Dante Alighieri, the doyen of Italian writers, was born somewhere in Florence, sometime between May and June, 750 years ago. To celebrate this anniversary as a long-standing fan of his work, I will illustrate some aspects of his writing that make his work so timeless and fascinating. I will cast them as “writing tips”, since you can hardly find a more convincing writer than Dante. Sure, he was more artistic than technical writer, but the basic principles of good writing are largely the same in either domain.

All of the references are from the Divine Comedy, where I cite Longfellow’s English translation next to the original Italian text (Petrocchi’s standard version). Both full texts are available with commentary here.

Start with content

Good writing starts with good content, and great writing starts with great content. High-quality content is characterized by originality, variety, and clear connections with existing knowledge.

Dante is thoroughly familiar with the major cultural figures of the past, as well as with his illustrious contemporaries. The overarching plot of the Commedia is built on a comprehensive vision of the universe and unrolls a smorgasbord of styles, moods, topics, and characters neatly organized in a tripartite structure (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso), opening with an introductory canto followed by 33 cantos per part. As if he were writing a detailed Related work section, he pays homage to many a great people of the past in the Inferno’s Canto IV, including poets (Homer, Ovid, Virgil) and their characters (Hector, Aeneas), philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, Democritus), and scientists of their time (Ptolemy, Avicenna). Dante’s Related work dutifully compares against related approaches and gives credit. He gratefully acknowledges Virgil for his writing style:

   

and considers his own writing work sixth in “impact”, following Homer, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, Virgil:

   

Abstract to generalize

When the subject matter allows so, good writing includes abstract parts that generalize its subjects. Abstraction is the key to producing content that is of general interest and whose message goes beyond the specific, contingent context in which it was originally produced.

Dante’s idea of the cosmos is irremediably outdated — not to mention flat-out wrong — based as it is on Ptolemy’s astronomical models, Aristotle’s view of the physical world, and a variety of arcane inconsistent theological arguments. Nonetheless, his writings are everlasting because his characters and images are underlain by general concepts that represent timeless mental categories. Showing a knowledge of geometry which is unusual for a poet, he describes the heavens as a series of concentric spheres of decreasing radius. The smallest sphere — symbolizing God — reduces to a point, which however is said to encompass all the larger spheres as well as the Earth. We can explain the paradox by considering the concentric spheres three-dimensional projections of four-dimensional objects of increasing radius, whose projections appear as spheres of decreasing size. The complex, abstract image makes it suggestive even if unrealistic, and is an unintended forerunner of speculative ideas in modern physics about higher-dimensional universes (whose poetic descriptions can draw inspiration from Dante!).

(For technical details, see Odifreddi‘s explanation in Italian. If you cannot read Italian, Unix to the rescue: download the Python library goslate.py and run

to get an English translation on the fly.)

Make realistic — not necessarily real — examples

Abstraction is balanced by using realistic images as examples. Realistic means based on tangible, generally understandable situations, but not necessarily faithful reflection of the actual reality. Just like abstraction, exemplification is a means of expression rather than an end in itself.

Dante’s main subject matter is drastically removed from everyday experience, being concerned with a hypothetical afterworld populated by ghosts of long departed figures. To give such an abstract context a tangible flavor, he deploys a motley variety of metaphors and similes based on concrete physical images that everybody has experienced. Describing his leaving the “selva oscura” (itself a metaphor for moral perdition), Dante compares himself and his feelings to those of a shipwreck survivor who has just escaped with great difficulty from the treacherous waters onto the shore:

   

Adapt style to content

Every writer has their style, but the best writers are fluent in many different styles, which they will select according to what is most effective to convey the content at hand and to fit the context.

Dante called his masterpiece Commedia also to indicate its sweeping variety of styles and forms. Styles go from the gentle “dolce stilnovo” suitable to talk about love:

   

to the severe chastising of Italian political practices:

   

to the desperate grieving tone of human tragedy:

   

Write memorable words

Good writing is unforgettable for its eloquence. It always picks the mots justes. It is penetrating, often strong; it does not hedge.

Dante peppered his work with indelible passages, which make for great quotations thanks to their succinctness and persuasive eloquence. Nine lines are all it takes his Ulysses to sweep up his crew and persuade them to embark in the ultimate ill-fated exploration expedition:

   

There are countless other aspects that make Dante’s work still so fascinating after over seven centuries. While some of them may appeal only to certain readers, or may reflect outdated cultural views, his style still goes a long way in terms of influence, interest, and inspiration.