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Friday, March 29, 2013

Italy Today with Dante on the Radio!

Italy Today with Dante on the Radio!

Newish media meets relatively ancient media!

I was recently interviewed for a segment dedicated to the historical precedents for Benedict XVI's resignation of the Papacy (Celestine V) and of Bergoglio's choice of the name Francis for his Papal name. As my readers' know, these are subjects of great interest to me (and to Dante). This show will air on KGOU (Oklahoma's NPR affiliate at the University of Oklahoma) on Good Friday 4:30 and 6:30 CST. I link below to a transcript of my interview and to KGOU's home page where you can stream the show live or after it airs. The award winning show is called World Views, and it is hosted by Dr. Suzette Grillot, the Dean of the College of International Studies, and it is well worth a listen every week.

The link to the World Views page.

The link to a transcript of my interview.

Happy Easter everybody.  Let's remember, this is the exact time in 1300 that Dante took his little trip through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Remember that when you feel like Easter dinner has gone on too long.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Dan Brown "DaVincis" Dante

Dan Brown "DaVincis" Dante



Although this cloud will have a silver lining, I can't say that those of us who read, study, teach, and love Dante professionally (Dantisti, we call ourselves) are thrilled to hear about Dan Brown's upcoming new book Inferno, apparently based on the first canticle of Dante's poema sacro (I would typically insert a link here to the website for his book, but he does not need my help). This will likely result in more students in our Dante in translation courses, but what will these students bring with them after reading Dan Brown? To listen to our colleagues in Art History and Religious Studies, who have suffered the collateral damage of his earlier books, these students will have some outlandish ideas.

Let me be clear, and my students can attest to this, I love outlandish ideas about Dante, provided that they are my students OWN outlandish ideas. Don't bring me anther's outlandish ideas about Dante. If you are going to go kooky, at least do it yourself.

So, I read the first 10 pages of the book, made available on Dan Brown's Templar's church of a website. I also admit to having read, out of professional necessity, the DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons but not his latest offering to Baphomet The Lost Symbol. Based on this incomplete picture of what Dan Brown will do to Dante I will make outlandish conclusions about where Dan Brown belongs in Dante's afterworld, but like Dan Brown (sans the 3 billion readers), I will come up with the most heinous possible interpretation.

Dan Brown in Hell?

Canto XVII-The Usurers

When I had set my eyes upon the faces

of some on whom that painful fire falls,

I recognized no one; but I did notice

that from the neck of each a purse was hung

that had a special color and an emblem,

and their eyes seemed to feast upon these pouches.

Like Dante's Usurers in Canto XVII, Violent against God, Dan Brown makes profit by unnaturally and wantonly reproducing meanings from symbols.  The sin of usury is violence against god because money cannot reproduce itself, since it is only a symbol of the wealth generated naturally (from work, or from natural resources, etc.), which involves interaction with God's creation.  Dan Brown reproduces art from art. He is not a plagiarizer, but his books profit from the art (and names) of others. His violence is not as much against the individual authors themselves (what does Dante care?), but against the idea of artistic creation, thus against God's originally act of creation. The punishment of the Usurers also fits poetically. They are unrecognizable in their suffering, with the only hint to remind of us their earthly infamy a symbol placed on a money pouch hung from their necks. Their unnatural wealth now weighs them down while offering a possible identification. Dan Brown's symbol? A cross between Harvard and Florence's symbol. The Fleur-de-Lis with Harvard's "Ve Ri Tas" replaced with Am Big Uitas.

Of course it is not by chance that these sinners also sit on the precipice of the descent to Fraud, only accessible by the beast Geryon, the very figure of literary fraud.

Maybe after reading the whole thing (again, a professional responsibility), I will feel more generous and move him to Purgatorio (Pride comes to mind) or even Paradiso (Love marred by Wantonness, perhaps? Let's leave every possibility open.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Francis the Archimandrite

Francis the Archimandrite

Habemus Papam! I know I am a bit late on the scene, but I was vacationing on the Gargano Peninsula in Puglia and news travels slow there. More to the point; I had no internet connection; Ah, rustic Puglia! I find it more than coincidental that I came to know of our new Pope shortly before visiting the castle in Vieste where the previous Pope to have given up the Papacy. Celestine V, was imprisoned there by Boniface VIII (with the help of the Templars? Dan Brown take note!)until his death.

