Dante, the giant of world literature who wrote the "Divine Comedy", was feted across Italy on Thursday with a "Dantedi" (Dante Day), setting off wider celebrations for the 700th anniversary of his death.
March 25 was picked last year to celebrate the man known to Italians as the "supreme poet" because most scholars believe his fictional journey through hell, purgatory and heaven -- as told in the "Divine Comedy" -- starts on this day.
According to Italian President Sergio Mattarella, Dante is still relevant in the modern world because of the "universality" of that masterpiece.
"The Comedy still attracts us, fascinates us, makes us wonder today because it talks about us, about the deepest essence of man, made up of weaknesses, failings, nobility and generosity," Mattarella said in an interview with Corriere della Sera.
Dante is credited with helping create the Italian language by using the Tuscan vernacular of his time -- rather than Latin -- to write his most famous poem, which he completed shortly before his death in 1321.
Pope Francis -- an Argentine with Italian origins -- also paid tribute to Dante in a special letter, saluting him as a "pensive pilgrim" whose life of exile is "a paradigm of the human condition."
- Eternal flame -
Despite restrictions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed at least 106,000 people in Italy, the country is planning hundreds of readings, exhibitions and other events to honour Dante over the course of 2021.
Oscar-winning actor and director Roberto Benigni, star of "Life is Beautiful", was due Thursday to read the 25th canto from Dante's paradise, in a live-streamed event from Mattarella's grand Quirinale palace in Rome.
In the northeastern city of Ravenna, there was a reading of Dante's works next to his tomb, where a flame burns all year round, fuelled by oil from the hills around the writer's native Florence.
Later this year in Florence, lawyer Alessandro Traversi is planning a summit of legal experts to symbolically rehabilitate the poet and conclusively prove that he was unfairly banished from his city.
Dante was exiled from Florence in January 1302, after finding himself on the losing side of a feud between the city's "White" and "Black" political factions, and sentenced to death if he tried to return.
As well as lawyers, judges and historians, Traversi has invited to his May 21 conference the descendants of the poet and of the judge who exiled him, Cante de' Gabrielli.
Unlike their medieval ancestors, the two descendants -- Count Sperello di Serego Alighieri, an astronomer, and Antoine de Gabrielli, a French business consultant -- are friends.