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How Ancient Greece Shaped the Thought of Dante

Antonio Cotti’s “Dante in Verona,” also known as “Dante is Derided in Verona.” The influence of Greek thought on Dante and, in turn, his influence on later Greek poetry will be the focus of an upcoming series of conferences to be held in Athens and Nicosia titled “Dante and Greece.” Credit: Christie’s/ Public Domain

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 and, in turn, influenced Greek and Cypriot poetry forever after.

Taking a look back, an international conference titled “Dante and Greece” took place on Monday, September 27, in Nicosia, Cyprus followed by additional meetings in Athens on September 30th and then round table events in four Italian cities: Bari, Salerno, Milan, and Ravenna.

It ended 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

Some of these individuals were drawn indirectly from Greek mythology and Homeric epics while others were actual historic personages, down to Dante’s own time of the 1200s.

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 held in Nicosia and Athens explored 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 could not 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 focuses on the literature, especially in Latin, of the Middle Ages.

Ziolkowski’s 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,” Ziolkowski says.

The twelve contributors of the international conference in Nicosia last year discussed 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 included: the Italian Philhellenic Society, the Italian Institute of Culture of Athens, the Athens and Nicosia committees of the Dante Alighieri Society, SEPI Association and ETP Books located in Athens, the Lectura Dantis Metelliana, the Department of Humanities, and the Department of Human, Philosophical, and Formation Sciences at the University of Salerno. The Department of Humanities at the University of Bari also contributed to funding.

The scientific director of the project was professor Irene Chirico from the University of Salerno. She was 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 was a series of round table discussions held after the Athens and Nicosia conferences, where the results of the research which were quite noteworthy were discussed. The discussions were streamed on the YouTube channel of the Philhellenic Society of Italy.

Andrea Cavallari, the Italian ambassador to Cyprus, attended the meeting in Nicosia while Patrizia Falcinelli, Italian ambassador to Greece, attended the Dante event in Athens.


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