Dante Non-Stop

Posted on: 18/01/2010

The people at Bryn Athyn College went straight to hell yesterday. It was just before 1:30 on a beautiful afternoon at the leafy Montgomery County campus, and by sometime early this morning, they planned to be well out.

They would be – if they could swing it – awash in the love that moves the sun and all the other stars. Paradise.

Traveling in a single day from the depth of Point A to the pinnacle of Point B, allowing for a layover in purgatory, was an undertaking apparently never before attempted in the United States.

But the assembled readers of Dante’s Divine Comedy (or, if you insist on the original Italian, La Divina Commedia) were dead-set on reciting every one of the 14,000-plus verses that his iconic, dreamlike, high-concept poem comprises in three volumes: “Inferno,” then “Purgatorio,” and finally “Paradiso.”

That sort of marathon narration of a milestone work in Western literature is not even the tradition in Italy, where Florentines are known to recite one of the books – canto, or chapter, by canto – in readings that move from street corner to street corner, and may include both passersby and local celebrities.

“There were times I asked myself if I were crazy,” said Duncan Pitcairn, a student of the Italian language who came up with the idea and then acted on it. “It’s not something I would have taken on if people had not encouraged me.” Said his wife, Martha: “He reports that smirking is a form of support from his family.”

Yesterday, she was with him to help out at Bryn Athyn College’s Mitchell Performing Arts Center. There, 10 readers – mostly affiliated with Bryn Athyn, a municipality whose 1,350 residents are, like the Pitcairns, nearly all followers of a denomination called the New Church – were raring to recite.

The sponsor of the event was the America Italy Society of Philadelphia, the Center City organization that runs a wide variety of programs related to Italian culture. These include the language classes that Pitcairn, 54, a descendant of the same-named industrialist family responsible for Pittsburgh Plate Glass and significant in the nation’s rail and energy development, has been taking for seven years.

“I really wanted to hear The Divine Comedy as a story,” he said. For hundreds of years that was the only way, because most people were illiterate. It was recited.”

On a train ride back to Philadelphia from New York, where Pitcairn heard the Italian actor Roberto Benigni read several Divine Comedy cantos last spring, the idea came to him. He took it to his Italian teacher, Franca Riccardi (“I thought it was wonderful,” she said), and “the Bryn Athyn theater happened to be empty because it’s the middle of a winter day.”

Well, it’s empty until 8 this morning, when people begin setting up for a Sunday service. But Pitcairn and the crew hoped to be finished with all hundred chapters around midnight, not altogether out of reach. The first hour of reading ended at the beginning of the 10th canto.

Pitcairn was not one of the official readers, although Riccardi was – and she read her cantos in Italian, while Pitcairn worked a PowerPoint presentation that threw surtitles on a screen behind her. When other readers took to the podium for English recitations, he projected an image from the appropriate canto.

The images and the fairly new translation – a prose version more accessible than typical translations into poetry – came from Princeton University’s Dante Project, headed by Robert and Jean Hollander.

The day began at 1 p.m. with notes on the work from Victoria Kirkham, a professor of romance languages at the University of Pennsylvania. Dante Alighieri – a poet who also wrote in Latin, a deeply religious dreamer, and a politician ousted from his beloved Florence by the opposition – was forced to roam the palaces of northern Italy for the last two decades of his life, when he wrote the work. He finished just before dying in 1321.

It’s both powerfully rich in imagery and dense with literary and religious illusions, this story of a poet (named Dante) who is accompanied into hell by the poet Virgil. (Yes, a now-famed sign at one of the gates says “Abandon hope, all who enter here.”) They see, depth by depth, the most astonishing, even gross, things. The two then work their way to purgatory, where Virgil leaves his young charge in the company of Beatrice, an angel in whose eyes Dante finds his way through paradise.

“Midway in the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood,” recited Eric Carswell, the minister who began with Dante’s first lines. About 45 people were in the audience, which expanded and contracted as the afternoon moved forward and the story moved downward, to the center of the earth, before Dante’s ascent. Other readers, who rotated canto by canto, included a Temple University doctoral candidate in technical writing, a theater teacher, and a college student.

Another was Christopher Clark, the new president of Bryn Athyn College, who said he knew The Divine Comedy “only like most college-educated civilians” – having only a general idea of it. Chara Daum, a Latin translator and one of the readers whose final recitation would be the very last, was asked whether she had special plans for it. “I plan to be upright,” she said.

A $20-a-person dinner was prepared for 7 p.m., but the event was free. And during the day, onlookers were asked to offer a respite to readers by volunteering for a canto. That was what Dario Galanti, 17, the son of Giorgio Galanti, head of cultural affairs at the Italian consulate here, did at Canto 16 in “Inferno.” The younger Galanti rehearsed to himself in the theater lobby, then took the stage and rolled the canto, about three netherworld spirits, gracefully from his tongue in its beautifully trilled original Italian.

“He knows very well his Dante,” said his dad.

Except for readers, Pitcairn expected no one would stay throughout. “I’ve been saying to people, ‘Come for five or 10 minutes and get a taste of the afterlife.’ We’ll hopefully get to the end, where we meet God in heaven, before it’s too late.”



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