Pope Francis and Notre Dame students celebrate Dante on the 750th anniversary of his birth
Born in Florence, Italy in 1265, Dante Alighieri quickly left his mark on the Western literary tradition with his famous Divine Comedy. Dante, one of the most influential and widely read poets of the West, is still celebrated today, and his presence is felt keenly on Notre Dame’s campus thanks to the annual event, Dante Now!
Dante Now! is an annual, campus-wide reading of Dante’s Comedy in the original Italian, sharing the richness of Dante’s poetry with the campus community. Organized by the Italian Studies department, the event involves hundreds of students studying Italian at all levels. This year marks the 750th anniversary of Dante’s birth, tingeing the annual festivities with special significance.
Sophomore Brendan Besh, one student who participated in this year’s iteration of Dante Now!, described the event and his experience reading the Comedy.
“Dante Now! is a celebration of Dante here on campus in front of a modern audience. All of the different Italian students from all different levels gathered on Friday, October 9th to perform public readings from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Everyone puts on their laurels and we go around campus spreading the words of Dante,” Besh told the Rover.
Besh also spoke to the influential role of Dante in the Western canon as one reason to continue reading Dante in the modern era. “I think we take for granted how much of our poetic and literary tradition comes from Dante,” Besh said.
“Centuries before the Renaissance, he was attempting to bridge a gap between Christian Theology and Pagan Literature all in his own vernacular tongue which could appeal to a larger audience. I think that it’s important to pay homage to such an important poet and to read from these passages in the original Italian,” he continued.
Anne Leone, Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures, who helps to organize Dante Now! each year, also commented on the event, offering her own reflections on the value of Dante to a modern audience.
“We train all of our Italian students (usually two to three hundred), in addition to professors, members of the public, alumni and anyone else who wants to join in, to read passages from Dante’s Comedy, and then we perform these readings around campus in a kind of flash mob style,” she said.
Leone is in her fifth year at Notre Dame and is currently writing a book on blood in Dante and the Middle Ages. Her studies in Dante are wide-ranging, but she points to the innovation and breadth of his poetry as among her chief interests.
“I study Dante for very many different reasons,” Leone explained. “One of them has to do with the innovativeness and experimentalism of his works. He synthesized a staggering variety of ideas from diverse disciplines (ancient science and medicine, Christian theology, contemporary and classical poetry, to name just a few) with a kind of precision which is almost unbelievable given the challenges of accessing information he would have faced in his day; yet at the same time, his works in some ways turn these traditions on their heads. He did something unprecedented in Western culture, which in turn influenced centuries of readers.”
Dante’s work, though complex and highly synthetic, does not have to be distancing. In fact, Leone explains that this deeply humanistic complexity is, to her, another draw to the great poet.
“I study Dante’s works because they make me feel an enormous sense of wonder—at the vastness and complexity of the universe, of works of art, of the human condition. But at the same time, this vastness is anything but alienating; in fact, it makes me feel intimately connected to something beyond myself,” she continued.
Leone’s comments echo those of Pope Francis, who delivered an address in May in celebration of the 750th anniversary of Dante’s birth. Like Leone, the pontiff affirmed the inescapable relevance of Dante to a modern audience. As the Pope explained, Dante “still has much to say and offer to those who desire to travel the way to true knowledge, to the authentic discovery of self, of the world, of life’s profound and transcendent meaning.”
The pope concluded his remarks by holding the Divine Comedy up as a model for the Christian life, a life of redemption and restoration.
“Dante is therefore a prophet of hope, a herald of humanity’s possible redemption and liberation, of profound change in every man and woman, of all of humanity. He invites us to regain the lost and obscured meaning of our human journey and to hope to see again the bright horizon which shines in the full dignity of the human person.”
Michael Infantine is a senior PLS major and Theology minor who hopes to attend graduate school in starting next fall. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.