Dante Turns Seven Hundred and Fifty

On April 24th, Samantha Cristoforetti, Italy’s first female astronaut, took time off from her regular duties in the International Space Station to read from the Divine Comedy. She picked the opening canto of the Paradiso, in which Dante describes his ascent through the circle of fire and his approach toward God:

I was within the heaven that receives
more of His light; and I saw things that he
who from that height descends, forgets or can
not speak.

As Cristoforetti spun around the globe at the rate of seventeen thousand miles an hour, her reading was beamed back to earth and shown in a movie theater in Florence.

Ten days later, the actor Roberto Benigni recited the last canto of Paradiso in the Italian Senate. His selection included the poem’s famous closing lines:

Here force failed my high fantasy; but my
desire and will were moved already like
a wheel revolving uniformly by
the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

The senators gave the comedian a standing ovation. That same day, Pope Francis made some brief remarks about the poet, officially joining what he called the “chorus of those who believe Dante Alighieri is an artist of the highest universal value.” He can, the Holy Father added, help us “get through the many dark woods we come across in our world.”

Dante’s seven-hundred-and-fiftieth birthday is sometime in the coming month—he was born, he tells us in Paradiso, under the sign of Gemini—and, to mark the occasion, more than a hundred events are planned. These include everything from the minting of a new two-euro coin, embossed with the poet’s profile, to a selfie-con-Dante campaign. (Cardboard cutouts of the poet are being set up in Florence, and visitors are encouraged to post pictures of themselves with them using the hashtag #dante750.) There’s talk of extending the celebrations to 2021, the seven-hundredth anniversary of the poet’s death.

I teach Dante to American undergraduates, and I struggle to convey to them his place in Italian culture. The obvious comparison is to Shakespeare, but this is like trying to make sense of Mozart by means of Coltrane: the number of centuries that divide Dante from Shakespeare is practically as large as the number that separates Shakespeare from us.

Italian kids first encounter Dante at school, when they’re in the equivalent of seventh grade. They return to him in the eleventh grade to study the Inferno in more depth. In twelfth grade, they work on the Purgatorio. Secondary school—liceo—lasts five years, and so in what might be considered the thirteenth grade, the text for the year is the Paradiso. I recently asked the high-school-aged son of an Italian friend of mine about the experience. “It’s annoying, boring, and it never ends,” he told me. “But then you get to like it.”

At the college level, the study of Dante ratchets up by slowing down. In the late nineteen-eighties, I spent a semester in Florence, where I sat in on a Dante course at the university. The entire term was devoted to the analysis of a single canto. As it happened, the canto was Inferno 19, which is devoted to simony. Dante reserves a special hole in the third sub-circle of the eighth circle of Hell for corrupt Popes; they are stuffed into it, one after another, headfirst. Their feet are then lit on fire. Among the issues the class discussed at length was how, exactly, new Popes could be accommodated. Had space been left open for all those that would come along? Or did each new arrival compress his predecessor into some kind of pontifical pesto?

Either because of or despite this pedagogical program, Italians, to a surprising degree, stick with Dante. Since 2006, Benigni has been staging hepped-up variations on the traditional lectura dantis, a form that goes back all the way to the fourteenth century, to Boccaccio, who lectured on the poem in Florence’s Santo Stefano church. A typical lectura opens with a detailed gloss of a particular canto, followed by a dramatic reading of it. Benigni’s performances in Rome, Florence, Verona, and other cities have been watched live by more than a million people. Millions more have tuned into them on TV.

Similar, if stodgier, lectures are delivered all over Italy at societies set up expressly to foster appreciation of the Divine Comedy. In Rome, for example, the Casa di Dante sponsors a lectura dantis every Sunday at 11 A.M. Owing to holidays and long summer breaks, six years of Sundays are required to get through the poem, at which point the whole process starts over again. It’s not unusual for two hundred Romans to attend. Some are liceo students, perhaps there under duress, but most are middle-aged and beyond. After one recent session at the Casa di Dante, I asked the white-haired gentleman sitting next to me what everyone was doing there. “I don’t know about the others,” he said. “I always come.”

There are, of course, many possible explanations for Dante’s hold on Italy, including, after seven hundred and fifty years, sheer momentum. Language, too, clearly plays a part. When Dante began work on the Comedy, none of the different dialects spoken in Italy’s many city-states had any particular claim to preëminence. Latin, meanwhile, was the language of the Church and of institutions such as the courts and universities. (Dante wrote “De Vulgari Eloquentia,” his defense of the vernacular, in Latin.) Such was the force and influence of the Comedy that the Tuscan dialect became Italy’s literary language and, eventually, its national one. The fact that people in Venice and Palermo could understand Cristoforetti as she read from the Paradiso in space was due, in a quite literal sense, to the poem that she was reading.

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