Authentically Speaking: Dante and the Politics of Language in Meloni’s Italy

Akash Kumar (University of California, Berkeley)

Dante Notes / November 21, 2022

Dante’s putative status as father of Italian language and culture remains a political touchstone.[1] In recent work, I’ve focused on Dante’s presence in both American and Italian political rhetoric as a way of dwelling upon the potency of Dante’s language reflected in ideological appropriations across the political spectrum.[2] Giorgia Meloni—the newly elected prime minister of Italy—is no exception in this regard. But her explicit linking of Dante to her agenda of consolidating national identity around the most narrow definitions of language and culture bears further attention. It draws us into a more pointed and contemporary consideration of Dante’s political reception, especially in light of the many commemorations of the seventh centenary of the poet’s death last year.

On March 25, 2021, Meloni put out a video on Facebook for Dantedì that not only had her declaiming verses, as many were doing on that recently coined national day of Dante, but also using the poet of the Commedia to call for constitutional reform and legislative acts to make Italian the national language, insisting that it be used exclusively at all levels of government.[3] She begins by reciting Paradiso 33.13-15, verses that she rightly identifies as coming from Bernard’s prayer to the Virgin, then quickly moves from speaking of their extraordinary linguistic richness to arguing that they reflect Dante’s alignment with a view of Italian identity that is monolingual, Christian, and seems to allow no outsiders whatsoever.

Meloni says that these verses “raccontano un altro aspetto di Dante che spesso non viene adeguatamente ricordato,” assuming the mantle of a reader who therefore rescues Dante from the ravages of history and from readers across time and space who do not adequately appreciate Dante’s core cultural identity. She says, “Dante è autenticamente nostro, è autenticamente italiano, autenticamente cristiano.” Claiming Dante in such a way, insisting that he is authentically ‘ours,’ is a way of keeping the world out, refusing to allow for any possibility of a cross-cultural reading or reception.[4] It is also profoundly anachronistic, putting on the façade that nothing has changed in the seven centuries since Dante’s death and, indeed, that cultural authenticity is to be found by reducing the late medieval period in the area now known as Italy to the monolingual nation-state over five centuries before its unification.

This is a move that is reminiscent of one of Meloni’s political allies, Matteo Salvini, who in a 2016 speech in Piazza Santa Croce saw fit to declaim the verses describing Muhammad’s punishment in Inferno 28 and use them as a cudgel to paint all Muslim immigrants as extremist. He calls them unwelcome, ordering them to return to their homes (“Tornate a casa vostra”) to impose their own laws that are incompatible with “i nostri valori” (our values).[5] As with Meloni, this evokes a clash of civilizations model that insists on pure opposition between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ with no middle ground to be had. Of course, a look to the whole of Dante’s poem results in a rather different perspective emerging: Muhammad may be condemned, but so, too, is Ali for the schism within Islam; we also must reckon with the presence of three Muslims in Inferno 4, alongside the revered figures of Greco-Roman antiquity. As Teodolinda Barolini has recently put it, “Dante alone uses the concept of limbo to engage in passionate promotion of great and virtuous souls who belong to cultures and religions different from his own. His radical ideas stand out in his own time—and still in ours.”[6]

Beyond that, however, the question of language is one that opens up far more when we approach the Commedia with eyes that are not blinded by amor patriae and instead attuned to the radical act of creating new language. Such an approach is one Dante himself anticipated in the De vulgari eloquentia. Just before he claims to be a citizen of the world who readily acknowledges that there are other regions and languages more illustrious than his own native tongue, Dante playfully invokes the example of Pietramala. He first lays out the need to search for the original language spoken by the first man, given that there are now so many, and then writes: “In this, as in many other matters, Pietramala is a great city indeed, the home of the greater part of the children of Adam. For whoever is so misguided as to think that the place of his birth is the most delightful spot under the sun may also believe that his own language—his mother tongue, that is—is pre-eminent among all others; and, as a result, he may believe that his language was also Adam’s” (DVE 1.6.2).[7] Joking that a tiny village outside of Florence should be so insular and deluded as to think that their language must be the very best in the world and even the language of Adam himself is surely a wonderful Dantean corrective to the weaponizing of language purity and narrowing of national identity that Meloni offers.

