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Dante after Dante Conference
November 5, 2020 @ 12:00 am - November 7, 2020 @ 12:00 am
A three-day multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and multimedia conference to celebrate the ceptcentenary of the death of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). This conference will represent UW-Madison’s participation in world-wide celebrations of the septcentenary of Dante’s death in 2021.
Rather than focusing on Dante himself, this conference will bring together scholars of his influence in history, literature, arts, culture, dance, and other forms of expression, in the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries. Beyond paper sessions on Dante in/and filmmaking, economy, visual arts, the conference will focus on Dante’s reception in the African American community in the US, in world film and literature, classical and contemporary music, to name but a few salient topics. Finally, our conference will pair in a unique way these more traditional modes of academic inquiry with dance performances in collaboration with Li Chiao-Ping and her Dance Troupe (with a choreography inspired by Dante’s Inferno), and with a series of film screenings at the UW Cinematheque and Marquee Cinema at Union South.
What is it that, seven centuries after his death, Dante still has to teach us, in this age of intelligent computers and incredible advances that affect just about every aspect of our lives? What continues to draw us to him is his extraordinary way of dealing with the darkest depths and with the most luminous heights of human existence. Out of nothing, he creates an elaborate world in which sin is punished without mercy and virtue is justly rewarded. These concepts were new, as was Dante’s concrete description of the afterlife, especially with regards to his use of not only mythical but above all historical characters in his narrative. Before the Divine Comedy, hell had been imagined as a hole in the ground, where sinners are tormented by fire for the eternity. Purgatory was still a novel concept, introduced to the church doctrine in 1274, a mere several decades before Dante undertook the task of writing about the afterlife. Similarly, heaven was an unidentified place where virtuous souls were rewarded. His ideas of these concepts, along with his observations about humanity, have lived on for the past seven centuries.
Ever since his first poems, written when he was a teenager, Dante started exerting a tremendous influence on his fellow poets in Florence, on men of letters in Italy, then those in Europe and around the world. Boccaccio, Petrarch, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and many others found a model in him. Leading world poets and translators ventured into translating his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy. Liszt and Tchaikovsky composed music inspired by the poem; Chaucer, Balzac, and Borges wrote about it. C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien studied Dante with great devotion. Translators and authors are not the only ones drawn to Dante. William Blake, Gustav Doré, Salvador Dalí, to name but a few, gave life to the Divine Comedy’s characters in their illustrations. Since 2006, Roberto Benigni has been touring a solo show about the Divine Comedy, commissioned by the Italian government. In 2010, Seymour Chwast rendered the poem as a graphic novel. Their company was joined several years ago by a Dan Brown thriller, Inferno, which quickly became a movie. There are Inferno movies and iPad apps and video games and tarot cards and even candy. T. S. Eliot, the lawgiver of early-twentieth-century poetics, who placed Dante on the highest possible rung of European poetry, famously declared: “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them. There is no third.” And this reverence is not limited to the western world alone. Indeed, the Divine Comedy has been translated into close to one hundred different languages, on every continent. For example, in 2003 the first verse translation into Arabic appeared. Its translator, Kadhim Jihad, welcomed the commission from the UNESCO, because “Dante is reported to have been part of a group of students of the Arab philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes).” Indeed, Dante places Arab philosophers Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina (Avicenna), in the Limbo, where virtuous non-Christians find their place in the Christian afterlife. They accompany Aristotle, Homer, Virgil, and other figures from the past who served this world well, and whose only flaw was not to have known Christ. Dante’s relationship with the Arab world—both past and present—is a rich one, that has only recently started to attract due attention.
Dante’s influence is not limited only to the sphere of the arts. He and especially the Divine Comedy have inspired thinkers and movements for social justice and liberation. For example, the African Americans in the US, and especially Abolitionists in the 19th century, just like Armenians under the Seljuk Turk domination in the 16th century, and the Jews during the Shoah in the 20th century, found in Dante an unprecedented model and inspiration for their struggles for justice and freedom—the founding values of Dante’s life and his oeuvre.
Needless to say, this conference (or any other venue) cannot explore every single facet of Dante’s presence and influence around the world and across disciplines, but we propose to bring to Madison a selection of approaches which will engage a wide array of constituencies though an exploration of contemporary and pressing issues.