Dallas Does Dante

Seven hundred years after his death SMU celebrates Italian’s legacy

By Anthony J. Elia

Regional instability, political recriminations, multi-faction in-fighting, impending battles, fleeing artists, translators, and literary personalities, exiled notables, uncertain and difficult times.  These are the headlines that grab our attention today.  But they are the same things that were happening seven centuries ago on the Italian peninsula that comprised the society where Italy’s most famous poet lived and died.

Next month in September will mark the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), most notable as the author of The Divine Comedy, the multi-part classic outlining Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. The poetic masterpiece created a visual and literary roadmap of an afterlife, replete with a detailed overview of how punishment and redemption came to the swath of society.  

For generations and millions of people since 1321, when Dante died, his legacy has branded our minds with images of hell and torture. When people say “these are difficult times,” I often respond with “when aren’t we in difficult times?!”  And we easily retreat to some unsavory image of torture and death represented by Dante all those years ago. It’s also generally easier to relate to Dante’s vision of the world, because all people suffer.  

During his life, Dante learned the ways of traditional poetry and song, wrote prolifically, and is known for his passionate and idealized love of the young Beatrice, who died at the age of 24. While they probably met when the two were just 9 years old, Dante’s fondness and obsession over Beatrice would launch him into the greatest of his writings and poetic endeavors. So in memorializing Dante today, we should also remember Beatrice.

Dante eventually got caught up in the political fights of the day, went into exile, and died away from his native Florence in Ravenna on Sept. 14, 1321.

Even in death he became controversial and elicited contempt from the church for his writings that still circulated. But his legacy today is incontestable, with thousands of scholarly and news publications, more than 200 English translations, and renditions into scores of other languages.

In 2021, Dante is being celebrated around the world with conferences about his life and work in the Ivy League, online reading clubs, and joint ventures among universities, Dante clubs, and Italian-American civic and cultural organizations.  It’s not a stretch to pun on the Inferno author that “Dante is hot stuff.”

The great poet is also being honored in Dallas.

SMU is hosting its Dante Festival today through Thursday (Aug. 31 to Sept. 2) at the university’s Bridwell Library.  The activities will highlight materials held in Bridwell’s collections (part of SMU Libraries & Perkins School of Theology) related to Dante and include screenings of Dante-inspired films (Aug. 31), an art show and reception (Sept. 1), a day-long conference on Dante’s legacy, a 13th-century Tuscan banquet with a poetic Dante performance, and a concert of traditional and newly commissioned works for the festival inspired by Dante’s works.  Events are open to the public, but seating is limited.

Even as the world’s problems flare and cause stress, we are reminded by the architect of one of the most famous literary works in history that things tend not to change.  And at some point, we might find a little paradise at the end of our journeys.  

For more information and to register for events, go to: https://libcal.smu.edu/calendar/bridwell/DanteFestival

Anthony J. Elia is the director and J.S. Bridwell Foundation Endowed Librarian of the Bridwell Library at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology.

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