Dante Alighieri Science Communicator

From Firenze University Press Journal: Substantia

Gian Italo Bischi, University of Urbino Carlo Bo, Italy

In Europe, during the 12th Century, there was a considerable spread of knowledge due to translations of texts from Greek and Arabic into Latin, especially in Toledo (south of Spain) and Palermo (at the court of Frederick II of Sicily), two cities where a mixture of Arabian, Greek and Latin cultures thrived side by side for many years, as well as in several other places. Authors whose works were translated into Latin included Aristotle, Ptolemy, Euclid, Archimedes, Alhazen, and Al-Khwarizmi, together with Chinese and Indiantexts imported in Europe through Arabic versions. Such an abundance of Latin texts triggered the creation of a network of universities that used Latin as a lingua franca and favored an intensive exchange of international scholars and texts. The universities of Oxford, Coimbra, Paris, Montpellier, Bologna, and Salerno were founded in the 12th century, and those of Cambridge, Salamanca, Toulouse, Orleans, Naples and Padua in the 13th century (see e.g. Greco, 2014). In these universities the arts of the Tr i v i u m(grammar, rhetoric, dialectic) and those of Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy) became common subjects for all students.

At the same time, most particularly in the 13th cen-t u r y, Abacus schools, used by the emerging classes of merchants, craftsmen, artists, bankers and their sons, were created in many Italian cities. In these schools, popular (vulgar) Italian language and writing, as well as basic mathematics, accounting, mechanics and other subjects, were taught mainly through examples for practical purposes. Dante probably attended this kind of school when he was a child, as he was the son of a mer-chant, and as an adult he probably attended some les-sons at universities as well, in Bologna and Padua, per-haps even in Paris. Therefore, he was probably familiar with both kinds of knowledge — the more theoretical kind taught in Latin at universities and the more practical one taught in the vulgar language at Abacus schools.Moreover, Dante became used to Italian vulgar poetry, which originated at the court of Frederick II in Sicily and was adopted by many poets and scholars who shared this passion with Dante.In the 13th century new knowledge and new texts (written in Latin) became more generally widespread in Europe, from the Liber Abaci by Leonardo Pisano (Fibonacci) to Optics and Mathematics by Robert Grosseteste, Treatise on Astronomy and Astrology by John Sacrobosco and Summulae Logicales by Pedro Hispano, just to quote a few. All these texts were addressed to an intellectual élite. Indeed, many scholars held an elitist idea of knowledge, especially regarding philosophy and science (often known as natural philosophy). This was, for example, the opinion of Islamic scholar Aver-roes (Cordova 1126 — Marrakech 1198), a famous philosopher, doctor, judge, and author of commentaries on Aristotle, who stated that teaching humble people was a wasted effort, and even dangerous because it could lead to misunderstandings, and could be a source of discouragement and humiliation for those who did not have the tools to understand.

By contrast, Dante Alighieri (Firenze 1265 — Ravenna 1321) held a very different opinion. He firmly expressed a democratic idea of knowledge which should be provided to everybody, although at different levels and through different tools. He discussed these ideas in two unfinished books: Convivio (w rit ten in the vernacular) and De Vulgari Eloquentia (in Latin). In these two treatises Dante outlined a detailed program for the dissemination of knowledge. Indeed, convivio means banquet, a table that offers the participants the difficult “food” of knowledge, accompanied by the bread that will facilitate its assimilation. In fact, this work is a kind of encyclopedia in which Dante explains the great philosophical themes of his time in a language which is comprehensible even to non-specialists, themes ranging from linguistics to science, cosmology and politics. In the preface Dante explains why a book like Convivio is needed and why it is written in the vernacular instead of Latin. Moreover, he clearly states that “all men naturally desire to know” and “science is the ultimate perfection of our soul”. In De Vulgari Eloquentia (On Vulgar Eloquence), written slightly earlier, Dante examines the problem of the most suitable language to spread knowledge in a universal, clear and effective way. After a compari-son between Latin and the vernacular, Dante considers the “excellent vernacular speech, common to all Italians, which can be learned without other rules by imitating the nurse”; in other words, the native language.

It was written in Latin as it was addressed primarily to the scholars of the time, in order to show them the beauty and usefulness of Italian popular language. Its objective was the search for a natural language that could be understood by all Italians, obtained through a comparative study of different regional dialects and of the way these evolved, in order to find the words and expressions that could be appreciated by people of any Italian region. Finally, in this book Dante analyzes the more suitable metric structures for the poetic form of canto (or song), which is a literary genre developed in the Sicilian School of poetry. This poetic form, thanks to its metre and use of rhyme, allowed Dante to produce a poem which was suitable for being read out loud and easily memorized so that it could be learned and repeated even by illiterate people.

That is exactly what Dante will do in the Commedia, called Divina by Giovanni Boccaccio.It is worth noting that Dante also identifies another difficulty that was emerging in the 13th century. This concerned the specialization of languages within the various professions — thus anticipating a problem that would become a major obstacle to the spread of knowledge today, as maintained by C.P. Snow in his famous essay “The Two Cultures” of 1959. In order to describe this problem, in De Vulgari Eloquentia Dante proposes his own personal reworking of the well-known biblical legend of the Tower of Babel, where the external influence of God who confuses languages, is replaced by an endogenous, or evolutionary, explanation of the differentiation of languages. After reporting the classical version:Almost the whole of the human race had collaborated in this work of evil. Some gave orders, some drew up designs; some built walls, some measured them with plumb-lines, some smeared mortar on them with trow-els; some were intent on breaking stones, some on carry-ing them by sea, some by land; and other groups still were engaged in other activities — until they were all struck by a great blow from heaven. Previously all of them had spoken one and the same language while carrying out their tasks; but now they were forced to leave off their labours, never to return to the same occupation, because they had been split up into groups speaking different languages.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.36253/Substantia-1329

Read Full Text: https://riviste.fupress.net/index.php/subs/article/view/1329



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The University of Florence is an important and influential centre for research and higher training in Italy