Introduction to Dante's Rime

by Giuseppe C. Di Scipio

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) began writing poetry at age 18, around the year 1283, as can be determined from the first poem in the Vita Nuova (c.1290-93) entitled “A ciascun’alma presa e gentil core”. He was deeply influenced by Provençal vernacular love poetry. Love as the subject of poetry, according to Dante himself, had been employed one hundred and fifty years earlier (c.1150) by Provençal troubadours who wished their ladies, unskilled in Latin, to understand their amorous words (Vita Nuova 25:4-6). With this date Dante probably alludes to the flourishing of such poetry, rather than to its actual beginning which goes back to Guillaume of Aquitaine, Count of Poitiers (1071-1126). The author of the Vita Nuova attributes the merit of developing vernacular poetry to the Provençal and their “langue d’oc,” and that of vernacular prose to the northern “langue d’oil,” with the narrative of the deeds of the Trojans and Romans and the Arthurian romances. The Italian model, the Sicilian “school” of poetry, born and cultivated around the figure of Frederick II, “stupor mundi,” was an imitation of that poetry. Italian literature, therefore, is considered an imitation of a foreign culture, as Giosuè Carducci has observed. This is quite a notable factor in Dante’s own poetic mission to raise the Italian vernacular to a level of dignity (“volgare illustre”) achieved partly in the Vita Nuova and fully in the Divine Comedy (the same can be said of the vernacular prose in the Vita Nuova and the Convivio). This awareness lit up Dante’s indefatigable impulse to master language and technique so as to make him boldly claim his superiority to the Latin masters in Inferno 25, and by implication his equality, in Italian, to Homer by adding a canto to Ulysses’ epic in Inferno 26. His ultimate aim was to compose the kind of “love poetry” one finds in the verses in praise of Beatrice as she takes her place in the Mystic Rose of Paradise (Paradiso 31:79-90).

The Vita Nuova, therefore, is not only “coscienza e storia” of Dante’s poetry, as De Robertis states, but also a theory of poetry and poetics in the same way that Dante’s love for Beatrice generates a theory or doctrine of love: Dante’s own “stil novo.” Dante’s lyrical production, spanning the period from his adolescence to the early post-exilic years (1302-1308), is difficult to arrange chronologically. It seems to me, however, that a comprehensive view of Dante’s lyric poetry, as presented in this volume of Joseph Tusiani’s translation, provides a concrete understanding of Dante’s poetic growth and constant experimentation with forms, techniques and themes. The poems contained in this volume represent Dante’s earliest attempts at the art of “dire parole in rima,” as well the mature poems found in the Convivio. Indeed, some of them may have been written at the same time as the Divine Comedy, namely the Inferno. In the Vita Nuova, as he is about to record the work’s first sonnet describing the miraculous appearance of Love, he states that he had already dwelled on the art of writing poetry. If when he wrote the sonnet “A ciascun’alma presa e gentil core” (3: 9) he was eighteen, as determined by the narration in the Vita Nuova, the poems of correspondence with Dante da Maiano were written even earlier than 1283, if not at the same time. The concepts they contain and the language he used to express them are strongly reminiscent of the “Sicilian School.” Dante’s verses, then, were all written before the Inferno (c.1308), with the possible exception of the poem “Amor, da che convien pur ch’io mi doglia” (“O Love, since I must suffer more and more,”) written in 1307-1308 and the two Eclogues to Giovanni del Virgilio (1319-1320). One can easily discern how the poetic journey is clearly set beginning with the Vita Nuova and sustained, with the desire of experimentation throughout his poetic experience, culminating in his Latin Eclogues. Dante never intended to collect his lyric poetry. He only did it for the Vita Nuova, selecting the ones he thought should be part of this “libello,” written between 1283-1292.

