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A sculpture of Dante Alighieri A sculpture of Dante Alighieri  (AFP or licensors)

Cardinal Ravasi: Dante’s breviary and comedy, always with me

In an interview with Vatican News, the President of the Pontifical Council for Culture reflects on some passages of the Pope's Apostolic Letter "Candor Lucis Aeternae", explaining the traits of Dante's genius and the relevance of his work. A virtual exhibition, with materials from the Vatican Library, and an interpretation of passages from the Divine Comedy with the voices of well-known actors in the Capitoline catacombs, is one of the initiatives organized by the Dante Commission, established by the Vatican and headed by the Cardinal.

By Antonella Palermo

Throughout Italy and in many cities across the world, organizations, institutions, universities, schools and associations have been preparing for at least a year for the celebration of the seventh centenary of the death of the great poet Dante Alighieri.

March 25 is the day set aside by scholars to recognize the beginning of Dante's literary journey to the afterlife. The Dantedì ("Day of Dante") is promoted by the Academia della Crusca, and offers a host of scientific meetings, exhibitions, and readings, thanks to the support of the web and social media.

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture and of the Dante Commission which was established by the Vatican to celebrate the anniversary of Alighieri, spoke to Vatican News about the Apostolic Letter Candor Lucis Aeternae:

Q: How does Dante still speak to us today?

We have his figure in mind especially in the representations that we find inside the Vatican spaces, in the Apostolic Palace where Raphael represented him twice with a rather stern and austere profile. He depicted him first among the theologians, in the so-called Stanza della Segnatura, and then again in a scene in that room, in Parnassus among the poets. Dante was able to interlace these two dimensions, so that he crossed the entire history of the West: above all as a great poet, but also as a great believer. And so he always remained on the edge of faith and art, on the edge of history and transcendence, of mystery, of the eternal. And this has been his greatness, which still today can in some way influence our present-day events through a testimony that is above all a testimony of hope in a "beyond" starting from the mud of Hell.

Q: So, re-reading the Divine Comedy is an injection of hope of some sort?

Yes, in fact, the ideal definition of Dante's character is an expression that is dear to tradition and also present in the Letter of Pope Francis: he was a prophet of hope. We know that he had a dialectical, tense relationship with the Church and the world, with its culture and society. Without hesitation, he puts a still-living Pope, Boniface VIII, in a hellhole with a rather severe polemic; and on the other hand, we see that he calls the Florentines "scoundrels". It indicates that he had a tormented relationship with the reality in which he was inserted, but at the same time he uninterruptedly points his gaze towards a beyond and towards an Other, the beyond of Paradise, for example, that is, of our extreme goal, and also an Other that has a human but transfigured face. This is a truly suggestive thing: within the Divine Comedy, in canto XXXII, when he represents the Trinity - in the famous three circles of different colors, the three persons who, however, have a single "content", as he says, that is, a single space - we have, in the center, the surprise of finding "our effigy" he says, because the face of Christ is a face of man with the characteristics of humanity and that is why we find ourselves within the divine, after having gone through the bitterness of history, which can also be history like the one in which we are now inserted.

Q: What does Alighieri's life as an exile say to today's men and women?

His experience is obviously quite dramatic. Almost all of his existence will be outside of that horizon that he loves, even though Florence is in his heart, so much so that he will remember "my beautiful San Giovanni". Let us not forget that Paul VI had a laurel wreath presented to the Baptistery of Florence, San Giovanni, in memory of the poet, and he also gave - this is not often emphasized - to all the Council Fathers an edition of the Divine Comedy. So the Florentine Dante is still the figure that we have in mind and that he himself, I believe, loved to represent, despite the indignation for what he had suffered. But in the end he was also a kind of pilgrim who later died abroad. He lived the paradigm of an authentic journey in which all humanity is involved. It is the pilgrimage through "the flowerbed that makes us so fierce" - that is, our world, as he says in Canto XXII of Paradise - to reach a hoped-for condition that for him will not be realized. Even if when he died in Ravenna he was quite serene and protected, in the end, inside of him was that harmony, that peace and that happiness that he had yet to achieve and that is why will sing them in Paradise. This is why he was a pilgrim in history, an exile like so many today who seek a landing place on a different shore, on a different beach, always holding high "the torch of high desire".

Q: Dante uses the "language of all." Pope Francis compares him to the Saint of Assisi. Does this aspect of universality also mean working today to promote ever greater accessibility to cultural content?

