When Dante Alighieri and Charles Martel of Anjou met in Florence and became friends, the year 1294 was unfolding.  Dante was 29 years old, while the young prince, son of the king of Naples, Charles II, and Maria Árpád of Hungary, was 23 years old and was at the time the king of Hungary, even if only in name and not in fact.

The circumstances leading up to the meeting of Charles Martel with Dante are a bit complicated and go back to ten years earlier when, in 1284, during the War of the Sicilian Vespers, his father, Charles II, was taken prisoner by the king of Aragon so that he was unable to take over the throne of Naples on the death of his predecessor, Charles I (1285).  Charles II remained a prisoner for five years, but even after his release he had to pass another five years in exile in Paris before the king of Aragon allowed him to return to Naples to take up the sceptre.  During Charles II’s absence the throne of Naples was entrusted to the regency of Count Roberto d’Artois.  But in 1289, having reached 18 years of age, Charles Martel had become the representative of the king, his father.

It was in this guise as the representative of the king of Naples that Charles Martel, in February 1294, went to Florence to meet his parents who were returning from France.  Now, on this occasion the Tuscan city sent a delegation, in which also Dante was a member, to welcome the prince with the honours due to the situation.  So it was that the poet and the prince had a chance to get to know each other personally and to appreciate each other in turn, because they also shared the same literary tastes.  However, they did not have the opportunity to spend much time with each other since Charles Martel died of plague little more than a year later, in August 1295.

As for the crown of Hungary, the king, Ladislaus IV, had died in 1290 leaving no direct heirs; he was Charles Martel’s uncle, being the brother of his mother, Maria Árpád, for which reason Charles II, from his Parisian exile, had claimed the right to this kingdom for his wife (and, hence, for his son, Charles Martel).  From 1292 onwards Charles Martel had formally acquired the title of king of Hungary, however this remained purely theoretical: occupying the Magyar throne, thanks also to  the support of some nobles, had in fact been Andrew III, a descendant of another branch of the Árpád dynasty of which he was the last sovereign.

Andrew III died in 1301 and, after a stormy interregnum, the title of king of Hungary, which had belonged only formally to Charles Martel, was able, in 1308, to be handed down to his son Carobert (Charles Robert of Anjou), the fruit of his marriage to Clemency, the daughter of Rudolph of Habsburg, who was to reign until 1342 as king of Hungary and Croatia.

Dante dedicates a long extract from the Divine Comedy to Charles Martel (Paradise, VIII, 31-148 and Paradise, IX, 1-12), recounting the affectionate meeting which the poet imagines himself having with the soul of the prince in the third heaven of Paradise (the Heaven of Venus).  The depth of the friendship which binds them emerges clearly from the words with which the soul of Charles Martel addresses Dante who finds it difficult to recognise him because of the intensity of the light surrounding him (Canto VIII, vv. 49-57):

Il mondo m’ebbe
giù poco tempo; e se più fosse stato,
molto sarà di mal, che non sarebbe.
La mia letizia mi ti tien celato
che mi raggia dintorno e mi nasconde
quasi animal di sua seta fasciato.
Assai m’amasti, e avesti ben onde;
che s’io fossi giù stato, io ti mostrava
di mio amor più oltre che le fronde.

The same verses in the Hungarian translation by Mihály Babits:

The same verses in the English translation by John Ciardi:

In the following verses Charles Martel explains that, if the misrule of the Angevins had not triggered the Sicilian Vespers revolution in Palermo against the French («non avesse / mosso Palermo a gridar: “Mora, mora!”»), he would have reigned in the land of Provence, crossed by the Rhone and Saône rivers, and in southern Italy where the cities of Bari, Gaeta and Catona stand and where the rivers Tronto and Garigliano run.  All the more so in that he had already been crowned king of Hungary, the land crossed by the Danube; and that he and his heirs («nati per me di Carlo e di Ridolfo») would have reigned also over Sicily itself, dominated by the eruptions of Mount Etna (Canto VIII, vv. 58-75):

Quella sinistra riva che si lava
di Rodano poi ch’è misto con Sorga,
per suo segnore a tempo m’aspettava,
e quel corno d’Ausonia che s’imborga
di Bari e di Gaeta e di Catona
da ove Tronto e Verde in mare sgorga.
Fulgeami già in fronte la corona
di quella terra che ‘l Danubio riga
poi che le ripe tedesche abbandona.
E la bella Trinacria, che caliga
tra Pachino e Peloro, sopra ‘l golfo
che riceve da Euro maggior briga,
non per Tifeo ma per nascente solfo,
attesi avrebbe li suoi regi ancora,
nati per me di Carlo e di Ridolfo,
se mala segnoria, che sempre accora
li popoli suggetti, non avesse
mosso Palermo a gridar: “Mora, mora!”.

The same verses in the Hungarian translation by Mihály Babits:

The same verses in the English translation by John Ciardi:



Dante again mentions Hungary in canto XIX of Paradise where, over the voice of the Celestial Eagle, he launches an invective against bad rulers and refers indirectly, in verses 142-143, to those very European princes who prevented Charles Martel from ascending the throne of Hungary and who subsequently delayed until 1308 the accession to that throne by his son, Charles Robert of Anjou:

Oh beata Ungaria se non si lascia
più malmenare!

The same verses in the Hungarian translation by Mihály Babits:

Óh, boldog Magyarország! csak ne hagyja
magát félre vezetni már.

The same verses in the English translation by John Ciardi:

Oh happy Hungary, had she suffered all
without more griefs ahead!

——-

Dante’s star rises very early in Hungary.  Already in the second half of the fifteenth century, at the court of the king of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus (1485-1490), the works of Dante were known and greatly appreciated.  The neoplatonic group in the court, amongst other things, was in active correspondence with the Tuscan cultural scene and, in particular, with the humanists, Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), who had translated Monarchia (“Monarchy”) into the vulgate, and Aurelio Brandolino Lippo (1440-1497) who had taught in Budapest at king Matthias’ invitation and who, in his studies, had highlighted certain affinities between Monarchia and the Divine Comedy.

The first attempts to translate extracts from the Divine Comedy into Hungarian were by the philologist Gábor Döbrentei (1786-1851), who translated into prose cantos I and V of Hell in 1806, and by the poet Ferenc Császár (1807-1858), who translated into verse the first seven cantos and canto XXXIII of Hell around 1850.

The first translator able to rise to the task of translating the entire Divine Comedy into tercets was the poet and translator Károly Szász (1829-1905), who published the three parts respectively in 1885, 1891 and 1899.  But the translation which is by far the most appreciated is that of the poet Mihály Babits (1883-1941), also in tercets, which appeared between 1913 (the year of publication of Hell) and 1923 and which has become a classic of Hungarian literature.  A very recent translation of Hell into blank hendecasyllables was published in 2012 by the Budapest poet, Ferenc Baranyi (born 1937).