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Robert P. ImbelliMay 10, 2024
An artistic rendering of Dante Alighieri from ‘Dante: Inferno’ to Paradise (courtesy of PBS) An artistic rendering of Dante Alighieri from ‘Dante: Inferno’ to Paradise (courtesy of PBS) 

Three years ago, on the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri, Pope Francis issued an apostolic letter, “Candor Lucis Aeternae” (“Splendor of Eternal Light”).

In it the pope expressed deep appreciation “to those teachers who passionately communicate Dante’s message and introduce others to the cultural, religious and moral riches contained in his works.” But Francis also added: “this great heritage cries out to be made accessible beyond the halls of schools and universities.”

I have no idea whether Ric Burns has read the pope’s letter, but his splendid two-part PBS documentary, “Dante: Inferno to Paradise,” certainly has brought Dante’s achievement beyond the groves of academe and into America’s living rooms.

Even at a generous four hours, the documentary is no more than an introduction to Dante and his Commedia, the three-part work only canonized after his death as “Divina.” The documentary features vivid art works (including the baptistry of San Giovanni in Florence and mosaics in the churches of Ravenna —their luminous images gracing with beauty the beginning and end of Dante’s earthly life). It incorporates authoritative comments from some 20 Dante scholars and re-enactments by actors of select scenes from Dante’s life and poem. The whole is bound together by an excellent script, written by Ric Burns and the Dante scholar Riccardo Bruscagli, and winningly narrated by Alan Cox.

The first hour of the program provides indispensable background to Dante’s masterpiece: his participation in the creative and tumultuous life of late medieval Florence, his portentous encounter with Beatrice Portinari when both were but 9 years old, her early death, and his pathbreaking collection of vernacular poetry and commentary celebrating his love for her: La Vita Nuova. After her death Dante plunged into the rancorous world of Florentine politics, a veritable “hell of warring appetites,” as one of the commentators puts it.

Dante traces all his subsequent woes to his election as one of the city’s six priors in 1300, which led eventually not only to banishment from Florence on trumped-up charges of corruption, but to the imposition of the death penalty for his failure to appear before a kangaroo court. There followed the psychologically and spiritually dislocating years of exile, in which Dante came to know “the bitter taste of others’ bread”—yet improbably succeeded in crafting one of Western culture’s supreme works of art.

The second half of Part I introduces us to Dante, “midway in our mortal life,” lost in a dark wood, and his terrifying descent on Good Friday 1300 to the infernal realm, where, guided by the ancient Roman poet Virgil, he encounters those whose sins, in their manifold forms, were at their root a rejection of “the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.”

Key to understanding Dante’s poem, then, is its focus upon the twin, connected realities of desire and freedom. All things, especially human beings, are moved by desire: desire for more and greater being. But humans are endowed with freedom to orient their desire to the true Good. However, so often human desire becomes distorted, turned in upon itself, rather than seeking the common good of all. Whether in the figures of Paolo and Francesca, or Ulysses, or Count Ugolino, Inferno represents the choices we have made, the fixation of the self we have freely chosen to become, heedless of the harm we inflict upon others.

The beginning of Part II of the documentary finds Dante emerging from the underworld into the sun of Easter morning with new hope of ascending through the terraces of Purgatory to the abode of the blessed. In contrast to Inferno, where the air is dank with hostility and vengefulness, the atmosphere of Purgatorio is redolent with friendship and community. Indeed, the purgatorial realm, the “place” of desire’s purification, is marked by reciprocity and prayer, a communion among the living and those more truly living, in their now rightly ordered desire to realize humanity’s transcendent destiny.

At a pivotal moment in the poem Dante attains the summit of Purgatory where he enters the earthly paradise, the scene of Adam and Eve’s creation and fall. There Virgil must depart, replaced by Beatrice as Dante’s guide through the heavenly spheres and the concluding portion of the narrative. Beatrice, who was the subject of Dante’s juvenile infatuation, is now revealed as a mediator of that costly and transforming love that first drives Dante to tears of contrition before bestowing the redemptive grace that will make possible his ascent to the very vision of God.

