Dante’s universal ‘fortunes’ explored at third annual Symposium

Australian Catholic University (ACU) continued its annual celebrations of “the supreme poet” Dante Alighieri at the third Dante Symposium in North Sydney on March 22.

In the spirit of the 700th anniversary since Dante’s death, commemorated worldwide in 2021, ACU invited Director of the Italian Institute of Culture in Sydney, Dr Paolo Barlera, to explore Dante’s universal influence, or in literary terms, his “fortunes”.

Students and staff from ACU’s Western Civilisation program also read excerpts from Dante’s best-known work, The Divine Comedy in French, Croation, Hebrew, Italian, English and Italian, highlighting the global spread of the poem.

More than 80 people attended the Symposium, including scholars from the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation based at ACU and other universities.

In his keynote, Dr Barlera explained the vast affection for Dante and his Divine Comedy, one of the few poems that has broken the barriers of language.

Simply titled Commedia, and written while in exile from his home city Florence, the poem has established Dante as a literary icon in Western Civilisation for seven centuries.

According to Dr Barlera, it was after Dante’s death that Commedia received full recognition as a literary masterpiece, including being renamed La divina commedia.

By 1400 there were 12 commentaries devoted to defining the meaning of The Comedy, and he soon become known as the divine poet in Italy.

Dante’s fortunes in Italy grew in large part to his fellow Florentines including Sandro Botticeli, who was commissioned to produce 100 illustrations of The Divine Comedy, and Domenico di Michelino’s famous painting of Dante in front of the mountain of Purgatory, as described in the poem.

While Dante’s influence in Italy seemed a natural affair during the 16th and 17th century his fortunes in Europe began to fade. It was not until the 19th century, particularly in the Age of Romanticism, that The Divine Comedy reentered European culture, again, by way of artists and literary scholars who were inspired by his life, his politics, and literary approaches.

But, according to Dr Barlera, it was the literary circles outside of Italy which spurred Dante as a global master of poetry, through English translations of The Divine Comedy published some 300 years after his death. As of 2022, The Divine Comedy has been translated into English more times than in any other language. The early English translations inspired a wave of works by William Blake, Robert Byron, and Thomas Carlyle.

By the end of the 19th Century, activists for the unification of Italy looked back to Dante as their muse. He was then on referred to as the “apostle of the nation”, marking an irreversible “cult of Dante” in Italy.

Dante continued to gain famous followers in TS Eliot and Ezra Pound, and many have drawn parallels between him and James Joyce. Even the Pop art movement drew inspiration from Dante, for example, in the works of Robert Rauschenberg.

“Are we fools to continuing interpreting and readapting the Comedy?” Dr Barlera said.

“Certainly, Dante’s poem lends itself to countless readings. And certainly, it is worth teaching. But one question, among others, begs to be answered: why so many translations? Are we Fools, who think that we know better than our predecessors? Or, rather, disciples of Erasmus and bearers of Folly’s creative ingenuity?”

ACU Vice-President, Fr Anthony Casamento csma, said Dante’s Divine Comedy continues to inspire ACU students and staff.

“T.S. Eliot once famously stated “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them. There is no third,” Fr Casamento said.

“I think most of us would agree with Eliot. Dante's work has had a lasting global impact on literature, language, and culture, and has helped to shape the way we think about the world and our place in it. 

“It is this impact that we celebrated at our 2024 Dante Symposium - The Influence of Dante in Italy and Abroad’,” he said.

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