writing

WeWriWa—Approaching the Basilica di Santa Croce

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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.

While I’m doing preliminary research for a new project, an alternative history set in Medieval Italy, I’d like to switch to excerpts which are kind of related to its subject. This comes from my hiatused WIP The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees, which follows a group of young Shoah survivors from Hungary, France, Czechoslovakia, and Italy as they readjust to the land of the living and decide where they ultimately want to settle.

It’s now December 1945, and the friends have gone to the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence before departing for Paris. This was where young doctor Caterina was apprehended by the Nazis in November 1943, after attempting to hide in a place she always felt safe.

Copyright Sailko

Júlia stopped in her tracks when the old stone building came into view. “Is that actually a Magen David on top? I’d expect to find a cross or angel on a church, particularly in such a Catholic country.”

“That’s from the nineteenth century, not the original design,” Caterina explained. “A Jewish architect designed the façade. He’s buried under the porch, since non-Christians can’t be buried inside. I like how there’s both a star and cross. It’s a symbol of how nicely we lived together in Italy for so many hundreds of years. We generally had good interfaith relations, unlike many other countries.”

Caterina approached the stone statue of Dante on the left side, atop a pillar flanked by lions and an eagle.

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

The great poet’s likeness stared straight ahead and to his left, a very intent, serious expression on his face. He was cloaked in a cape, a crown of laurels on his head, with a book in his right hand, just as he was often depicted in artwork.

“Are you able to go inside?” Marie asked. “I don’t want you to relive bad memories if you’re not ready to revisit this place.”

“No, I wanted to come here before we left. It seems only right to return to the place where my exile began, and to leave voluntarily this time.”