The Vita Nuova, whose first printed edition appeared in 1576 in Florence, was most probably assembled as a book in the years 1292-1293. Its title and content has a Pauline ascendancy in the Apostle’s concept of the novus homo, Adam being the old man; Jesus the new. As a result of the death of the woman who inspired his poetry—Beatrice Portinari, who died in 1290—the young Dante decided to record in a systematic and meaningful way the extraordinary events and episodes of their early life which left an indelible mark on his very being as a poet, as a man and as a Christian. The book is narrated in prosimetrum, under the literary guidance, influence and tradition of Boethius’ De consolatione Philosophiae and Martianus Cappella’s De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii. Thus, the Vita Nuova, while being an autobiography and a hagiographic narration of the Vita Sanctae Beatricis, is the manifesto of the stil novo poetry. It is the coherent final product of a poet as if in a workshop of innovati and experimentations. It is also the initial chapter of a larger book, the Divine Comedy, in which the main characters, a man and a woman, are finally reunited for the benefit of the young viator whose life and mission Beatrice had helped define, after a period of confusion, ignorance, darkness and even depravation. The Vita Nuova is, therefore, by its nature, polysemous, just as Dante will declare the Paradiso polysemous in the Epistle to Cangrande, and it calls for an attentive reader because of its many levels of understanding. The first part of the Vita Nuova, chapters 1-18, contains Dante’s early poetry written to sing the beauty of Beatrice and the effects of her presence on the young lover. The second part is marked by the protagonist’s resolve to speak in praise of her, for in this his beatitude fully resides. Thus, chapter 19 records the most famous canzone “Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore”. The theme of the lady’s praise continues until chapter 27, and includes the celebrated sonnet “Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare” which represents a turning point in Dante’s poetics and in his philosophy of love. In terms of chronology the rhymes dealing with Beatrice’s death, beginning with “Li occhi dolenti per pietà del core” (ch.31) and ending with “Videro li occhi miei tanta pietate” (ch.35) reach the year 1291. One can probably place the rhymes found in chapters 3 6-38 during the years 1291-1293: “Color d’amore e di pietà sembianti,” “L’amaro lagrimar che voi faceste,” and “Gentil pensero che parla di vui”. The very last period in the Vita Nuova is marked by the poet’s return to the contemplation of Beatrice’s death (39- 41) and his longing to reach her in the Empyrean. To Dante’s early period (1274-1287) belong the rhymes for his youthful loves and the correspondence with Dante da Maiano, all written under the influence of the Sicilian school and Guittone d’Arezzo. The poem to Lippo Pasci de’ Bardi (XLVIII) and Dante’s reply to an unknown poet are also of this period. The poem to Messer Betto Brunelleschi, though difficult to place chronologically, was surely written before 1300, as Contini suggests.

The poems of correspondence with Cino da Pistoia are from two different periods; one preceding Dante’s exile (1301) such as, “I’ ho veduto già senza radice,” and the others post-exilic. Barbi considers pre-exile “Perch’io non trovo chi meco ragioni,” while Patrick Boyde deems it definitely post-exilic.

The dispute with Forese Donati belongs to the early period, since Forese died in 1296. The poems included in the CANZONIERE: POEMS OF LOVE, beginning with “Lo meo servente core” addressed to a “madonna” who perhaps is the first screen lady in the Vita Nuova, range from the earliest period (1287-1288) to the early 1300’s. The canzone on justice “Tre donne,” written during Dante’s exile, is mentioned neither in the De Vulgari (1303-1305) nor in the Convivio (1304-1307). The poems that we usually refer to as the “Lady Stone poems” were written no earlier than 1296.

“Perché ti vedi” and “Amor, da che convien” belong to the so called “pargoletta” poems. The latter poem, known as “la montanina” is no longer considered part of the “Petrose,” but post-exilic — of the period when Dante had already left the court of Moroello Malaspina to whom he had written an epistle describing the circumstances mentioned in this canzone. This mountainsong, as the poet calls it, was written around 1307-1308. We know that Dante was a guest of the Malaspinas in the Casentino in the fall of 1306. On October 6 of that year, in fact, he appeared at Sarzana as a procurator of the Malaspinas in the signing of an agreement with the bishop of Luni, Antonio di Camilla. Dante’s Epistle IV to Moroello Malaspina — found in the Vatican Library, ms. Vat. Pal. Lat.172 — refers to Dante’s visit with Moroello as a recent occurrence (Epis. IV, 2). To be sure, Colin Hardie, an eminent and venerable Dante scholar, argues that the woman of this Canzone is Beatrice and that it was written in 1310-1311 when Dante was again in the Casentino where he composed the famous Epistle to the Florentines and the one to Henry VII. Most critics disagree, but long live dissent.

