On March 25, Italy celebrated the second Dantedì (Heaven forbid we use English and call it Dante’s Day, Dante would roll over in his grave!). This important celebration marks the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death in 1321. I hear you: “Why the Inferno March 25?” As recognized by most scholars of the Divine Comedy, on this day in 1300, Dante began his imaginary journey through the three realms of the afterlife, Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso.
While he doesn’t say it explicitly, Dante chose March 25 – the Spring Equinox and Feast of the Annunciation – as a day of re-birth, hope and salvation. In the Middle Ages, they used the Julian calendar, so blame Julius Cesar who set this day for the Equinox. March 25, as the most astute will have noted, is exactly 9 months before December 25: in the Roman Catholic tradition this is the day the Archangel Gabriel visited the Virgin Mary to inform her that she was chosen to be the mother of Jesus. Mary is usually crossing her arms, leaning away or looking skeptically or in surprise at the Angel Gabriel – it was a lot of news to take in!
The Annunciation didn’t inspire only Dante! It is one of the most popular subjects in Italian art, from Giotto to Caravaggio. For centuries, it was the date that started the New Year for Florence; so careful if you are reading old documents, if it says January 22, 1491 that would be 1492 for us!
The Virgin Mary is a key figure in the Divine Comedy: she sends Beatrice to aid Dante after he had lost himself in the selva oscura (the dark wood), allowing him to start his journey toward salvation. The final Canto (Paradiso XXXIII) begins with a prayer to the Virgin Mary, so that she can intercede with God to let Dante contemplate Him, l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle (the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.) Here we are using translations by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was the first American to translate The Divine Comedy, and who taught Italian at Harvard University.
As man does not live by bread alone, Dante mentions wine in his masterpiece. In Purgatorio Canto XV, after a vision of St. Stephen’s martyrdom, he walks very slowly. Virgil compares him to an inebriated or sleepy man:
Che hai che non ti puoi tenere, What ails thee, that thou canst not stand?
ma se’ venuto più che mezza lega But hast been coming more than half a league
velando li occhi e con le gambe avvolte, Veiling thine eyes, and with thy legs entangled,
a guisa di cui vino o sonno piega? In guise of one whom wine or sleep subdues?
In Paradiso, Dante talks about wine and a vineyard. St. Thomas Aquinas compares the thirst for wine to Dante’s desire to know (Paradiso X):
qual ti negasse il vin de la sua fiala Who should deny the wine out of his vial
per la tua sete, in libertà non fora Unto thy thirst, in liberty were not
se non com’ acqua ch’al mar non si cala Except as water which descends not seaward.
In Paradiso Canto XII, the Franciscan Bonaventure talks about St. Dominic, calling the Church God’s vineyard that the Pope / grape grower should preserve carefully: si mise a circüir la vigna che tosto imbianca, se ’l vignaio è reo. (he began to go about the vineyard, Which fadeth soon, if faithless be the dresser.)
In Purgatorio XXV, Dante uses wine for a complex simile: Guarda il calor del sol che si fa vino, / giunto al’omor che della vite cola (Behold the sun’s heat, which becometh wine, / Joined to the juice that from the vine distils.)
But Vernaccia is the only wine Dante mentions by name, talking about Pope Martin IV who used to eat eels stewed with this wine (Purgatorio XXIV): dal Torso fu, e purga per digiuno / l’anguille di Bolsena e la vernaccia (From Tours was he, and purges by his fasting / Bolsena’s eels and the Vernaccia wine.)
According to most scholars, Dante is referring to Vernaccia delle Cinque Terre from Liguria (sorry, Tuscans from San Gimignano!) Perhaps he became familiar with this wine during his stay in Lunigiana, in the first part of his exile from Florence.
It is in that very same Lunigiana where Dante lived that Cantine Lvnae di Bosoni created a spectacular red wine in Dante’s honor. Verba Dantis, a blend of two native Ligurian grape varieties, Massaretta and Pollera Nera, is a full-bodied red wine reminding us of Dante’s intense and passionate personality.
The label, designed by Dante Pierini and Debora Bosoni, illustrates the cosmology of the Divine Comedy: the Earth surrounded by the nine concentric spheres of the planets and the Empyrean.
Closer to home, in Umbria Dante has been honored by producer Arnaldo Caprai with a Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG in limited edition. The label is designed by the Canadian artist Rick Rojnic and takes inspiration from Dante’s portrait by the Renaissance artist Benozzo Gozzoli in the cycle of frescoes “Stories of St Francis’s life” painted in Montefalco in 1452. In this cycle, there are also portraits of Petrarch and Giotto; thus Caprai dedicated a bottle to each in the first Limited Edition. Proceeds were used to restore the frescoes in 2017.
When Dante was exiled, he wandered the Italian peninsula, from Liguria to Verona and the Veneto, until he moved to Ravenna, which is where he died. Dante’s sons Pietro and Jacopo decided to settle in Verona, and in 1353 Pietro bought a wine estate in Valpolicella, now known as Possessioni Serego Alighieri. His heirs still live here today, and yes, they still produce wine! In cooperation with Masi Agricola, they make Amarone, Recioto, and Valpolicella Classico, among others.
Dante inspired not only wines and labels, but even entire wine cellar projects. In Bibbiena, Tuscany, Dante Wines chose to dedicate themselves to Tuscan native grape varieties -from the well-known Sangiovese to Vermentino to the rare Pugnitello. These wines are single-variety (an interesting and challenging choice!) and the labels have a Roman number to recall the Cantos in the Divine Comedy, as well as the citation about wine from Purgatorio XXV.
In Piedmont, Northern Italy, a cellar named 9diDante recalls the poet’s favorite number, the number of perfection because it is three times three. In the Divine Comedy the circles of Hell are nine, as are the spheres of Heaven. In the Vermouth Inferno they chose nine herbs, each one inspired by a circle and its sin. These herbs are mixed with a blend of Dolcetto and Cortese (a red and a white wine, in equal parts) and the label represents the nine circles.
Dante’s journey through hell became a journey to paradise, a riveder le stelle – to behold once again the stars (Inferno XXXIV). By the way, do you know that stelle is the last word of every Cantica of the poem, Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso? How did Dante do that? Such a star….
Grazie, Dante! And grazie to the Italian winemakers who have celebrated his art and life in vino!
Francesca Giuliano, WSET Level 2, contributed to this article