The true stories behind The Divine Comedy


When Dante Alighieri died 700 years ago, on September 14, 1321, he had just put his final flourishes in the “Divine Comedy,” a monumental poem that would inspire readers for centuries.

The play follows a pilgrim’s journey through the three realms of the Christian afterlife: hell, purgatory, and paradise.

In it he meets a variety of characters, many of which are based on real people that Dante had known or heard from.

One of them is a woman named Sapia Salvani. Sapia meets Dante and his first guide, Virgilio, on the second terrace of purgatory.

She tells the two of them how her fate was sealed in the afterlife – how she stood at the window of her family’s castle and, with the troops gathered in the distance, prayed for her own city, Siena, to fall.

Despite their advantage, the Sienese were massacred, including Sapia’s nephew, whose head was displayed by Siena on a pike.

Sapia, however, felt triumphant. According to Dante and medieval theologians, he had been the victim of one of the seven capital vices, invidy or envy.

Sapia’s depiction in the “Divine Comedy” is imbued with political implications, many of which boil down to the fact that Dante blamed those who turned against their communities out of arrogance and greed for the violence of his time.

But the real Sapia was even more interesting than Dante wanted them to believe.

Documentary sources reveal that she was a committed philanthropist: she founded with her husband a hospice for the poor on Via Francigena, a pilgrimage route to Rome.

Five years after witnessing the fall of Siena, he donated all of his assets to this hospice.

Sapia is one of the many characters in the “Divine Comedy” who deserve to be known further, and not only because of what Dante decided to say about them in his poem.

With my Wellesley College students I am reliving the true stories behind the characters in Dante’s masterpiece and making them available to everyone on Wikipedia.

And it was especially important for us to start with his female characters.

Why the women?

Among the 600 characters that appear in the “Divine Comedy”, women are the least likely to appear in the historical record.

Medieval authors tended not only to write skewed accounts of women’s lives, motives, and aspirations, but also to ignore them altogether.

As a result, the “Divine Comedy” is often the only accessible source of information on these women.

At the same time, Dante’s approach to female characters is not without misogyny.

Scholars such as Victoria Kirkham, Marianne Shapiro, and Teodolinda Barolini have shown that the author loved to turn them into metaphors, from pious maidens to villains capable of bringing dynasties to their knees.

For this reason, the most complete images of Dante’s women have been imprecise.

As a researcher, you are lucky if you manage to meet a contemporary who supported or relied on Dante’s tangled reinvention, or documents in which the woman is mentioned as mother, wife or daughter.

Putting the pieces together on Wikipedia

The more my students asked me about the women in the poem, the more I wondered: what if we found a way to tell everyone their stories?

So I reached out to Wiki Education, a non-profit organization that fosters collaboration between higher education and Wikipedia, to ask if it would partner with me and my students. And he agreed.

The recipe behind Wikipedia’s two decades of success is its astonishing simplicity: an open encyclopedia, written and maintained by a global community of volunteers who write, edit and monitor its free content.

Wikipedia’s status as collaborative work is one of its greatest strengths, but it is also its greatest weakness because it reflects the world’s systemic failures: the vast majority of Wikipedia contributors identify as male.

In 2014, only 15.5% of Wikipedia biographies were in English they were about women.

By 2021, that number had risen to 18.1%, but that was after more than six years of sustained efforts aimed at reinforcing female representation on Wikipedia by creating new entries and academic references written by women.

Knowledge as incidence

For my students, researching and composing Wikipedia entries on Dante’s characters was also supportive of the cause.

Writing for Wikipedia is different from writing an essay. You must be unbiased, avoid personal flourishes, and always support your statements with external references.

Rather than building a posture, you need to give readers the tools to generate their own.

And yet just writing a Wikipedia entry about a person sends out a clear message: that their life is worth the spotlight, rather than an easily forgettable name in the background of a grand narrative.

This choice is radical. It is a claim that someone has historical value beyond the fact that they inspired an author.

A Sandro Botticelli drawing of Beatrice Portinari guiding Dante through paradise.

GETTY IMAGES

Pursuing this goal was not without its challenges; it can be difficult to maintain an unbiased tone when telling stories of violence and abuse.

That was the case with Ghisolabella Caccianemico, a young woman from Bologna sold as a sex slave by her brother Venèdico, who hoped to form an alliance with a neighboring marquis.

Dante told his readers a “filthy story” that would outrage them. In it, Ghisolabella is a silent victim surrounded by men.

Yet we make Ghisolabella the subject of her story, drawing the fine line between giving a starkly objective account of the violence she suffered and preserving her dignity.

“Ghisolabella’s extramarital affair with the marquis, although against his will, was disastrous for his status,” my student wrote, citing scholars from the early 20th century who searched the Bologna archives for evidence on Ghisolabella.

“The inclusion of Dante de Ghisolabella,” he added, “It eternalizes the sin of Venèdic”.

Gambling Dante Back

Investigating these women also became an opportunity to change Dante’s personal views.

Take Beatrice d’Este, a noblewoman whom Dante criticizes for remarrying after the death of her first husband.

Dante was outraged by widows who dared to remarry instead of always remaining faithful to their late spouses.

However, not everyone agreed with his defamation of Beatrice.

To tell Beatrice’s story, my student just needed to look in the right places – an exceptional article by Deborah W. Parker, who put Dante’s treatment of Beatrice into context.

Parker explains how Beatrice was likely pressured into her second marriage and tried to negotiate her place in a world that subjected her to slander.

Having the family shields of her two husbands carved side by side on her grave, she made an embarrassing statement about her identity and loyalties.

Thanks to our work, in addition to Ghisolabella and Beatrice d’Este, there are now more than a dozen biographies of these women on Wikipedia: Alagia Fieschi, Cianghella della Tosa, Constanza de Sicilia, Cunizza da Romano, Gaia da Camino, Giovanna da Montefeltro , Gualdrada Berti, Juana de Gallura, Matelda, Nella Donati, Pia de ‘Tolomei, Piccarda Donati and Sapia Salvani.

They join Beatrice Portinari and Francesca da Rimini, the only two historical women from the “Divine Comedy” who had acceptable Wikipedia entries prior to our work.

As feminist theorist Sara Ahmed writes in Living a Feminist Life, “Quotations can be feminist ‘building blocks’: they are the materials with which we build our homess”.

Thus, brick by brick, with each page, review, or reference added, Wikipedians expand our knowledge of the past, focusing stories on women that the world has long “edited”.

* Laura Ingallinella is an Italian and English Studies Researcher at Wellesley College, United States. This article initially appeared on The Conversation. You can read the original version here.

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Topics

  • Divine Comedy
  • Dante
  • Literature
  • BBC News World

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