Father Unknown

A Dantesque mystery

Marco Montagnin

It is assumed that everyone knows – or should know – Dante’s main writings

If someone were to ask, “Who is the most important author of Italian literature?”, the answer would probably be Dante Alighieri. Durante di Alighiero degli Alighieri, this being his baptismal name, is the well known author of the Divine Comedy, a work named so by Giovanni Boccaccio[1] following the model of Publio Papinio Stazio’s definition of the Aeneid: «nec tu divinam Aeneida temta». It is a peculiar fact that despite being the most famous work in our history, the original title is still a matter of controversy among scholars. Some believe it is Comedia (from Latin) referring to the Epistle to Cangrande della Scala: «Libri titulus est: “Incipit Comedia Dantis Alagherii, Florentini natione, non moribus”» [“The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Florentine by birth, not by morals, begins” – regarding Dante’s proverbial resentment]. Others still propose Commedia or Comedìa, since – in the Inferno –  Dante mentions the poem with this Greek accent twice, which does not conform to the language of the time and is dictated by verse. In short, what prevails according to tradition is Commedia, i.e. Comedy.

Incidentally, Dante is also incorrectly considered as the father of the Italian language. His works most certainly became indispensable for every subsequent Italian after him. With his De vulgari eloquentia he was the forerunner of the idea of a single idiom, but written Italian language was actually built on fourteenth-century Florentine, taking Petrarch as its greatest inspiration. We can say without further dismay that what is best known is not necessarily certain.

  It is assumed that everyone knows – or should know – Dante’s main writings; however, there are some that are often not even mentioned (apart from in the esoteric meetings of Dante’s writers), and among these are Il Fiore and the Detto d’Amore, which are, however, of dubious attribution. This is where the mystery begins of which I would like to talk about, thereby taking you on a short journey in pursuit of an unknown father: two poor orphan texts are in need of help. 

     I would like to begin with a formal analysis of the two works, a kind of literary ‘identikit’: The first is a ‘crown’, a series of isometric compositions on the same subject, of 232 sonnets with the following metrical scheme ABBA ABBA CDCDCD, which can be considered a poem in several stanzas because it develops a unitary narrative argument; moreover, there is a formal connection between the sonnets according to the procedure of the coblas capfinidas in which the last words of a stanza are taken up at the beginning of the following one. The second, on the other hand, is a poem composed of 480 seven-syllable lines with rhymed couplets.

The two works were rediscovered in 1878, in a codex located in the former Library of the Faculty of Medicine of Montpellier, and since then, philologists have been trying to understand who the author is and whether both poems belong to the same one.

In fact, the manuscript was not authentic, and therefore, as it often happens, scholars were divided into two opposing sides: those who attributed the authorship to Dante, and those who denied it. Of the latter, some even proposed alternative authors. Despite the fact that the written production of Dante’s philologists could fill entire halls today (such as the Biblioteca Classense di Casa Dante, in Ravenna), this mystery still remains unsolved ‘til this day; but, for now, the two works are nevertheless included in the Dantesque canon.

     Let us resume our analysis: the two poems are a Florentine remake of Le Roman de la Rose, the most important work of the Middle Ages along with the Divine Comedy. There were two authors who wrote this French poem: Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. The first part, composed of 4058 verses, best expresses the troubadour vision of courtly love; the second part of more than 18,000 verses, parodies the vision of love by adding misogynistic moods, rationalist and libertine cynicism, and long digressions; thus, taking the work back into the dimension of Neoplatonic-Christian naturalism whereby attraction and sexual union were nothing more than Nature’s ploy to ensure the propagation of the species.

Il Fiore, therefore, is a concise remake of the narrative and allegorical part of Le Roman de la Rose. The Detto d’Amore, on the other hand, provides a small encyclopaedia of courtly love, an anthology drawn from different sections of the French poem.

     In the philological debates on the author’s/authors’ attributions, Dante’s hypothesis was initially considered for the first work but discarded for the second because in quoting Francesco Torraca: “I have never believed that a semi-obscene poem came from the same mind that brought forth the Divine Comedy”. In other words, who among us would casually associate the stern image of the Supreme Poet with a lewd text? In fact, according to Gianfranco Contini, the main problem with the attribution concerned the obscenity of the work: “an unpleasant little poem, and therefore poorly judged historically to readers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries”, and perhaps even to contemporaries.

     Let us now turn more closely to the content of the texts, which will both be paraphrased in English. The Detto d’Amore opens with a declaration: the author writes at the behest of Love, to whom he is a faithful servant.

