Dante made the Italian news wire the other day — yes, Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321; how’s that for a boldface name?), author of La Commedia, an autobiographical and politically charged allegorical poem written in terza rima, or rhymed tercets, divided into three canticles (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso), in which he recounts his exile from Florence (1302) and his journey through the center of the earth (with Virgil as his guide) to heaven where he is received by his beloved Beatrice, who in turn guides him to the Virgin Mary and his salvation. Earlier this month, only 700 years after the fact, Florence rescinded Dante’s exile, thus allowing for the poet’s remains to be returned to the city on the Arno river. The back story: the Florentines want to wrest the body back from the city of Ravenna, where Dante died and his tomb is a major tourist attraction, most likely because they’d like to see those tourist dollars (and euros) spent at home. (For a concise overview of Dante’s life and work and details of his exile, please do not use Wikipedia; use the excellent Princeton Dante Project and for closer reading of La Commedia, use the Dartmouth Dante Project.)
In the light of this news, I was all the more intrigued by a wine I came across the other day called “Bello Ovile.” The expression il bello ovile (the fair sheepfold) comes from Canto 25 of the Paradiso, and is a metaphorical reference to Dante’s youth in Florence:
Should it ever come to pass that this sacred poem,
to which both Heaven and earth have set their hand
so that it has made me lean for many years,
should overcome the cruelty that locks me out
of the fair sheepfold where I slept as a lamb,
foe of the wolves at war with it,
with another voice then, with another fleece,
shall I return a poet and, at the font
where I was baptized, take the laurel crown.
(Par. 25, 1-9)
Next to his lifelong quest to free the Italian city states from the yoke of papal power and to restore imperial (temporal) power, Dante desired nothing more than a glorious return to Florence and his laureation there, i.e., his crowning with a laurel and recognition as poet laureate (in fact, he never returned). “The font [spring] where I was baptized” refers to the famous Baptistery of San Giovanni (left) that you surely remember from your Renaissance Art History 101 for its gilded doors (and the competition to cast them, won by Ghiberti and lost by Brunelleschi). After he was exiled from Florence, Dante found his first “welcome” and “refuge” in Verona under the protection of the Veronese seigneur Cangrande della Scala. In the Paradiso (17, 70-72), Cacciaguida (his great-great-grandfather) tells Dante:
You shall find welcome and a first refuge
in the courtesy of the noble Lombard,
the one who bears the sacred bird above the ladder.
In 14th century Italian, Lombard denoted an inhabitant of Northern Italy and the “sacred bird above the ladder” is a reference to Cangrande della Scala’s coat of arms, a ladder (scala) with a black eagle (an imperial symbol) atop. Dante’s son Pietro Alighieri settled and remained in Verona: today, Count Pieralvise Serego Alighieri continues to make wine there, in one of the oldest historically designated vineyards of Valpolicella, Armaron (many believe that the toponym Armaron is the etymon of Amarone; I’m a fan of Alighieri’s Amarone, which he ages in cherry wood).
When Serego decided to buy an estate and begin making wine in Tuscany, he viewed the move — rightly — as a return to his ancestor’s “sheepfold” even though the wine isn’t made anywhere near Florence: it’s made in Montecucco, a wonderful, undiscovered and still undeveloped part of Tuscany, to the west of Montalcino toward the sea, where you’ll find all sorts of artisanal pecorino (sheep’s milk cheese) producers, grape growers, and fantastic norcini or pork butchers (when I was there year before last, I had some amazing head cheese near the village of Paganico).
It will be interesting to see how the fight over Dante’s remains plays out and in the meantime, I’m glad to see that Count Serego decided to use indigenous grapes in his homage to his ancestor Dante: Bello Ovile [BEHL-loh oh-VEE-leh] is made primarily from Sangiovese, with smaller amounts of Canaiolo and Cilliegiolo (it retails for under $20). The wine is done in a modern style, fruit forward, but judiciously enough so that it still expresses the grape variety.
Bello Ovile would have tasted foreign to Dante: in his day, Sangiovese was not considered a grape variety for fine wine and wines were much lighter in color and body. Of Italy’s three “crowns” of the Middle Ages — Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio — Petrarch wrote more and most famously about wine. There’s a famous passage in Dante about Vernaccia and the eels of Lake Bolsena, but I’ll save that morsel for another post.
Some clarification on the title of La Commedia…
Dante called the poem La Commedia but he never called it “divine”: Boccaccio, one of Dante’s greatest commentators and the author of an early biography of Dante, called it “the Divine Comedy.”
In the context of Dante’s poem, the title Comedy does not denote humor but rather the fact that poem has a happy ending (as opposed to tragic) and — most importantly — is written in Italian rather than Latin. In a letter to Cangrande della Scala, presenting the poem, Dante wrote: “in the conclusion, it is prosperous, pleasant, and desirable,” and in its style “lax and unpretending [undemanding],” being “written in the vulgar [vernacular or Italian] tongue, in which women and children speak.”
Father of the Italian language…
Dante is often called the “father of the Italian language” because the immediately and immensely popular Comedy became one of the primary models for literary Italian and ultimately — together with the Italian writings of Petrarch and Boccaccio — became the basis for the national language of Italy (which first emerged only in the late nineteenth century).
Dante in translation…
The most recent translations have been published by top Dante scholars Robert Durling (Oxford University Press, 1996 ) and Mark Musa (Indiana University Press, 1996 . For readability, I’ve always been a big fan of the translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1892-1893). From a purely exegetic point of view, I always prefer Charles Singleton (Princeton University Press, 1970-75). Allen Mandelbaum’s excellent translation (Bantam Books, 1980) is one of the more inspired renderings in my opinion and Robert Pinsky’s “verse translation” of the Inferno (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994) was an interesting experiment in “translation as performance.”