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Commemorating Dante Alighieri, Keen Political Observer

Dante’s Commedia is celebrated for its beautiful verse about love, friendship, theology, and philosophy. It captures the early 14th century world, and celebrates a characteristic rationality of the Middle Ages—a world in which everything had its proper place and right ordering.

One of the strands found throughout the text is an ongoing reflection on the political and the civic. Before he became famous for his writing, Dante was involved in local politics. However, in 1302, after serving in various civic leadership roles, Dante became the victim of a fight between the White and Black Guelfs. The White Guelfs, the faction of families who Dante was most closely associated with, were set on the run when the Black Guelfs returned to the city. Dante was exiled, and never again would return to the city of his youth.

From this point forward, Dante wandered from court to court, the guest of rulers who granted him protection while he dreamed of returning to the city he loved, and while he penned the Commedia, his masterpiece, over a period of over a decade. The exile shaped his perceptions, giving rise to his memories of Florence, and his deep questioning about the roots of political order. What makes for a good political society, he wondered? What civic virtues, and what habits of mind and heart? The Commedia, with its reflection on virtues and vices, explores these themes relentlessly.

Dante's "Commedia"

The Library of Congress owns this engraved 1481 copy of Dante’s “Commedia.” Florence, Nicolaus Laurentii, Alamanus, 30 Aug. 1481.[372] leaves. Library of Congress Rare Books & Special Collections Division.

Of note, Dante reserved a special place in Hell for those who never took a stand in life. In fact, it’s a sort of pre-Hell, governed by its own rules, because those contained within it were never willing to commit one way or the other, to any course of action, or to any stand. For this reason they qualify for nowhere—neither the joys of Heaven, nor the trials of Hell, and not even the redemptive toils of Purgatory.

One might be tempted to state that Dante could have felt at home in 21st century Washington. The city can sometimes have a reputation for cacophony, corruption and a lack of genuine conversation. Perhaps this is true in some circles but can you imagine the opposite? Like Dante’s ante-Inferno, a place of no strong beliefs, no convictions and no debate? This is surely not true of Washington and neither was it true of Dante, a man who abounded with strongly held beliefs. That these beliefs were beautifully articulated ensured that they would be remembered throughout the ages.

The Library of Congress will commemorate Dante’s 750th birthday with a panel discussion on Thursday, December 3, from 4 to 5:30 p.m. in the Mumford Room of The James Madison Memorial Building. The event features four area Dante scholars: Dr. Francesco Ciabattoni an associate professor in the Department of Italian at Georgetown University; Dr. Kristina Marie Olson, coordinator of the Italian Program in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages at George Mason University; Dr. Bernardo Piciché, associate professor with the School of World Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University; and Dr. Eugenio Refini, assistant professor of Italian at Johns Hopkins University. Lucia Wolf, Reference Librarian for Italian Collections at the Library, will moderate. The Library’s finest Dante-related items, including incunabula, rare books, prints, manuscripts, and maps, will be displayed following the event. The event is free and open to the public; those interested in attending should click here to learn more.

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