Terza rima

Terza rima (third rhyme), also known as terzina Dantesca, is a style of poetry Dante created to write The Divine Comedy. No earlier examples are known. It’s believed he was influenced by the Provençal troubadours he so admired. They used a form of lyric poetry called sirventes or serventes (service song).

These songs were written from the POV of a sirvent (serviceman), and were usually parodies. They borrowed the metrical structure, melody, and many times even the actual rhymes of famous songs to take on controversial subjects (often current events). A sirventes more often than not was quite vitriolic.

Terza rima, then, is a three-line stanza with the rhyming pattern of ABA BCB CDC DED; i.e., the first and third lines rhyme, and the second line rhymes with the first and third lines of the next triplet. Each section of the poem concludes with a couplet or single line repeating the final tercet’s middle line’s rhyme. E.g., DED E, DED EE.

It’s known as chained rhyme because the second verse hooks each triplet onto the next like a chain. This style makes it easier to memorise than poems and songs with only two rhyming lines. (Though nowadays, many singers and rappers can’t even be bothered to rhyme anything, rhyme words with themselves, or just repeat lines.)

Dante’s one exception is Christ only rhyming with itself in Paradiso. He felt it would be unholy and blasphemous to associate any other words with that name.

This style of rhyming also makes it more difficult for copyists to steal the work, delete some lines, and embellish it with their own lines. The rhyme sequence would be interrupted if anything were taken away or added, and coming up with new rhymes to fit with the overall story and not look like piracy would be a really difficult task,

Terza rima employs the hendecasyllable (endecasillabo) structure, a verse of eleven syllables where the last accent falls on the tenth syllable. This too was influenced by the Provençal troubadours, corresponding to their décasyllabe.

Because of Dante’s acclaim, other Italian poets began using terza rima too. To this day, it remains the most popular metric structure of Italian poetry and song.

Terza rima is very difficult to naturally achieve in English due to the language’s more complex phonology and relative dearth of words to easily rhyme with one another. Even a lot of singers, poets, and rappers just using standard rhyming often employ forced rhyme schemes because the words at the end of those two consecutive lines sound nothing alike, and there were no other words they could think of.

English writers brave enough to use terza rima include Geoffrey Chaucer, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Milton, Thomas Hardy, Lord Byron, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and William Carlos Williams. Several translators of The Divine Comedy have also used this metric, among them Laurence Binyon, who did the version I first read. (And yes, it does often employ forced rhyme schemes.)

Translators using terza rima necessarily also take some liberties with the source text. To ensure the English lines all follow that style, there are frequent insertions of words and phrases that appear nowhere in the actual Italian. As pretty as they make it sound, it’s linguistically misleading.

…Tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta
più caramente; e questo è quello strale
che l’arco de lo essilio pria saetta.
Tu proverai sì come sa di sale
lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle
lo scendere e ‘l salir per l’altrui scale…

…You shall leave everything you love most:
this is the arrow that the bow of exile
shoots first.  You are to know the bitter taste
of others’ bread, how salty it is, and know
how hard a path it is for one who goes
ascending and descending others’ stairs…

(Paradiso, Canto XVII, 55–60)

Ravenna, Italy

Basilica di San Vitale, Copyright Waspa 69 at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Ravenna, the northern Italian city where Dante was invited to live in 1318 and ended his days in three years later, has a long, rich history stretching back to the Roman Empire. Historians and archaeologists disagree on just which tribe settled Ravenna—Etruscans, Thessalians (from Thessaly, Greece), or Umbrians. There’s also a theory that the city’s name comes from Rasenna, or Rasna, the word Etruscans called themselves.

The Senones, a Gallic tribe, later settled in Ravenna, and laid it out very similarly to Venice, on a series of small islands in a lagoon. Initially, the Roman conquerors ignored Ravenna during their campaign in the Po River Delta, but eventually made it a Roman town in 89 BCE.

Ruins of Port of Classis, Copyright Trapezaki, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

In 49 BCE, Julius Caesar gathered his troops in Ravenna before they crossed the Rubicon, and in 31 BCE, Octavian established a military harbour with defensive walls in nearby Classis. This harbour was an important part of the Roman Imperial Fleet.