Amor sí vuole, e par-li,
Ch’i’ ‘n ogni guisa parli
E ched i’ faccia un detto,
Che sia per tutto detto
Ch’i’ l’aggia ben servito.
Po’ ch’e’ m’ebbe ‘nservito
E ch’i’ gli feci omaggio,
I’ l’ho tenuto o∙maggio
E terrò giama’ sempre;[1]


 Love wishes, and it seems quite fitting I do so, that I speak in any fashion and compose an ‘adage’, so that it may be said everywhere that I have served him well. Since he made me his vassal and I paid him homage, I have held, and will always treasure, my lord.


 Reason then argues against Love, but the author rejects these reasonings and devotes himself to praising the beauty of the woman who has captured his heart, with whom he is hopelessly in love and whom he would like to possess. At this point, between Love and Reason, Wealth – whom the author admits he knows very little about as he is penurious – intervenes and denies the shortest route to his beloved’s heart. In fact, Wealth warns him that if he wants to pursue his intentions without its help, he will soon find himself being the unhappy guest of Foolish-Largeness (the immoderate prodigality) and he consequently will have to deal with Poverty and its darling offspring, Theft. But Love does not want to give up, and after advising the author not to follow the path of Reason, invites him to bet on the utmost loyalty to his beloved, if he wishes to relish her courtly love. This is followed by a genuine handbook on courtly love, which teaches how to become perfect lovers. The work ends with the author’s desire to obtain a perfect friend, available, faithful and balanced, who can help him in his amorous adventure.

     The philologists of the first half of the 20th century agreed on at least one point: the two works had to be attributed to the same author, because: “one poem cannot be separated from the other, and […] if one attributes Il Fiore to Dante or Durante, Alighieri, it is only appropriate to attribute the Detto d’Amore to him, too”.

In order to support this argument, it is necessary to take into consideration those parts of the two poems that diverge the most from the French model, since they are in fact those in which the author’s own style is most evident. It is precisely here that we find the so-called ‘curious consistency of dictation’. They both share the same language (Florentine with abundant Frenchisms and elements derived from Sicilian lyricism), the same theme and they even stem from the French poem in a complementary way.

In addition to this, the excessive lyrical virtuosity – due to the equivocal rhyme that required the author to use rare terms and Gallicisms, and to constantly exploit the semantic and metaphorical possibilities of the words – together with the composite rhymes and homophonies, made the Detto d’Amore a text that was sometimes difficult to interpret. However, if Dante were indeed the mysterious author of this work, the use of traditional themes of courtly love, together with a system of theological metaphors and the praise of women for the enchantment their mere presence creates, would indicate that this text marks the author’s transition from traditional lyric poetry to the Dolce Stil Novo, “That style, which for its beauty into fame exalts me.”[Dante, The Divine Comedy, Inferno, I, v. 87]

 E quando va per via,
Ciascun di lei ha ‘nvia
Per l’andatura gente;
E quando parla a gente,
Sí umilmente parla
Che boce d’agnol par là.[2]

And when she is striding past, everyone longs for her because of her noble gait; and when she talks to someone, she does it so suavely that an angel’s voice seems to be present.

If this were true, a comprehensive re-reading of Dante’s entire corpus would have to be carried out, but the attribution of these works to Dante seems, to me, to be forced under many aspects.

     One of the greatest supporters of Dante’s lack of authorship is Pasquale Stoppelli who, in 2011, published an essay in which he does not attempt to find a father for these poor orphaned texts but simply dismisses the mistaken attribution to the Florentine poet. Stoppelli’s fundamental thesis is threefold, which I would like to mention here as a conclusion. The first is that the language shows a familiarity with French that could only be acquired after an extended period spent in France and that the linguistic blend should be judged as an inability to break away from the model and not as ‘experimentalism’. The second, on the other hand, underlines how the versifier’s expertise in the ‘original’ text is considerably inferior to that of Contini’s edition, who corrected many anomalies attributing them to the distraction of the copyist. The third, linked to the previous argument, recognises how the stylistic features in common with the works certainly written by Dante are in fact very widespread in the poets of the 13th century and for this reason, with the same methodology used by Contini, one could identify even closer connections with the work of other authors. Personally, I believe that these three arguments are quite sound.

     It is obviously impossible to establish the authorship of both works with any certainty so long as an autograph, which is perhaps lying hidden in some basement or lost among the codices of some ancient library, does not miraculously appear. However, this philological ‘detective story’ is now iconic, exciting (at least for some of us), and worth telling. After all, as a brilliant and eccentric university professor once told me: ‘Dante is not altogether dead’ as his mysteries are indeed still alive.

[2] Dante Alighieri, Le Opere – Volume VII – Opere Di Dubbia Attribuzione E Altri Documenti Danteschi – Tomo I – Il Fiore E Detto D’Amore, Salerno Editrice, Rubano 2020, p.353

[3] Dante Alighieri, Le Opere – Volume VII – Opere Di Dubbia Attribuzione E Altri Documenti Danteschi – Tomo I – Il Fiore E Detto D’Amore, Salerno Editrice, Rubano 2020, p.367

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