And that is not only because, in the view of those who can read them all, he is, purely as a writer, the greatest of them all. It is that he made the Italian language. There was no Italian vernacular before him - no language capable of coping with the heights of intellectual life and the complexities of an advanced society; the official documents of Italian states and the philosophical tracts of giants such as Anselm and Thomas Aquinas were written in Latin. There was a groping towards such a language, inspired by contemporary French and Occitan models; but nobody had really gone beyond a simple, warm-hearted daily speech, capable of love and hate poems and of the devotion of St.Francis, but not of the high intellect of Thomas or of the complexities of the lawyers. For those you needed Latin.
Dante came, seized the language of the Florentine streets, and made out of it a medium worthy of philosophy, of high artistry, of legal and scientific communication. He foreshortened in his own volumes the work of generations of writers. And he did that while never for a moment losing the peculiar quality of daily language - the main reason, I think, why he called his work a "comedy". Would any other devotional writer be capable of the salty and astringent plebeian force of: "Christ never said to His disciples gathered/ 'Go forth and preach the world any old rubbish'"? (It is even better in the original: Non disse Cristo a Suo primo convento/ "Andate e predicate al mondo ciance".) Not even GK Chesterton and CS Lewis, and not in a million years any other modern Christian writer, however good; it is more like the style of a modern American thriller.
For this reason it is good news, I would say quite extraordinarily good news, that Dante continues to be a national and even a popular concern. A recent TV reading of the hundred "songs" of the Comedy, by Academy Award winner Roberto Benigni, has drawn up to twelve million spectators per episode. (A reading, mind you; a man - even a man like Benigni, born to clown - standing in front of the camera and reading out loud. What most TV executives would regard as the epitome of bad TV.) And it may even be seen as good news that two learned bodies are at daggers drawn over the man whom Puccini called "our Great Father Dante". The ancient and prestigious Societa' Dantesca of Florence, in charge of the definitive edition of the Comedy, is in a permanent rage at the upstart Centro Pio Rajna, which is taking charge of the commented edition after publishing an epoch-making edition of the earliest commentaries. There have been injunctions and an academic meeting broken up by police. But even that may be a sign of health, because it shows life and passion in the study of a poet seven hundred years old, and yet more alive than most of us.