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Take a trip through hell, purgatory and heaven with 100 Days of Dante

DANTE'S DIVINE COMEDY

Kraft74 | Shutterstock

John Burger - published on 08/11/21

New website launches September 14 with free presentations to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri's death.

This September, fans of Italian poet Dante Alighieri will be marking the 700th anniversary of his death. There are many events and activities planned for the occasion: academic talks, new musical works, art exhibits, and even a special train in Italy. But there may be no better way to remember Dante than by reading his most celebrated work, The Divine Comedy, an epic account of the poet’s imaginary tour of the three realms of the afterlife.

A consortium of American Christian universities are inviting ordinary people to accompany Dante on that pilgrimage through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven.

100 Days of Dante is a new website through which modern seekers and pilgrims can follow the great epic poem with free video presentations three times a week. The journey begins on September 14, the date of Dante’s death in 1321, and concludes on Easter 2022. 

The three books of the Divine Comedy, known in Italian as Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, are divided into 33 chapters known as cantos. Each video will present one canto, with commentary on it from leading experts in Dante studies.

“We’re cheating a little bit. It’s called 100 Days of Dante, and what we mean is 100 non-sequential days,” said Matthew L. Anderson, a professor at Baylor University who came up with the idea. We’re doing that because we really do want ordinary people to engage with this. One canto per day with a video per day is actually quite a bit. You might be working, or you might be a homemaker or whatever, and that’s a lot of content per day. So we’re sending out videos three days a week, which will also be available to download as a podcast.”

100 Days of Dante is a presentation of Baylor University Honors College, with support from the University of Dallas, Gonzaga University, Torrey Honors College at Biola University, Templeton Honors College at Eastern University, and Whitworth University. 

Anderson, assistant research professor of ethics and theology in Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, said that when he taught Dante to undergraduates for the first time last fall, he noticed that they “resonated with the text in a way that was really remarkable to watch. There was so much in there for them to latch onto.”

Then he heard that Pope Francis, in a talk last fall, encouraged people to read the Divine Comedy during the 700th anniversary year.

“So I thought, ‘Well, this is apparently the year to do something with the Divine Comedy,’” Anderson said. Thus was the project conceived. 

The pope also published an apostolic letter in March, Candor Lucis Aeternae, to celebrate the anniversary.

Moral and spiritual significance

Anderson said that 100 Days of Dante primarily will explore the moral and spiritual significance of the Divine Comedy. “There are lots of Dante resources on the web, much of which is great, but a lot of it focuses on the historical or the literary dimension,” he said. “There isn’t a whole lot about the theological aspects or the moral and spiritual aspects.”

But individual lectures will be more of an introductory nature, presented with the non-specialist in mind, said Anthony Nussmeier, the University of Dallas’ point man for the project.

“We really want to emphasize the idea of the poem as a Christian epic, one that is informed by Christianity and one that can inform Christians with its wisdom, even in 2021,” said Nussmeier, who directs the university’s Italian program.

He said it was easy to recruit colleagues to make video presentations because the Divine Comedy is part of the core curriculum at the University of Dallas, and everybody in the English department teaches the work to undergraduate students. 

Nussmeier said the new website should be of particular interest to those at classical education schools and anyone “who might be interested in the intellectual underpinnings of western Christianity.”

The website eventually will be made “even more robust by having text and other multimedia aspects to it, even other lectures and all sorts of things,” Nussmeier said. “So it’s going to be viewed as a permanent repository for all things Dante.”

Reading groups

Organizers hope that people won’t necessarily make the journey through the Divine Comedy alone.

“Our hope is that people will participate with the broader reading project by forming a group of friends who will read it together,” Anderson said. “We really would love to see folks use the videos as an opportunity to form local reading groups, because reading together is much more fun when you’re in person. We’ve heard from a lot of people that they’re getting friends from college together to read through the Divine Comedy over the next year.”

100 Days of Dante organizers hope that by the end of the marathon reading, participants will be able to look back and say that the Divine Comedy changed their life in some respect, Anderson said. 

“At the end of Easter 2022, we hope people can say, ‘Here’s something I learned from Dante about God or about myself or about the moral life that causes me to see the world differently and in a better and more beautiful way,” he said. “It’s such an extraordinary text. It’s a text that has something truly for everyone, in every discipline. It’s a masterpiece, and we really want people to gain some wisdom about their own lives, about the times we live in, from this ancient text, and for them to experience how a text like this can really shape and change how they see the world.”

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