The canzoni of the Convivio ( 1304-1307) occupy a particular place in Dante’s poetic production since he intended to assemble fourteen of his most recent canzoni and provide a commentary which would honor Lady Philosophy (Convivio I,ii,16), the “donna gentile” who appears at the end of the Vita Nuova. The project was abandoned and left unfinished maybe because of Dante’s own studies interrupted by political events such as the advent of the newly crowned Emperor Henry VII, and the poet’s own return to political activities between 1308 and 1313. When Henry’s mission to restore imperial authority in Italy failed, Dante, totally disillusioned, could not resume writing on this subject. He wrote the Convivio commentary between 1304, his break with the “impious crew” of his fellow White exiles, and the advent of Henry in 1308. Two of the canzoni had been composed before the year 1300. The first, “Voi che ‘ntendendo il terzo ciel movete” describes the conflict between the first love (Beatrice) and the new one (Lady Philosophy); it is the subject of the commentary for the second treatise. The second, “Le dolci rime d’amor ch’io solia,” dealing with the lofty subject of “gentilezza” (nobility), was expounded in the fourth treatise and is intimately connected with the poem “Poscia ch’Amor del tutto m’ha lasciato,” which deals with “leggiadria” (grace and joy). It is mentioned in Paradiso 11 by Charles Martel, whose sojourn in Florence occurred in 1294, date of his alleged friendship with Dante Alighieri. The other canzone “Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona,” placed in the third treatise of the Convivio, is mentioned in the De Vulgari eloquentia (II,5,11) and is sung by Casella in Purgatorio 2. This canzone is perhaps one of Dante’s most masterful achievements. The musician-composer Casella set it to music before 1300, date in which he died. These canzoni, therefore, belong to the mode of rectitudo, whose subject is morality and high doctrine. By 1307-1308, Dante Alighieri, already known as a great poet, was fully aware of his own worth. This is confirmed in Inferno I when he addresses Virgil who has come to his rescue. Through his words of praise for the great Latin Poet he also speaks about himself, without modesty but with justification, one might say:

Tu se’ lo mio maestro e ‘l mio autore,
Tu se’ solo colui da cui io tolsi
lo bello stile che m’ha fatto onore. 
                          (Inferno I, 85-87)

Clearly Dante considers himself a well established poet. Moreover, “bello stile” (fair style) is the equivalent of the “tragic style” of epic poetry, as opposed to the other two styles, the comic and the elegiac (De Vulgari Eloquentia II, iv). Dante maintains that only the tragic style is appropriate to the lofty subject matter of the canzoni which deal with “Salus,” “Virtus” and “Amor”. Thus, he can justifiably state that his lyrical production up to the composition of the Inferno (1300-1308) has brought him fame and honor. Even if Dante is alluding to the fictive date, 1300, of the journey described in the Divine Comedy, his poetic output is considerable and he has rightly earned for himself the title of “poet of rectitude.” The honor was brought to him by songs such as “Voi che ‘ntendendo il terzo ciel movete” (c.1294-1295), “Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona” (composed before 1300), “Le dolci rime d’amor ch’i’ solia,” as well as the canzone of “leggiadria” “Poscia ch’amor del tutto m’ha lasciato” and all the poems written after Beatrice’s death (1290). From De vulgari II, ii. 9, we learn that by the year 1303 Dante had already written the song on liberality entitled “Doglia mi reca ne lo core ardire” (“T’is sorrow rouses boldness in my heart”). His poetry, therefore, aims at the heart of human existence, the acquisition of wisdom.

While it is noteworthy that in Inferno 1 and later in canto 4:102, “sì ch’io fui sesto tra cotanto senno,” Dante boasts about his poetic fame—rhetorical tradition allows it, and it is at the moment psychologically necessary because of the viator’s arduous task. It is also important to recognize the meaning of the word “autore” as Dante intended it. “Auctor,” meant “sage” in the Middle Ages, the concept of a philosopher worthy of imitation. “Auctoritas” was that truth, whether biblical or profane, which became a goal to be emulated. As E. R. Curtius points out, the teaching of grammar and rhetoric raised profane authors to the rank of “authorities”. Speaking of imperial and philosophical authority, Dante, in Convivio IV, vi, defines the meaning of the word autore as derived from the Greek autentin, as “che tanto vale in latino quanto ‘degno di fede e d’obbedienza’ ” (“which in Latin is equivalent to ‘worthy of trust and obedience.’ ”) The author, therefore, has to be believed and obeyed. Thus, as “autore,” Virgil is much more than the author of the Aeneid, he is a somma autorità, a supreme authority.

