The Inferno of Dante
Dante wrote his great poem in the years between 1300, the fictional date of his descent alive into Hell, and his death in 1321. Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales between 1387 and his death in 1400. Few today can deal with Chaucer in the original Middle English; he is read mainly in translations, which began to appear as early as 1700, when Dryden published versions of three of the Tales in his Fables Ancient and Modern—Chaucer’s language, he claims in the Preface, is “so obsolete, that his Sense is scarce to be understood.” Yet, even today, no one would even dream of producing a modernized Italian version of Dante’s Commedia. Though his text needs annotation and occasional linguistic explication, Italians know their Dante; his lines are as deeply rooted in the national memory as those of Shakespeare for modern speakers of English.
In Florence, his native city, the visitor often comes across verses of the Commedia inscribed high on a wall at some appropriate place. By one of the Arno bridges, for example, one can read Dante’s affectionate description of the river from the Purgatorio:
Per mezza Toscana si spazia
Un fiumicel che nasce in Falterona…
Through central Tuscany there winds its way a little stream that’s born on Falterona…
The inscription must have drawn some black looks from passers-by after that little stream, swollen by torrential, protracted rains in the winter of 1966, flooded the basement and the ground floor of the National Library, burst through to the shops on the Ponte Vecchio, sending their jewelry down the rushing stream toward Pisa, and, in the low-lying quarter of Piazza Santa Croce, drowned people in their beds.
But Florentines are not alone in their familiarity with Dante. I had striking proof of this in the final month of the war in Europe. I was in charge of a large Italian partisan formation, its ranks drawn mostly from the area of Modena, which was facing German mountain positions, part of the Gothic Line. We had been assigned a role, a very minor one, in the offensive that was to end the war in Italy: to assault the German positions on the mountain ridge opposite our own advanced post on Monte Spigolino. I had requested air and artillery action against the ridge immediately prior to our attack. An affirmative answer came at last—in the early evening before the day scheduled for the operation. When I briefed the partisan officers, they were dismayed: They had not expected to go so soon; the men were not prepared. And we would have to make the whole long journey down into the valley and up to forward positions below the ridge that night. Could the air and artillery be postponed for twenty-four hours?
I had to explain that in the complicated logistics of a huge offensive last-minute changes, especially for peripheral operations, were impossible. The partisans’ dismayed silence was finally broken by their commander, who said, with a half-smile of bitter resignation: “O.K.,…
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