Monday, November 21, 2011

Dante's Offspring, or, The Internet Has Its Limitations

I enjoyed reading in Gillian Bagwell's guest post about how she used the internet to recreate a journey as part of her research for The September Queen. The internet is indeed a tremendous resource, but I find it has its risks and problems, too.

Often when I'm reading about a period I have not studied in depth, I'll do a quick Google search, or I'll glance at Wikipedia, and then I consider myself better informed than I was mere moments before. But once in a while, I test out the process by asking a question I know the answer to (or am pretty sure no one knows the answer to), and the results can be sobering.

Recently I decided to check with the all-wise aggregate intelligence and see if it could tell me how many children Dante had. Simple, right? How hard could it be? Well, harder than you might think, actually, for various reasons. But here's what my search turned up (first page of search results only):

1. Dante had four children: Iacopo, Pietro, Giovanni, and Antonia.

2. Dante had five children, names and sexes not specified.

3. Dante had six children: Iacopo, Pietro, Giovanni, Gabrielle, Alighieri, and Antonia.

4. Dante had three children: Iacopo, Pietro, and Antonia.

5. Dante had "several" children, including Iacopo, Pietro, Giovanni, and Antonia.

6. Dante had four children: Pietro and Iacopo and two daughters, one of them named Beatrice.

7. Dante had three or four sons and a daughter (Iacopo, Pietro, Giovanni, Gabrielle [maybe], and whoever the daughter was).

8. Dante had five children: Iacopo, Pietro, Giovanni, Antonia, Gabrielle.

What struck me most forcefully about this search was that in each case, the answer given was presented as absolute truth. With the exception of the "three or four sons", not one indicated even the slightest uncertainty. (Although I suppose "several" does leave some wiggle room.)

Then I checked the Dante-related books on my shelves (and lo, they are many...). Still no definite agreement, but here, at least, people admit to doubt, lack of proof, or the existence of other possibilities. We have very little information about Giovanni; some speculate that he could have been an illegitimate son, possibly born prior to Dante's marriage. Or was he the son of a different Dante Alighieri, perhaps a cousin? And what about Gabrielle? Another cousin, or possibly a child of Dante's who died young? At least one writer seems to believe that Gabrielle (sometimes Gabriello) was female.

We do know that Iacopo, Pietro, and a daughter reached adulthood, and we have some information about their lives. We do not know birth years, birth order, whether other children were born and died early (which is statistically likely), whether other children lived to adulthood and left no historical record, or why exactly this fellow named Giovanni signed a legal document in Lucca in October of 1308, calling himself the son of Dante Alighieri, and was then never heard from again.

As for Dante's daughter, it's now widely believed that Antonia took the name Sister Beatrice when she entered a convent, which would account for some of the confusion over the number of daughters and their name(s).

Does the order in which names were listed suggest birth order, at least of Dante's sons? If so, who came first, Iacopo or Pietro? And where does Giovanni fit in?

Will we ever know for sure? Probably not, but you'd never know it from the internet.

(My thanks to Tim, my husband, for the slightly irreverent illustrations.)

1 comment:

Rhonwen y Llysieuyddes said...

I like this discussion of how the internet can be a good place to start, but is not always the best place to do research. I wish more people would remember that when they do a quick Wikipedia check and think they're an expert!

I also liked Tim's irreverent illustrations. Very clever.