March 25th was picked last year to celebrate the man known to Italians as the “supreme poet” because most scholars believe that his fictional journey through hell, purgatory and heaven – as told in the Divine Comedy – starts on this day.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella said that the “universality” of that masterpiece kept Dante relevant in the modern world.
“The Comedy still attracts us, fascinates us, makes us wonder today because it talks about us, about the deepest essence of man, made up of weaknesses, failings, nobility and generosity,” Mattarella said in an interview with Corriere della Sera.
Dante is credited with helping create the Italian language by using the Tuscan vernacular of his time, rather than Latin, to write his most famous poem, which he completed shortly before his death in 1321.
Despite restrictions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed at least 106,000 people in Italy, the country is planning hundreds of readings, exhibitions and other events to honour Dante over the course of 2021.
In his hometown of Florence, the Uffizi Galleries unveiled a 22-metre-high art installation in the shape of a tree in Piazza Signoria. Created by artist Giuseppe Penone, the sculpture “forces us to look upwards, hoping, dreaming and building”, said Mayor Dario Nardella.
It also recalls one of Dante’s best-loved verses: “e quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle”, “and thence we came forth to see again the stars”, a message of hope amid the third wave of coronavirus infections in Italy.
In other celebrations, Oscar-winning actor and director Roberto Benigni, star of Life is Beautiful, read the 25th Canto from Dante’s Paradise on Thursday, in a live-streamed event from the presidential palace in Rome.
In the northeastern city of Ravenna, there was a reading of Dante’s works next to his tomb, where a flame burns all year round, fuelled by oil from the hills in the writer’s native Tuscany.
Later this year in Florence, lawyer Alessandro Traversi is planning a summit of legal experts to symbolically rehabilitate the poet and conclusively prove that he was unfairly banished from his city.
Dante was exiled from Florence in January 1302, after finding himself on the losing side of a feud between the city’s “White” and “Black” political factions, and sentenced to death if he tried to return.
As well as lawyers, judges and historians, Traversi has invited the descendants of the poet and of the judge who exiled him, Cante de’ Gabrielli, to his conference on May 21st. Unlike their medieval ancestors, the two descendants – Count Sperello di Serego Alighieri, an astronomer, and Antoine de Gabrielli, a French business consultant – are friends.
Despite the lockdown restrictions this year, March 25th was a day of festivities for Italy. Not only did the country honour Dante, the country also celebrated the ‘floating city’ of Venice as it turned 1,600 years old.
Adriana Urbano contributed to this report from Florence.