Dante, the beloved poet of Italy, who penned the monumental and immortal works Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, never visited Greece — but his thought was heavily influenced by the ancient Greeks and his poetry in turn influenced Greek and Cypriot poetry forever after.
An international conference titled “Dante and Greece” will take place on Monday, September 27, in Nicosia, Cyprus, followed by additional meetings in Athens on September 30 and then round table events in four Italian cities: Bari, Salerno, Milan and Ravenna.
It will end on November 20, 2021 at Dante’s tomb in Ravenna — a place of pilgrimage for all those who revere the poet — with a recitation of his verses in Greek.
Dante Led Toward Heaven by Virgil — a Devotee of Homer
At that time, Greek was not only a language and civilization from the past, but also a present (and often rival) religious and political entity’s according to the organizers of the conferences. As they note, Latins related to each layer of these entities — ancient pagan, early Christian, and contemporary Byzantine — differently than did the Greeks.
The primary subject of the recent study was the search for the many elements of Greek thought that can be found in Dante’s works — especially in his “Inferno,” “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso,” part of his poetic cycle called the “Divine Comedy,” some of the greatest works of poetry ever written.
The meetings to be held in Nicosia and Athens will explore the extraordinary amount of influence that the 13th century poet had — and still has — on Greek and Cypriot poetry.
Dante wrote his vision of his own personal journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise in Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, peopling these realms with figures from history, including many of his personal heroes from the Greek past, including Homer, whom he lauded as “singing master of the earth.”
His Catholic worldview also heavily influenced his life and his writings, however, especially perhaps The Inferno.
Dante Believed only Reason Could Lead to Paradise
Dante, as a very well-educated man of the time, was very familiar with the history and literature of the classical world. In The Inferno, he expresses his admiration for Greco-Roman history, literature, mythology, and philosophy, but he still could not bring himself to say that his Classical forebears would be able to enter Paradise.
Dante believed that Virgil, as someone who lived before Christ, could not enter heaven because of that fact. While he admired the classical Roman world he firmly believed that no one other than Christians could enter heaven of salvation to God. In Canto II, however, Dante says he is unworthy to make the journey with Virgil.
The object of his undying love, Beatrice, who embodies the concept of Divine Love itself in Dante’s cycle of poems, uses Virgil to lead Dante through the realms because the Roman poet (who himself was heavily influenced by the Greek poet Homer) embodies the concept of Reason.
It is only Reason, Dante believes, that can lead him as a Christian to reach Divine Love.
Virgil convinces Dante that he has indeed been sent by God to guide Dante through the terrors of Hell — indicating that the wisdom of the ancients, who lived long before Christ, was invaluable in finding one’s way not only through the world but to Heaven as well.
In Canto III of The Inferno, Dante and Virgil arrive not at a burning lake of fire, as Hell is often described in Christian sources, but a place that, at least at first, resembles the place where the dead dwelled according to Ancient Greek beliefs.
They arrive at the first river of Hell, Acheron, which was part of the Underworld, ruled by the Greek god Hades, according to Greek mythology.
Charon, the ferryman, is of course another figure from Greek mythology who has an integral part to play in the Inferno. In Canto IV, Dante and Virgil arrive at the first circle, Limbo, in which the souls of what he calls the “Virtuous Pagans” reside.
Dante acknowledges that, although they lived before the time of Christ, these brilliant and otherwise outstanding personages were “sinless” — but still they cannot be allowed into heaven as portrayed by the Christian church.
Jan Ziolkowski, the Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Medieval Latin at Harvard University, served as Director of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection from 2007 to 2020. His scholarship has focuses on the literature, especially in Latin, of the Middle Ages.
Ziolkowski’s recently released book, “Dante and the Greeks”, published by Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in 2014, was the result of an interdisciplinary symposium that was held at Dumbarton Oaks in 2010.
Ziolkowski says of Dante that since he was the first poet to write in vernacular Italian rather than Latin, he “received the Latin Middle Ages but transmitted them in the vernacular” along with the writers Chaucer, Chrétien de Troyes, and the poets of the Romance of the Rose.
As Ziolkowski notes in Dante and the Greeks, “In the medieval or Byzantine period, the tensions between East and West (or Greek and Latin) modified, but did not diminish, as the ownership of Romanness itself came under dispute between the two linguistic, cultural and political regions, and differing theological positions on various issues pulled them into conflict.
“Just as in considering occasional cultural tensions between any two nations today, the question is whether shared characteristics and interests between seemingly opposed groups exceed the perceived differences.”
The twelve contributors at the upcoming conference will discuss the presence of ancient Greek poetry, philosophy, and science (including astrology, cosmography, and geography) in Dante’s writings, as well as the figures from the history of Greece who populate his works.
The conference, which can be accessed at this Youtube channel, was made possible with funding from the National Committee for Celebrations of the Seven Hundred Years Since the Death of Dante Alighieri and promoted by a series of Italian, Cypriot and Greek associations and institutions.
These include the Italian Philhellenic Society, the Italian Institute of Culture of Athens, the Athens and Nicosia committees of the Dante Alighieri Society, the SEPI Association and ETP Books publishing in Athens, the Lectura Dantis Metelliana, and the Department of Humanities and the Department of Human, Philosophical and Formation Sciences at the University of Salerno and the Department of Humanities at University of Bari.
The scientific director of the project is professor Irene Chirico from the University of Salerno. She will be joined by a prestigious scientific committee made up of professors Davide Canfora from the University of Bari, Paolo Cesaretti, from the University of Bergamo, Giulio Maria Chiodi from the University of Insubria, Chrysa Damianaki of the University of Salento, Rosa Giulio from the University of Salerno, Michael Pieris, from the University of Cyprus, and Ioannis Tsolkas and Gerasimos Zoras, from the University of Athens.
There will be a series of round table discussions held after the Athens and Nicosia conferences, where the results of the research will be discussed. The discussions will be streamed on the Youtube channel of the Philhellenic Society of Italy.
Andrea Cavallari, the Italian ambassador to Cyprus, will attend the meeting in Nicosia; while Patrizia Falcinelli, Italian ambassador to Greece, will attend the Dante event in Athens.