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Dante in Siena: Inferno 1-4

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)
As most Ionarts readers know, I am in Siena this summer, taking part in an NEH seminar on Dante's Commedia that is based here. We had a weekend of orientation, by people who have lived here a long time, on the traditions of the city, especially the absolutely insane horse race called the Palio. We also took a trip out into the Tuscan countryside to attend a Latin chanted Mass at the Monastery of Sant'Antimo near Montalcino. That monastic house is now occupied by Augustinians, and although they are not a particularly large community, they do sing the Mass and Office in Latin. It was an absolutely appropriate introduction to the medieval world of Dante, who situated the action of his Commedia on Easter weekend in 1300. The rhythm of the Latin liturgy informs much of what Dante wrote, especially in the Purgatorio, where the souls purge themselves of sin through a sort of monastic obedience.

Dante's Inferno:
Canto 1 | Canto 2
Canto 3 | Canto 4

Tu se' lo mio maestro e 'l mio autore;
tu se' solo colui da cu' io tolsi
lo bello stilo che m'ha fatto onore.

You are my master and my author,
You alone are the one from whom I took
The beautiful style that has done me honor.

Featured Dante Link:
William Blake, Illustrations of Dante
In the first four cantos of Inferno, Dante finds himself in a dark forest, confronted by three ferocious animals. The exact meaning of the spotted leopard, the roaring lion, and the greedy she-wolf are not immediately (if ever) clear, but they make it impossible for Dante to escape. It is the shade of Virgil who comes to his aid, having been sent, as we learn later, by the blessed soul of Beatrice. Your Dante quote for today is from Dante's salutation of Virgil, where he gives homage to the Latin master for lo bello stilo that has brought him (Dante) honor. We spent a lot of time discussing the question of why Virgil is chosen -- by Dante, but in the poem, actually by Beatrice -- as Dante's first guide. Virgil can interpret Hell only by limited standards: at the end of Canto 1 he makes clear that he does not understand the Christian world order from his place in Limbo. He can only conceive of it in imperial terminology: creation as the Imperium, God as Imperator, and heaven as the Urbs. Whenever the pair confronts figures Dante converts from classical sources -- Charon, Phlegyas, Cerberus, the Furies (notably, all characters in Virgil's Aeneid -- Virgil commands them with ease. He is confounded only by the devils, because he just cannot grasp the Christian order.

This little mini-world of classical antiquity is preserved in the lightest part of Inferno, the Elysian Fields reserved for the greatest pre-Christian writers described in Canto 4. Dante places himself sixth in poetic rank in that world: Homer, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, Virgil, and Dante. After listing the morally worthy characters and personages of antiquity, Dante sees Aristotle, attended by Socrates and Plato, in a filosofica famiglia within the nobile castello encircled with seven walls. If you are thinking of Raphael's School of Athens, you have made the connection.

1 comment:

Elitre said...

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