Ravenna continued to go from strength to strength under Roman rule, and had a population of 50,000 by the time it became capital of the Western Roman Empire in 402. The Western Roman Empire fell in 476, and Ravenna became capital of the Ostrogothic Kingdom in 493. In the sixth century, it was chosen as the seat of the Exarch, Italy’s Byzantine governor. The Archbishop of Ravenna was second only to the Pope in Italy.

Porta Serrata gate, Copyright Ludvig14, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Apse mosaic of San Michele in Afrisco Church

Byzantine rule of Ravenna ended in 751, and gradually came under Papal authority. The city suffered a terrible loss when Pope Adrian I let Charlemagne rob Ravenna of anything he pleased, and an unknown amount of Roman mosaics, statues, columns, and other treasures were taken to Charlemagne’s court in Aachen.

In 1198, Ravenna led other cities in the Romagna region against the Holy Roman Emperor, but the Pope put down their rebellion. The noble Traversari family ruled the city from 1218–40. In 1248, Ravenna rejoined the Papal States, and later was returned to the Traversaris.

Finally, in 1275, the da Polenta family established their rule, which lasted till 1441. That year’s Treaty of Cremona annexed Ravenna to the Venetian territories.

Dante’s tomb, Copyright Congolandia.g at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Vault interior of Archbishop’s Chapel, Copyright Anelhj at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Venetian rule lasted till 1509, when the region was invaded during the Italian Wars. The French sacked Ravenna in 1512 during the Holy League Wars. Yet another period of Papal States rule followed, interrupted by another brief Venetian rule from 1527–29.

A huge flood severely damaged the city in May 1636. To prevent such a tragedy from recurring, authorities spend the next 300 years draining swamps and redirecting rivers.

Ravenna Art Museum, Copyright Mac9 at Italian Wikipedia

Banca di Romagna, Piazza del Popolo, Copyright Marie Thérèse Hébert & Jean Robert ThibaultCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

In 1796, the Cisalpine Republic, a French puppet state, annexed Ravenna. Predictably, it returned to the Papal States in 1814. Piedmontese troops occupied the city in 1859. Ravenna didn’t win her freedom till the unified Kingdom of Italy was created in 1861.

Miraculously, Ravenna suffered very little damage during WWII.

Arian Baptistry, Copyright Georges Jansoone, Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

Biblioteca Classense, Copyright Domenico Bressan at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Ravenna is gut-loaded with beautiful historic buildings, including many churches and tombs from the Early Middle Ages. Eight of its churches are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The city also has many museums, art galleries, theatres, gates, and towers, as well as two amusement parks.

Dante’s tomb was built in 1780–81 at the Basilica di San Francesco. The Supreme Poet’s bones are in a Roman sarcophagus which was embellished with a bas-relief in 1483.

Florence (Firenze) has been begging for the return of their illustrious native son’s remains since 1396, but Ravenna has continually refused to send them home. Several times, the bones have been hidden to prevent this. Dante’s empty tomb in the Basilica di Santa Croce is still patiently waiting to be occupied.

Copyright Opi1010 at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Vegetation mound which protected Dante’s bones from 23 March 1944–19 December 1945, © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0

Pietro Alighieri

Pietro Alighieri’s commentary on The Divine Comedy, Copyright Mario Mancini

Pietro Alighieri, Dante’s first or second son, was born in Florence (Firenze) in the late 13th century. In 1315, he and his siblings Jacopo, Antonia, and Giovanni joined their father in exile, after not seeing him for fourteen years. Since they were of legal age, they were considered guilty of Dante’s “crimes” by extension, and had to share his sentence.

Dante’s children dutifully followed him during his sojourns in various Italian cities, until they settled in Ravenna in 1318. Pietro also received ecclesiastical benefits in Ravenna.

In 1322, a year after Dante’s death, Pietro returned to Florence and discovered what a financial mess his family was in. When Dante was sentenced to exile, the city seized all his properties and assets, and they were still held hostage.

To try to improve his economic situation, Pietro began studying law in Bologna in 1323, and eventually received a doctorate. Cangrande della Scala was his benefactor. During his studies, Pietro befriended the great Petrarch.

Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch)

Unlike Jacopo, Pietro didn’t take advantage of the amnesty granted to so-called political criminals, and so was unable to return to Florence. In 1331, he decided to move to Verona, where he settled in the Palazzo Bevilacqua, a 13th century palace in the city centre.

