The seven hundredth anniversary of Dante‘s death has been celebrated throughout all of 2021. These celebrative events were a precious opportunity to remember possibly the most famous Italian author in the world, but also to rediscover the less known details of his major piece of work.
This is exactly what the interesting project by Laura Ingallinella (a Dante scholar and expert of gender issues in medieval literature) does. She started it with her students at Wellesley College (Boston), collaborating with WikiEducation. Taking cue from the assumption that many of the characters appearing in the Divine Comedy were actually real people that Dante had met during his life, or had heard about, Ms Ingallinella decided to separate the narrated character from historical reality and independently narrate some of the characters mentioned by Dante, starting with female characters “and with the characters that, in a broader sense, belong to the LGBT+ community: firstly, we all took a gender perspective,” the scholar told Il Post.
Among the 600 characters who appear in the Divine Comedy, women are those for whom very little can be found in historical documents: they appear in wills and deeds of sale, but it’s basically evidence of one single event in their lives. “The Divine Comedy is often the only accessible source of information concerning certain characters, namely, where these women actually have a name. Yet the way Dante depicts their stories is certainly not free from interpretation, and several scholars have already proved that he liked to turn women into metaphors”. However, these are female figures that were at the centre of a network of political, regional or ecclesiastical contacts, and this makes it historically relevant to understand, going beyond the Divine Comedy, how important they were.
Ms Ingallinella reckons that the most striking example is that of Gualdrada Berti (16th canto of the Inferno), whom Dante places at the centre of a story that is apparently a myth, thought up in order to depict the Florentine maiden as a model of virtue, thus celebrating the entire city. In another case, concerning Alagia Fieschi’s story, archaeological work was carried out on the sources, because the character mentioned in the Purgatorio had practically disappeared from the chronicles of the era. The Purgatorio also mentions Sapia Salvani, described as someone who turned against her own community, but she was actually a philanthropist who donated all her goods to the hospice of Siena. Or, we have Beatrice d’Este, a noblewoman, strongly criticised for remarrying, but who apparently was very independent, loyal and brave. Ms Ingallinella’s work also includes LGBT+ characters, such as Guido Guerra, one of the sodomites in the Inferno. Once again, the principle that inspired the scholars is the same: separating historical data, such as the political events and battles that involved the characters, from Dante’s narration.
The project is far from complete, but currently, the English language entry on Wikipedia tends to be more accurate and up-to-date than the Italian one. The hope is therefore that “Wikipedians will improve our understanding of the past, placing women’s stories in a world that has been sidelining them for far too long”.