Carry up the cross – and Dante – for 100 days
100 days of Dante. Photo by Annabelle Nicholas
Sometime between the evening of September 13th and the morning of September 14th, 1321, on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, the great medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri died in Ravenna. His death marked the end of two decades as a traveling poet who, as he wrote in the “Convivio”, “wandered like a stranger, almost like a beggar, through practically all regions that our language encompasses”.
Dante’s wanderings had begun in 1302 with his exile from his beloved Florence, and he never got over it; in one of his Latin letters he would describe himself as “exul inmeritus”, an undeserved exile, and on countless occasions recognize Dante’s character in the shades of comedy by his Florentine speech and address him as “Tuscany”.
According to Giovanni Boccaccio’s medieval poetic biography, shortly before his death, Dante completed the final song of his epic and thus ended the “poema sacro”, “to which heaven and earth have laid their hands” (“Paradise” 25.2-3). So 2021 marks both Dante’s 700th anniversary of death and the seventh centenary of the completion of the “comedy”.
Dante’s sacred poem is needed more than ever. It was a year full of losses, a year or more without almost any public, civic, and even much liturgical life. Who of us has not felt like the Dante character who, when we meet his old friend, the musician Casella, in “Purgatory” cannot hug him because Casella is not missing a real body?
Who can forget Dante’s “Planh”, his complaint, for what I can only call “virtual Casella” without much exaggeration, led his mind to expect a corresponding physical presence, an encounter that reflects many of our own encounters over the last year where we existed as a mere simulacra with no physical substance? “O shadows,” cries Dante, “in everything but the appearance – empty! / I have folded my hands behind him three times and / as so often brought my chest back ”(“ Purgatory ”2.79-81).
After the events of last year, and because of Dante’s exalted place and his “comedy” at the University of Dallas Core, I did not hesitate to take the chance to join a Dante initiative led by Baylor. to include University Honors College. “100 Days of Dante” is an open source multimedia project with a website that will host 100 short videos, one for each chant, to guide readers through the epic.
It also offers discussion questions about each video, as well as the Italian text and English translation of the entire poem, information on current English translations of the “Comedy” and other Dante-related Internet tools. The initiative aims to promote the discussion of the Catholic-Christian intellectual tradition and understands Dante’s “Comedy” as a source of wisdom, beauty and a Christian epic.
Of the 100 video episodes, more than a dozen were written and filmed by some of your favorite University of Dallas professors. The first videos, “Inferno” 1 and 2, were released on September 8th and 10th, and the following videos will be available weekly every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, with the three chants per week schedule scheduled to accommodate the Die last episode will be available around Easter 2022. Prospective Dantephiles can join the project by visiting the 100daysofDante.com website and subscribing to the mailing list, perhaps joining a virtual or personal reading group.
The website’s design and clear user interface allow users to easily move back and forth in the poem, either horizontally – from “Inferno” 1 to 2, etc. – or vertically – from “Inferno” 6 to “Purgatory” 6 and “Paradise” 6 – and from English to Italian and vice versa. Through this and spurred on by the video lessons, the participants of “100 Days of Dante” will have the impetus to traverse the poem in its entirety, because only reading “Inferno” will miss the point. At least the many perversions of the first hymn of praise – visible in the parody of the Holy Eucharist and Count Ugolino in “Inferno” 33, the reversal of music and the humiliation of language throughout, the profane love in “Inferno” 5 and the blasphemy in “Inferno “3 and 5 – are subsequently corrected in the latter two. As Dante writes in “Paradise” 33, he saw “the scattered pages of the universe contained in a single volume / enclosed by love” (v. 86-87). Beyond the inferno there is unity, the disordered hellish cosmos gives way to the ordered empyrean.
What is the source of this unity? For Dante, wisdom and truth begin and end with God. In “Letter to Cangrande” Dante – or anyone else, it doesn’t matter; wrong, but exactly as I always say – concludes: “But in the natural position of the whole universe, the first heaven is heaven, which contains all things; consequently it relates to all things as the formative to the formable, which is supposed to stand in the relationship between cause and effect. […] And since, when the beginning or the first, who is God, is reached, there is nothing beyond that to be sought, insofar as He is the Alpha and the Omega, that is, the beginning and the end, as the vision of John tells us, that Work ends in God himself, who is blessed forever, world without end. ”
Looking at Dante from a purely biological, that is, hellish perspective, neglects the whole thing. Our mission-oriented university, which in its ideal form tries to construct a coherent whole from different parts, offers a logical home for Dante’s poem, and “100 Days of Dante” is a project that is faithful to this mission. Begin with the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross and join us in 2021 and 2022 as we trace Dante’s path from the cacophony and disorder of “Inferno” to the polyphonic unity of “Paradise” and make sure we play the role of the efficient cause on the Way to final.