Pietro’s relationship with his uncle Francesco (Dante’s halfbrother) completely fell apart in Verona, due to testamentary rivalries. Dante’s assets were divided between his sons and Francesco, and Francesco got the land, from which he made his living raising cattle and farming. Perhaps Pietro felt more entitled to that land, and resented his uncle making money off of it in his stead.

Palazzo Bevilacqua, Copyright Giacomo Augusto 2

Pietro worked as a lawyer in Verona, and also served as a delegate to the city’s podestà from 1332–47. Later he was a judge. After moving to Vicenza, Pietro was vicar to that city’s podestà.

Around 1335, Pietro married Iacopa di Dolcetto de Salerni, by whom he had three daughters, Alighiera, Gemma, and Lucia, and a son, Dante. All three of their daughters became nuns in the monastery of San Michele di Campagna.

Pietro also had an extramarital child, Bernardo, who became a notary in Verona. Bernardo’s son Niccolò was a pharmacist in Agram (now Zagreb, Croatia).

Second of the two Alighieri coats of arms, Copyright Sailko

Pietro also found time to write. He composed some poems and songs, but his major literary work consists of commentaries on his father’s writings. After 1347, Pietro wrote a 20-codex commentary on The Divine Comedy. He also wrote commentaries on Dante’s shorter poems.

In his old age, Pietro moved to Treviso. He signed his will on 21 February 1364 and died exactly two months later. Pietro was initially entombed in the Church of Santa Margherita, but his remains were later moved to the Church of San Francesco.

Prince Guido Novello II da Polenta

Dante alla Corte di Guido Novello, Andrea Pierini, 1850

Prince Guido Novello II da Polenta was the grandson of Guido da Polenta the Elder of Vecchio, son of Ostasio da Polenta, and nephew of the infamous Francesca da Rimini. He held various public offices in Cispadini until he succeeded his uncle Lamberto as podestà of Ravenna on 22 June 1316.

Though the exiled Dante had enjoyed an excellent relationship with Cangrande della Scala of Verona, who had personally invited him to stay in that city, he nevertheless journeyed to Ravenna in 1318. Theories about why this is varies. Some scholars believe Dante and della Scala had a quarrel, or that Dante was sent there on a mission by della Scala. Others believe he was attracted by the idea of a court of fellow writers.

Those writers included Guido himself, who was overjoyed to welcome such a great poet and celebrity to his city. Dante and Guido became fast, dear friends.

Da Polenta coat of arms, Copyright Facquis

Though Guido pursued a policy of peace, not war, he was drawn into a major dispute with Venice over the salt trade. At one point, Ravenna attacked a Venetian fleet, and Venice decided to ally themselves with Forlì.

It just so happened that Forlì was ruled by the Ordelaffi family, who’d been among Dante’s first protectors after he was exiled. For these reasons, Guido sent Dante to Venice on a diplomatic peacekeeping mission. Since Dante and the Ordelaffis still enjoyed a cordial relationship, Guido figured he’d easily make peace between the two cities.

The mission was a success, but it sadly led to Dante’s death from quartan fever, a type of malaria, at age 56. He was bitten by an infected mosquito on his way back to Ravenna, and died not long after he returned to the city. Guido was so emotionally shaken by his friend’s death, he laid a laurel wreath upon his head in the tomb and gave him the most important of funerals.

Dante Alighieri in atto di presentare Giotto a Guido da Polenta (Dante Alighieri Presenting Giotto to Guido da Polenta), Juan Mochi, 19th century

Trouble began when Guido was elected Capitano del Popolo (Captain of the People) of Bologna and left Ravenna’s rule in the hands of his brother Rinaldo, Archbishop of Ravenna, in 1322. Not long afterwards, on 20 September 1322, Rinaldo was assassinated by his cousin Ostasio I da Polenta.

Ostasio promptly took over Rinaldo’s position and seized control of Ravenna. Four years later, Ostasio also murdered his uncle Bannino da Polenta, podestà of Cervia, and assumed leadership of that city as well.

Guido refused to take these outrages lying down, and fought to regain control of his beloved Ravenna and avenge Ostasio’s murder. Unfortunately, he passed away in 1333, before he had a chance to oust that foul usurper.

