Dante Alighieri is a significant literary figure on both sides of the Atlantic. Even though he does not belong to the New World, there are statues dedicated to him in New York City and Washington, D.C. Moreover, his name and his work are such a strong part of our literary canon that we seldom feel the need to utter his last name. He is simply Dante. He seems to be unique for this. After all, when was the last time someone referred to Whitman simply as Walt? Equally important, Dante is not only a figure for the scholastic world but also one for mass entertainment. In the United States, The Divine Comedy has spawned numerous film adaptations and even a video game.
Americans’ enthusiasm for Dante is only matched by the passion that Italy feels for its linguistic father. My first encounter with Dante occurred by accident while I was walking in Florence. One afternoon, I found myself in a small courtyard where an actor in an outlandish costume performed canticles from The Divine Comedy in the poet’s original words for tourists. I did not realize it at the time but that street performer was not entirely unique. There is a very strong tradition in Italian theater centered around reciting Dante. Again, this more professional preoccupation with the poet has turned into a form of mass entertainment. Roberto Benigni regularly recites large sections from The Divine Comedy as part of his Tutto Dante tours. During one show, Benigni recited and expounded on the poet’s words in front of the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, Dante’s hometown.
The choice of the venue was no mistake. In addition to the tombs of Machiavelli, Galileo, and Michelangelo, Santa Croce also houses a cenotaph dedicated to Dante.
All of this is to say that the modern world is not quite finished with Dante. This year marks the seven hundred fiftieth anniversary of his birth and to honor it Villanova University is hosting a year of lectures by visiting scholars. On October 27th, Simone Marchesi (Princeton University) gave the first lecture on the intellectual connections between Dante and St. Augustine. The lecture series will continue on Monday, November 17th, at 4:00 in the Speakers’ Corner in Falvey Library. The subject will be Dante’s impact on the world of cinema and our speaker will be John Welle (University of Notre Dame).
The series will pick up again on January 22nd at 4:00 in Villanova Cinema when Giuseppe Mazzotta (Yale University) will give a lecture on Dante’s Europe. Mary Watt (University of Florida) will then finish our series on March 16th at 4:00 in the Speakers’ Corner in Falvey with a lecture entitled “Dante and the New World Project.”
While Dante’s work and the scholarship surrounding him are certainly daunting, I encourage everyone to attend the remaining lecture dates. Dante remains a powerful figure in our minds not just for his poems, philosophy, and life. Dante is still relevant because, after so many centuries, his words and his life have the unique ability to spur scholars working in several disciplines to inquiry. In this way, he never really died. With every new reading, Dante transforms and guides his readers to new insights into his world and our own.
P.S. – If you are interested in reading The Divine Comedy, here is a link that contains English translations of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.