by Taylor Trentadue
We first meet Forese Donati in Purgatory 23 on the Sixth Terrace among the gluttonous. Dante, Virgil, and Statius encounter those with sunken eyes and emaciated, atrophied bodies. In a scene reminiscent of that between Brunetto Latini and the pilgrim, Dante hears an exclamation of “What grace is granted me!” [Qual grazia m’è questa?] (Purg.23.42). Through vocal recognition, Dante discerns that the desiccated figure is Forese Donati, one of his dear friends and distant relatives through marriage. Forese Donati was likely born in Florence a number of years before Dante, though the exact date of his birth remains unknown . He passed away in 1296, ascending to the Sixth Terrace of Mount Purgatory in under five years [cinqu’anni non son vòlti infino a qui] (23.78). Forese explains that the gluttonous sing in lamentation while being tempted by inconsumable fruit and water that cannot be imbibed: “Who—if he knew not how—would have believed/that longing born from odor of a tree, /odor of water, could reduce souls so?” [Chi crederebbe che l’odor d’un pomo / sì governasse, generando brama, / e quel d’un’acqua, non sappiendo como?] (23.34-36).
As the skeletal figures in the miniature above attest, Dante gave particular attention to the human form and its shape in this canto. Most notably, Dante describes the defined osteological margins of the shades’ orbits, spelling OMO within their faces [chi nel viso de li uomini legge “omo” / ben avria quivi conosciuta l’emme] (23.32-33). The uncial “m” is formed by the zygomatic, frontal, and nasal bones on each side of the skull, which encircle the eyes and orbits. Despite being not men but souls, their faces prominently express their humanity.
This emphasis on the humanity of the gluttons recalls the historical relationship – and literary exchange – that Dante had with Forese Donati during his life. Seeing Forese, despite his distorted facial features, propagates a cascade of emotions in Dante that both reflect and refute some of the major components of their poetic exchange. The tenzone are a collection of six dialogued sonnets, three authored by each Dante and Forese Donati, in which the great and amateur poet, respectively, vigorously condemn one another.
The earliest copies of the tenzone date to the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century; for that reason, some controversy has existed concerning their authenticity. Yet scholars now believe that they were most likely authored by Donati and Dante.
Initially, the poems may have circulated individually or been shared among a small circle of friends. Later, however they were grouped together, revealing the dialogic nature of the exchange. In the fourteenth-century manuscript below, we can see four of the six poems which are explicitly attributed to Dante and Forese Donati in the red rubrics above each poem.
Below, an image of a 1757 edition of the tenzone places the sonnets in the now-accepted alternating sequence . Pictured are the fifth sonnet, by Dante, Bicci novel figiuol di non so cui, and the sixth, a response by Forese, Ben so che fosti figuol d’Alighieri.Given Dante’s placement of Forese in the circle of the gluttonous, the third poem of the tenzone is particularly illuminating. Dante explains that “loins of mutton” are Forese’s downfall, to the extent that it became “too late to redeem [his] debts by giving up guzzling” and that imprisonment may come from his gluttonous endeavors.
In Purgatory, Forese tells Dante that the devout reverence of his wife, Nella, has propagated his rapid ascent through Purgatory. This description of their rapport stands in stark contrast to that depicted in the tenzone. The first tenzone describes how Forese is incapable of warming Nella, and she remains frozen even in August. Her discomfort stems not from imbalanced humours, as Galen’s medical principles would dictate, but rather from the void nest. Hence, the first tenzone criticizes Forese for his inability to please his wife. In Purgatory, however, Dante transforms this portrayal.
The fourth sonnets focuses on Dante’s poverty, and Forese Donati tells Dante that he will ultimately live in a building sponsored by the Donati family. This sonnet is representative of the power of the Donati family: Corso Donati acted as the leader of the Florentine Black Guelph party. Offsetting the power of Forese, the fifth sonnet alludes to the idea that his friend is illegitimate and thence not a Donati. Dante further insults the Donati brothers as well as their wives. In the sixth sonnet, Forese Donati explains that Dante is certainly the son of Alighieri, but Dante’s shortcomings as a son have resulted in a suboptimal vendetta honoring his father (Noakes 404).
Regardless of how Dante received and read Donati’s sonnets, their complex relationships reappears in Dante’s depiction of their friendship in Purgatory. As seen across the tenzone and Purgatorio, Dante’s feelings for Forese Donati range from vulgarly critical to deeply sentimental. However, as Forese separates from Dante yet again, he departs valiantly as if an equestrian on a horse. As Forese moves boldly forward, Dante is cleansed from the weighty burden of insulting his great friend. While the tenzone insulted Nella and Forese Donati, Purgatory represents the characters in a novel, reverential manner.
For more on Dante and Forese, see Revisting Dante’s Youth: A Literary and Historical Biography, part of the Canto per Canto video series produced by NYU and the Dante Society America.
Alfie, Fabian. Dante’s Tenzone with Forese Donati: The Reprehension of Vice. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.
Boitani, Piero. Dante’s Poetry of the Donati. Leeds, UK: Maney Pub. for the Society for Italian Studies, 2007.
Cursietti, Mauro. La falsa tenzone di Dante con Forese Donati. Anzio: De Rubeis, 1995.
Heilbronn-Gaines, D. “Gluttony” and Noakes, S. “Forese Donati.” In The Dante Encyclopedia, edited by Richard Lansing. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 2000.
Jenni, Adolfo. “Donati, Forese.” In Enciclopedia Dantesca, 1970, available via Treccani: https://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/forese-donati_%28Enciclopedia-Dantesca%29/