“On April 24th,” writes The New Yorker’s John Kleiner, “Samantha Cristoforetti, Italy’s first female astronaut, took time off from her regular duties in the International Space Station to read from the Divine Comedy.” You can watch a clip of that reading of the first canto of the Paradiso above. “As Cristoforetti spun around the globe at the rate of seventeen thousand miles an hour, her reading was beamed back to earth and shown in a movie theater in Florence.”
While that stands alone as a neat event in and of itself, more celebration of the epic Italian poem followed. “Ten days later,” Kleiner continues, “the actor Roberto Benigni recited the last canto of Paradiso in the Italian Senate” to a standing ovation. Benigni, one of world cinema’s best-known representatives of Italian culture, seems to have a particularly strong appreciation for Dante Alighieri, the best-known representative of Italian literature; you can see him recite the first canto of the Inferno just above.
The occasion? Dante’s 750th birthday. Though you’ll find no unsuitable occasion to celebrate the Divine Comedy (find it in our collection of 700 Free eBooks), this past month has proven a particularly rich one. Today we’ve gathered a few more pieces of Danteiana so you can conduct your own personal appreciation. You might consider as a first stop the Princeton Dante Project, which “combines a traditional approach to the study of Dante’s Comedy with new techniques of compiling and consulting data, images, and sound,” featuring a searchable new verse translation, texts of Dante’s minor works (with translations), historical and interpretive lectures, more than seventy commentaries, and links to Dante sites from all over the world.
“When Dante began work on the Comedy [circa 1308], none of the different dialects spoken in Italy’s many city-states had any particular claim to preeminence,” writes Kleiner for The New Yorker. “Such was the force and influence of the Comedy that the Tuscan dialect became Italy’s literary language and, eventually, its national one.” But if you don’t speak Italian (as much as the linguistic importance of the Divine Comedy might inspire you to learn it), you might prefer an English reading, which you’ll find here.
Dante has, for so many of us, shaped our very notions of heaven and hell, but perhaps more impressively, as the poet’s 750th birthday passes, his major work shows no signs of falling into irrelevance. No matter how many of us now have different visions of the afterlife than he did, and no matter how many of us have no visions of it at all, we keep reading Dante — whether in Italian or English, whether in the Senate or on the internet, whether on Earth or in space.
Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.