Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Literary Names: The Divine Comedy

O human race, born to fly upward, wherefore at a little wind dost thou so fall?
Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio, Canto XII, line 95

Today's Literary Names will continue the classical theme - see the Iliad and Odyssey posts - with a look at Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. Set in three parts, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, the epic poem is a story of one man's journey through the afterlife.


Born Durante degli Alighieri in 1265, Dante is now considered one of the fathers of the Italian language, and is counted among their greatest poets. In the Divine Comedy, he styles himself as a pilgrim touring through Hell, Purgatory, Heaven, taking lessons from their inhabitants. The name Dante means "enduring", and was originally a diminutive of Durant or Durante. It's now at #314, well in use in the US. With the current Italian trends, I'm guessing the name with continue to rise!

Dante's guide through the afterlife, Virgil was actually an ancient Roman poet who inspired the author. His character in the poem is that of a teacher and mentor. The name Virgil was incredibly popular in the US until a slow decline began in the 1930's. Despite the name's true meaning - "staff bearer" - it does sound like "virgin", which could make teasing easier. However, there are many namesake Virgil's throughout history, and this name would be a unique honorific.

The love of both fictional and real Dante's life, Beatrice represents the divine love to which he aspires. She acts as his guide through heaven, when the pagan Virgil must leave. The name Beatrice means "she who brings happiness", and has recently been on the rise with other vintage names. Her character in the Divine Comedy is certainly saintly, but there are many other great (and real) Beatrice's out there. On a personal note, Beatrice is the name of the bird-slash-guide in my favorite animated miniseries Over the Garden Wall, a reference to Dante's work.

One half of the tragic adulterous duo in Hell, Paolo Malatesta is based on a historical figure who had an affair with his brother's wife. Though their story is meant to be a cautionary tale, it has been romanticized over the years, like Romeo and Juliet, and Tristan and Isolde. The name Paolo is beautiful and friendly - a much more unique alternative to the English Paul. The name means "small", yet the effect will be anything but!

The other half of the adulterous duo, Francesca da Rimini was the doomed lover of Paolo trapped in a loveless marriage. Their story has also been immortalized in Auguste Rodin's sculpture, The Kiss. Unlike Paolo, the name Francesca has been embraced wholeheartedly by American audiences - it's currently at #426 on the US top 1000. It means "from France, or free [wo]man", but the sound is undoubtedly Italian. Frances and Frankie are two other cute options.

Dante's last guide through paradise, St. Bernard helps Dante in his quest to meet God. In life, St. Bernard was an abbot and doctor of the church - and no, he's not the same St. Bernard after whom the breed of dog was named. The name Bernard has been declining in recent years, so it's definitely an individual choice. Bernard means "strong as a bear", and has the adorable (and politically relevant) nickname Bernie!

One of the two pagans who wait in Purgatory for Judgment Day, Cato the Younger was really a statesmen in the Roman Empire. He's remembered for his moral integrity, which inspired Dante to write his character positively in Purgatorio. The name Cato has recently received attention for its prominence in The Hunger Games, though the character in the book is an antagonist. The name means "all-knowing", and it should definitely be on popularity watchlists!

Which names are your favorites? Tell me in the comments!

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