Moreover, this claim of Dante as “authentically” Italian based in his language should push us to emphasize just how hybrid and polyglot the Commedia is. One way to do this is to home in on those moments of cultural and linguistic alterity in the poem in order to appreciate how Dante indulges in the mixing of languages to create new music and to appreciate how this might resonate with a global medieval perspective.[8] In so doing, we might draw on moments of linguistic creation such as Arnaut Daniel’s Occitan speech at the end of Purgatorio 26 in which Dante not only gives full voice to a lyric tradition that is not Tuscan but even goes so far as to craft the Occitan neologism ‘escalina.’[9] We are too accustomed to thinking of Dante, as one does of Shakespeare, as a founding father of a literary and linguistic tradition. It matters that he is not just crafting exquisite, mind-bending Italian neologisms in Paradiso, but also going so far as to mix Hebrew, Latin, and Italian in the opening verses of Paradiso 7. Not only is Dante fusing languages together here, but he is also creating the Latin neologism ‘superillustrans.’[10]

Such a reveling in linguistic hybridity might seem to stand in contrast to the search for the illustrious vernacular that characterizes Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia. But we can also see something else emerge in the characterization of Frederick II and Manfred in the treatise, as Dante seeks to represent the genesis of his own poetic tradition by way of Sicily. In praising those Hohenstaufen monarchs as “illustres heroes” who cultivate nobility and uprightness, Dante makes clear that this sort of rulership will draw others to it: “On this account, all who were noble of heart and rich in graces strove to attach themselves to the majesty of such worthy princes, so that, in their day, all that the most gifted individuals in Italy brought forth first came to light in the court of these two great monarchs…” (DVE 1.12.4, Botterill trans.).[11] It is very much worth noting that the individuals these monarchs attract to their court are first not specified as Italian, but rather as all those who are noble of heart and full of grace. Only after they come to the court and produce their art are they called “excellentes animi Latinorum,” (the most gifted individuals in Italy). The process of acculturation gestured toward here resonates with the multilingual and multireligious nature of the Federician court. A balanced perspective on Frederick II, of course, remains important: he may have promoted and cultivated shared cultural work amongst Christians, Muslims, and Jews, but he also expelled Muslims from Sicily to the Apulian town of Lucera in 1220. Nonetheless, there is something to the Dantean model of openness that emerges here in his portrayal of Frederick and Manfred as monarchs who attract others to them from across the Mediterranean and, as a result, promote a cultural flourishing that leaves its mark on the tradition of poetry. “Racha racha!” (DVE 1.12.5) are the Hebrew words of lament and critique that Dante uses to mark the passing of these monarchs and contrast their nobility of the century prior to the degeneracy of present European rulers, picking up in poignant fashion on the multilingualism at the heart of Mediterranean lyric traditions.

This model of rule that inspires others to cross borders and create culture together is precisely what Meloni precludes in her narrow definition of cultural authenticity. Hers is also a rejection of the linguistic mixing that is at the heart of not just Dante’s poetry but of the emerging vernacular in late medieval Italy. Since we’ve been thinking about Sicily, we might also consider one of its most famous topographical features: Mount Etna. The widespread medieval vernacular name for the mountain is Mongibello, coming up not just in the Commedia (from the mouth of Capaneus in Inferno 14) but also in 13th-century works as diverse as Restoro d'Arezzo’s work of pop science La composizione del mondo and the anonymous Tuscan poem Detto del gatto lupesco. The word is tautological, formed from the Latin mons and the Arabic jabal (both meaning mountain). Even such a small example speaks to just how vital it is to probe the medieval histories of language in order to break apart the nationalist, monolithic, and inauthentic view of culture. This is especially important since, as seen in a recent article in the New York Times, Meloni takes the works of J.R.R. Tolkien “as a lesson about protecting Europe’s sovereign nations and unique identities.”[12] Such recourse to the medievalism of the fantasy genre that is rife with orientalism and embraces a Manichaean model of us vs. them, one civilization pitted against another, further demands a turn to the stuff of real history, particularly given that Meloni is quoted in this article as saying, “I don’t consider ‘The Lord of the Rings’ fantasy.”

In June 2018, Arundhati Roy gave the W.G. Sebald Lecture on Literary Translation at the British Library on issues of language and her recent novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017). In this lecture, Roy makes a point to argue against the far right insistence on one language, one culture, one religion that has plagued India of late by way of pointing to her own work as one that is necessarily marked by translation as a mode of creation and by the presence of several languages: “Regardless of in which language (and in whose mother tongue) The Ministry was written, this particular universe had to be imagined in several languages. It is a story that emerges out of an ocean of languages, in which a teeming ecosystem of living creatures—official-language fish, unofficial-dialect mollusks, and flashing shoals of word fish—swim around, some friendly with each other, some openly hostile, and some downright carnivorous.”[13] Roy’s formulating of an ocean of languages and its various denizens resonates with Dante’s own statement of global identity. In De vulgari eloquentia, after he ridicules the people of Pietramala for thinking that their language was the language of Adam, Dante writes, “To me, however, the whole world is a homeland, like the sea to fish” (DVE 1.6.3).  Roy’s vision resonates, too, with the sea of languages that bathes the Commedia in its waters and serves as a powerful testimony to how we must respond in the face of such perverse, reductive, and politically potent appropriations of Dante.

