This year marks the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante, the Florentine poet responsible for one of the world's finest artistic creations: The Divine Comedy. On Friday 25 March (which is National Dante Day in Italy), Australian Catholic University (ACU), in conjunction with the Italian Cultural Institute in Sydney, hosted a symposium to mark the anniversary, called "Il Sommo Poeta" ("the Supreme Poet").
The keynote speaker was Professor John Kinder of the University of Western Australia (UWA), an internationally recognised linguist and author, with a deep interest in understanding the role of language in shaping culture and society. Professor Kinder is the first Italianist in the southern hemisphere to be elected as a Corresponding Member of the Accademia della Crusca, Italy’s premier language academy, founded in 1583.
He has described The Divine Comedy as ‘an exploration of the human heart,’ saying that Dante ‘asks the Big Questions and offers answers that provoke us out of our modern complacency.’
Professor Kinder kindly agreed to join Melbourne Catholic for a discussion on Dante, The Divine Comedy, and its ongoing relevance for the modern period.
I heard of Dante as soon as I started studying Italian at university in 1973 (!) I loved the way Dante tells his story, with such humility and certainty. It is like every aspect of human experience is in the story. He seems to cover everything in the Comedy and he challenged me to look for my own way of making sense of everything.
I am with Dorothy Sayers, who said that the Purgatorio is, out of the three parts, ‘the least known, the least studied but the most loved’. Popular wisdom says that the Inferno is the most fun to read and the easiest to get into. I wonder sometimes why we find great evil more interesting than great beauty...
There is so much art and music inspired by the Comedy. Just think of Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’ from his ‘Gate of Hell’, or Tchaikowsky’s ‘Francesca da Rimini’ overture, or even elements of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. There are many books appearing these days telling how Dante has impacted on people’s lives, like Rod Dreher's How Dante Can Save Your Life (2020). And I’m not even going to mention Dan Brown!
Dante is searching for wholeness and integration in himself, in all aspects of his life. And he is searching for God. Everything he learns on his journey in the Comedy, he learns through an encounter with another person, through a conversation about their experience.
Dante’s deepening understanding of God passes through his relationships with other humans. And vice versa, his encounters with other people – fragile, flawed, incomplete, like him – are the place where he finds the truth about God.
In the middle of his journey, Dante reflects on what is at the heart of our humanity. We are made of desire – remember Augustine ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and we are restless until we rest in you’ – and we have the supreme gift of reason so we can discern how to direct our desires in a way that will make us authentically and fully happy. In all this, the human person – alone in all of creation – has the gift of freedom. God wants us to use our reason to direct our desires, as free, mature, adults.
We have been in a dark wood at some time in our own journey. There is always a way out. However it may not be the obvious, easy way, it may be more challenging but ultimately more real. One of the striking things about Dante’s long journey is that he is always accompanied, he always had a guide, a friend, someone to follow. We are not expected to make our own journey alone!
The best tip is from T.S. Eliot. He said the best way to approach The Divine Comedy is to pick it up and start reading. You can worry about the background stuff – history, philosophy, theology, etc. – later. It’s a story and it’s for everyone. Once you’re on the road with Dante, you won’t want to put it down.
Clive James produced a work of genius – a translation of the Comedy without footnotes. All the background information you need, about people and places and past events, is worked into his text. Dante’s original text is available in many excellent editions which give you the Italian plus a translation plus background notes. I recommend the translations by Robin Fitzpatrick, Mark Musa or Robert and Jean Hollander.
The Divine Comedy is perfect for Lent. It tells the story of a journey, and usually, a journey only makes sense if it has a destination.
The journey of Lent only makes sense because it is leading us to the feast of Easter. The Cross only makes sense because of the Resurrection. And the Resurrection is only possible through the Cross.
Many of the editions I mentioned earlier have excellent notes (i.e. editions/translations by Clive James, Robin Fitzpatrick, Mark Musa or Robert and Jean Hollander). But I want to stress that you don’t have to have other books and guides to enjoy the Comedy. Just start reading and you can explore the details as you go.