De Monarchia

De Monarchia is a three-part treatise Dante wrote anywhere between the 1290s and the final year of his life, 1321. Since this wasn’t an era when people tended to date their work, and record-keeping wasn’t as precise as it is today, we can only guess. Some people believe he wrote it when he still lived in his beloved Florence, while others think it was a heralding or commemoration of Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII coming to Italy, and thus written from 1308–14. Still other scholars believe it was one of Dante’s final works, written from 1318–21.

Though Dante argued for the use of vernacular language in De Vulgari Eloquentia, he chose to write De Monarchia, De Vulgari Eloquentia, Eclogues, and Quaestio de Aqua et Terra in Latin because it would assure a much wider audience. If he wrote in Italian, he’d only reach people in his own homeland, border regions, and nearby areas under Italian rule. In the Middle Ages, Latin was Europe’s lingua franca, understood by all educated people.

Because this book isn’t easy to find in translation, and the subject isn’t exactly lighthearted or of general interest, not many modern people have read it. As much of a passionate Dantephile as I am, even I can’t see many people choosing to read it for fun. It’s the kind of thing people might point to on their bookshelves as proof of how intellectual and educated they are, but aren’t very likely to have actually read unless they’re hardcore Medieval history scholars.

De Monarchia comes to about 28,000 words (plus a lot of modern, explanatory footnotes), so it’s not a very long read. Don’t come to it expecting to be blown away by beautiful, timeless poetry. This is about the relationship between religious (i.e., Papal) and secular (i.e., the Holy Roman Emperor). Dante tries to be fair to both sides instead of taking one absolute position and tearing apart any other views.

Dante’s position is that both the Pope and Emperor are human, and derive their authority and power directly from God. Because they’re both humans and peers, they shouldn’t have power over one another. While Dante was always very careful to kiss up to the Pope and take his religious authority seriously, he also didn’t think one peer should rule over another. Only God has the right to do that.

Instead, the Pope and Emperor are two equal swords, each given power by God to rule over their own respective domain. They should respect one another’s different spheres and not encroach upon matters and territories which aren’t theirs.

The purpose for which God created humans, Dante believes, is to make full use of our highest intellectual potential. And to do that, we need universal peace. If we’re forced to deal with wars, internal strife, and political bickering, we can’t accomplish our work very easily or freely.

It’s the natural order of things for one person to assume the leading role in a household, community, city, empire, etc. Very rarely can two equals share power without clashing, since the desire to be top dog and have no competitors is so strong.

Thus, the world needs one unified leader for its well-being.

Humanity is made in the image of God, and “is ordered for the best, when according to the utmost of its power it becomes like unto God.” And when we unite as one, we most live up to our Divine image, since God is also one. However, we need a single monarch and empire to achieve this oneness.

Justice is most effective when the monarch is just, and the worst enemy of justice is greed. Dante idealistically believes this perfect world monarch has no reason for greed, since he has nothing to desire with all his power and wealth. Greed is only manifested among rulers of individual cities and kingdoms.

Love and charity exist to the highest degree in this monarch, and thus his sense of justice is magnified and most effective. Because of this great love, humans are most free when ruled by a monarch instead of game-playing politicians.

Dante supports local rulers and laws, since every region has different needs, but the monarch should still govern in general matters germane to all humans.

As an Italian, Dante was obviously biased in claiming his Roman ancestors as the noblest people on Earth, and therefore deserved precedence over all others. He cites myths and fictional stories with heroes who can do no wrong, exaggerated and apocryphal historical stories, and Biblical literalism.

Dante interprets the Romans’ many military victories over other empires and huge expanse of territory as proof God was on their side. Lots of theological opining under the guise of historicity and political science follows.

While Dante believes the Pope has authority to rule the Church, he also thinks the Pope should stay in his lane and not meddle in secular governance. In other words, he advocates separation of church and state. Radical thinking for the 14th century!

In 1329, De Monarchia was burnt at the stake as heretical, due to charges brought by French cardinal Bertrand du Pouget. This was the same person who sought to have Dante’s bones burnt at the stake.

In 1559, the Inquisition included De Monarchia in its first index of forbidden books. It remained on the list till the end of the 19th century.