700 years of Dante: The freedom to choose

Carla Pietrobattista

Carla Pietrobattista

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Joseph Anton Koch – Inferno (1825-28)

Read this article in Italian (Leggi questo articolo in italiano) →

The following article is taken from a speech given by Carla Pietrobattista on Dante Day, March 25, which is traditionally held as the day the “divine poet” started his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy. 2021 also marks the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. The event was presided by the Mayor of Magliano dei Marsi, Pasqualino di Cristofano. Ms. Pietrobattista will also be collaborating on the new Art Section of The Gordian, which will start next month.

Picking up the gauntlet

What happens in real life when some encounters change you and remain in your heart, also happens in art; sometimes you get the feeling that some works have been made specifically for us, to make our souls vibrate. It is for this reason that when I was asked to talk about Dante I immediately said yes, because there was a moment in my life when I felt that he had touched my heart and has never left it since. I consider this immediate and spontaneous acceptance, more of an emotional than a rational response, for a number of reasons. 

First of all, I had only three days to transform a set of personal thoughts and feelings into something concrete. Secondly,  I have always had the conviction that talking about Dante would be difficult, even risky, because many scholars and experts over the centuries have done so with greater knowledge and skills than mine. Finally, having studied Dante both in high school and at university could have led me to simply relay well-known and commonplace concepts.  

I realized that I not only could, but I absolutely had to talk about Dante

My love for Dante blossomed at the University of Perugia, where I was lucky enough to follow the lectures of one of the greatest authorities on Dante. Thanks to his insight, I became curious to know more about Dante the person. This changed my perspective, so when I received the invitation, I realized that I not only could, but I absolutely had to talk about Dante.

Dante’s universality

Having made these necessary clarifications, I would like to start talking about the great poet with a question that in my opinion is at the basis of every discourse that concerns him, namely: why is it necessary to know Dante? Especially now that we are experiencing the most dramatic historical moment since the Second World War, why should we waste time talking about a man who died 700 years ago?

In my opinion, Dante gives us the answer directly in the first lines of his most important work, the ‘Commedia’, when he affirms, without the slightest need to hide his weakness and fragility, that he was lost: 

"In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct: and e’en to tell
It were no easy task, how savage wild
That forest, how robust and rough its growth,
Which to remember only, my dismay
Renews, in bitterness not far from death.
Yet to discourse of what there good befel,
All else will I relate discover’d there.”

(Inferno canto I, verses. 1 to 9 - Tr. Rev. H. F. Cary ).

This is why it is now more necessary than ever to get closer to Dante. One must not remember him in a sterile and obsequious way, or because this year marks the 700th anniversary of his death, but because Dante was able to speak to everyone, not only to his contemporaries, of how one can and must cross the darkest of woods to return to see the stars.

In order to understand what role Dante can play in our life, it is necessary to know him in a less historical and clinical way than we are used to and delineate his personality as much as his historicity.

It is precisely in this direction that I would like to try to move in order to transmit and share as much as possible the emotions I felt when I understood Dante’s greatness as a man, a step that turned out to be fundamental for my understanding of Dante’s work as a poet.

The man and his name

Durante, son of Alighiero, or Alaghiero di Bellincione and his first wife Bella Degli Amati, was born in Florence in May 1265 from a family with ties to ancient Guelph nobility. The name Durante however, does not identify him, but his diminutive Dante, does. I have always liked to toy with the name, starting from the Latin affirmation “Nomen Omen”; the ancient Romans believed that a person’s destiny was written in their name. In the case of Dante, I believe that this is the case, his name which originates from a verbal form, is the present participle of the verb to give, that is, he who gives and Dante has given, has given each of us the greatest masterpiece of literature of all times, the Divine Comedy. The now universal knowledge of Dante’s name means that it is not necessary to specify his surname, as Dante is recognised everywhere. I am one of the many Carlas; Dante however, is unique. Dante is identified and associated not only with his works, but also with his person of which we were able to get an idea thanks to the description transmitted to us by Boccaccio, one of the first scholars of the Divine Comedy and the first to define it as such.

A son of Florence

Surely another element that over time has become Dante’s identifier is the city of Florence with which a sort of duality has formed: Dante \ Florence – Florence \ Dante. Identifying Dante with his city is one of the greatest clichés I could propose, but among the many it is the one that more than others has a solid foundation. Dante would not have been Dante without the unique political and cultural vivacity that Florence, the future cradle of the Renaissance, could offer.

All my ills and inconveniences found their cause in the unfortunate events of my priory

Florence, the pain and delight of the supreme poet, is where Dante began his political career in 1295 as prior from June 15 to August 15 of 1300. It is precisely in this period that the unfortunate events of the poet originated, as he himself affirms:  “All my ills and inconveniences found their cause in the unfortunate events of my priory”. In fact, it was during his priory period that the well-known Florentine conflict between the Cerchi family and that of the Donati took place. This resulted in the split between the Guelphs into the White Guelphs and the Black Guelphs. Dante, a well-known white Guelph, suffered at the hands of the black Guelphs who could count on the support of the Pope and Charles of Valois. In this context, he was found guilty of “baratteria”, that is, of illicit gains.The poet was sentenced in absentia to the payment of a fine, to two years of confinement and to the interdiction of public office. 

