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Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri


'Ich habe unter meinen Papieren ein Blatt gefunden,

wo ich die Baukunst eine erstarrte Musik nenne.'

(Johann Wolfgang Goethe, 1829 March 23)
I found Dante in a bar. The Poet had indeed lost the True Way to be found reduced to party chatter in a Capitol Hill basement, but I had found him at last. I must have been drinking in the Dark Tavern of Error, for I did not even realize I had begun the dolorous path followed by many since the Poet's journey of A.D.1300. Actually no one spoke a word about Dante or his Divine Comedy, rather I heard a second-hand Goethe call architecture |frozen music.| Soon I took my second step through the gate to a people lost; this time on a more respectable occasion -- a lecture at the Catholic University of America. Clio, the muse of history, must have been aiding Prof. Schumacher that evening, because it sustained my full three-hour attention, even after I had just presented an all-night project. There I heard of a most astonishing Italian translation of 'la Divina Commedia' di Dante Alighieri. An Italian architect, Giuseppi Terragni, had translated the Comedy into the 'Danteum,' a projected stone and glass monument to Poet and Poem near the Basilica of Maxentius in Rome.

Do not look for the Danteum in the Eternal City. In true Dantean form, politics stood in the way of its construction in 1938. Ironically this literature-inspired building can itself most easily be found in book form. Reading this book I remembered Goethe's quote about frozen music. Did Terragni try to freeze Dante's medieval miracle of song? Certainly a cold-poem seems artistically repulsive. Unflattering comparisons to the lake of Cocytus spring to mind too. While I cannot read Italian, I can read some German. After locating the original quotation I discovered that 'frozen' is a problematic (though common) translation of Goethe's original 'erstarrte.' The verb 'erstarren' more properly means 'to solidify' or 'to stiffen.' This suggests a chemical reaction in which the art does not necessarily chill in the transformation. Nor can simple thawing yield the original work. Like a chemical reaction it requires an artistic catalyst, a muse. Indeed the Danteum is not a physical translation of the Poem. Terragni thought it inappropriate to translate the Comedy literally into a non-literary work. The Danteum would not be a stage set, rather Terragni generated his design from the Comedy's structure, not its finishes.

The poem is divided into three canticles of thirty-three cantos each, plus one extra in the first, the Inferno, making a total of one hundred cantos. Each canto is composed of three-line tercets, the first and third lines rhyme, the second line rhymes with the beginning of the next tercet, establishing a kind of overlap, reflected in the overlapping motif of the Danteum design. Dante's realms are further subdivided: the Inferno is composed of nine levels, the vestibule makes a tenth. Purgatory has seven terraces, plus two ledges in an ante-purgatory; adding these to the Earthly Paradise yields ten zones. Paradise is composed of nine heavens; Empyrean makes the tenth. In the Inferno, sinners are organized by three vices -- Incontinence, Violence, and Fraud -- and further subdivided by the seven deadly sins. In Purgatory, penance is ordered on the basis of three types of natural love. Paradise is organized on the basis of three types of Divine Love, and further subdivided according to the three theological and four cardinal virtues.

(Thomas Schumacher, |The Danteum,| Princeton Architectural Press, 1993)

By translating the structure, Terragni could then layer the literal and the spiritual meanings of the Poem without allowing either to dominate. These layers of meaning are native to the Divine Comedy as they are native to much medieval literature, although modern readers and tourists may not be so familiar with them. They are literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. I offer you St. Thomas of Aquinas' definition of these last three as they relate to Sacred Scripture:

. . .this spiritual sense has a threefold division. . .so far as the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law, there is the allegorical sense; so far as the things done in Christ, or so far as the things which signify Christ, are types of what we ought to do, there is the moral sense. But so far as they signify what relates to eternal glory, there is the anagogical sense. (Summa Theologica I, 1, 10)

Within the Danteum the Poet's meanings lurk in solid form. An example: the Danteum design does have spaces literally associated with the Comedy -- the Dark Wood of Error, Inferno, Purgatorio, and the Paradiso -- but these spaces also relate among themselves spiritually. Dante often highlights a virtue by first condemning its corruption. Within Dante's system Justice is the greatest of the cardinal virtues; its corruption, Fraud, is the most contemptible of vices. Because Dante saw the papacy as the most precious of sacred institutions, corrupt popes figure prominently among the damned in the Poet's Inferno. In the Danteum the materiality of the worldly Dark Wood directly opposes the transcendence of the Paradiso. In the realm of error every thought is lost and secular, while in heaven every soul's intent is directed toward God. The shadowy Inferno of the Danteum mirrors the Purgatorio's illuminated ascent to heaven. Purgatory embodies hope and growth where hell chases its own dark inertia. Such is the cosmography shared by Terragni and Dante.

In this postscript I intend neither to fully examine the meaning nor the plan of the Danteum, but rather to evince the power that art has acted as a catalyst to other artists. The Danteum, a modern design inspired by a medieval poem, is but one example. Dante's poem is filled with characters epitomizing the full range of vices and virtues of human personalities. Dante's characters come from his present and literature's past; they are mythological, biblical, classical, ancient, and medieval. They, rather than Calliope and her sisters, were Dante's muses.

'La Divina Commedia' seems a natural candidate to complete Project Gutenberg's first milleditio and to begin its second thousand e-texts. Although distinctly medieval, its continuum of influence spans the Renaissance and modernity. Terragni saw his place within the Comedy as surely as Dante saw his own. We too fit within Dante's understanding of the human condition; we differ less from our past than we might like to believe. T. S. Eliot understood this when he wrote |Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them, there is no third.| So now Dante joins Shakespeare (e-text #100) in the Project Gutenberg collection. Two works that influenced Dante are also part of the collection: The Bible (#10) and Virgil's Aeneid (#227). Other major influences -- St. Thomas of Aquinas' Summa Theologica, The Metamorphoses of Ovid, and Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics -- are available in electronic form at other Internet sites. If one searches enough he may even find a computer rendering of the Danteum on the Internet. By presenting this electronic text to Project Gutenberg it is my hope that in will not rest in a computer unknown and unread; it is my hope that artists will see themselves in the Divine Comedy and be inspired, just as Dante ran the paths left by Virgil and St. Thomas that led him to the stars.

Dennis McCarthy, July 1997
Atlanta, Georgia USA
[email protected]


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