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Posts Tagged ‘Dante’

The Sesquiquincentenary

May 26, 2015 | by

Looking to the stars to find Dante’s birthday.


Sidney Hall’s etching of Gemini, 1825.

Dante Alighieri was born 750 years ago, although the exact date of his birth is, authorities say, unknown. The Vatican played it safe by starting its celebrations on May 4, with Pope Francis expressing his hope that Dante and his work will accompany us during this year on our dark way. That same day, Roberto Benigni read from The Divine Comedy on the floor of the Italian Senate, a reading broadcast to the nation. (His lovely, nonhammy recital of Canto I of Inferno is online, along with many other clips.) Well, let church and state proceed with caution. I say it’s today.

Dante’s journey to the underworld, and overworld, took place during Easter week of the year 1300, when he was “midway on his life’s journey”: halfway to the Biblical seventy, or thirty-five years old. So he was born in 1265, as Boccaccio, in the first biography of Dante, confirms. Read More »

This Is the Era of the Dante Selfie, and Other News

May 26, 2015 | by


#Dante750. Photo: Firenze Italia, via Twitter

  • Milan Kundera has a new novel out, his first in a decade—but does anyone care? Kundera’s books epitomize a certain outmoded, chauvinist worldview: “I can’t help feeling that if anything will undermine Kundera’s long-term reputation … it will be his overwhelming androcentrism. I avoid the word misogyny because I don’t think that he hates women, or is consistently hostile to them, but he does seem to see the world from an exclusively male viewpoint, and this does limit what might otherwise have been his limitless achievements as a novelist and essayist.”
  • Speaking of androcentric writers: Philip Roth’s much ballyhooed retirement “may well go down in history as one of the literary world’s greatest pranks.” Despite his many claims to have retreated from the public eye, Roth is still as visible as ever, even if he isn’t publishing new novels.
  • Dante is still very much a public figure, too, having gone on an international charm offensive to celebrate his seven-hundred-and-fiftieth birthday: “More than a hundred events are planned. These include everything from the minting of a new two-euro coin, embossed with the poet’s profile, to a selfie-con-Dante campaign. (Cardboard cutouts of the poet are being set up in Florence, and visitors are encouraged to post pictures of themselves with them using the hashtag #dante750.)”
  • And who knows? A hashtagged selfie with a Dante cutout might be just what you need to recharge your fatigued sense of awe, that emotion most abused by modernity: “You could make the case that our culture today is awe-deprived. Adults spend more and more time working and commuting and less time outdoors and with other people. Camping trips, picnics and midnight skies are forgone in favor of working weekends and late at night. Attendance at arts events—live music, theater, museums and galleries—has dropped over the years.”
  • Don’t blame literature’s avant-garde, though; the state of the contemporary novel suggests that writers are spending more time in museums than ever before. “The avant-garde writers of today aspire to be conceptual artists, and have their novels considered conceptual art. This may be literature’s Duchampian moment. Welcome to the readymade novel.”

One Wine, Two Wine, Red Wine, Blue Wine

February 10, 2015 | by

Naming wines in translation.


Georg Emanuel Opitz, Der Säufer, 1804.

Valentine’s Day is upon us and if, to bedazzle your beau or belle, your tastes turn to thoughts of white tablecloths and candlelight, your thoughts will likely turn to tastes of wine.

But which wine? It can be hard to navigate those artisanal descriptions, so easy to mock—notes of saddle leather, jujubes, and turpentine with a hint of combed cotton, and so on. The basic questions are no simpler, though. “Red or white?” ignores orange wine, whites tinted a little longer than usual from the grape skins: basically the opposite of rosé, where red-wine grapes are peeled faster than usual. There’s also gray wine (vin gris, actually pinkish), which is white wine from black grapes usually used for red wine such as pinot noir, and even yellow wine (vin jaune), a special variety from the Jura in eastern France, though what white wine isn’t yellow when you think about it. Provençal pink wines—rosés—are colored gooseberry, peach, grapefruit, cantaloupe, mango, or mandarin, according to the Provence Wine Council: vote for your favorite here. Read More »


Recapping Dante: Canto 34, or “It Is Time for Us to Leave”

June 30, 2014 | by


A colorized version of Gustave Doré’s illustration for Canto XXXIV.

We’re recapping the Inferno. Read along! This week: the final canto.

My relationship with Dante can be traced back to a Saturday morning in 1994. My dad and I were standing in the rain on Sixty-Sixth and Broadway, and I suspected he was taking me to Lincoln Center for a concert. Instead, we stopped at a small park where a large, bronze statue was shrouded by nearby trees, hidden away from the city. That, he told me, is Dante.

