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.

Dante Domenico di Michelino Duomo Florence
“Dante and His Poem” (1465 fresco) by Domenico di Michelino

What’s your ‘origin story’ when it comes to Dante? How and when did you first encounter him, and what made you fall in love with his poetry?

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.

Do you have a favourite of the three parts? Inferno, Purgatorio, or Paradiso? If so, why?

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...

    Dante’s masterpiece was not only an artistic feat but a deeply influential one on the Western world. What kind of influences did The Divine Comedy have in its time and afterward?

    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!

    “Allegorical Portrait of Dante” by Agnolo Bronzino (1532) Source: Wikipedia Commons

    The title of your ACU keynote address is: “Dante’s Divine Comedy: a medieval masterpiece and our modern search for meaning”. What can Dante teach us about our search for meaning?

    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.

    The concept of desire – frustrated, fulfilled, or misguided – plays out powerfully throughout the poem. For example, when Dante is introduced to Limbo, Virgil explains that this is the place where people suffer ‘through living in desire, but hopelessly’ (4.42). Does Dante offer us a compelling vision of the human person, and if so, what is it? Is the concept of ‘desire’ integral to it?

    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.

    How does Dante help the modern ‘search for meaning’? How will it help those who are ‘searching through a dark wood, the right way blurred and lost’ (1.3)?

    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!

    John Kinder Resized
    Professor John Kinder (Photo: Supplied)

    A lot of people are intimidated by The Divine Comedy, largely because of its poetic structure, size and medieval feel. Do you have any tips on how the ‘uninitiated’ might best engage with the poet and get the best they can out of him?

    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.

    Is there a translation you would recommend as most accessible?

    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.

    Perhaps the Season of Lent is particularly appropriate for people to pick up Dante’s work. How might The Divine Comedy nourish people’s Lenten journey?

    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.

    If people need secondary readings to guide them through Dante’s work, do you have any recommendations?

    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.