Renewed Interest in Dante's "Divine Comedy"

Resurgence sparked by Italy's Benigni

Fourteen million Italian TV viewers watched international media personality Roberto Benigni recite and explain Canto XXXIII of the Paradiso.   This Canto is a great hymn of praise to the Virgin Mary and to the Holy Trinity.

The popular Italian weekly Gente reports in its January 16, 2003 issue that thousands of copies of the Divine Comedy are being sold, as nearly 30% of the population tuned in on TV to listen to Academy Award winner Benigni's recitation.

The internationally distributed Gente bills itself as a weekly covering politics, current events, and culture. The article is entitled "Thanks to Benigni the 'Divine Comedy' is back in the spotlight," beautifully written by Andrea Tornielli, dateline January, Milan. The following is from the article, pages 78-81  of the January 16 issue.  Subheadings below are the translator's. [See for translation disclaimer].

"...if they had only explained it like this in school!"

The effect of Benigni was clamorous: after the television transmission on Raiuno, during which the Tuscan comic paraphrased and then delivered a passionate and astonishing recital of the XXXIII Canto of the Paradiso, copies of the Divina Commedia flew off the bookshelves of Italian bookstores. And millions of television viewers, who watched enchanted in front of their screens, sighed: "How beautiful it would have been if they had only explained it like this in school!".  And so the greatest of Italian poets has come back in force to the spotlight, and has returned to popularity. His mysterious and highly personal voyage that carried him from the inferno to paradise is once again fascinating people. It is worth the effort therefore to talk about and to re-read attentively the verses that Benigni read on TV, in that way it will be easier to comprehend this phenomenon.

Born in Florence in 1265 and dying in Ravenna in 1321, Dante [Alighieri] began to work on the great poem in 1306. The last of the three canticles, the Paradiso, was published in its final form only after the death of the poet. The original title of the work, a hundred cantos in triplet verse of 11 syllables per line, was Commedia and followed the typical medieval distinction between comedy and tragedy; in fact Dante's poem has a sorrowful beginning, but concludes joyfully.  Alighieri imagined a journey of one week's duration, the same time [Holy Week] from the Passion to the Resurrection of Jesus, and it began on April 8, 1300, in the year of the great Jubilee pronounced by Pope Boniface VIII.

The inferno, which the poet visited first, and which has the shape of an upside down cone, is located beneath the city of Jerusalem, and at its lowest point, fixed deep within the earth, dwells Lucifer. Purgatory is a mountain that has perched on its summit the earthly paradise.  From here, Dante is transported to the empyrean heaven, the heights of heaven, to the contemplation of God.  In the first two parts of his journey his guide is the ancient poet Virgil; then in the Paradiso, it is his beloved Beatrice that leads him. At at the threshold of the poet's ultimate grand vision, Beatrice is replaced by St. Bernard.

   Mary, Mediatrix of Graces

The XXXIII Canto of the Paradiso, the final one of the Divine Comedy, and the culmination of  Dante's voyage to heaven, is the one that Benigni recited on TV.  It begins with one of the most moving and beautiful of all prayers to the Madonna, spoken by St. Bernard: "Virgin Mother, daughter of your son, more humble and exalted than any creature... You are the one that ennobled human nature, so that your maker did not disdain to be made by his creature".  Mary, the child from Nazareth, has so ennobled humanity that God did not scorn being incarnated as a creature. The supplication to Mary has a great significance at the beginning of the Canto, which will conclude with the vision of God. It is through the mediation of the mother of Jesus, that the doors to paradise are opened. "Woman, you are of such greatness and worth, that whoever wishes for grace and does not have recourse to you, his desires will fly without wings". Whoever seeks divine grace and does not turn to Mary, says St. Bernard, nurtures a vain desire.

