Dante and his Contemporaries

In discussions of Italian literature, Dante is usually grouped with his close contemporaries Giovanni Boccaccio (1313 – 1375) and Francesco Petrarca (1304 – 1374). Together, they are commonly referred to as the tre corone or Three Crowns, with Dante placed above the other two as Il sommo poeta: the Supreme Poet. Each of the three had a lasting impact on the popularisation of vernacular Italian - the language that was normally spoken (with varied dialects) in day-to-day transactions across Italy - as written text. Vernacular Italian was not used in poetic, scholarly or religious writing before the Divine Comedy. Instead, Latin was generally used for such texts, and was therefore the domain of the clergy, scholars and the nobility – a socio-economic minority.

Woodcut of the Three Crowns
Woodcut of the Three Crowns [in] Anton Francesco Doni, I marmi del doni, acedemico peregrino, 1552-53, Vinegia : per Francesco Marcolini. Purchased by the Ivy M. Pendlebury Bequest in memory of Gerard Frederic Pendlebury. Rare Books, Archives and Special Collections

Both Boccaccio and Petrarch are credited with planting the seeds of the humanist tradition that would blossom into the Renaissance, but it was Dante who took the revolutionary step of publishing an epic poem dealing with religion, man’s relationship with God, and the redemption of the soul – typically the purview of the Church alone – in the language of the people. In keeping with the themes of the Comedy, this was a politically charged act, but one that proved immensely successful. In publishing in the vernacular, Dante began the process of cementing what was to eventually become the common language of Italy.

The 17th century art historical treatise The Gift of Marble (I Marmi del Doni) depicts the Three Crowns. Dante, on the left, holds a celestial globe, indicating his understanding of the cosmos, and therefore of the mind of God: 'He who with His compass drew the boundaries of the world, and within them created distinctions both hidden and clear' (Paradiso: XIX, 40–42).

Boccaccio's Decameron
Frontispiece wood engravings recut by E. J. Beedham and E. Joyce Francis from those in the edition printed by the brothers Gregorii (1492) [in] Boccaccio's Decameron,1934-1935, Oxford, Shakespeare Head Press. Gift of Dr J. Orde Poynton. Rare Books, Archives and Special Collections

The title Divine Comedy was in fact bestowed by Giovanni Boccaccio: originally just The Comedy, Boccaccio felt that its subject matter, grand themes and innovative use of language required a more expressive title. Boccaccio was himself a feted scholar and writer who, like Dante, experimented with both the form and content of his prose, and helped establish a literary tradition for Italy. He was also among the original proponents of Dante’s work, and published the first critical study of the Divine Comedy. His best remembered work, though, is the Decameron (which has been nicknamed the Human Comedy, to complement Dante’s poem): a collection of one hundred short stories – romances, tragedies, and comic, bawdy tales – as told by a group of young men and women a to pass the time as they shelter from the black plague. The stories were a major influence on Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

Frontispiece, Il Petrarcha con l'espositione d'Alessandro Vellvtello di novo ristampato con le figvre a i Triomphi, et con piv cose vtili in varii lvoghi aggivnte, 1552, In Vinegia : Appresso Gabriel Giolito di Ferrari e fratelli. Rare Books, Archives and Special Collections

Francesco Petrarca, now more commonly called Petrarch, was the third of the Three Crowns of Italian literature. A lyric poet, though he published heavily in Latin, he was inspired by Dante to write verse in the Italian vernacular, and Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (Fragments of Vernacular Matter) became his best-known work. A life-long friend of Boccaccio, he too was interested in humanist scholarship, and in particular the work of early Roman writers like Cicero, Seneca and Virgil. He is credited with rediscovering and popularizing Cicero’s letters, thereby establishing a craze for antique Rome that would eventually lead to the Renaissance.

The Divine Comedy is written in terza rima, a poetic form that originated in Italy and is understood to have been invented by Dante, although Boccaccio and Petrarch favoured it as well. In its purest form terza rima is characterised by three-line verses (iambic tercets), with each line comprised of alternating unstressed then stressed syllables. Dante’s lines are usually of 11 syllables, and he uses the verses rhyming scheme (ABA/BCB/CDC) to generate a propulsive effect. The reader is drawn on by the meter of the poetry, no matter how horrific or strange the scene it describes. To bring this motion to a halt, Dante finishes each canto with a single line that rhymes with the second line of the last full verse. Given the subject matter of the Divine Comedy, the choice of three-line verses is thought to be symbolic of the Holy Trinity.

Unsurprisingly, this strict poetic form - so well suited to Italian, in which many words end in vowel sounds - requires adaptation for many other languages. Translators of the Divine Comedy must decide whether to be true to the form, minimally alter it, adopt another, or abandon it completely for blank verse or prose. For this exhibition we are using Dorothy L. Sayers' English translation in terza rima, which favours 10 syllable lines.

For comparison, see these three versions of Inferno: III, 7-9:

Dante: Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create / se non etterne, e io etterno duro. / Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'entrate.

Longfellow (1867): Before me there were no created things, / Only eterne, and I eternal last. / All hope abandon, ye who enter in!

Sayers (1949): Nothing ere I was made was made to be / Save things eterne, and I eterne abide; / Lay down all hope, you that go in me.

Entrance to Inferno
William Hooper and Charles M Gere, Inferno: Canto III, woodcut illustration [in] Tutte le opere di Dante Alighieri Fiorentino, 1909, Chelsea: London, Ashendene Press. Donated by Tony and Margaret Pagone and family. Rare Books, Archives and Special Collections