Giovanni Boccaccio did not know Dante Alighieri personally. But their lifetimes overlapped; Boccaccio was eight when Dante died. Which makes the brief biography—the first of countless Dante biographies—by the author of the Decameron of great value. He was able to speak to people who actually knew Dante, and could discuss, at least generally, such otherwise lost personal details such as how Dante dressed ("in good clothes, of a fashion appropriate to his years") or how he walked ("his gait was grave and gentle").
Boccaccio mentions Dante's dark complexion and, as if to back the claim up with documentary proof, unspools this anecdote which, since it neither praises Dante nor makes any grand philosophical point, has a whiff of truth to it:
It happened one day at Verona—when the fame of his works was already widely spread, and especially of that part of his Commedia which he calls the Inferno, and when he was known by many, both men and women—that, passing before a door where many women were sitting, one of them said softly to the others (but not so softly that she was not clearly heard by him and his companion), "Do you see the man who goes to hell, and returns when he pleases, and brings back news of those who are below?" To this one of the others responded naively, "Indeed, you must be speaking the truth. Don't you see how his beard is crisped and his complexion browned by the heat and smoke that is below?" Hearing these words said behind him, and knowing that they came from the women's simple belief, he was pleased, and passed on, smiling a little.I like that story because you would think that, being Dante Alighieri would be enough. That having written the greatest work of literature in the Western canon, one that would be continually read, republished, praised and argued over for the next 700 years would instill unshakable self-confidence in a man. That he would not also need to find satisfaction from the attention of random townsfolk encountered in the street.
But obviously he did. That smile was of pleasure and, no doubt, relief. Dante was still human. As are we all.
Which softens, a little, the shame of being burdened with a vanity that follows me around, quacking like a pull-toy duck. If you're going to have an objectionable quality, it helps if it's a common one. Everybody wants to be noticed and appreciated; me, a little more than most.
When I last appeared on the ABC 7 morning program, "Windy City Live," I was amazed—and gratified—at just how many Chicagoans saw the thing. I got more comments from friends, readers and strangers out-of-the-blue mentioning having seen me on the program than I get from a month's worth of columns. Everyone must watch it.
Which also explains why I leaped to agree when asked to appear on the show again—Monday morning, July 15, about 9 a.m. It's worth my catching a train an hour earlier than usual, hotfooting over to State Street, allowing make-up to be smeared all over my face, for the narcotic boost that being on TV—and being recognized as having been on TV—brings. It helps that the host, Ryan Chiaverini, does his homework, and asks interesting questions (co-host Val Warner was on vacation when I first went, but I assume I'll meet her Monday).
It's nice to go out into the world and encounter readers, in person and electronically, and I've created a new page, at the right side of my blog—"Upcoming events"—so people can learn of pending TV and radio gigs, signings, speeches and the like. Unseemly vanity? Hell yes. But if Dante could succumb to that failing, then so can I. Now as to whether I will begin cunningly crafting vicious slurs that will stick to my friends long after all other facts about them are lost to history—another habit of Dante's—well, let's just say, time will tell.