The saint presents to the Virgin the plea of Dante, who from the lowest place in the universe, that is from the inferno, has climbed up to the empyrean heaven and has seen one by the diverse conditions of souls separated from their bodies. And St. Bernard asks that it be conceded to the poet to be freed from any earthly impediment, so he will be able to see God in all his majesty. Never except in this moment has Dante felt all of the weakness and smallness of man. And he needs supernatural help to be able to see this vision and to be able to come away from it to live among men, something never before conceded to anyone. "And I, as the end of all my desires approached, was calming the ardor of desire in me as I must". Now, after the supplication of his companion, Dante takes up the narration and says he has carried to the greatest possible intensity the ardor of his desire to see God. St. Bernard signals him to look on high.

The Beatific Vision

All human language is inadequate says the poet, moved to ecstasy. His memory falls short before the vision. The full contents of what had been before him is not able to remain impressed in his memory, except for the emotion he experienced.   Standing alone before God, Dante begins to describe what is before him, and asks for the grace to be able to communicate at least a small part of his experience.  "In its depths I saw that it held in itself, bound with love as in a volume, all the scattered pages of  the universe." In the profoundness of the divine light, was contained in a single volume of love all that appeared divided and strewn about in the universe. Alighieri explained having seen the constitutive principal that unites all things and, remarking it, feels a swelling of joy in his heart. His words, he explains, are more insufficient and inappropriate than the babblings of an infant.

And behold, in verses 109 to 145, is epitomized the beatific vision of the Most High, the goal of the journey. God is presented under the form of three circles of three different colors but of the same dimensions, representing the Trinity. The first circle is the Father, the second is the Son generated from the Father, and the third is the Holy Spirit and "seemed a fire that came forth equally from each of the other two". It is possible to think of three concentric surfaces, or of three meridians inscribed around a single sphere. It is however an image humanly impossible to grasp, because the circles are equally occupying the same space, and yet they appear distinct. That which is striking is not the imaged representation of the vision, but the poet's great emotion, his astonishment before this beauty supreme.

The Mystery of the Incarnation

The first circle, God the Father, is pure light.  In the second, the Son, generated as reflected light, Dante makes out "our own likeness", the human image. It is the mystery of the Incarnation. The Word of God, without losing anything of its Divinity, has also assumed human nature and became one of us, and the poet discerns it as something familiar to his eyes, "as the geometer who concentrates on trying to measure a circle, and not being able to do it, tries to think of the principle behind it, so it was with me with this newest vision'. Dante compares himself to a geometer who concentrates all his intellectual faculties in order to exactly measure a circle, and no matter how hard he thought, cannot succeed in finding the principle for his measuring. [Some translations of the verse refer to "squaring" a circle]. He seeks to comprehend how this human effigy that he has seen reflected adapts to the form of this circle, that is he seeks to understand how the human and divine natures can coexist in Jesus. But with all his efforts he can not fully comprehend the great mystery before him.

The mind of the poet is then struck by an illumination;   it is God himself that imbues in Dante the sought after intuition. At this point, we are at the final four verses of the Divine Comedy, and his intellect fails to the have the force to follow any higher the indescribable vision. And in that moment all the desire and all the will of Alighieri are moved like a wheel which turns with a uniform motion. They are moved by God. In the final instants in which he reaches the ultimate end of his journey, the end for which man is created, the eternal beatitude of the contemplation of God, all his poetic powers fail him. And the great poem closes with a wonderful definition of God: "the Love which moves the sun and the other stars".   

- Andrea Tornielli-

Links to the English text of Canto XXXIII of Dante's "Paradiso":

 Controversial, bold and thought-provoking, the above book is available in print or Kindle format.



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Frank Rega is the author of:  Padre Pio and America,
St. Francis of Assisi and the Conversion of the Muslims,

The Greatest Catholic President: Garcia Moreno of Ecuador
  Life of the Mystic Luisa Piccarreta - Journeys in the Divine Will 
vols. 1 and 2
Life of the Mystic Luisa Piccarreta - volume 3 in preparation
 The Truth about Padre Pio's Stigmata and Other Wonders of the Saint
Vatican II, Evolution, and Medjugorje: Hubris, Heresy, and Mystery

This page was last updated on 02/12/14
Copyright 2002 Frank M. Rega