It is a great lesson that I believe Dante offers to all of us: to know how to unite, and this is evidently the fruit of his genius. On the one hand, he has the extreme ability to precisely express the vernacular in common language, the desire to make everyone succeed in some way no longer through the nobility of Latin, the language of the intellectual aristocracy. On the other, there is the sequence of images. Dante is in many ways truly a multimedia figure because he is already capable: in all the 14,223 hendecasyllables of the 100 cantos, one can say that there is a shining image. He does not speak only through words or sophisticated theoretical reflection. He speaks uninterruptedly by showing you scenes and making the one who reads the text accurately see those images, as if he were looking at a computer or television screen. In addition to his extreme ability to be "popular", there is the greatness of his reflection. Dante is a great poet, but he is also a great theologian and a great scientist for his cosmological vision. He is a great philosopher. Few know how to stand on a ridge whereby on the one hand we have a view of light, transparent, immediate, a horizon that everyone can perceive and pursue, and on the other hand a dark side, into which we must enter with difficulty. It is really a sort of admirable harmony between pure poetry and refined speculation.

Q: In writing the Comedy, Dante uses a style that is often very sanguine, at times perfidious, in the description of certain of his contemporaries. Is this also a reason for his greatness?

Certainly, I believe that this is also one of the fundamental reasons for his involvement in our history because his feet are always planted in the dust of history. Let's not forget that he lived in a period in which the sweet Stil Novo dominated, the courtly poetry, the desire to transfigure, but at the same time, we see that he, precisely in an era that made reality take off towards an almost mythical, mystical sky, he instead still returns to bring back the weight of history, he still invites us to look at carnality with realism; he invites us to see tragedy, even the chronicle; he invites us to look into the face of that evil that is also sin. It is a very high moral lesson. That said, having reiterated this characteristic of his that makes him so close to us and that allows us to feel those characters of his as characters of our time, let us not forget that all three canticles end with the word "star." In Hell, after having gone through all the evil of the world, the vices, the humiliations, the hypocrisies, the dark entanglement of vipers that is human misery and also human freedom, there is this "riveder le stelle" (seeing the stars again); and then Purgatory and the great catharsis that finally allows us to see the ultimate meaning of being, of existing, which is not emptiness, nothingness, destruction, evil, but is precisely that infinity, that mystery that was evoked before.

Q: Your Eminence, when did you first come into contact with the Comedy, and what were you most struck by?

In high school. I had the good fortune to have a professor who had created all the philological tools for me, but also the ability to enter into the poetry, the harmony, the music of the Divine Comedy, the spirituality. In this regard, I make an appeal to schools - as the Pope does at the end of his Apostolic Letter - to know how to not only explain the footnotes but to convey the beauty, the passion... After having studied many other things in my life and after having dedicated much space to the Bible - which is fundamental also in Dante: it has been calculated that there are 588 quotations from the Bible in the Divine Comedy - I also had the good fortune to be Prefect of the Ambrosian Library and Art Gallery in Milan, and a predecessor of mine, next to the apartment that I was using at the time, had built a tower in the 1930s. This tower had a wonderful view of the Duomo of Milan. Every day he went up to read a song from the Divine Comedy as he recited the breviary. Here, I wanted to repeat this action, not always, but often. When I wasn't busy somewhere else, I would go up. And this was a way for me to be accompanied by Dante and also to say what a writer dear to Pope Francis, Jorge Luis Borges, author of nine essays on Dante, said: no one has the right to deprive himself of this happiness that is the Divine Comedy. For those who have read it so much, there is always something that fascinates you in a different way. Sometimes it is simply an expression, for example, I think "to the eternal from time": there is the whole Divine Comedy (Paradiso, XXXI). Or "how can makes himself eternal" (Inferno, XV) to show how the carnal, fragile, weak and sinful man can eternalize himself. But I would like to recall the scene of Ulysses' mad flight because it represents a component of my own life: the search for a higher horizon which, however, can certainly also be risky. There can in fact be, as we know, hubris, the challenge to divinity when we are no longer aware of being limited. Perhaps we can exercise ourselves in rediscovering those pages that we have read and studied at school and that have in some way, left a trace in our existence.

Q: How can the celebrations of Dante planned for this year really contribute to relaunching the study and knowledge of the poet outside the school curriculum, especially in times of distance-learning?

I would like to recall the many events that we, as the Vatican Dante Commission, have organized and that will accompany the entire Dante year, starting on March 25, when we will open a virtual exhibition to travel with Dante, curated with materials from the Vatican Library. You can imagine the richness of the collection: manuscripts, codices, ancient books, engravings.... Then there will be one in which we have involved the Vatican Museums, another virtual exhibition. We would also like to have an experience, unfortunately limited by invitation only, but we hope to be able to do it on television: Dante in the Catacombs. There will be four actors: Carlo Verdone, Margherita Buy, Alessandro Haber and Nancy Brilli who will reread and interpret some passages chosen by them. And again, a scientific meeting at the University Roma Tre on the figure of Dante and the great questions of the afterlife that he poses.

25 March 2021, 12:00