By Claudia Quesito
There’s nothing like National Poetry Month in Italy, but celebrating poetry always seems a good idea. Plus, 2021 marks 700 years since the death of the Sommo Poeta, Dante Alighieri, and several celebrations have been organized in his honor, in Italy and beyond.
Dante is unanimously considered the father of the Italian language; the basic vocabulary of current Italian is formed by 2,000 high-frequency words, and 1,600 of these terms can be found in Dante’s work.
Before Dante, there was literally no such thing as the Italian language. People used to speak the so-called volgare— the people’s common language—as opposed to the erudite Latin. Dante actually wrote the Divina Commedia using the volgare from his region, Toscana, thus establishing it as a literary language and what we now call the Italian language.
In the Commedia, an imaginary afterlife journey by Dante himself that represents the soul’s journey towards God after death, the number three has a noticeable role. First, the poem is divided into three cantiche: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Then, each cantica is made up of 33 canti (though there is an introductory canto, making the overall number of canti 100).
In addition, the poem is written in terza rima—or terzina dantesca, since Dante invented it—meaning an interlocking three-line rhyme that uses hendecasyllabic (eleven-syllable) lines. Every tercet is therefore made up of thirty-three syllables. In his journey, Dante is assisted by three guides: Virgilio, representing Reason; Beatrice, the emblem of Grace; and San Bernardo, symbol of Mystical Fervor.
The Inferno is divided into nine circles, you climb three stairs to access the Purgatorio . . . and the list could go on. A strong symbolism was already attached to the number three, of course: the Holy Trinity, Perfection, and Knowledge, just to name a few references—all of which were certainly dear to Dante.
Dante is certainly the most celebrated Italian poet, but no post about Italian poetry could end without a mention of Boccaccio and Petrarca. The three poets—again, three!—basically defined the standard of Italian literature, and while it might be not the easiest reading for contemporary Italian learners, it is undoubtedly food for thought, even 700 years later.