Looking to the stars to find Dante’s birthday.
The exact date of Dante Alighieri’s birth is, authorities say, unknown. For his sesquiquincentenary (that’s 750th) in 2015, the Vatican played it safe by starting its celebrations on May 4, with Pope Francis expressing his hope that Dante and his work will accompany us during this year on our dark way. That same day, Roberto Benigni read from The Divine Comedy on the floor of the Italian Senate, a reading broadcast to the nation. (His lovely, nonhammy recital of Canto I of Inferno is online, along with many other clips.) Well, let church and state proceed with caution. I say it’s today.
Dante’s journey to the underworld, and overworld, took place during Easter week of the year 1300, when he was “midway on his life’s journey”: halfway to the Biblical seventy, or thirty-five years old. So he was born in 1265, as Boccaccio, in the first biography of Dante, confirms.
And we know that Dante was a Gemini. When the character of Dante enters the heavenly sphere, in Paradiso, he arrives in that constellation, “pregnant with holy power which is the source / of all of whatever genius may be mine.” It was in the company of these stars that “I drew my first breath of Tuscan air” (Canto 22, lines 112–117, tr. Mark Musa). From there in the heavens, the poet looked down and saw the whole theater of our earthly existence, compared, in one of his perfect metaphors, to a place that beats the life out of us: “As I circled with the eternal Twins, I saw revealed, from hills to river mouths, the threshing-floor that makes us so ferocious” (22.151–154). It is from the perspective of a Gemini that Dante observes our world.
Bringing in astrology like this isn’t arbitrary, because astrology was the infrastructure for Dante’s poems. Rhyming macrocosm with microcosm, the positions of the stars with our personal fates, was central in both popular and intellectual culture, and of special importance to Dante, who created a whole universe corresponding to our fates. He cast actual horoscopes for May of 1265, or saw the horoscope his parents cast at his birth, as was common for prosperous families at the time, and he used the position of the planets to time-stamp both The Divine Comedy and important earlier poems. The first nine lines of the poem “I have come to the point on the wheel” date the action to precisely December 24, 1296, just after sunset:
I have come to the point on the wheel where the horizon gives birth at sunset to the twinned heaven, and the star of love is kept from us by the sun’s ray that straddles her so transversely that she is veiled; and that planet that strengthens the frost shows itself to us entirely, along the great arc where each of the seven casts little shadow … (tr. Robert Durling)
At that moment, the stars were extremely threatening for any 1265 Gemini, which is the whole point in a poem about the poet’s “war with the stars.”
Dante told a Ravenna friend that he was born in May*—so now we are down to sometime between May 14, when the sun entered Gemini in 1265, and May 31. Having entered Gemini in Canto 22 of Paradiso, Dante leaves it in Canto 27, with a second look back to Earth that matches the first—“More of this puny threshing-ground of ours / I would have seen, had not the sun moved on” (27.85-86). Since the numerology of the cantos is significant throughout the poem, this is taken to mean that Dante was born between the 22nd and 27th of May. His time in Gemini—that is, from late Canto 22 through mid-Canto 27—is also described in terms suggesting gestation: when he departs, he is “drawn forth from Leda’s lovely nest” (27.98)—which means Leda’s womb, the nest of her sons, the twins Castor and Pollux, who personify Gemini.
That’s the easy part.
No one in seven hundred years has found any firm evidence that gets more specific than those six days. But the story of Paradiso is a clear enough guide for me.
The core of the poet’s time in the sign of his birth comes after the 23rd, which opens with the image of a mother bird still in her nest, watching, waiting for the dawn, and before the 27th, which opens with a cry of glory, of something completed, before Dante moves on. Those three intervening days, I mean cantos, are when the poet is quizzed on Faith by the spirit of St. Peter (the 24th), on Hope by St. James (the 25th), and on Charity or Love by St. John (the 26th).
Love, as always in Dante, is the culmination, which points to the 26th. At the start of Canto 25, Dante hopes the poem he is writing will let him return someday to his birthplace, Florence—he is not there yet. At the precise midpoint of Canto 26, stanza 24 of 47, “as sleep is broken by a flash of light,” his eyes are opened. Then Adam appears, who reads Dante’s mind, or actually reads God’s mind for what is in Dante’s, and answers Dante’s questions. Man, the first man Adam, is born.
Mind-bogglingly intricate parallels between Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradiso undergird the whole poem, and these, too, suggest a birthday on the 26th. It is in Canto 26 of Purgatory that Dante meets Guido Guinizzelli, his great predecessor poet, “my father and the father of others my betters and whoever has come to use sweet graceful rhymes of love” (97–99, tr. W. S. Merwin), along with the Provençal poet Arnaut Daniel, inventor of the sestina, whom Guinizzelli calls the miglior fabbro or “better craftsman” (the line T. S. Eliot would quote in praise of Ezra Pound). From these two fathers—and after Canto 25, which describes human conception in full anatomical detail—the poetry of love that Dante would master is born.
Canto 26 of Inferno, for its part, is when Ulysses tells the story of his last sea voyage: a mad dash out the Straits of Gibraltar, south and west across the water, until he catches sight of the mountaintop of Purgatory—the only living mortal to do so until Dante himself. Inferno 26 foreshadows Purgatory; Purgatory 26 summons the love of Paradise; Paradiso 26 passes from blindness into the light. The 26th is a day of passage into new life.
To some, this may not quite add up to an ironclad proof. I concede that this mystery has not been finally laid to rest here on the Daily. Still, I say: Happy birthday, Dante Alighieri!
*According to Boccaccio, whose testimony “there is no real reason to doubt,” say Robert M. Durling and Ronald L. Martinez, Time and the Crystal: Studies in Dante’s “Rime Petrose,” from which many of these chronological and astrological details are taken.