We don’t know on which precise date Dante Alighieri was born, but we do know it was sometime in either May or June, in the year 1265. That makes us due to celebrate Dante’s 750th birthday sometime in the next few weeks, if we haven’t hit it already. I’d say now is a good time to start drinking Chianti, and don’t stop until the end of June, for good measure.
Writing at the New Yorker‘s website, John Kleiner says it is impossible to convey how vital Dante is to contemporary Italians. They start early with them in the schools. Excerpts:
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.”
For the last nine months, I’ve been living in Rome, and the experience has helped me to appreciate another, more subversive side to Dante’s appeal. Though he may be force-fed to seventh graders, applauded in the Senate, and praised by the Holy See, Dante is, as a writer, unmistakably anti-authoritarian. He looks around and what he sees is hypocrisy, incompetence, and corruption. And so he strikes out, not just at the Popes, whom he turns upside down and stuffs in a hole, but also at Florence’s political leaders, whom he throws into a burning tomb, and his own teacher, whom he sets running naked across scorching sand.
Yes indeed. Dante was a rebel, but you might call him a subversive orthodox. He denounced the ecclesial, political, and civic order of his time and place, not because he wanted to replace them, necessarily, but because he wanted them to reform themselves, and be what they are supposed to be. He did not want to start a new church, for example, but wanted to kick the butts of the popes, the priests, the monks, and everybody else, and make them return to the foundations.
I hope How Dante Can Save Your Life is translated into Italian and published there. The book is, in effect, a love letter to Italy’s greatest son. I would love to see how the Italians react to my book — unless they hate it, in which case I will have to repair to France and lick my wounds.
By the way, I’ve just learned that an audiobook version of How Dante Can Save Your Life is now in the works, and will soon be released (you can pre-order via that link). But there’s always the good old print book, if you prefer. I received this morning a beautiful, moving note from a Southern Baptist pastor who read the Dante book, and was startled by how much spiritual insight he found in Dante. He told me the book is helping him deal with a troubling situation within his own family. Now he’s starting to read the Commedia. I’m telling you, this stuff is powerful. Deep waters.