By Lara Carim, on 7 February 2013
Only be prepared to be dragged through hell by someone you trust to lead you through purgatory to heaven.
This timeless life lesson was expressed by Abi Warburg, founder of the Warburg Institute, nearly 120 years ago in a letter to a friend, which unfavourably compared a literary sensation of the day to Dante’s Divine Comedy.
The Divine Comedy – the 14th-century Italian epic charting the author’s mid-life crisis and subsequent enlightenment via a dramatic journey to hell and heaven – has been the subject of a pretty epic series of seminars, running from October 2012 to March 2013.
UCL Italian’s Professor John Took, Dr Alessandro Scafi (Warburg Institute) and Tabitha Tuckett from UCL Special Collections have been guiding Dante novices and specialists alike on a multi-sensory whistlestop tour of the great poem for the past four months.
This has involved scene-setting introductions, advice on key elements to listen out for and readings – in Italian and English – of selected pivotal cantos (verses) – all complemented by a changing display from UCL’s outstanding Dante Collection, dating back to the 15th century.
The Divine Comedy: digested read
The poem is a literary milestone: over 14,000 lines of rhyming three-lined verses, it helped establish the Tuscan dialect as the prevalent Italian language, given that Dante insisted on writing his life’s work in the vernacular rather than the usual choice of Latin.
It also constitutes a detailed discussion of contemporary philosophy and theology through a riproaring sneak preview of the afterlife by an everyman (also called Dante) confused about his purpose in life. Small wonder Dante is known in Italy as ‘il Sommo Poeta’ – the Supreme Poet.
With the 66 verses depicting the horrors of hell and the struggles of purgatory safely negotiated, attention turned on 29 January to the first canto of Paradiso – the ascent to the heaven of fire.
Paradiso tends to receive a bad press; it lacks the unsurprisingly tenacious grip on the public imagination enjoyed by Inferno, with its nine circles of hell described in excruciating detail, culminating in Judas Iscariot being terminally eaten and flayed by a giant, three-headed devil.
However, while Professor Took accepted that Paradiso “might lack the rumbustiousness of Inferno and the stark imagery of Purgatorio”, he countered that “there is an exhilaration throughout the text, quickened by excitement at existence itself. This is the ecstatic canticle of text, in which the idea dominates.”
From action to words
The dominance of the idea rather than the image is presented early on.
The awe-struck traveller, and canny author, calls on the god Apollo for help in conveying the magnificence of heaven, but nevertheless manages our expectations, suggesting instead that only those who undergo ‘transhumanisation’ – a term coined by Dante – can understand it, given that the mind and memory are so affected by the experience.
Dante does, however, evocatively describe how he is forcibly swept upwards towards a light so bright that it is as if “suddenly day was added to day, as if He who has the power had adorned the heaven with another sun”.
The panicked Dante is reassured by Beatrice, a figure inspired by the unrequited love of his life, who in the poem accompanies him from purgatory through the planets and onto heaven.
Free will versus divine will
Beatrice explains that the governing order of the universe dictates that all beings – those with intellect as well as dumb creatures – should be drawn to their origins, but she acknowledges that “some deviate from this course and swerve another way”.
Essentially, Beatrice presents the tension between human free will and divine will, which is further explored in the next two cantos.
The possibility of having both heaven and hell open to us, and enabling us, therefore, to define our own existence underscores the importance Dante placed on the human project; to achieve our potential through a process of active enquiry leading to greater self-knowledge. A mission that many – particularly within higher education – would espouse today.
The stature of the Divine Comedy caused a battle between Florence and Venice – both great rival centres of cultural patronage during the Renaissance – to claim Dante.
This was waged through rival editions of the Divine Comedy – with academic commentaries, everyman versions and in pocket format, to name but a few variations – and several of these owned by UCL Library Special Collections dating from the late 15th century onwards were introduced by Tabitha Tuckett.
For details of the remaining programme for ‘From devilry to divinity: readings in the Divina Commedia‘, please visit the UCL Events Calendar.
Image courtesy of UCL Library Special Collections