…it occurred that, without bearing it in his mind that he was abandoning them, Dante died.
–Boccaccio’s Life of Dante
The three parts of Dante’s Comedy came too slowly. In order to feed his hungry audience, Dante circulated portions of his work, a few cantos at a time, as he completed them. But Dante died before circulating the last thirteen cantos–without letting anyone know where he had put them. After an increasingly frantic search by friends and family among his papers, it appeared that the final portion of the work was lost forever.
Hence my opening quote by Boccaccio, who wrote the first formal biography of his fellow Florentine. While Boccaccio is (rightly) best known today for the Decameron, his Life of Dante (Vita di Dante) is worth reading for some curious anecdotes.*
Boccaccio relates how Dante’s children and “disciples” searched for the lost cantos for months, only to give up in despair, “enraged” that God would take Dante from the world before sharing the entirety of his work. Two of his children, Jacopo and Piero, decided they would attempt to complete the work themselves. Luckily, a miracle occurred to “check [this] foolish presumption.”
One night, Dante appeared to Jacopo in a dream. Dressed in white, and apparently radiating light, Dante told his son where the last thirteen cantos were hidden. Immediately after this revelation, Jacopo woke up and enlisted a friend to explore the spot indicated by his father’s apparition. Searching behind a mat within a recess in the wall, they found a collection of Dante’s writings “all moldy with the damp of the wall, and close to rotting if they had stayed there much longer.”
It is in this passage by Boccaccio that Dante’s famous work is first given the description “divine.” Dante simply called it the Comedy. By the mid-16th century, scholars were habitually referring to it as The Divine Comedy in honor of the quality of the work, as well as the subject.
But why call it the Comedy in the first place? It’s certainly not a funny work. (Although it’s hard not to crack a smile at Dante’s punishment for Flatterers: they spend eternity lying in a ditch of human feces.) By modern standards, the title makes no sense. Then again, “comedy” is not a peculiarly modern term.
Dante himself explains the title in a famous letter to Cangrande, the man to whom he first sent the completed cantos. Digging into the source, Ancient Greek theater, Dante opposes tragedy to comedy:
Tragedy “in the beginning is admirable and quiet, in the end or final exit it is smelly and horrible.”
Comedy “in the beginning…is horrible and smelly” (Inferno), but “in the end it is good, desirable, and graceful” (Paradiso).
(Dante adds: “it is easy and humble, because it is in the vulgar tongue, in which also women communicate. And thus it is obvious why it is called Comedy.”)
Suddenly titles like The Canterbury Tales seem rather stale, don’t they?
*Fun fact: Dante was exiled from Florence on pain of death by burning alive. In his biography, Boccaccio castigates the entire city multiple times for the sentence: “If all the other wrongs Florence has perpetrated could be hidden from the all-seeing eyes of God, would not this one suffice to call down his wrath upon her?” There’s even an entire section in the English translation named “Reproach of the Florentines,” in which various versions of the word “shame” appear five times in two paragraphs.
Sources and Further Reading:
- I’ve used the Wicksteed translation (1904) of Boccaccio’s Life of Dante in a nice little Oneworld Classics volume. Guida Armstrong reviews the most recent translation (Nichols, 2002) in relation to previous translations like Wicksteed, and provides significant context for English translations in general, in this article.
- The translations of Dante’s Epistle to Cangrande are by Marchand, found here.
- It should be noted that there has been dispute among scholars about whether the Epistle to Cangrande was actually written by Dante. However, the majority today agree that the letter is authentic. See Robert Hollander’s first paragraph here for a quick summary.
- For more basic information on Boccaccio’s studies on Dante, check out Paget Toynbee’s classic work here.