'Ich habe unter meinen Papieren ein Blatt gefunden,
wo ich die Baukunst eine erstarrte Musik nenne.'
(Johann Wolfgang Goethe, 1829 March 23)
I found Dante in a bar. The Poet had indeed lost the True Way to be
found reduced to party chatter in a Capitol Hill basement, but I had found
him at last. I must have been drinking in the Dark Tavern of Error, for I
did not even realize I had begun the dolorous path followed by many since
the Poet's journey of A.D. 1300. Actually no one spoke a word about Dante or
his Divine Comedy, rather I heard a second-hand Goethe call architecture
"frozen music." Soon I took my second step through the gate to a people
lost; this time on a more respectable occasion--a lecture at the Catholic
University of America. Clio, the muse of history, must have been aiding
Prof. Schumacher that evening, because it sustained my full three-hour
attention, even after I had just presented an all-night project. There I
heard of a most astonishing Italian translation of 'la Divina Commedia' di
Dante Alighieri. An Italian architect, Giuseppi Terragni, had translated the
Comedy into the 'Danteum,' a projected stone and glass monument to Poet and
Poem near the Basilica of Maxentius in Rome.
Do not look for the Danteum in the Eternal City. In true Dantean form,
politics stood in the way of its construction in 1938. Ironically this
literature-inspired building can itself most easily be found in book form.
Reading this book I remembered Goethe's quote about frozen music. Did
Terragni try to freeze Dante's medieval miracle of song? Certainly a
cold-poem seems artistically repulsive. Unflattering comparisons to the lake
of Cocytus spring to mind too. While I cannot read Italian, I can read some
German. After locating the original quotation I discovered that 'frozen' is
a problematic (though common) translation of Goethe's original 'erstarrte.'
The verb 'erstarren' more properly means 'to solidify' or 'to stiffen.' This
suggests a chemical reaction in which the art does not necessarily chill in
the transformation. Nor can simple thawing yield the original work. Like a
chemical reaction it requires an artistic catalyst, a muse. Indeed the
Danteum is not a physical translation of the Poem. Terragni thought it
inappropriate to translate the Comedy literally into a non-literary work.
The Danteum would not be a stage set, rather Terragni generated his design
from the Comedy's structure, not its finishes.
The poem is divided into three canticles of thirty-three cantos
each, plus one extra in the first, the Inferno, making a total of
one hundred cantos. Each canto is composed of three-line tercets,
the first and third lines rhyme, the second line rhymes with the
beginning of the next tercet, establishing a kind of overlap,
reflected in the overlapping motif of the Danteum design. Dante's
realms are further subdivided: the Inferno is composed of nine
levels, the vestibule makes a tenth. Purgatory has seven terraces,
plus two ledges in an ante-purgatory; adding these to the Earthly
Paradise yields ten zones. Paradise is composed of nine heavens;
Empyrean makes the tenth. In the Inferno, sinners are organized by
three vices--Incontinence, Violence, and Fraud--and further
subdivided by the seven deadly sins. In Purgatory, penance is
ordered on the basis of three types of natural love. Paradise is
organized on the basis of three types of Divine Love, and further
subdivided according to the three theological and four cardinal
(Thomas Schumacher, "The Danteum," Princeton Architectural Press,
By translating the structure, Terragni could then layer the literal and
the spiritual meanings of the Poem without allowing either to dominate.
These layers of meaning are native to the Divine Comedy as they are native
to much medieval literature, although modern readers and tourists may not be
so familiar with them. They are literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical.
I offer you St. Thomas of Aquinas' definition of these last three as they
relate to Sacred Scripture:
. . .this spiritual sense has a threefold division. . .so far as
the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law, there
is the allegorical sense; so far as the things done in Christ, or
so far as the things which signify Christ, are types of what we
ought to do, there is the moral sense. But so far as they signify
what relates to eternal glory, there is the anagogical sense.
(Summa Theologica I, 1, 10)
Within the Danteum the Poet's meanings lurk in solid form. An example:
the Danteum design does have spaces literally associated with the
Comedy--the Dark Wood of Error, Inferno, Purgatorio, and the Paradiso--but
these spaces also relate among themselves spiritually. Dante often
highlights a virtue by first condemning its corruption. Within Dante's
system Justice is the greatest of the cardinal virtues; its corruption,
Fraud, is the most contemptible of vices. Because Dante saw the papacy as
the most precious of sacred institutions, corrupt popes figure prominently
among the damned in the Poet's Inferno. In the Danteum the materiality of
the worldly Dark Wood directly opposes the transcendence of the Paradiso. In
the realm of error every thought is lost and secular, while in heaven every
soul's intent is directed toward God. The shadowy Inferno of the Danteum
mirrors the Purgatorio's illuminated ascent to heaven. Purgatory embodies
hope and growth where hell chases its own dark inertia. Such is the
cosmography shared by Terragni and Dante.
In this postscript I intend neither to fully examine the meaning nor
the plan of the Danteum, but rather to evince the power that art has acted
as a catalyst to other artists. The Danteum, a modern design inspired by a
medieval poem, is but one example. Dante's poem is filled with characters
epitomizing the full range of vices and virtues of human personalities.
Dante's characters come from his present and literature's past; they are
mythological, biblical, classical, ancient, and medieval. They, rather than
Calliope and her sisters, were Dante's muses.
'La Divina Commedia' seems a natural candidate to complete Project
Gutenberg's first milleditio and to begin its second thousand e-texts.
Although distinctly medieval, its continuum of influence spans the
Renaissance and modernity. Terragni saw his place within the Comedy as
surely as Dante saw his own. We too fit within Dante's understanding of the
human condition; we differ less from our past than we might like to believe.
T. S. Eliot understood this when he wrote "Dante and Shakespeare divide the
modern world between them, there is no third." So now Dante joins
Shakespeare (e-text #100) in the Project Gutenberg collection. Two works
that influenced Dante are also part of the collection: The Bible (#10) and
Virgil's Aeneid (#227). Other major influences--St. Thomas of Aquinas' Summa
Theologica, The Metamorphoses of Ovid, and Aristotle's Nicomachean
Ethics--are available in electronic form at other Internet sites. If one
searches enough he may even find a computer rendering of the Danteum on the
Internet. By presenting this electronic text to Project Gutenberg it is my
hope that in will not rest in a computer unknown and unread; it is my hope
that artists will see themselves in the Divine Comedy and be inspired, just
as Dante ran the paths left by Virgil and St. Thomas that led him to the
Dennis McCarthy, July 1997
Atlanta, Georgia USA
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End of the Project Gutenberg Etext of The Divine Comedy of Dante as
translanted by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow