Coming out of a dark wood and knee deep into Dante

By Anne W. Semmes

Dante Alighieri, by Attilio Runcaldier (Ravenna, 1801 – Ginevra 1884). Contributed photo.

We’re at the end of Poetry Month and I’m not going to let it get away without Dante.

Dante is the poet of exile. And how many of us have felt in exile in this pandemic, not able to crisscross this country to see our loved ones! Dante was forever banned from his beloved Florence, but managed to write a poem, the “Divine Comedy,” forever famous.

Those first lines of the poem’s beginning in “Inferno” spoke to me: “Midway in the journey of our life/I came to myself in a dark wood,/for the straight way was lost.” That’s how the time of Covid spoke to me! That’s why I chose two months ago to dive into a Dante Seminar online Zoom with Professor Joseph Luzzi!

After three weeks with the Professor, who teaches things Italian at Bard College in upstate New York, I was calling him Joseph – he’s that amenable, engaging – and handsome! I’d read his memoir, “In a Dark Wood” that tells how Dante’s Divine Comedy helped him to recover from the tragic death of his young wife, eight and a half months pregnant, in a car crash – the baby daughter survived.

Having missed – due to a glitch – the first of four parts of the seminar I didn’t have to wade through the grisly punishments of characters in the beginning “Inferno.” Nevertheless, according to Luzzi it is the most widely read of the poem’s three cantiche: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. I had some visual help from Gustave Doré’s drawings of some of those gruesome tortures in my Divine Comedy book with translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

I soon saw in those hour-and-a- half seminars what I was up against, Luzzi’s discourse moved from rich Italian into the various translations he would read from. Soon, Amazon was bringing me more contemporary translations (Sorry, Longfellow – you did a lovely job), so I could keep up with Luzzi and the erudite attendees, some of whom had taught Dante!

But Luzzi was an exemplary teacher. Before each class we received a Study Guide with questions to point us to different cantos. And after each class he would send a video with his splendid summary of the previous class. And he was always open to emailed questions.

Luzzi was unabashed throughout to pronounce the mark Dante has made on the world. “Dante [circa 1265-1321] was the first theorist of Italian cultural unity…Italy needed to become a nation – the city states were too weak…He wanted Italy to be like Greece…That’s why he is called the father of Italy…But it took another 500 years for Italy to be founded in 1861. Its younger than the United States.”

And, importantly, Dante wrote his great poem in the common man’s Tuscan language. “Most of the Renaissance artists were uneducated,” noted Luzzi, and “back then Italy was like our Midwest – rural heartland.” Luzzi is proud that his family has roots in Calabria. But he also knows Dante’s beloved Florence like the back of his hand. “Dante loves art. His poetry is so visual. He inspires artists and poets.” Yes, like Botticelli, Doré, Dali, and Rauschenberg.

In Paradiso, we see Dante’s great love Beatrice guide him through the heavens toward paradise. But, alas, “Only three percent read Paradiso,” told Luzzi who calls Paradiso “more beautiful than the other two. More inventive…Poetry reigns supreme in Paradiso.” He cites Victorian poet/critic Matthew Arnold as naming Paradiso Canto 3, verse 85 as a “perfect” line of poetry: “And in His will is our peace./It is to that sea all things move,/both what His will creates and that which nature makes.”

I confess to owning another and extraordinary visual guide for translating Dante’s cantos, the 218-page “Drawings by Sandro Botticelli for Dante’s Divine Comedy,” circa 1976. Luzzi knows that copy well – his forthcoming book is “Botticelli’s Secret: The Lost Drawings and the Rediscovery of Italian Art.” My book with its introduction by Kenneth Clark cites a total of 92 drawings known to exist. He begins with this quote: “’The Value of these drawings,’” said Bernard Berenson…consists in their being the handiwork of one of the greatest masters of the single line which our modern world has ever had.”

Seems we have in our midst someone who knows those drawings quite well, Florence Phillips of Cos Cob. Having shared one of those Luzzi seminar videos with Florence she brought forth a Dover Press book, “Drawings by Botticelli” that she had translated from the Italian that includes some of those Divine Comedy illustrations. “Italian was my first language,” shared Florence, who had spent her first years in Italy as daughter to Monuments Man Mason Hammond of Harvard fame.

And here is another surprising Greenwich connection found to Dante and his Divine Comedy, a translation by Lawrence Grant White produced in 1948, also illustrated by Gustave Doré, belonging to friend Susan Fisher. “Lawrence White’s father was [architect] Stanford White who was married to my great grandmother’s sister, Aunt Bessie – Elizabeth Springs Smith White.”

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