I am reading Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love (more complete reviews can be found on my other blog), and she tells a story about Italy that is so beautiful that I want it to be true.
According to Gilbert's report, European languages mostly developed out of a mish mash of Latinate dialects, which cohered into the languages we know because the dialects of the strongest cities came to dominate. This French is really a form of Medieval Parisian, Portuguese was the dialect of Lisbon, etc.
However, Italian developed differently; which is not really a surprise. Italy did not coalesce into a county until comparatively recently (1861, according to Gilbert) and until then it was a competitive amalgam of warring city-states, each with their own dialect. At some point in the 16th century (can you say "Renaissance?"), a number of "leading intellectuals" (my term) decided Italy needed a common language, and so they met to find the most beautiful dialect available. And they choice the Italian of Dante.
Dante's Divine Comedy was written in 1321, as a reaction to the stultifying use of Latin. He sought to use a language that was available to more than the scholars and elite. More to the point, I think, is that is it poetry. It was archaic at the time it was selected as the official Italian tongue, and it was written to charm the ear and the inner eye.
No wonder, according to Gilbert, it is the most beautiful language in the world.