Dante, who had been able to interpret the evolution of events and the danger he ran, was not in Florence at the time of his sentence and never returned there. Precisely for this reason he never paid the fine and the sentence was transformed into confiscation of assets and death at the stake if he returned to his city. Thus was born the figure of the exiled Florentine Dante, far from his city and his loved ones, forced to experience how hard it was to climb the stairs of others, he who is described by Boccaccio as “melancholy and pensive and with a very high and disdainful soul.”

The Divine Comedy

The distance from home and the humiliation of being at the service of other gentlemen created the fertile ground for the birth of a text called the Divine Comedy. ‘Comedy’, because it was characterised by a tragic beginning but a happy ending; ‘Divine’ for its composition characteristics. It is within this work that Dante proved to be not only a poet, but also an attentive and refined man of culture whose knowledge ranged from ancient literature to justice and from astronomy to mathematics. His genius was capable of enclosing an immense literary work in the mysticism of the Middle Ages, choosing the number three symbol of the trinity, and the number ten symbol of perfection. It is on these numbers that the construction of the entire opus is contained, which is written in triplets. The three canticles are divided into thirty-three cantos. To the total of ninety-nine, a sort of preface was added to reach the sublime perfection of one hundred, or ten times ten. Within his world so perfectly structured, the poet faced the most magnificent of travels, the journey par excellence for the man of the Middle Ages.

Inside Hell, Dante met souls whose actual bodies were still alive on earth

Dante, the ideal man of the Middle Ages, solid, consistent, but above all a man of faith was, within his work, the first and only common being to “walk” the roads of the three kingdoms of the afterlife. In so doing he was a witness of despair, hope and perfect joy. It is only thanks to what he says he saw that, at times, I can find the only possible explanation in the face of the manifestation of evil in its most absolute form. Dante in fact, inside the first kingdom, Hell, met souls whose actual bodies were still alive on earth, but inhabited by demons.

Master of time and space

Dante was not only supreme among poets, but he was also a man of exquisite ingenuity. He describes, with incredible modernity, his concept of Italy and Europe, openly or even simply, by naming historical events such as the battle of Tagliacozzo, the outcome of which determined the new balances that shaped Europe as we know it.

Besides being an expert in politics and culture, Dante understood man and all his feelings, sensitive to the point of making love eternal even when damned, as in the case of Paolo and Francesca. The complexity of the Divine Comedy, for me, is such as to lead me to define Dante as the master of time and space. Of time, because within Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, the environments in which his work takes place, he makes the condemnation or salvation of his characters eternal and yet contemporary.  Of space, because he manages to give shape and dimension to the realms of the underworld which, together with souls, do not occupy space and have no form.

The freedom to choose

By not paying the fine Dante had chosen to remain true to himself, a coherent and integral intellectual, not a mercenary.

It may seem completely inappropriate on my part to pick the concept of freedom for my title, since Dante was not even free to return home without running the risk of being killed. Dante’s greatness and freedom, however, was precisely that of choosing between good and evil. By not paying the fine Dante had chosen to remain true to himself, a coherent and integral intellectual, not a mercenary. The same freedom to choose between good and evil has been enjoyed by all the characters of the Divine Comedy who, depending on their actions, are found in the various realms of the afterlife.

Dante had the courage that only free men can have when he found himself judging the souls of his work, making sure, however, never to present himself as God, putting those who according to him deserved Hell, starting from his enemies, without ever appearing as the deus ex machina within the scene, but as a spectator of the divine will: at times merciless, at times moved.

I believe he reached the highest freedom when, sure of his maturity and intellectual perfection, he felt ready and worthy to talk again about Beatrice, his only true love. As I have already said, Dante was a man of the Middle Ages, and as such he had not been free to live out his love for Beatrice. He had already been promised to Gemma Donati, while Beatrice had been betrothed to Simone dei Bardi.

In his world of perfect balance, woven by the wise hand of the One who can do what he wants, Beatrice can finally be close to Dante. She is in fact one of the three guides along the journey in the three kingdoms. We remember Virgil, symbol of reason in the kingdom of the underworld, where there could be no hope; Beatrice in purgatory, symbol of active love and prayer and therefore of hope; Saint Bernard, symbol of the contemplative love of those who see God in Paradise.

Freedom through knowledge

So let’s go back to the initial question, why is it necessary to know Dante? In my opinion we must know him to be free, because we can only be truly free through knowledge, we are all called to culture just as Dante tells us through Ulysses, in some way the poet’s own image: “You were not made to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge “(Inferno cantoXXVI, verse 119). 

Only thanks to knowledge can those ideals be born in us without which we will be condemned to run forever in a wild goose chase.

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