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Dante’s own youthful career as a Tuscan dialect poet — roughly, from the early 1280s to the mid-1290s — was inseparable from the Saracen-influenced verse that flourished in Sicily during Frederick II’s fostering of Arabic literature. From around 1233, Sicilian poets at the Frederician court had begun to write a troubadour love poetry inspired by the lyric versifiers of southeastern France. In Provençe, troubadour poetry became popular after knights went off on the Crusade and left behind (and pined grievously for) their women. The Sicilian poets under Frederick II wrote in a new literary language: the Sicilian vernacular. All Italian poetry in Dante’s youth was referred to as “Sicilian” — it was Sicilian, or at least southern Italian in origin, character and expression. To the pride of many Sicilians today, Italian thus first flourished as a literary language in post-Islamic Sicily. The language of the Sicilian poets — a Sicilian version of Provençal-Romance vernacular — became a point of reference for Dante as he developed the Tuscan vernacular for The Divine Comedy.

Scholars have long debated how much of Arabic culture Dante absorbed, unknowingly or not, through the Sicilian verse which as a young man he read and admired. Palermo was far removed from the gracious suavities of the poet’s pre-Renaissance Florence. Jasmine-flavoured ice and sherbet were served as refreshment at the Palermitan court after the sirocco had blown in hot from Tunisia nearby. (It was the Arabs who brought sherbet to this part of the Mediterranean — and jasmine is surely a Saracen touch.) Sicilian vernacular poets such as Ciullo d’Alcamo and Rinaldo d’Aquino — both of them mentioned in The Divine Comedy — wrote for an exclusive audience at Frederick’s palace, where an Arabic-Saracen douceur had lingered since the days of the Muslim conquest in the 9th century; only Sicilians of refinement (and, naturally, leisure) could enjoy the poetry’s idealised gallantry towards women and other Arabo-Sicilian delights. Yet Dante conceded the poetry’s influence on him. “All the poems of our predecessors in the vulgar tongue were called Sicilian,” he observed in his unfinished treatise, De vulgari eloquentia (On Eloquence in the Vernacular), written sometime between 1302 and 1305.

Giacomo da Lentini, another important Sicilian poet, appears in “Purgatory” as the “Notaro” or Notary: he was a lawyer from the Sicilian city of Catania. Da Lentini’s poems (some 40 of which have survived) reveal a lively interest in Islamic culture if not Islamic religion. The Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti translated Da Lentini’s and other medieval Sicilian verse for his 1861 volume The Early Italian Poets from Ciullo d’Alcamo to Dante Alighieri. Inevitably the “Italian” verse was haunted by two and a half centuries of Arabic culture: when the Arabs invaded Sicily in 831 they introduced mosques, pink-domed cupolas, as well as a few thousand verses by Siculo-Arabic poets such as the great Ibn Hamdis, who fought against the Christian invader during the Norman Conquest, before fleeing to Seville. Sicilian vernacular authors such as d’Alcamo, who borrowed from Hamdis and other Mediterranean Arabic poets, wrote of date palms, turban-wearing pashas, perfumed roses, minarets and concubines; they loved backgammon and falconry, and they danced to zajal and muwashshah songs while music played on the Arabic lute and tambourine. D’Alcamo himself, as Rossetti points out, took his Muslim-sounding surname from Alcamo, a town not far from Palermo, whose name is said to derive from the Arab al-qama, “rich soil”.
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September 1st, 2018
1:09 PM
Perhaps we should be requesting Dante be read out on Roger McGough`s Poetry Please on Radio 4 ? This is a fascinating article. The cartoon balloon of Sadiq Khan is flying in London today. What circle of Hell is Theresa May in this week? Is Anne Marie Waters our `Dante` on the horrors?

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