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Why 2021 is the Year of Dante

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by Kevin J. Jones

Denver Newsroom, Jan 21, 2021 / 03:01 am MT (CNA).- Dante Alighieri died 700 years ago, and Italy is ready to celebrate the author whose epic poem through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven has influenced the art, imagination, and faith of so many down the centuries.

Anthony Esolen, a Dante translator who is writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, is a fan.

“If we consider Shakespeare to be a playwright rather than a poet, I believe that Dante must win the laurels as the greatest poet in the history of man,” Esolen told CNA Jan. 6.

“There is hardly a subject you can name that he has not thought deeply about, and has not written about, in ways that clarify the subject and that suggest its relationships with others; and only Shakespeare and Charles Dickens are as fruitful as Dante is, in inventing characters whom we will remember all our lives,” he said.

Dante, a Florentine native, died in exile in Ravenna in September 1321, shortly after completing “The Divine Comedy”. The poem, rich with symbolism and allusions, has Dante himself as the narrator. He is a pilgrim whose journey begins in a dark wood. His story passes through the various “circles” of hell, purgatory, and heaven.

Esolen emphasized the Christian foundation of the work.

“Dante’s Divine Comedy is meant to be the poetic exposition of the whole universe: physical, spiritual, moral; and of the whole history of man, from his creation and fall, to his redemption in Christ, to the consummation of time in eternity and the beatific vision,” Esolen said. “To say that Dante is inspired by his Christian faith is to say not nearly enough. The faith is the air he breathes, and the blood that flows in his veins.”

A “Year of Dante” was launched in Ravenna Sept. 5 in the presence of Italian President Sergio Mattarella. The year will be marked by events throughout Italy, including in Dante’s birthplace of Florence and 70 other towns and villages. Teachers have been encouraged to teach about the poet in class.

Last year the Italian government declared March 25 to be celebrated annually as “Dante Day.” In his January 2020 announcement of the celebration, Italy’s Minister for Culture Dario Franceschini said it is “a day to remember Dante’s genius throughout Italy and the world.” The effort to commemorate Dante “reminds us of many things that hold us together. Dante is the unity of the country. Dante is the Italian language. Dante is the idea of Italy itself.”

Dante Day coincides with the feast of the Annunciation. That is the date many scholars believe marked the beginning of Dante’s journey in the Divine Comedy.

The work is called a “comedy” because of the arc of its story, Esolen explained.

“If you begin in misery or poverty or confusion, and you end in bliss and riches and clarity of vision, then that is a comedy,” he said. “If the converse, then it is a tragedy. The Christian view of the world is essentially comic, so much so that critics have sometimes wondered whether the Christian can properly, as a Christian, write any tragedy at all.”

“The crucial event in the history of man is the Incarnation of the Son of God, and his passion, death, and resurrection,” said Esolen. “To incorporate yourself into that story is to embrace the comedy of love.”

Dante’s epic poem is separated into three books of 33 sections, or “cantos” each: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.

“In Inferno, we see what happens when God gives us the evil that we choose, but stripped of all the veneer of glory in this world, and drained of even the temporary sweetness of pleasure that evil choices may bring,” Esolen said. “It is a cramped place, befitting the constriction of the mind and heart and soul that sin visits upon us. Yet of all the people in the comedy, we sinners are most like the people we meet down there, and that should cause us some discomfiture.”

“Purgatory is the realm, wonderfully imagined as a mountain on an island in the western sea, exactly opposite on the globe from Calvary, where what is crooked in us is made straight, what is feeble is made strong, and what is dim is made clear,” Esolen continued. “Think of it as an infirmary, or an exercise-ground, a place where the effects of habitual sin are scoured and cleansed away.”

“Then comes Paradise: the realm of the saints in full, which Dante divides according to the heavenly bodies, assigning to each, in conscious allegory, its own degree or variety of blessedness,” he said.

According to Esolen, Italian literature is “unimaginable” without Dante. While his reputation was eclipsed for centuries in much of Europe, his place has been secure since the romantic movements of the nineteenth century.

“Countless poems, paintings, sculptures, operas, and other musical compositions have been inspired by him,” said Esolen, who also praised Dante’s other works, such as the love poetry of “La Vita Nuova”.

In observance of the Year of Dante, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence has launched a free online exhibit of 88 drawings of The Divine Comedy by Federico Zuccari, a 16th-century Renaissance artist. The pencil-and-ink originals are fragile and rarely exhibited in physical form.

“The Uffizi Gallery is really proud to open the anniversary of the great poet’s death by making this extraordinary collection of graphic art available to all,” Eike Schmidt, the gallery’s director, said, according to the U.K. newspaper The Guardian.

Schmidt said Zuccari’s works are valuable both for researchers and for those passionate about Dante and his pursuit of “knowledge and virtue.”

Pope Francis has spoken about Dante on several occasions.

In an Oct. 10 meeting with a delegation from the Archdiocese of Ravenna-Cervia, the pope blessed a gold cross that St. Paul VI had donated to Ravenna for Dante’s tomb.

The pope had his own advice for an introduction to Dante. When teenagers encounter Dante in an accessible way, despite their “great distance from the author and his world,” they can “perceive a surprising resonance” with him.

“This happens especially where allegory leaves space for the symbol, where the human being appears most evident and exposed, where civil passion vibrates most intensely, where the fascination of that which is true, beautiful, and good, ultimately the fascination of God, makes its powerful attraction felt,” Pope Francis said.

Esolen doubted that Dante could be taught in American public schools, both because they have generally abandoned poetry and “because you can’t teach his work without talking about the Christian faith.”

“Students should read the Divine Comedy — and take it in as a work of art, one of the three or four most splendid works of art that a human being may encounter,” he advised. “Everything they learn about Dante should be subordinated to that encounter with the art.”

In his October audience, Pope Francis said that “with God’s help” he would propose “a more extensive reflection” on Dante to be released in 2021.

In 2015, the Pope issued a message marking 750 years since Dante’s birth. In it, he noted that many of his predecessors had paid tribute to the poet, including Benedict XV, who wrote his 1921 encyclical In Praeclara Summorum on Dante.

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