The final segment of the narrative propels the poet through the heavenly spheres, and Dante strains to give some expression to the glory of God reflected in the darting, dancing flames of the blessed whom he encounters on his luminous journey. Here Dante’s depiction is but a “simulacrum,” an accommodation to our sensory mode, of that true Paradise that lies beyond space and time. All the things he sees, apparently arrayed in the planetary spheres, are, in reality, united in the great mystical rose of the blessed, continually vivified by the river of light streaming forth from God.

In the poem’s culminating vision, Dante’s desire and will are at last “aligned with the sublime harmony of God’s will,” that love which “moves the sun and the other stars.”

Missed opportunities

For all its generosity of scope and purpose, the documentary nonetheless disappoints on several counts. First, the very profusion of commentators cited risks sacrificing depth to breadth. It is not that the comments mislead, but that they often fail to probe more deeply into the fabric of the poem. Two notable exceptions are worth highlighting. Lino Pertile, the dean of Dante commentators, and the young American scholar Catherine Adoyo consistently offer penetrating insights.

Still more disappointing, however, is the scant attention paid to the poem’s distinctive structure and animating vision: its Christocentric Trinitarianism. There is no mention of the poem’s highly original terza rima verse form—a Trinitarian rhythm that both supports and drives Dante’s journey. Nor does one learn that, after the introductory canto, each of the three parts of the Commedia contains 33 cantos,, another clear Trinitarian reference. Nor, finally, is there explicit acknowledgement that Dante’s culminating vision is one, not merely of God, but of the divine Trinity, and that humanity is called to Trinitarian transformation, indeed, divinization.

Moreover, though the narrative alludes to the fact that the journey transpires from Good Friday through Easter week, with particular emphasis on the Easter Sunday emergence from Hell, it fails to develop the constitutive connection between Dante’s transforming journey and Christ’s paschal mystery.

Mention is made of those crucial mediators that intervene to guide the pilgrim’s progress: Virgil and Beatrice, and the venerable elder, St. Bernard. But they appear as discrete personages, rather than representative embodiments of the unique mediator whose paschal mystery enables and inflames the rose of the redeemed. It is significant, in this regard, that, in Dante’s culminating vision, Jesus Christ does not appear as part of the rose, even at its apex, but is espied by Dante in the very bosom of the Trinity itself.

Thus, Pope Francis is quite correct in his insistence in “Candor Lucis Aeternae” that “the mystery of the Incarnation...is the true heart and inspiration of the entire poem. For it effected what the Fathers of the Church call our ‘divinization,’ the admirabile commercium, the wondrous exchange, whereby God enters our history by becoming flesh, and humanity, in its flesh, is enabled to enter the realm of the divine, symbolized by the Rose of the blessed.”

Now, one can appreciate that the sentiment with which Riccardo Bruscagli closes this excellent documentary—“Your life matters! Take care of it! Take care of it!”—may well appeal to an audience that deems itself “spiritual, but not religious.” But the injunction seems a rather pallid admonition with which to end an account of Dante’s transformative journey, more suited, I suggest, to his “limbo” than to “Paradiso.” There is no hint here that one must lose one’s life in order truly to embark upon la vita nuova, no intimation that, as Francis says, “our humanity, in its concreteness, with our daily gestures and words, with our intelligence and affections, with our bodies and emotions, is taken up into God, in whom it finds true happiness and ultimate fulfilment, the goal of all its journeying.”

Hence, one dares hope that there will be those who resonate with and respond to the pope’s more robust call to the adventure of faith, to that fuller transformation and transfiguration that the Gospel (and Dante) promises. For, as Francis writes: “At this particular moment in history, overclouded by situations of profound inhumanity and a lack of confidence and prospects for the future, the figure of Dante, prophet of hope and witness to the human desire for happiness, can still provide us with words and examples that encourage us on our journey. Dante can help us to advance with serenity and courage on the pilgrimage of life and faith that each of us is called to make, until our hearts find true peace and true joy, until we arrive at humanity’s ultimate goal: the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.”

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