Bergoglio's choice of the name Francis, specifically in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, distinguishes this man's Papacy from many previous occupants of St. Peter's throne. Bold or audacious? I can only think of two possible names that would have been more striking, Peter II or Pope Christ! Why is it that no man, Italian or otherwise, has chosen Francis as a name when he is, after Christ, the most popular and well-loved Christian ever?

Let's look at what Dante has to say about St. Francis to find an answer to why Francis has been, and remains today, a problematic name for the Pope.

Dante's presentation of St. Francis, as part of a quartet of saints, two Dominican (St. Dominic and St. Thomas Aquinas) and two Franciscans (St. Francis and St. Bonaventure) emphasizes Dante's opinion for the need of reconciliation of competing ideologies in his church.  Our Pope Francis' choice of names, a Jesuit who nods openly to a Franciscan while also possibly saluting one of his own. St. Fracis Xavier, matches Dante's reconciling agenda.

Dante follows the tradition of St. Francis' biographies, already codified in his day, by focusing on St. Francis' rejection of material goods and embrace of Lady Poverty, both material and spiritual. This too, our Francis has done, and wonderfully I might add. His lumbering simplicity in gait and in speech has given him credit with everyday Catholics and others, that goes far beyond geography (being from Argentina) or theology (Liberation Theology). But a poor church was hard in Francis' day, even among Franciscans (even before Francis died, it split his order in two factions); what our Francis means when he wishes for a poor church to serve the poor remains a big question. After all, it takes quite a bit of soldi to build a church like this.

So our Francis is like St. Francis in his humility, simplicity, and poverty.

But Dante saw the contradictions in St. Francis that made him such a unique individual, one that could have been potential dangerous to his church, to his Popes. His the "giullare di dio" or God's fool; a man so resistant to systematic philosophy that his greatest ideological statement is a simple poem. Moreover, the 12-14th centuries in Italy is a hotbed of charismatic heretics preaching poverty and humility (Valdo and Fra Dolcino to name just two). What makes St. Francis a new Christ, the hero of the institutional church?

To understand how radical St. Francis' life was, see this new biography of St. Francis by my old teacher Fr. Augustine Thompson.

 Now a simple answer to my previous questions. Obedience. Dante calls St. Francis the Archimandrite, the head shephard of the church of his day. The word itself is as "fancy" a word as Dante will use, really an Italianized version of a Greek word he likely found in a specialized dictionary of his day. His readership would have been awestruck with this word, so elegant. But the word itself relates contradiction of the office of head shephard, leader of the lowliest, a fancy word to relate a humble office.

So St. Francis is the lowly leader of the lowest and gets his office from the Pope, to which he pledges obedience (along with poverty, and chastity, the three rules for Franciscans). What does our Francis do with that aspect of St. Francis? His obedience to the Papacy?

Poverty and chastity and obedience. How can Pope Francis be obedient to the Papacy that he controls? Will he follow the lead of his immediate and living predecessor? Will he be obedient to the forces behind his election? Or, will he be, like St. Francis, be God's fool and really change his Church? If so, maybe he will join St. Francis and others in the joyous dance in the heaven of the Sun.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Il Cavaliere Berlusconi! : Il Cavaliere esistente

Il Cavaliere Berlusconi!

Il Cavaliere esistente

The most surprising result of last month's elections in Italy as reported by most media, in Italy, Europe, and the US, was the continued strength of Silvio Berlusconi's center-right PDL coalition (Partito della LibertĂ , or Party of Liberty). Let's leave aside the fact that this part plummeted from 48% of the vote in 2008 to 29% in 2013, Silvio Berlusconi had, in the now conventional understanding of the media (controlled by Berlusconi!), had fended of political death to be reborn at polls. But, the below political cartoon captures the public opinion in Italy about Berlusconi's continued, relative, popularity.

For some reason, Italians keep voting for Berlusconi and his party, despite the near universal knowledge of his corruption and licentiousness. He just won't go away; in fact, Italians don't seem to want him to leave.

What would Dante have made of this man? Berlusconi can lay claim to enough sins, just limiting ourselves to those public known!, to merit placement in almost any of Dante's divisions in Hell. Lust? Oozing out of every pore. Greed? Italy's riches man. Violence against Nature? Look at what plastic surgery has made of his face.

