Sunday, May 31, 2015

Happy Birthday, Dante Alighieri!

No one knows the exact date, but Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), who did for Italian what Shakespeare and the King James Bible did for English, was born in Florence sometime between mid-May and mid-June 750 years ago. To mark the anniversary, numerous commemorative events are taking place this year - from the minting of a new 2-euro coin with Dante's profile to a reading in outer space last April 24 of the opening canto of Paradiso by Italy's first female astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, followed 10 days later by actor Roberto Benigni's recitation of the closing canto to the Italian Senate. Pope Francis, in a message to the President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, joined “the chorus of those who believe Dante Alighieri is an artist of the highest universal value, who still has much to say and to give, through his immortal works, to all those who are willing to walk the path of true knowledge.”

The "chorus" to whom Pope Francis referred also includes his great 20th-century predecessor Pope Benedict XV (one of my favorite modern popes), who in 1921 marked the 600th anniversary of Dante's death with the encyclical In Praeclara Summorum, from which I quote the following 2 paragraphs in praise of the poet:

4. … while he did not neglect any branch of human learning, at the same time he drank deeply at the founts of Sacred Scripture and the Fathers. Thus he learned almost all that could be known in his time, and nourished specially by Christian knowledge, it was on that field of religion he drew when he set himself to treat in verse of things so vast and deep. So that while we admire the greatness and keenness of his genius, we have to recognize, too, the measure in which he drew inspiration from the Divine Faith by means of which he could beautify his immortal poems with all the lights of revealed truths as well as with the splendors of art. Indeed, his Commedia, which deservedly earned the title of Divina, while it uses various symbolic images and records the lives of mortals on earth, has for its true aim the glorification of the justice and providence of God who rules the world through time and all eternity and punishes and rewards the actions of individuals and human society. It is thus that, according to the Divine Revelation, in this poem shines out the majesty of God One and Three, the Redemption of the human race operated by the Word of God made Man, the supreme loving-kindness and charity of Mary, Virgin and Mother, Queen of Heaven, and lastly the glory on high of Angels, Saints and men 

8. Wonderful, therefore, is the intellectual enjoyment that we gain from the study of the great poet, and no less the profit for the student making more perfect his artistic taste and more keen his zeal for virtue, as long as he keeps his mind free from prejudice and open to accept truth. Indeed, while there is no lack of great Catholic poets who combine the useful with the enjoyable, Dante has the singular merit that while he fascinates the reader with wonderful variety of pictures, with marvelously lifelike coloring, with supreme expression and thought, he draws him also to the love of Christian knowledge, and all know how he said openly that he composed his poem to bring to all "vital nourishment."

In any praise of Dante, the poet, mention must necessarily also be made of his critical role in the consolidation of Italian as a literary language. In Dante's day, of course, Latin was still the universal European literary language. Dante likewise wrote in Latin - his famous political treatise, De Monarchia, for example, and also a treatise on the vulgar, or as we now call it, the vernacular language, De Vulgari Eloquentia. But he wrote his literary masterpiece in Italian. More precisely, he wrote it in the common dialect of his region, Tuscany. Then - and, to a significant extent, still now - Italy remains a nation more in name, a collection of regions, that share certain things in common, but still remain somehow incomplete as a political community. But one of the things that Italians all now do share in common is the literary language that Dante's Tuscan dialect became. As John Kleiner wrote in The New Yorker last month ("Dante Turns Seven Hundred and Fifty," May 20, 2015), referring to the italian astronaut reading Dane from outer space: "The fact that people in Venice and Palermo could understand Cristoforetti as she read from the Paradiso in space was due, in a quite literal sense, to the poem that she was reading."

That alone might merit more than sufficient praise. That alone makes this anniversary (whatever its precise day) truly worth celebrating.

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