This is Dante Day in Italy. Many of the country’s cultural events have been canceled or postponed, but that’s not the case with Dantedì. The celebrations will be entirely online, with performances and readings tagged on social media with #Dantedì and #IoleggoDante. Italy’s culture ministry has invited everyone to mark the day by reading and sharing the “verses of timeless charm” by Dante, as a way to unite the country and bring some cheer to people at a difficult time.
Dante’s journey to Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, of which he wrote in his Divine Comedy, began on March 25 (Easter week in the year 1300.) The work has so permeated literature and theology that much of what he wrote about the afterlife is thought by many to come from the Bible. T.S. Eliot said
“Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them. There is no third.”
The significance of today’s celebration isn’t subtle, nor is the symbolism vague. The world, and especially Italy, is going through Hell. When Dante and Virgil finally emerge and begin their journey through Purgatory, the night is clear and the stars are shining. Virgil sees Dante’s face stained with tears and wipes them away with the morning dew.
When someone says ‘I’ve been through Hell’ we at once relate to their suffering (for we all suffer) but we likewise acknowledge the pain which is uniquely their own. We struggle for words of comfort and encouragement. Beyond eloquence, the gift of presence is needed most as we figuratively and literally wipe away their tears.
And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.
Dante and Virgil emerge from hell and begin the ascent of mount purgatory
So now we entered on that hidden Path,
my Lord and I, to move once more towards
a shining world. We did not care to rest.
We climbed, he going first and I behind,
until through some small aperture I saw
the lovely things the skies above us bear.
Now we came out, and once more saw the stars.
To race now over better waves, my ship
of mind -alive again- hoists sail, and leaves
behind its little keel the gulf that proved so cruel.
And I’ll sing, now, about the second realm
where human spirits page themselves from stain,
becoming worthy to ascend to Heaven.
Here, too, dead poetry will rise again.
for now, you secret Muses, I am yours…
Dawn was defeating now the last hours sung
by night, which fled before it. And far away
I recognised the tremblings of the sea.
Alone, we walked along the open plain,
as though, returning to a path we’d lost,
our steps, until we came to that, with vain.
Then, at a place in shadow with the dew
still fought against the sun and, cooled by breeze,
had scarcely yet been send out into vapour,
my master placed the palms of both his hands,
spread wide, likely and gently on the tender grass.
And I, aware of what his purpose was,
offered my tear-stained cheeks to meet his touch.
At which, he made once more entirely clean
the colour that the dark of Hell had hidden.
(The Divine Comedy, I Inferno, lines 133−end, and II Purgatorio, lines 1−8 and 115−29)
Dante Alighieri and The Divine Comedy
Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), Italian poet and philosopher. Little is known of his early life except that he was born in Florence, lost his parents before he was 18, was betrothed at the age of 12 and married in 1293. In 1274 he first met his Beatrice (prob. Bice Portinari, the daughter of a Florentine citizen and wife of Simone dei Bardi), and he became her poet nine years later. Her death in 1290 led to a crisis, resolved by writing the Vita nuova (prob. in 1292, possibly later) in which he promised her a poem ‘such as had been written for no lady before’, a promise fulfilled in the *Divina Commedia. He then turned to the study of philosophy, prob. under the *Dominicans at Florence, and wrote a series of allegorical Canzoni or odes on the Lady Philosophy and literal ones on Courtesy, Nobility, Liberality, and Justice. In 1294 he entered politics but, having supported the opponents of Pope *Boniface VIII, he was exiled from Florence in 1301 and travelled widely in Italy. He returned to the study of philosophy and wrote the incomplete De Vulgari Eloquentia in Latin and began the Convivio (Banquet), which was designed to comment freely on his earlier philosophical Canzoni. In the course of the fourth book he became aware of the significance of the Roman Empire; the appearance of the Emp. Henry VII in Italy at the same time (1310) converted Dante into an ardent supporter of the Emperor, for whom he wrote in Latin the treatise De Monarchia (1312–14?). This work, which was condemned as heretical (*Averroist) in 1329, argued the need for a universal monarchy to achieve the temporal happiness of mankind and the independence of the Empire from the Pope and the Church, which should abandon all temporal authority and possessions and concentrate on happiness in the world to come. Dante’s political prospects were shattered by the death of Henry VII in 1313, and in 1315 his native city of Florence renewed its sentence against him. He spent some years at *Verona and from c. 1316 lived at *Ravenna, where he died. The last period of his life was devoted to the completion of the Divina Commedia (q.v.), which established him as one of the few poets who belong to all times and all nations.
F.L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 453.