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Ionarts in Siena: Roberto Benigni

On Sunday night, over 20,000 people (according to newspaper reports) sat down and stood together on the hallowed stones of Siena's Piazza del Campo, to listen to an inexhaustible fountain of words gush from the mouth of Roberto Benigni. If you remember when the Italian comedian and actor accepted an Oscar for La Vita è Bella (on YouTube, if you do not), it was just like that, but in Italian. Actually, he had come to Siena, he said, to speak to the Sienese "Tuscan to Tuscan," and much of his frantic act, over two hours long and free to the public through the generosity of the Monte dei Paschi bank, was heavily accented with dialect-specific language. Add to that my general ignorance of the latest Italian political imbroglios -- a lot of it flew by without my comprehension. In any case, one had the unmistakable sense of being present for an extraordinary event: local opinion confirmed that the Campo had not been that full, excepting the Palio, for a very long time.

What could be understood was Benigni's praise for Siena and its beautiful main square, so full of people that we could see them standing cheek to jowl up all the streets leading into it. He even mentioned the Battle of Montaperti, a famous Sienese victory over Florence, which got a round of applause. If he had quoted Dante's famous line about the blood from that battle staining the Arbia red, he would have brought the house down. Benigni finally introduced his proclaimed subject -- Tutto Dante -- with an enthusiastic championing of Italian cultural heritage, by reciting the artistic and musical terms Italy has given the world, like sonnetto, adagio, opera, and many, many more. It was a wild lead-in to an informed, if slightly unorthodox analysis of Dante's Inferno, and particularly the Paolo and Francesca episode in Canto 5.

Roberto Benigni, Tutto Dante (July 15, 2007)
Piazza del Campo, Siena (view other videos of Benigni in Siena)

Benigni missed an opportunity to connect his own political humor with Dante's skewering of political figures of his own time. At other presentations of this show, Benigni has reportedly recited from Inferno 10, as well as parts of Purgatorio and Paradiso, but in Siena he had time only for Inferno 5. You can imagine the scene, as a huge assembly listened raptly while Benigni explained Dante's poem, leading us through the crisis in the dark wood, the meeting with Virgil, the entrance to and upper parts of hell. Understanding the punishment of the Neutrals -- those who are neither virtuous nor evil, who simply sit on the fence and do nothing -- was easy, Benigni said: God hates indifference. As for Paolo and Francesca, they are punished lightly, Benigni believes, because God pities their kind of passionate love, which he likened to the love God felt for La Madonna. Putting aside that strange reading, it was spellbinding to watch the temporary stage become glowing red, as Benigni recited Canto 5 from memory. It was a beautiful and emotional reading, which I followed in my Durling and Martinez edition line for line.

Roberto Benigni, Tutto Dante (recitation of Inferno 5)
Pesaro, 2006

The schedule of Roberto Benigni's Tutto Dante tour this summer continues through September 13 in cities around Italy. Tonight, he will be in Grosseto's baseball stadium (July 18), followed by appearances in Florence (the Piazzale Michelangelo, July 20) and Pisa (the Piazza dei Cavalieri, July 22). The latter will be in front of the Torre del Fame, where Conte Ugolino della Gherardesca was imprisoned and killed by starvation, as he explains to Dante in a celebrated passage in Inferno 33. That may probably come up in Pisa, although Benigni could have mentioned any number of embarrassing references to Siena that Dante made in the Commedia. Benigni chose not to do that.

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