When’s the last time a group of local residents petitioned the government to arrange for a public reading of Dante’s Commedia? The answer to that question is: the summer of 1373. In the summer of that year, a petition was presented to the Signoria of Florence, on behalf of a number of Florentine citizens, asking that a salaried lecturer might be appointed to expound publicly, in Florence, on the Commedia, so that the unlearned may profit from its ethics and beauty. The unlearned were not necessarily illiterate, but rather those who didn’t read Latin. According to John Ahern, these would have been the dyers, the drapers, the grain merchants, shopkeepers, blacksmiths, ass drivers. In the 1330s, one Florentine in eight who attended elementary school went on to Latin school, of which there were four in Florence.
The petition is remarkable. It refers to Dante’s Divine Comedy as ‘liber Dantis‘ (the book of Dante) and ‘el Dante‘ (The Dante). It also clearly explains what a Dantista or Dante scholar is: ‘a worthy and learned man, well versed in the knowledge of the poem’ (valens et sapiens vir in [Dantis] poesie scientia bene doctus). He is to be paid from the government budget in two instalments. This was the start of a long tradition of public reading of the Commedia that goes on to this day – the Lectura Dantis. The most recent one I know of (and went to) was at the Warburg Institute in London from January to June 2018.
The petition reads:
‘Whereas divers citizens of Florence, being minded, as well for themselves and others their fellow-citizens, as for their posterity, to follow after virtue, are desirous of being instructed in the book of Dante, wherefrom, both to the shunning of vice, and to the acquisition of virtue, no less than in the ornaments of eloquence, even the unlearned may receive instruction; the said citizens humbly pray you, the worshipful Government of the People and Commonwealth of Florence, that you be pleased, at a fitting time, to provide and formally to determine, that a worthy and learned man, well versed in the knowledge of the poem aforesaid, shall be by you elected, for such term as you may appoint, being not longer than one year, to read the book which is commonly called el Dante, in the city of Florence, to all such as shall be desirous,of hearing him, on consecutive days, not being holidays, and in consecutive lectures, as is customary in like cases; and with such salary as you may determine, not exceeding the sum of one hundred gold florins for the said year, and in such manner, and under such conditions, as may seem proper to you; and, further, that the said salary be paid to the said lecturer from the funds of the Commonwealth, in two terminal payments, to wit, one moiety about the end of the month of December, and the other moiety about the end of the month of April, such sum to be free of all deduction for taxes whatsoever…’ (translated by Paget Toynbee in Boccaccio’s Commentary on the “Divina Commedia”, The Modern Language Review 2 (1907), pp. 97-120 (7-8)
‘Pro parte quamplurium civium civitatis Florentie desiderantium tam pro se ipsis, quam pro aliis civibus aspirare desiderantibus ad virtutes, quam etiam pro eorum posteris et descendentibus, instrui in libro Dantis, ex quo tam in fuga vitiorum, quam in acquisitione virtutum, quam in ornatu eloquentie possunt etiam non grammatici informari; reverenter supplicatur vobis dominis Prioribus artium et Vexillifero Justitie populi et comunis Florentie, quatenus dignemini opportune providere et facere solempniter reformari, quod vos possitis eligere unum valentem et sapientem virum in huiusmodi poesie scientia bene doctum, pro eo tempore quo velitis, non maiore unius anni, ad legendum librum qui vulgariter appellatur el Dante in civitate Florentie, omnibus audire volentibus, continuatis diebus non feriatis, et per continuatas lectiones, ut in similibus fieri solet; et cum eo salario quo voletis, non maiore centum florenorum auri pro anno predicto, et cum modis, formis, articulis et tenoribus, de quibus vobis videbitur convenire’. (a copy is preserved in Florence’s Libro delle Provvisioni)