Rome: From the dark wood to Rome

When Dante is lost in the dark wood of sin, the soul of the Roman poet Virgil is sent from Heaven to rescue him and guide him on his way to salvation through Hell and Purgatory. Dante’s journey is immediately compared to Aeneas’s voyage to Italy where his offspring will found the city of Rome, the subject of Virgil’s epic poem Aeneid. In preparation for the meeting, some resources are dedicated to introductory material, including “instructions for use.”


Highlights

  • Rome is a historical, literary, cultural, and physical place that plays a primary role in the poem (13:10).
  • “I want to emphasize how important it is for each of us as readers of the poem to undertake each our own pilgrimage in the journey of reading the poem.” – Cachey, 13:30
  • Dante’s use of the vernacular language and his invention of “terza rima” give meaning to the poem (20:00).
  • “One of the most impressive and concrete examples of Dante’s ambition and of his innovative and poetic mind is the invention of a new meter for his sacred poem.” – Sbordoni, 20:50
  • Dante’s choice of Virgil as a guide is a reflection of his views on poetry and philosophy (34:00).
  •  “I think that while Dante wanted to bring philosophy into his consideration (…), it’s the dramatization of a human life going through a historical world that I think poetry gives him the possibility to do that in a way that captures and engages with people’s feelings and people’s ideas and other people’s lives, too.” – Lummus, 34:27
  • “From Dante’s perspective, poetry is a higher form of knowledge in so far as it enables him to change hearts to have us have a conversion experience, if you will, in the reading of this poem.” – Cachey, 36:10
  • The second canto gives verticality, brings the reader to heaven, and is beyond time and space (41:00).

Event Recap

In the inaugural edition of the Rome Book Club, Professors Ted Cachey, Chiara Sbordoni and David Lummus discussed the first two cantos of Dante’s Inferno. Cachey began the discussion by providing a historical context and an insight into Dante’s life during the time in which he wrote the poem. Lummus and Sbordoni then went on to speak about the poem’s structure and its significance. The professors also examined Virgil’s role in the poem: why he was chosen by Dante as the pilgrim’s guide as well as the pilgrim’s attitude toward Virgil. The function of the second canto was also addressed.

Cachey’s introduction highlighted the importance of Rome as a historical, literary, cultural, and physical place that plays a primary role in the poem. Cachey also emphasized how it is important for readers to undertake their own “pilgrimage in the journey of reading the poem,” (13:30) and how Dante is still especially relevant today. He mentioned that during the time Dante wrote the Inferno, he “confronted a world that was politically, economically, spiritually, and culturally in profound crisis,” (13:40) not much unlike our world today. According to Cachey, “our reading of the poem is designed to enable us to reorient ourselves and to emerge with a new perspective” (14:12).

Sbordoni spoke about Dante’s ambition in writing a poem that was meant to be accessible to Christians, as it was written in the vernacular language of contemporary Florence, as opposed to Latin (20:00). In Paradiso 25, Dante himself refers to the comedy as the “sacred poem to which both heaven and earth have set their hand.” Sbordoni then explained how one of the characterizing elements of poems is the meter in which they are written, which “creates an essential tension between the rhythm and the sounds on one hand, and the syntax and meaning on the other” (20:38). In The Divine Comedy, Dante invents a new meter: terza rima. Sbordoni spoke about how, through terza rima, Dante “pushes the text forward in an ideal meter for a narrative poem in which the rhyme words are often charged with the essential meaning of the text” (22:37).

Lummus addressed Dante’s choice of Virgil as the guide through the Inferno. According to Lummus, “poetry has an element of dealing directly with a representation of history and life that philosophy abstracts. I think that while Dante wanted to bring philosophy into his consideration (…), it’s the dramatization of a human life going through a historical world that I think poetry gives him the possibility to do that in a way that captures and engages with people’s feelings and people’s ideas and other people’s lives, too” (34:27). Lummus suggested that Dante chose Virgil as the guide because of the profound effect Virgil’s poetry had on him. In line 82, Dante (as the pilgrim) tells Virgil, “you are my teacher and my author your the glory in light of all other poets.” Cachey agreed, stating, “I think that Dante poetry has the power to change people. From Dante’s perspective, poetry is a higher form of knowledge in so far as it enables him to change hearts to have us have a conversion experience, if you will, in the reading of this poem” (36:10).

The professors concluded the session with a discussion about the purpose of the second canto. They spoke about how the second canto brings the reader into heaven and shows the expansiveness of the poem.


View the live discussion recorded on Wednesday, January 13, 2021, with Ted Cachey and David Lummus, co-directors of the Notre Dame Center for Italian Studies, and Chiara Sbordoni, Italian faculty at the Notre Dame Rome Global Gateway, for a discussion of Dante’s Inferno 1.

Listen to the discussion wherever, whenever, on The ThinkND Podcast:


Other Recaps:

Part 4: Infernal Rome (Inferno 18 & 27)
Part 2: Paolo and Francesca (Inferno 5)

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Art and HistoryReligion and PhilosophyRecapRome Global GatewayDante and Italian StudiesDante AlighieriTheodore J. Cachey Jr.David LummusChiara SbordoniItalyRomeCenter for Italian StudiesCollege of Arts and LettersLiterature