Food for thought on the figure of Dante Alighieri.
edited by Laura Pugno
In this interview, Alberto Casadei tells us about the genesis of the audiobook ‘From the dark wood to Paradise’ and reflects on the figure of Dante Alighieri, in particular on the reception of his work abroad.
What was the inspiration behind the audiobook project on the Divine Comedy in 33 languages, created in collaboration with the Farnesina and the network of Italian Cultural Institutes?
It all began with a conversation I had in early 2020 with Paolo Luigi Grossi, during which we reflected on how to improve knowledge of Dante in 2021, given that this year, as we all remember, is the 700th anniversary of the poet’s death. I mentioned that audiobooks in multiple languages are very well received and pointed out that we could find excellent readers for the original, as well as numerous translations of the Divine Comedy. Many more Italian Cultural Institutes responded to the proposal than we had expected: and perhaps only a few contingent problems prevented us from adding further participants. In the wake of this strong participation, we chose Marco Martinelli and Ermanna Montanari of the Teatro delle Albe, already engaged in a great Dante project with the Municipality of Ravenna, as the ideal readers and we asked Professor Sebastiana Nobili (professor at the University of Bologna and, like me, an active member of the Dante Group of the Association of Italianists) to prepare a guide to the anthology of cantos. This synergy led to the creation of an audio book that I think enables every listener to garner an idea of the narrative greatness of the Divine Comedy and at the same time its “usability” even in translation, as already noted by T.S. Eliot. Indeed, listening to the versions in languages I don’t know, I often seem to perceive a clear and strong poetic rhythm, a sign that the translators have successfully conveyed this essential component of Dante’s masterpiece.
In Italy, Dante is the father of language. But how is our great poet perceived abroad? What has been done, what remains to be done for the diffusion of his work in the world?
Dante is not only a great classic but also penetrates many areas of pop culture, as demonstrated by the use of his icon in films, videos and even video games. It has been re-read, especially after the romantic phase, in many ways: avant-garde, postmodernist, hypermodernist, etc. This centenary can be an opportunity to reflect on the vitality of Dante and the Divine Comedy, breaking out of the usual mould: the reading of a canto with many notes, the illustrations (which are, moreover, still very suggestive) by Doré, interpretations by great actors and so on. I think we must first of all improve awareness in Italy and abroad of the extent to which Dante influenced the works of great writers and artists, precisely because the themes he touches on are universal: to talk about guilt and punishment, but also repentance and forgiveness or even salvation, Dante’s poetry is still full of immediate and strong ideas, as understood very well by authors such as Amiri Baraka, Seamus Heaney or Kenzaburō Ōe. In particular, trying to grasp the rhythm of triplets can be an excellent means of penetrating not only the Italian language with its long history, but also its more sophisticated stylistic uses. A wonderful exercise could be to introduce triplets in Italian, commenting on them in order to appreciate their potential in any other language.
The cultural programme of Dante’s 700th anniversary, ‘Dante 700 nel Mondo’ (Dante 700 in the World), organized by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is really very extensive and includes films, shows, exhibitions, concerts and even a mobile app. What does multimedia bring to the figure of Dante? How does each different artistic discipline help us to get to know the poet?
As I already mentioned, the fact that Dante has been ‘viewed’ since the fourteenth century, but truly intensely, especially from the nineteenth century to today, means we need to consider these pictorial or multimedia versions as an integral part of his fortune. I believe that, if we consider the Divine Comedy in particular as a great work (but there would be so much to learn starting from La Vita Nuova or other so-called minor works), each performance of it can enrich us with unexpected resonance. Thus, if I look at the first eight cantos of Inferno in the video A TVDante, produced by Peter Greenaway and Tom Phillips in 1989-1990, I perceive the importance of the masses in the description of Hell and not just of individual characters, albeit as great as Francesca da Rimini. If I watch the performances by Romeo Castellucci and the Societas Raffaello Sanzio (Avignon, 2008-2009), I see forms of ruthless violence together with hints of possible salvation, materialised in symbols that take their cue from Dante without ‘imitating’ him in a passive manner. Participation in a collective rite, such as that prepared by the Teatro delle Albe in Ravenna for Inferno (2017) and Purgatorio (2019), provides an actual immersive experience, which in effect is requested by Dante himself when he describes his Afterlife In other words, multimedia enables us to understand unprecedented aspects of the universality of the Divine Comedy, although not even this fully completes our comprehension.
What is it about Dante that we still don’t know, and what can he tell us today, in this 2021 which unfortunately, like the preceding 2020, is still “the year of the pandemic”?
It can certainly tell us that, even when we have fallen into a dark forest, which is every form of ‘pain of living’, not just of sin, we can find the strength to retrace our life and to get through the history we are living. In this way, it will not seem that we are suffering external events but we will be able to derive from these events the strength to look into our ‘darkness’ and to find the ‘stars’, the truly important points that can guide us. We will be even more capable of doing so if we find the time to read the Divine Comedy calmly and from start to finish, as the work holds surprises in every canto; and perhaps even a few passages of his other wonderful works.
Alberto Casadei teaches Italian literature at the University of Pisa and is coordinator of the Dante Group of the Association of Italianists and President of the ICoN inter-university consortium. He has researched texts from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, as well as contemporary poetry and fiction, including from a comparative and theoretical perspective. His recent books include a monograph, ‘Dante. Storia avventurosa della Divina commedia dalla selva oscura alla realtà aumentata, il Saggiatore 2020, and three comments on Inferno V, Purgatorio VI and Paradiso XXXIII, Garzanti 2021.