Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Dante Died 696 Years Ago Today

Dante's Tomb, Ravenna
"L'altissimo poeta" (the most exalted poet) died on the evening of September 13th, 1321 - 696 years ago this evening. On such an occasion, it is interesting to reflect on Dante's thoughts about earthly fame.

The most striking conversation Dante has on this subject is with his old teacher, Brunetto Latini.

Dante, upon seeing Latini cries out,
Still in my heart stays, memory's dear inmate,
The fatherly kind image, paining now,
Of you, when in the world, early and late,
You taught me how man may eternal grow. (Inferno 15. 82-85*)
The pupil has learned well from his master. Latini implores Dante to remember his greatest literary work,
Let my Treasure, in which I still live on,
be in your mind, I ask for nothing more. (Inferno 15.119-120**)
The irony, of course, is all in the location.

This conversation takes place in the seventh ring of Hell. Latini speaks as he, naked, runs across burning sands with fire raining down upon him.

Later, in Purgatorio, Dante's idea of earthly fame via art is corrected by the great manuscript illustrator, Oderisi da Gubbio.
O idle glory of all human dower!
How a short a time, save a dull age succeed,
Its flourishing flesh greenness doth devour!
(the "dull age" following the collapse of the Roman Empire being the reason the poets of antiquity are still remembered.) 
In painting Cimabue thought indeed
To hold the field; now Giotto has the cry,
So that the fame of the other few now heed.
So our tongue's glory from one Guido by
The other is taken; and from their nest of fame
Perchance is born one who shall make both fly.
Naught but a wind's breath is the world's acclaim (11.91-100*)
Or, in Hollander's more sober translation,
Worldly fame is nothing but a gust of wind 
Dante, of course, is the "one who shall make" the " Guido's" (Guinizelli & Calvacanti - both poets) "fly".

Oderisi is correcting Latini's error. He teaches Dante, and Dante teaches us, how futile Latini's hopes are (and who among you have ever read, or even heard of, Latini's Treasure?). Fame, and particularly artistic fame is something that rarely lasts and isn't worth pursuing.

Ironically, here we are, remembering one artist nearly seven centuries after his death. Has the last seven hundred years been another "dull age" or is Dante the exception to his own rule?

I'll let you decide.

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* Laurence Binyon translation
** Robert & Jean Hollander translation

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