Last Friday was Dante’s Day. March 25, 1300 was the day Dante Alighieri started his Divine Comedy journey through the three domains of afterlife; this work is one of the best poems of the Middle Ages and among the greatest literary achievements in Italian.
Simply known as Dante, he’s famous for having raised Italian to literary status. Until then, poetry was in Latin, accessible only to a tiny fringe of highly educated readers. His use of Tuscan was crucial in establishing a path towards the standardisation of Italian as we know it today. In fact, his writings set an example which the likes of Petrarch and Boccaccio – Italian literary giants who came shortly after him – drew inspiration from. (And all three influenced Geoffrey Chaucer and other international poets and authors.)
At the time of this anniversary, his essay on the regional varieties of Italian, as they were spoken – but rarely written – around the 14th century, acquires a special significance: On Eloquence in the Vernacular sheds a new light on today’s Europe. Plunged into yet another war crisis, despite collective efforts made on all levels to avoid such scenarios from happening again, this Continent is struggling to find answers away from sheer, brutal force.
This essay, written between the spring of 1303 and the summer of 1304, and known in Italian with its Latin title, De vulgari eloquentia, is one of the first scholarly defences of the vernacular, i.e. the common speech of ordinary people. In a sense, Dante is celebrated every year because he’s seen as a founder of modern Italy.
At this time, as we are forced to look at a war of aggression on a peaceful, neighbouring nation, aspiring to enter the European Union (an anti-war institution) and trying to establish its full independence, we draw hope and inspiration on the power of culture as a formidable tool for self-awareness and self-realisation – a harmless weapon, a weapon for the good.
In dark moments as these, a ray of light is all it takes to pluck up courage. And Dante’s work is a sun, darting rays of positive energy in all directions forever and ever – seven centuries now. He was the first to devise Italy as a country and start building it. Our peninsula was all Italians had, a geographical reference and nothing else; and yet, Dante’s genius managed to define its inhabitants as “the people of the beautiful country where sì [yes] resonates.” This statement was a linguistic and cultural dawn – a founding moment.
Italy was born not with the guns, rifles and mortars of Risorgimento (literally “resurgence”, the 1800s movement of political unification), but with the poetry of centuries before that. Same thing with Ukraine, a country born well before the current war. Dante’s language forged Italy, showing this where to find its soul. The entire life of a community has always revolved around language. Ukrainian and Italian are in the same boat; they’ve followed all too similar paths.
Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine is about erasing a culture, erasing something Dante believed in and fought for. What can we do to actively celebrate Dante and draw inspiration from his writings so we can shape a better world?
We could use Ukrainian and not Russian as a base for transliterating the name of the capital city: Kyiv instead of Kiev. And change other names too: Lviv instead of Leopoli or, worse, Lvov. And so on. Let’s place as much importance on Ukrainian as we possibly can. The Germans and French are discussing precisely this. That would be a start.
Urgency ought to be placed on moving on from a time when Ukrainian – known in the past as Ruthenian and as such clearly defined as a tongue other than Russian – was belittled by domineering Moscow. This wanted everyone, including its native speakers, to regard a beautiful language as a rural dialect with no literary tradition to speak of; something with no importance, that you could easily dispose of; ditch without a second thought.
Cultural weapons are not enough to fight off military aggression. Yet, dismissing them altogether would be a fatal mistake. The mistake Russian autocracies have always wanted us to make with respect to Ukrainian. But we can all help avert this. Collective pressure from the bottom matters – Dante’s big cultural lesson. The best way of celebrating him is to take notice.
- Alessio Colonnelli is an Italian freelance translator, writer and commentator on European political and social affairs, and a contributor to publications that include The New Statesman, The Independent, Prospect Magazine, the Huffington Post (UK), Foreign Policy and Politico Europe. His regularly updated blog, Thoughts on Europe, can be found here. Twitter: @co1onne11i.