There’s a new museum in Florence dedicated to Italy’s great poet, Dante Alighieri, and Italy’s favorite puppet, Pinocchio. At first glance, the two seem an unlikely pair. But if we take a closer look, we find that there is, in fact, a link between them.
Sons of Florence
The first and most obvious connection is that Dante and Pinocchio were both Florentine. Dante was born in Florence and lived there until his exile in 1301. The city remained in his heart and featured in his greatest work, The Divine Comedy.
Pinocchio was also born in Florence, under the pen of Carlo Lorenzini, who wrote as Carlo Collodi. Collodi was born in Florence, but took his pen name from the Tuscan village that was his mother’s hometown.
Dante’s Divine Comedy and Collodi’s Adventures of Pinocchio were both literary masterpieces that spread from Florence to find fame throughout the world. However, in addition to being important works of literature, both also had a big influence on the Italian language and the unification of Italy.
Dante Creates Italian
In the 14th century, Italy was divided into independent city states which each had their own local dialect. All literature was written in Latin, because the local languages weren’t considered sophisticated enough to express beautiful or intricate ideas. But Dante wanted to write poetry that could be understood by everyone. So he set about creating a language that he could use to do that. He started with Florentine – his local vernacular – then he added words from different dialects that were similar to it.
What he ended up with became a new literary Tuscan language called Italian. Petrarch and Boccaccio, two important Renaissance poets, followed in Dante’s footsteps and wrote in the new Italian language too. It spread through the other regions of Italy as a literary language read by the educated throughout the Italian peninsula.
Now let’s jump ahead about 500 hundred years. In the mid 1800s the Italian peninsula was still divided. Each region had its own ruler, and its own language. But change was coming and in 1861 the unified Kingdom of Italy was formed.
Once most of the geography was unified, the new government turned its attention to uniting the people. And a big part of that was getting them to all speak the same language – but which one? The most obvious choice for that one language was the one Dante had perfected in Florence all those years ago: It was already standardized, and educated people from most of Italy could already understand it.
Start With the Children
To teach everyone the Italian language, it made sense to start with schools and children. But there was little to no children’s literature written in Italian. Enter Carlo Lorenzini, a soldier who fought for Italian independence, and was also a writer under the name Carlo Collodi. Collodi took on the task of translating French fairy tales into Italian to help the children learn their new language.
The Story of a Puppet
After the fairy tales, Collodi decided to write a story of his own that would reinforce his idea of what all good little Italian children should be: studious, hardworking, and obedient. He began writing The Story of a Puppet which was published in installments in a weekly magazine for children. Through this story Collodi stressed the consequences of bad behavior.
The story was about a puppet called Pinocchio who was constantly getting into trouble. All his problems were caused because he wouldn’t go to school or study, and he didn’t obey his father. In the original tale, the consequences of Pinocchio’s actions are much more serious than in the Disney version: He is kidnapped, whipped, starved, stabbed, and has his feet burned off, all in the name of teaching children to become good Italian citizens.
Becoming a Real Boy
Poor little Pinocchio endured these weekly troubles for the four months that the story ran in the magazine. Then Collodi ended his tale with the disobedient Pinocchio being hung for his evil ways. (Note that Collodi didn’t have any children of his own, so we can all be thankful for that.)
However, the unhappy ending and Pinocchio’s death just weren’t acceptable to the magazine’s readers. The children wanted more, and Collodi’s publisher did too. So Collodi took his pen back in hand and the blue fairy revived Pinocchio. He went on to have many more adventures, and eventually the hapless puppet learned the lessons that Collodi had prescribed. When Pinocchio finally accepted the value of hard word, study, and obedience, he earned the right to become a real boy.
A Puppet Unites a Country
These moral lessons were passed on to all the children of the new Italy by way of Pinocchio’s story. It was the first time all Italian children were learning to read and write the same language, and The Story of a Puppet united them. But this was only possible because of the Italian language which Dante had created about 500 years earlier.
So maybe the poet and the puppet don’t make such an odd couple after all: they were both instrumental in uniting the people of Italy with one language.
The museum is an impressive multimedia experience with one side dedicated to the poet and the other to the puppet. All the audio is in Italian, but English subtitles are projected onto the walls.
The Dante exhibition deals with the Divine Comedy with rooms representing the inferno, purgatory, and paradise. The flames of the inferno rise up and through the smoke Dante appears and begins telling you his story. As he talks, off to the side you can see some of those suffering the torments of which he speaks.
In another room we meet Virgil, the ancient Roman poet, who guided Dante through the inferno and purgatory. Now he’s here to do the same for us. Later we meet Beatrice who shows up to help guide us to paradise. It’s an interesting, interactive way to learn more about Dante’s epic poem.
In the Pinocchio section, the story of the mischievous little puppet is projected onto all four walls of each of the three rooms. You will turn around and laugh as the characters run and jump from one wall to another, getting into and out of trouble.
The museum also has a gift shop with lots of book, toys and games for children of all ages.
See the museum’s website for more information
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Fantastic!! Now I must do a daytrip into Florence to see this museum. Thanx for such a great story about the poet and puppet.
I really enjoyed it – especially the Dante section. It’s a good way to get an overview of the Divine Comedy. And I’m sure Dante was looking at me because when I would move to the other end of the room, he would turn toward me. ;-0
Wonderful, Margo. It sounds like a fantastic Museum experience. Having very little knowledge of Italian history, I had not realised there was no single Italian language (other than Latin) until unification. Fabulous to have this Museum to show this in an entertaining manner (and also to tell the story of the Divine Comedy). I have to plan Florence into my next European trip; with the help of all your pieces.
Best wishes, Paula
Hi Paula. I enjoyed this museum. I took an interest in Dante several years ago when I spent a few months living in the area where he had lived. Of course, he had been gone for about 700 years before I arrived. 😊