But unlike Purgatorio, it seems the Dante only allows for souls to spend time in one part of Hell, the lowest. So, again, where does Dante put Berlusconi, with such an embarrassment of choices?

Berlusconi's political misdeeds, as well as personal, seem to so venial. He is a slave to his own ego, to his own wealth, to his own personal political image. Indeed, Berlusconi's debauchery is transitory, although not without victims. Dante's lower Hell is reserved for tragic figures who believe themselves epic: Vanni Fucci's disdainful "double-bird" to God, Ulysses's epic self-delusion, Ugolino's monstrosity, not to forget Brutus, Cassius and Judas, whose treachery changed history.  Berlusconi among these great (if greatly evil) souls? No. With the amount of power he amassed as political leader and financial titan of a G7 country for nearly a decade, he could have ruined this country: geopolitical war games, chipping away the Constitution, derailing Europe, or anything else on a grande scale. Instead, he grafted more money for to build his villas while paying nearly underage girls for sex and exotic stripteases. How despicable, how pathetic: what a farce his brand of evil!

So, he goes in the 5th Bolgia of the 8th Circle, with corrupt public officials, just like any other grafting politico trading public trust for a "little taste." Dante portrays these sinners in a little comedic farce that lasts more than two canti; his disdain for this sin might indicate his disgust at the fact that he was accused of this sin as a pretense for his exile from Florence in 1301. What is clear is that Berlusconi's purely political, pecuniary, and petty (although on a grand scale) corruption fits right in with these scheming, cheating, and sly sinners that continue their subterfuge even in Hell. They can chose between boiling pitch or the hooks and claws of the devils that torture them. In any case, their negotiating between these two fates, and empty attempts to bargain for a better fate, mimics their corruption and hidden dealings as public officials.
Be careful both sinners and devils in Bolgia V; Berlusconi is on his way, and he is as tricky as any of you.
They turned around along the left hand bank:
but first each pressed his tongue between his teeth
as signal for their leader, Barbariccia.

And he had made a trumpet of his ass.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Locating Dante Today

Locating Dante Today

My friend and colleague Arielle Saiber from Bowdoin College in Maine has hosted a collaborative website that collects "sightings" of Dante in contemporary culture. Her website has seen contributions from students, faculty, Dante scholars, and many other fans of Dante over the past 5 years. I link to it and encourage readers of this blog to check it out and add your recent "sightings" of Dante--but be quick, she updates her website often.

Paolo and Francesca teddy bears! (Canto V, Inferno)

Dante has been thinking long and hard of exactly where Berlusconi is going to end up (so many possibilities!). Check in tomorrow to find out.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Beppe Grillo, Dante's Greyhound?

Beppe Grillo, Dante's Greyhound?

Besides Popes, nothing exercised Dante's poetic vehemence more than politics. In fact, it was the Papacy's political involvement that so piques his ire in the Commedia. But Dante's anger went far beyond the Popes. Dante himself was involved in politics in his hometown of Florence, before being exiled for life, at the hand of Pope Boniface VIII and a local faction of politics. Dante uses his 6th canti in the Commedia (the scene above is from VI of Inferno) to talk about contemporary politics in an ever-widening context: first Florence, then Italy, and finally all of Europe. In other parts of the poem Dante makes a point to criticize and condemn political leaders and the corruption of his day.

So, what would Dante make of Italy's political situation today? Of course, that question is too broad for one blog entry, or even one blog. So, today I start with the newest and most peculiar entry into Italy's political scene: Beppe Grillo.

It is too early to say what Dante would make of this charismatic leader of the MoVimento 5 Stelle group, which made news throughout Europe for taking nearly a third of the vote in last month's general elections. Grillo's movement is young, popular, anti-establishment, and ideologically incoherent. While I find M5S a compelling story, Grillo is just the next of a type of political phenomenon that Dante himself would have recognized.

Grillo represents the same hope that Italians have for a leader to come to Italy and offer a hope of political unity. In Dante, this idea is best found in the "greyhound" who Dante has Virgil describe in prophesy in the first Canto of the Inferno.

She mates with many living souls and shall

yet mate with many more, until the Greyhound

arrives, inflicting painful death on her.

That Hound will never feed on land or pewter,

but find his fare in wisdom, love, and virtue;

his place of birth shall be between two felts.

