Breaking down the work of 14th century Italian writers

By Gabrielle Beacken
News Assistant

Glenn Steinberg, English Department chair and professor, was puzzled over why Italian author Dante Alighieri put scholar Brunetto Latini in Hell among the sodomites in his epic poem “The Divine Comedy: Inferno.”

Steinberg explained that Latini, a prominent Italian scholar and key figure in Dante’s life, was a proto-humanist — a person who seeks legitimacy from outside sources.

Dante, a notable Italian author of the late Middle Ages, was an autonomous person who sought legitimacy not from aristocrats, but from art and himself.

Placing Latini in Hell in “Inferno” was Dante’s way to oppose some of Latini’s beliefs — Dante used his literary work as a way of taking a diplomatic and societal stance. 

Delving into the world of Italian authors and their positions in cultural productions in the Trecento period, a political forum was held on Wednesday, April 11, in the Social Sciences Building, where students and staff were able to analyze the political, gender and social context of 14th century Italian writers.

“Dante was really invested in his position in the field of cultural productions, and if we ignore the position he was taking and what he was responding to, then we kind of ignore … what he was really about,” Steinberg said. “That’s a bad, bad plan.”

According to professor and Associate Chair of the English Department Jean Graham, it’s significant for students to view that “learning is not limited to the classroom,” and professors here at the College are interested in debating new ideas and theories with one another. 

Not looking into the positions and opinions of authors while reading their works, “you lose any kind of human touch,” Steinberg said. 

Steinberg says that Dante’s “Inferno” is an interesting piece to dissect. (Kim Iannarone / Photo Assistant)
Steinberg says that Dante’s “Inferno” is an interesting piece to dissect. (Kim Iannarone / Photo Assistant)

Steinberg questioned the Trecento  period writers’ legitimacy and what positions they took.

“When a writer writes something and puts it out there in the world, that’s definitely taking some kind of position,” Steinberg said.

According to Steinberg, there were five separate groups Trecento literary authors sought legitimacy from: the indocti, who were semi-literate; the litterati, who were highly educated; the aristocrats, with inherited money; the mercantile elites, who gathered their own revenue similar to the aristocrats; and the vernacular litterates, who did not understand Latin. Anyone with an education would’ve known Latin, Steinberg said.

Dante frequently wrote his pieces in the vernacular form, so all people with diverse education could understand his works, including the indocti.

It is suggested that Dante not only wrote for the general public, but that he specifically targeted a female audience, according to Steinberg. Since many of Dante’s poems are not in Latin, women of the time period were able to understand the meanings of his literary works.

Steinberg also emphasized that bas in many Romance languages with gender associated words, the plural, indicating a group of both men and women, will take the male plural. However, Dante used both the masculine and the feminine plural in his works, a rarity for its time in a male-dominated society.

To write love poetry in the vernacular form during the Trecento period was called “Dolce Stil Novo,” with the English translation, “sweet new style.” Dante, as well as other distinguished Italian authors, comprised the core authors of this new style. A common theme of “Dolce Stil Novo” was writing love poems to the other “gentle hearts,” according to Steinberg.

“What’s important is the gentle heart — not your bloodlines, not your acclaim. It’s something interior that cannot be seen,” Steinberg said. “The gentle heart is far more important.”

It is questioned whether Dante was writing for “real” or “imaginary” women, Steinberg said. Dante could’ve been pretending to write for women while really writing to other gentle hearts.

“We look at how Dante looks at women, and we understand that he is respondent to both real and imaginary women,” Steinberg said. “We recognize in ourselves that we still sometimes replace real women with imaginary women — that we’re still sometimes writing for that handful picked audience of men.”

Reading Dante’s work, it can be appreciated how far society has come since the old attitudes men had towards women, Steinberg said.

“I thought there were two ideas that the audience, including students, should take away from Dr. Steinberg’s talk as broadly applicable,” Graham said. “Even something ostensibly created to be ‘art’ or to entertain can be a political statement.”

The second notion students should take away is that Dante’s supposed audience may “not be the intended audience, or at least not the only intended audience,” Graham said.

“If we all bore in mind these two things, we would be more informed and critical consumers of literature, film, music and media,” Graham said.

Being a more informed knower can also help people in better understanding themselves, according to Steinberg.

“By looking at the world in a different world removed from us in time … someone else’s eyes helps us to see ourselves more critically,” Steinberg said.

In the Trecento period, nobility was viewed as “royal family with the right blood lines,” according to Steinberg. The Mercantile elites viewed nobility has thoughts who are successful by making money and gaining political power.

“What makes me love Dante is that he lives in a time period when people haven’t decided yet what constitutes nobility,” Steinberg said. “Dante seems to have a very, very different view of it all.”

Dante is seeking legitimacy through the autonomous principle because he is writing to not necessarily women, but to others with a gentle heart, just like him, according to Steinberg.

“(Dante thought) it’s not about what you accomplish, it’s not about your parentage — it’s about what you are, whether you have a gentle heart or not,” Steinberg said. “I think that’s a really interesting perspective.”