Dante, approaching the lowest circles of Hell, looks through the freezing fog that blankets that infernal region and sees the circular walls of a city. The circumference of this wall is punctuated at regular intervals by high-rise watch towers. The poet compares this lay-out to the plan of the city of Monteriggioni, which can still be visited a few miles out of Siena (and which features in a video game- Assassin’s Creed, of 2009.) But the towers that Dante sees in Hell are not towers at all but Giants. These Giants includes the giant Nimrod who built the tower of Babel. And throughout the episode (in Inferno Canto 31) Dante show an acute awareness of the connection between an ambition to build ever higher and the consequent fragmentation of language into mutually incomprehensible vernaculars. Arrogance, incomprehension and brute materiality are seen here to produce a malignant parody of all that human civilisation can at its best achieve.
Writing in the early 1300s, Dante here and throughout the Commedia offers a critique of the culture in his native city that, in his day, was building vigorously on developments in Florentine banking and trade. These developments were to produce, later in the fourteenth century, further reflections on city life as in Boccaccio’s Decameron and, later, would promote the conditions in which banking dynasties such as the Medici could cultivate the Florentine Renaissance. Subsequently, poets such as Blake, Baudelaire and TS Eliot would return to Dante in seeking to expose the distortions and alienation that urban living could impose in creating an ‘Unreal City’. Visual artists such as Eric Drooker and Tom Phillips turn to Dante in pursuing a similar theme.
This seminar will consider Dante’s picture of the city. He was exiled from Florence – as a member of the losing political party – several years before he began the Commedia. The Inferno examines in great detail the many ways- intellectual as well as political and economic – a city can destroy itself. But the visceral satire that Dante produces especially but not only in the Inferno is the converse of his profound sense that human beings need a civic community if they are to flourish in ethical and even religious terms. The natural world is allowed a place in this regeneration. Indeed, the remarkable thing about Dante’s conception of Purgatory is that this realm is located in world of space and time on an island in the Southern Hemisphere. Relationship here, as also in the Paradiso, is the principle that Dante seeks to re-affirm once he is out of Hell. And in the full realisation of relationship the natural body, responding in touch and sight to warmth and light, reclaims all that the ‘giganticism’ of the city has destroyed.
Subsequent sessions will consider Boccaccio’s Decameron where the devastating effect of the Great Plague – which in 1340s killed two-thirds of the population of Florence – are played off against the prevailing resources of story-telling, sharpness of wit, carnival – and sex.
Two sessions will be devoted to the Florence created by the Medici which saw a family of bankers assume power in the city (initially by surreptitious means) and cultivate a veneer at least of courtliness, often centred less on the city than on the seclusions of a suburban villa (as at Careggi). There may be connections to be drawn here with the growing interest in Pastoral as a literary genre, and also with the corruptions of court life which English dramatists in the Jacobean era associated with Italy, as Shakespeare does in Cymbeline.
Concluding thoughts may be devoted to Phillips and Drooker, as mentioned above. Drooker’s association with Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg. Participants in the seminar would not be alone if they felt impelled to produce graphics, films, sculptures music or writings of their own in response to (or reaction against) the Dantean model.