He will restore low-lying Italy

for which the maid Camilla died of wounds,

and Nisus, Turnus, and Euryalus.

Here's the catch. We have no idea what Dante is talking about with his greyhound and two felts. Did he have hopes for a new political leader to come and unify the factional divisions that were ripping asunder Dante's Italy (the Guelphs and Ghibellines were Dante's PD and PDL or Republicans and Democrats)? Did this greyhound promise reform, unity, virtue? We don't know because it never happened. Dante's Italy remained factional, dysfunctional, and corrupt. So it is today, and Grillo is the next great hope, subject of almost prophetic hopes and near deification among his supporters.

So the jury is out on Grillo. Will he be just another charismatic leader to flash across the Italian horizon and end up a footnote of history? Or we he merit notice of historians and poets, either for hsi fall from grace into the filth of political corruption (INF. XXI-XXII), or we he take his place in the heaven of the just Rulers (Par. XIX-XX)? All across Italy, the monuments to Dante are watching Grillo and the Grillini in judgment.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Great Refusal: Benedict XVI and Celestine V

Benedict XVI visits the Basilica of Collemaggio which contains the remains of the relics of Celestine V, the last Pope to resign the Papacy in December of 1294.

Perhaps already in 2009, when Benedict XVI visited the relics of the last Pope to have resigned his office, the idea of resigning the Papacy (renuntiatio) was already present with the immediate-past Pope. Ratzinger (the Pope's given name) must have at some point thought about what his predecessor's act might promise for his own legacy. Dante played an important voice in the formulation of Celestine's legacy; Dante puts Celestine in his Inferno III (he mentions him in XXVII as well), not quite in Hell proper, but with the Neutral angels and lukewarm souls who, to paraphrase the great Geddy Lee of Rush says, have made a choice by not choosing.

Ratizinger is a student of Medieval theology. Indeed, long before he was  a Pope, I read Ratzinger's treatise of the philosophy of history of St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan theologian who had an important influence on Dante. No doubt, Ratzinger knows his Dante. Did he think about Dante's judgment of Celestine V when he made his choice?

For Dante, Celestine's resignation probably irked him most because of its immediate results: the election of Benedetto Gaetani (notice the name--coincidence?) as Pope Boniface VIII, Dante's arch-enemy. But, Dante certainly say Celestine's choice, his Great Refusal in Dante's words, as an act of despair or even cowardice. The papacy then as now, certainly not less but maybe not more, was the sight of political intrigue, factions, scandal, and deceit. Celestine took the hermits path and happily lived out his last year in Boniface's prison. Benedict XVI is a theologian, so we can probably expect new writings from him, but, and this is the question, what has become of the Papacy and of politics in Italy because of Benedict's own Great Refusal?

Dante's Italy Today

Dante's Italy Today

Since my first reading o Dante's Commedia at the age of 15, which itself was spurred by my first trip to Europe same year, I have always wondered what it would have been like to live in Dante's Italy. Of course, as I learned more about daily life in the Middle Ages, I became less enthusiastic about living in a historical period without central heating or antibiotics, but my fascination with the Italian Trecento (1300's) has persisted.

Now, almost 25 years later, I am living out part of that juvenile dream. I am currently living and working with my family in Arezzo, Italy, a city very near Dante's Florence, in an Italy which bears two notable similarities to Dante's Italy: as of the elections of February 24-25, Italy has no functional central government due, and there is no Pope. Both of these occurrences in themselves are not rare. Italy's government has seen periods of instability, particularly since the end of WWII ; the Papacy remains vacant after the death of every Pope until the new one is chosen. However, the particular nature of today's political situation in Italy reminds me of Dante's Italy, which was without a central government and without a Pope, as the Papacy had moved to Avignon in modern-day France for most of the 1300s.

As a scholar and teacher of Dante , I see Dante everywhere. In this blog, I am going to put that talent (obsession?) to good use! This blog will look at today's Italy (politics, culture, sports, arts, etc.) and speculate on what Dante's take might be. Sometimes this blog will consider the opinion of a guest, Giovanni Boccaccio, Francesco Petrarch, Niccolò Machiavelli, as well. Of course, my main intent is humor, but I also hope, as a teacher, that thinking about what Dante has said about politics and culture of his day might give us some insight into today's Italy.