In December 2020, La Repubblica placed the image of Dante on the cover of its Friday supplement and branded him ‘Man of the Year, 2021’.
Dante Alighieri died in September 1321, at the age of fifty-six, having just finished his Commedia, the poem he had been working on for the previous fifteen years.
The completed work was quickly copied and re-copied in countless manuscripts throughout Italy (more than 800 survive from the fourteenth century, though sadly none in Dante’s own hand).
The poet Boccaccio declared it a ‘divine’ poem, and the word ‘divina’ became a fixed part of the title from the mid-sixteenth century.
The Divine Comedy has continued to be seen as one of the greatest literary works ever written - to be compared, in the view of T. S. Eliot, only with the plays of Shakespeare.
In English, twenty-five complete translations have appeared in the past fifty years alone, not to mention many other partial ones, usually of the Inferno.
Enrico Malato is in the final stages of a comprehensive new Italian edition of the Commedia which will be the key work in the Nuova Edizione Completa delle Opere di Dante, due to appear in September for the 7OOth anniversary of Dante’s death.
The formal characteristics of the poem include the use of terza rima, vernacular Italian, and the first-person narrative point of view. It is the only epic poem narrated in the first person, giving it a uniquely personal and intimate tone.
The Divine Comedy unites the medieval model of Christianity with Classical learning. Dante deliberately chose the Roman poet Virgil as his guide into the underworld. As well as a summation of thought in the Middle Ages, the poem also looks forward to the Renaissance, and anticipates the revival of interest in Classical times.
All three books of the Commedia – Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso – end with the word ‘stelle’ or stars. As such, the poem comprises a trinity of circles, together defining a journey that ultimately rises upwards towards the celestial sphere.
Not surprisingly, the name and influence of Dante are everywhere in Italy. Almost every town has a via Dante.
One of the first restaurants I frequented when I came to Milan was Conte Ugolino in San Babila. I knew the tale of Count Ugolino well: the man who cannibalistically gnaws the skull of his companion Ruggiero in hell. It is the last representation of humankind’s capacity for evil in the Inferno, and perhaps its most grisly.
The influence is not confined to Italy. My favourite place in Paris is the Rodin Museum where, in the sculptor’s gardens – aside from sampling the excellent ice cream – you can see Rodin’s monumental work, ‘The Gates of Hell’.
Dante was someone I studied when I completed my PhD. My thesis looked at the modern American poet Frank O’Hara and proposed his work as a new way of writing about the city.
O’Hara was a New York poet and wrote with relish about urban living – going to restaurants, grabbing lunch in cafes, going to the cinemas, visiting galleries, taking strolls in parks.
No one had really celebrated urban life like this in poetry before. A glance at the work of the Romantic poets, the work of T.S. Eliot, the Spanish poet Lorca, and even the French poet Baudelaire, reveals how they represented the city almost automatically as a kind of Hell.
It was clear that when writers represented the modern industrial city, they were seeing it through the lens of Dante, with high towers above ground and a clamorous system of Metro tunnels and sewers underground.
Even if in their private lives, writers loved living in the city and enjoyed its cultural riches, in their work they tended to default to a simplistic formula that saw the city = hell, and the country = heaven.
It is an easy trap to fall into, and cinema followed suit, with film noir furthering the routine association of the nocturnal city as infernal. Later, in colour films, a red filter was often employed to lend the city a hellish aspect.
By contrast, the country was (and still is) regularly portrayed as utopian or idyllic, approaching a kind of paradise, with sunny yellow filters applied. See the ending of Christopher Nolan’s movie Dunkirk, for instance.
Dante’s influence has been immense, then, not only in a literary sense, but arguably in the way we view modern cities.
And the geography of the Commedia also embodies a redemptive moral journey, with its sense of a trajectory from the sin of hell to the salvation of heaven.
The poem has been illustrated by a succession of great artists, including Sandro Botticelli, Gustave Doré and William Blake.
The images illustrating the Inferno in particular, have shaped the visual imagination, the depictions of hell echoing the seethe of overcrowded streets and eerily anticipating the horrors of the Holocaust.
The poem has even had a distinct influence on the design of multi-level video games, which again tend to embody the journey from an infernal landscape to a paradisal one.
Not even Dante could have anticipated this latest twist of his vision.
Alongside Leonardo and Michelangelo, Dante represents the pinnacle of creativity and cultural achievement. Our moral, mythic, and philosophical frameworks have all been shaped by his work.
Our students routinely study Dante’s poetry in Italian. We justly celebrate his work, and the astonishing flowering of his mind in this, the 700th year since his death.
Dr Chris Greenhalgh
Principal & CEO