The night before, my dad had told me the story of Count Ugolino, the sinner of canto 33 who may or may not have eaten his children during his imprisonment in Pisa; and later that day, he’d take me to the courtyard at St. John the Divine, where a statue of a crab-like creature pinches off the head of a demon—a scene that bears a striking resemblance to the end of Dante’s Inferno, when the three-headed Lucifer gnashes his teeth around the bodies of the three greatest sinners: Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. Here, in canto 34, the final chapter, Dante and Virgil meet Lucifer and climb up his back in order to slip through a crack in the universe and leave the Inferno.

It wouldn’t occur to me for many more years that these weren’t stories from my dad, but the work of the better craftsman, or il miglior fabbro, as T. S. Eliot writes in the dedication of “The Waste Land,” paraphrasing Dante himself. In fact, if I look hard enough, I find traces of Dante throughout my life—a description of the wolf, lion, and leopard in the elevator of 765 Amsterdam Avenue, the building where my grandparents lived; the story of Paolo and Francesca, which I read in an illustrated, abridged Inferno for children; the fiberglass tyrannosaurus in Riverside Park, which I climbed as though I were Virgil scaling Lucifer’s back with Dante in order to reach Purgatory at the end of canto 34; a twig from a tree that I passed on a field trip in a botanical garden, which I tore off à la Dante in canto 13, so that my dad, a reluctant chaperone, would know that I wanted to be there as little as he did. As far as I knew, I wasn’t alluding to Pier delle Vigne but to a character from my father’s bedtime mythology. None of these tales came without embellishments, and so even today, when I reread passages of the Inferno and notice departures from the stories I heard growing up, I cannot help but think that Dante Alighieri’s versions are slightly inaccurate. Even so, by the time I reach someone like Ugolino, I feel as if I’m meeting an old friend. Read More »


Recapping Dante: Canto 33, or History’s Vaguest Cannibal

June 23, 2014 | by

Gustave Doré, Canto XXXIII

Gustave Doré, Canto XXXIII

We’re recapping the Inferno. Read along! This week: a Sophie’s Choice in medieval Pisa.

Here we meet the last great sinner of the Inferno: Count Ugolino. Like the others, he’s a historical figure remembered today chiefly for his appearance in Dante’s poem; and in spite of everything he confesses in these few verses, we inevitably pity him.

At the end of canto 32, Dante finds Ugolino gnawing violently at the head of another sinner, Archbishop Ruggieri. Ugolino tells Dante that he will describe his own crime, and allow Dante to determine which of the two of them is the greater sinner.

Ugolino, a magistrate, was charged with betraying the city of Pisa—he gave three of their fortresses to a neighboring town—and for this he was locked, along with his four children, in a tower there (not the one you’re thinking of). One night, he dreamed that he and his young children appeared as wolves; they were hunted and torn to shreds. He awakes to find his children crying in hunger for food, but when mealtime in the tower arrives, Ugolino hears the doors being nailed shut.

He understands that he and his children will starve to death. Seeing them in agony, he begins to gnaw at his own hands, and his sons say, “Father, we would suffer less if you would feed on us.” Ugolino composes himself and watches his children die slowly of hunger over the course of the fourth, fifth, and sixth days. For two days, Ugolino, who has gone blind from hunger, wails over his children, speaking to them as though they were still alive. And then he speaks one of the most haunting and also perhaps most memorable lines in the Inferno: “Then fasting had more power than grief.” This line has been interpreted variously; some believe it means that he continued to starve, whereas others contend that Ugolino ate his dead children. Read More »


Recapping Dante: Canto 32, or Area Man Discovers Hell Has Literally Frozen Over

June 16, 2014 | by



We’re recapping the Inferno. Read along! This week: breaking news from the thirty-second canto.

INFERNO—After traveling nonstop for many hours through an array of chthonic geological obstacles, local political activist Dante Alighieri has found that the apocalyptic landscape has actually frozen over.

“I was supposed to be traveling through hell,” says Dante, who has seen everything on his journey from demons to the elusive and heavily mythologized lonza. “I thought the fire and brimstone would only get hotter as we journeyed farther toward Lucifer. There’s no way I could have predicted this—the ice, the chill, the subzero temperatures.”

The discovery will undoubtedly cause an iconological fiasco, challenging our contemporary of notion of hell altogether.

Dante, who has been gathering material for a yet-unnamed “hell project,” claims he was so caught up in seeing the sights around him—notably a giant wall—that he didn’t notice the floor made of ice in hell until a strange voice warned him to watch his step. “It’s a good thing a mysterious voice warned me,” he says. “I could have slipped through a thin patch.” Roman poet and limbo-dweller Virgil, who has accompanied Dante on the journey, added that, in Dante’s defense, the giant wall was indeed very, very large. Read More »