Akash Kumar – University of California, Berkeley

[1] I am grateful to the editorial board of Dante Notes for their suggestions. My thanks in particular to colleagues Rhiannon Welch and Ramsey McGlazer (UC Berkeley) for their convivial support and invaluable perspective, and to Liz Hebbard (IU Bloomington) for our continuing dialogue across medieval languages.

[2] See Akash Kumar, “Hell on Earth: Dante in Political Circles,” in Dante Alive: Essays on a Cultural Icon, Francesco Ciabattoni and Simone Marchesi, eds. (London: Routledge, 2022), pp. 250-261. That essay reflects the idea that Dante is ripe for the taking by any and all, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Matteo Renzi to Matteo Salvini.

[3] The video can be seen on YouTube here: A transcript of her remarks can be found on the Fratelli d’Italia website, but it is dated March 25, 2022, perhaps indicating a re-release this year:

[4] It is worth noting that the transcript on the Fratelli d’Italia website has ‘nostro’ in quotation marks, perhaps showing an awareness of the leap that is being made across centuries and over numerous readers with a more global approach and sensibility.

[5] Emphasis is mine. One can see Salvini’s remarks here:

[6] See the marvelous essay by Teodolinda Barolini, “Dante’s Limbo and Equity of Access: Non-Christians, Children, and the Criteria of Inclusion and Exclusion, from Inferno 4 to Paradiso 32” in Dante’s Multitudes: History, Philosophy, Method (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2022), pp. 58-81. The citation is from p. 81.

[7] I cite the dearly departed Steven Botterill’s translation in tribute, now finding myself walking those very same halls of Dwinelle. See Steven Botterill, ed. and trans. Dante: De vulgari eloquentia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 11-12. Here is the Latin text: “In hoc, sicut etiam in multis aliis, Petramala civitas amplissima est, et patria maiori parti filiorum Adam. Nam quicunque tam obscene rationis est ut locum sue nationis delitiosissimum credat esse sub sole, hic etiam pre cunctis proprium vulgare licetur, id est maternam locutionem, et per consequens credit ipsum fuisse illud quod fuit Ade.”

[8] See, for example, Akash Kumar, “Vernacular Hybridity Beyond Borders: Dante, Amīr Khusrau, Sandow Birk” in Dante Beyond Borders, Nick Havely, Jonathan Katz, and Richard Cooper, eds. (Cambridge: Legenda, 2021), pp. 338-348.

[9] My thanks to Courtney Wells (Hobart and William Smith Colleges) for bringing this to my attention and for our discussions of this moment.

[10] On Dante’s neologisms in Paradiso and the “radical linguistic gestures” (101) they represent, see Brenda Deen Schildgen, “Dante’s Neologisms in the Paradiso and the Latin Rhetorical Tradition” Dante Studies 107 (1989), pp. 101-119. My point here is that we might focus on Dante’s non-“Italian” neologisms as well.

[11] The Latin reads: “Propter quod corde nobiles atque gratiarium dotati inherere tantorum principum maiestati conati sunt, ita ut eorum tempore quicquid excellentes animi Latinorum enitebantur primitus in tantorum coronatorum aula prodibat…” (p. 29). Though Botterill translates “Latinorum” as “Italy,” we might also unpack that term as reflecting a Latinate cultural sphere that also cannot defined by modern national boundaries.

[12] See Jason Horowitz, “Hobbits and the Hard Right: How Fantasy Inspires Italy’s New Potential Leader” The New York Times September 21, 2022. (Accessed October 31, 2022).

[13] I cite from the published version “In What Language Does Rain Fall Over Tormented Cities? The Weather Underground in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” in Arundhati Roy, Azadi: Fascism, Fiction, and Freedom in the Time of the Virus (Chicago: Haymarket, 2020), p. 13. The Indian cultural and political context is, of course, a different one. Nonetheless, Roy’s resistance to the nationalist model that promotes monolingualism based in religious identity and rejects English on colonial grounds is important: she insists on “Englishes” that are infused by many other languages as a far more apt and authentic form of cultural creation that recognizes the multiplicities within. One of the most telling correctives she provides to this view of English as a colonial imposition is that of the Dalit activist Chandra Bhan Prasad, who built a temple to the Dalit goddess of English and said, “We will use English to rise up the ladder and be free forever” (Roy, p. 11).