Virgil to him is not only the teacher, the author, but also the master of wisdom, “famoso saggio” (Inferno 1: 89). In his youth Dante had been mainly a love poet. Only in the Vita Nuova do we see the man in search of something loftier, a higher meaning in life. The political and moral thinker, the person in search of wisdom is the Dante of the canzoni, of the Convivio, and later, of the Commedia. This maturing and growing process is reflected in the poems collected here, spanning from the rough early style to the comic and vituperative, to the lofty craft of the later sonnets and canzoni. Joseph Tusiani’s translation renders justice to this by showing a vigilant eye for the detail and faithfulness to the original, while employing its own art of rhythm, musicality, and an elegance of diction. In 1318 Dante Alighieri moved to Ravenna, perhaps searching for a quieter place than the imperial and politically turbulent Verona, with the intent of putting the finishing touches to the Paradiso. In Ravenna he received two Latin Eclogues from Giovanni del Virgilio, a university professor in Bologna, inviting him to join him there and be crowned poet. Dante replied with two eglogues of his own, gently refusing the offer by stating that he intended to finish his Paradiso, on which he was still working, hoping to obtain the laurel crown in his native land. In a typical Dantean fashion he reproached Giovanni del Virgilio for having written 97 lines, not one hundred lines, the perfect number. Also important is the fact that the Florentine poet demonstrated his dexterity in Latin composition. He finally attended to the composition of the Quaestio, De situ et forma aque et terre, to be read in the church of St. Helen in Verona on January 20, 1321. Toward the end of July 1321, Dante went on a diplomatic mission to Venice, on behalf of Guido Polenta of Ravenna, pleading with the Republic of St. Mark not to wage war against this city. He contracted malaria while crossing the swamps of Comacchio, and died on the night of September 13-14, 1321, never having returned to his beloved Florence.

The present translation of Dante’s lyric poetry by Joseph Tusiani represents, in my opinion, a milestone. The reader will notice three elements adorning Tusiani’s endeavor: elegance, clarity, musicality, with the added dimension of faithfulness to the original and an acute ear for “auscultare”. These are indeed the traits of an exceptional translator and poet whose own opus reflects a Dantean spirit. Tusiani is well known not only for his Italian and English poetry but also for his Latin poetry, the latest of which won international praise as it appeared in Belgium, France and Germany. In one of his Latin poems entitled “Poeta,” Tusiani sings: “Nescio quis sim, quid faciam: vivo atque laboro”:

Nescit apis mel esse sui mensuram operandi.
Nescio quid calidum reddant mea carmina:
nescit Ardens flamma suum, concessum sole, triumphum.

Oftentimes Tusiani’s poetry can be characterized as poetry in exile, of someone caught in two worlds, if not more than two—Italy, Apulia, and the U.S. His translations of Italian poets are perhaps the most elegant and the most complete. They range from the poets of the Age of Dante and Boccaccio, to the Renaissance, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered and The Creation of the World, from the Baroque to Alfieri, Pascoli, Marinetti and many others. His latest happy work is the translation of Pulci’s Morgante, published by Indiana University Press in 1998. Some of the cantari had already appeared in literary journals such as Italian Quarterly and Forum Italicum, giving the readers a glimpse of what critics are hailing as a masterful translation.

With this translation Joseph Tusiani pays homage to one of the greatest poets while giving us a precious gift. The translation is based on the latest critical edition of the Vita Nuova (edited by Domenico de Robertis) and Rime (edited by Gianfranco Contini) in the volume Dante Alighieri, Opere Minori, Vol I, Part I, (Milano-Napoli: Riccardo Ricciardi Editore, 1984). This text was adopted by the Società Dantesca Italiana.

The notes to the text are, in part, indebted to the following editions: Dante Alighieri, Opere minori, Tome I, Part I, Milano-Napoli: Riccardo Ricciardi Editore, 1984, which contains the Vita Nuova, edited by Domenico De Robertis, and the Rime, edited by Gianfranco Contini.

Dante Alighieri, Vita Nuova, introduced by Giorgio Petrocchi and notes by Marcello Cicuto. Milano: B.U.R., 1984.Patrick Boyde and Kenelm Foster. Dante’s Lyric Poetry. Oxford: Claremont Press, 1967, vols 1 and 2. Giosuè Carducci, Rime e varia fortuna di Dante, Bologna: Zanichelli, 1913.

Special thanks of appreciation go to Professor Gaetano Cipolla for his guidance and enthusiastic support in publishing Tusiani's translation of Dante's lyric poems.

Giuseppe C. Di Scipio
Hunter College of the City University of New York



Go to poems from Vita Nuova