This is the first of a several-part series of new translations of Italian poems introduced by Mendes Biondo of the Ramingo Blog, translated by Kate Kenyon.
It’s not easy to talk about a poet like Dante, because of his global renown. In Italy, he is known as The Bard and considered the main developer (along with the poets of the Dolce Stil Novo) of the Italian language.
He was born 750 years ago in Florence under the name of Durante di Alighiero degli Alighieri and he worked in a cultural scene beset by revolution.
The figure of the woman, Beatrice Portinari, depicted as an angel, the displacement of the artists in the noble courts, and the philosophy of Aquinas, Plato and Aristotle promoted in the first universities all engendered a true cultural renaissance directed by the Tuscan family known as the Medici.
A lot of us know Dante as the Somma Poeta, (“the Supreme Poet”) — author of the Divina Commedia. (The adjective Divina was later attributed to the Commedia in a literary work of Giovanni Boccaccio entitled Trattatello in Laude di Dante.) But there is also an alternative Dante, a more human and playful Dante, and this doppelganger, as it were, is a composer of comic poems.
In fact these comic works, known as tenzoni, were immensely famous in medieval Tuscany, and were characterized by a sort of poetical dialogue between friends who are disposed to joke at each other’s expense. As far as I know, these poems were recited in Tuscany until the late twentieth century.
I’ve selected three tenzoni dedicated to Dante's friend Forese Donati. The first poem talks about Donati's wife: her sickliness and the incapability of Forese to satisfy her sexually. The second poem describes the behaviour of the man as a great glutton. (We find him in Purgatory suffering for his gluttony!) And the third poem depicts Donati as the son of an unknown man, with a suggestion that his mother tends to sleep around.
The Italian language used is the one spoken by the common people, the same as The Divine Comedy. Here is the Other Dante.
Dante a Forese Donati
Chi udisse tossir la mal fatata
moglie di Bicci vocato Forese,
potrebbe dir ch'ell'ha forse vernata
ove si fa 'l cristallo 'n quel paese.
Di mezzo agosto la truovi infreddata;
or sappi che de' far d'ogni altro mese!
E no·lle val che perché dorma calzata,
merzé del copertoio c'ha cotronese.
La tosse, 'l freddo e l'altra mala voglia
no·ll'adovien per omor' ch'abbia vecchi,
ma per difetto ch'ella sente al nido.
Piange la madre, c'ha più d'una doglia,
dicendo: «Lassa, che per fichi secchi
messa l'avre' in casa il conte Guido!».
Dante a Forese Donati
Ben ti faranno il nodo Salamone,
Bicci novello, e petti delle starne,
ma peggio fia la lonza del castrone,
ché 'l cuoio farà vendetta della carne;
tal che starai più presso a San Simone,
se·ttu non ti procacci de l'andarne:
e 'ntendi che 'l fuggire el mal boccone
sarebbe oramai tardi a ricomprarne.
Ma ben m'è detto che tu sai un'arte,
che, s'egli è vero, tu ti puoi rifare,
però ch'ell'è di molto gran guadagno;
e fa·ssì, a tempo, che tema di carte
non hai, che·tti bisogni scioperare;
ma ben ne colse male a' fi' di Stagno.
Dante a Forese Donati
Bicci novel, figliuol di non so cui
(s'i' non ne domandassi monna Tessa)
giù per la gola tanta rob'hai messa,
ch'a forza ti convien tŏrre l'altrui.
E già la gente si guarda da·llui,
chi ha borsa a·llato, là dov' e' s'appressa,
dicendo:«Questi c'ha la faccia fessa
è piuvico ladron negli atti sui».
E tal giace per lui - nel letto tristo,
per tema non sia preso a lo 'mbolare,
che gli apartien quanto Giosep a Cristo.
Di Bicci e de' fratei posso contare
che, per lo sangue lor, del mal acquisto
sann' a lor donne buon' cognati stare.
Dante to Forese Donati
Anyone listening to Bicci, aka Forese’s
Wretched wife coughing
Could be forgiven for thinking she’d spent the winter
In the North Pole.
In the middle of August she’ll have a cold;
Imagine what she’s like the rest of the year!
And sleeping in stockings doesn’t do her much good,
What with that short blanket of hers.
Her cough, her cold and all her other misfortunes
Aren’t just the complaints of old age,
But are due to the deficiencies she suffers in bed.
Her mother wails on (and with good reason),
Saying ‘Alas! If she’d only had just a modest dowry,
I could’ve married her off to Count Guido!’
You’ll go and make yourself choke
Young Bicci, gorging yourself on all that game,
But your penchant for loin steak is riskier still,
Since the creature’s skin will return to avenge its flesh;
So you’ll end up a jailbird at San Simone
If you don’t skip town:
But if you do refuse that tough morsel,
Then you won’t be able to afford even that.
Yet I hear tell that you have a certain quickness of hand,
Which, if true, you can use to gain back your losses
When an opportune moment arises;
So for now, don’t concern yourself with
Your debts; it’ll only get in the way of your laziness;
Yet remember: the Stagno boys did meet a sticky end…
Young Bicci, son of God knows who
(I’d have to ask your mother)
You’ve stuffed so much down your throat
That now you grab from others, too.
Anyone with a wallet is wary of you,
Clutching it close when they see you approach,
Saying ‘This guy with the pockmarked face,
He’s a notorious thief, everyone knows.’
And somewhere, your father lies in his sorry bed,
Worrying that you might get caught,
Though you are to him as Christ was to Joseph.
Of Bicci and his brothers, I can attest
That in their blood bond of delinquency,
They are apt husbands to their wives.
Mendes Biondo has a background in Classical Studies and Philosophy. He has published two books: a short novel Trappola di cotone (Nomadepsichico, 2008) and a collection of short stories and poems Amanti bendati (ExCogita, 2010). He started working with his local newspaper La Voce di Mantova - Il Gazzettino Nuovo in 2011. He collaborated with Radio Fly Web conducting a literary radio program called "Vecchi o nuovi purché libri" in which he interviewed authors and poets. In 2015 he earned a degree in Aesthetic Philosophy at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore of Milan. He runs Romingo Blog, an online arts magazine.
Kate Kenyon is an Italian Language enthusiast who graduated in Modern Languages from University College London, where she studied Italian and French. She also lived in Florence, where she studied at l'Università degli Studi di Firenze.