Mosaico di Vita | Consorzio Vini di Romagna
August 2021 | Territory

A glimpse of wine in Dante

“Buon vin fa gruma e tristo vin fa muffa” (Lit. “Good wine makes crust, bad wine makes mold”) is an old saying that even Dante was familiar with. But how deep is the Sommo’s wine knowledge?

We cannot certainly say that Dante consumed wine, but we know that during the Middle Ages wine was often present on the table. After all, water used to be a dangerous drink, so people used to consume it less. If we exclude the possibility that he wasn’t a drinker, we could therefore assume that Dante drank wine.

Another thing that we can only assume is how knowledgeable he was about wine: we can take a look at his texts and try to find some information.

Before beginning with our textual analysis, we can find some clues on the subject from archive documents on the assets that were confiscated from him following his conviction. We discover that Dante owned two land properties that included some vineyards, one in Radole in the municipality of Pontassieve and the other along the road that, from Florence, leads to Fiesole. We can therefore assume that he knew something about vine growth processes, which meant that he could have partially participated in the management of his estates.

Looking for “clues” in the Divine Comedy

The best way to discover if Dante had something to do with wine and viticulture is to carefully examine his most famous work: the Divine Comedy

There are certainly some references to wine in each of the three books that make up this trilogy and here are the most relevant ones!

Inferno

In the Malebolge, the place of “pimps and deceivers and fawners”, we read in verses 22-24 of Canto XXVIII: “Già veggia, per mezzul perdere o lulla, com’io vidi un, così non si pertugia, rotto dal mento infin dove si trulla”, which means: no barrel (veggia), even though it has lost a hoop or endpiece (mezzule and lulle were respectively the central stave and the two crescent-shaped side staves that formed the bottom of the barrel), has ever gaped like the man whom Dante saw, ripped from his chin to his anus.

Purgatorio

In the second book of the Comedy, the word wine appears three times:

  1. in the canto of the envious (XIII) which narrates the miracle of water turning into wine at the wedding feast at Cana;
  2. in canto XV, the effects of wine are described in verses 122 and 123 (“with clouded eyes and lurching legs, as if you were a man whom wine or sleep has gripped”);
  3. in verses 76-78 of canto XXV, Statius describes the phenomenon called “pianto della vite: “That what I say may leave you less perplexed, consider the sun’s heat that, when combined with sap that flows from vines, is then made wine”. This is a poetic description of the “pianto della vite” (Lit. “The weeping of the vine”): sap leaks from the pruning cuts, marking the beginning of the plant's vegetative activity after resting in winter.

Another interesting reference can be seen in canto XXIV (23-24), mentioning a specific wine:

«he was from Tours; his fast purges

Bolsena’s eels, Vernaccia’s wine».

Paradiso

Of the few references to the vigna (vineyard) present in the trilogy, two can be found in the book of Paradiso.

In both cases, the term is used to refer to “God’s vineyard”, that is, the Church.

In verses 85-87 of canto XII, we read:

«in picciol tempo gran dottor si feo;

tal che si mise a circüir la vigna

che tosto imbianca, se 'l vignaio è reo».

While criticizing the clerics who scramble to preach, not so much to defend the faith, but to become successful, Dante uses the metaphor of a vineyard that withers (imbianca) if its keeper (the Pope), is neglectful (reo), not caring for it as much as needed.

We find the second reference in canto XVIII, verse 132, when the author solemnly commemorates the two prophets who, as martyrs, gave their lives for the Church, which, on the contrary, Pope John XXII is accused of destroying.

«But you who only write to then erase,

remember this: Peter and Paul, who died

to save the vineyard you spoil, are still alive».

A last reference to Dante’s presumed enological knowledge is in verse 114 of canto XII in Paradiso: “sì ch’è la muffa dov’era la gromma” (metaphor aside, it means: now there is Evil where there was Good). Gromma is the crust that is formed by the sediments of good wine, and, at the time, it was believed to infuse aromas and flavors. Today, thanks to more modern knowledge, we know the importance of keeping barrels clean.

Going back to the verse, the poet relates the gromma to the muffa (mold), which forms when wine has poor quality. The author uses popular (at least in Tuscany) imagery, referring to the ancient proverb that said, “Good wine makes crust, bad wine makes mold”.

Although Dante had some knowledge regarding vine development and vinification, in the end, we cannot confirm that he was a true connoisseur. At least this is what transpired from his most famous work: who knows, perhaps, in front of a nice glass of Trebbiano, the Sommo would have delighted us with interesting trivia.