While in an exile that lasted until his death, the poet Dante Alighieri wrote an epic that changed the world. It deals with timeless themes: hopelessness, struggle, heaven and hell, morality, pilgrimage, ignorance, and hope. Seven hundred years later, people are still reading his work. What an amazing legacy.
The 700th anniversary of Dante’s death is this Sept. 14. To celebrate this septcentennial, a coalition of college professors have put together what they hope will be the “world’s largest Dante reading group.” To make broad involvement possible, the 100 Days of Dante project is stretching the 100 days of reading from Sept. 8, 2021 to Easter 2022, scheduling three cantos per week. Churches, schools, individuals, and book clubs all over the world are joining in.
To help people of all abilities and backgrounds participate, the project will send, via email and podcast, each canto on the appropriate day, plus an accompanying explanatory video. It is also providing supplemental materials such as discussions, further reading, and explanatory notes. Participants will have read Dante’s entire “Comedy” by the end, as the work is comprised of 100 cantos.
Here is an introductory discussion about the program from several participating professors that I found helpful and whetted my appetite for the project.
I read large selections of “The Divine Comedy” in college English and have tried multiple times since then to read the entire trilogy — Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso — but so far have failed. It’s a big, complex, weird work. This is my chance to try again with what in education jargon is called “scaffolding”: with help and hand-holding from people with more knowledge and experience.
“For me, it’s not just a matter of filling in a major blank in my classics education,” emailed a friend who is participating through a reading group at her church. “It’s about getting spiritual sustenance in these dark times!”
100 Days of Dante is put on by Baylor University Honors College, in conjunction with the University of Dallas, Gonzaga University, Torrey Honors College at Biola University, Templeton Honors College at Eastern University, and Whitworth University. Anthony Nussmeier, who is involved on behalf of the Univerity of Dallas as the head of its Italian program, told Aleteia, “We really want to emphasize the idea of the poem as a Christian epic, one that is informed by Christianity and one that can inform Christians with its wisdom, even in 2021.”
Nussmeier noted the project is a great fit for anyone “who might be interested in the intellectual underpinnings of western Christianity.” Not just western Christianity, either, but the Western literary tradition. Dante’s poem famously reveres the ancient Roman poet Virgil as Dante’s guide on his pilgrimage. Virgil, of course, is the poet who composed the famous Aeneid.
Dante’s epic reflected, incorporated, and pushed Virgil’s work forward in a Christian context, in a crowning example of the Western tradition’s fusion between Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome. “The Divine Comedy” was in turn highly influential on later authors and thinkers, from Geoffrey Chaucer to John Milton to Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
It also features the use of the poet’s vernacular for great works instead of Latin. Dante was a highly educated Latin scholar, yet he purposely chose to write in Italian. This has been of particular importance historically to authors keen on expressing and embodying their nation’s identity and cultural development, all the way up to Americans like Nathanael Hawthorne and Mark Twain many centuries later.
“The Divine Comedy” is a work of exile, of confusion, despair, and disorientation. It is about how Dante makes sense of his exile and confusion through a vision of the transcendent. I don’t know about you, but that sounds timely to me right now.
“It’s a text that has something truly for everyone, in every discipline,” Baylor University professor Matthew L. Anderson, the project’s originator, told Aleteia. “It’s a masterpiece, and we really want people to gain some wisdom about their own lives, about the times we live in, from this ancient text, and for them to experience how a text like this can really shape and change how they see the world.”
You can sign up to participate through the thrice-weekly emails and videos — all free — at 100DaysOfDante.com. If you wish to buy a translation in hard copy to follow along, Anthony Esolen’s fresh translation is highly acclaimed. You can preorder that trilogy here (it’s sold out until October). I’m going to buy myself my copies later as a reward for keeping up with the project.