NB: Warburg blurb gives conflicting information. Start is 6pm.
Liszt's overblown 'Après une lecture de Dante' actually means 'after a reading of Dante', and in Monday evening's case we got reading and lecture combined at the highest level of enthusiasm, knowledge and inspiration. In a bid to find a less frequent alternative to the Tuesday soirees she used to run before going off to found her mud hotel in Djenne, Mali, Sophie had proposed a reading group following Dante's Divina Commedia - in English, of course, but thanks to doyenne in all things Italian Jill Dunkerton I have my dual-language edition with a fairly literal translation by Robert Durling plus a CD of selected readings from the Inferno, so I was prepared to benefit from that (pictured below: Botticelli's image of Dante's topography - hell as a funnel, starting with the widest, first circle at the top).
Before the intended launch, however, Sophie had discovered that there was a free series of lectures taking place on Monday Evenings through the Spring and Summer terms at the Warburg Institute in connection with University College London and the Italian Cultural Institute. As Monday's session took the sorrowful tale of Francesca da Rimini in the context of Canto V, as its theme, I was especially keen to check it out. And so, after two hours of my own lecturing on Wagner's Das Rheingold, I cycled from the Frontline Club to the Bloomsbury university zone (a nice straight line heading east). And I'm glad I made the effort. This is the Dante reading group for me, though I grant that we could carry on discussing the ramifications for a lot longer.
The format is perfect. Each week Dr. Alessandro Scafi of the Warburg (pictured above) reads the chosen Canto in Italian, accompanied by slides and the text on the screen in both Italian and English. He then goes back over the text clarifying the meaning and footnoting the references. Then Professor John Took of University College London - who seems reluctant to have a photo of his very characterful face with its thoughtful, furrowed brow on the internet, so I make do with this portrait accompanying his self-introduction -
gives us his take on the Canto in question. That then leaves 40-odd minutes for questions.
Those are the bare outlines, but I can't communicate how well the two academics themselves put across their passion for the subject. Dr Scafi's reading is so, well, poetic - and sensitive, better, I fancy, than the voice of Claudio Carini on my CD, who tends to drop at the end of most lines. Oh, those bird similes - especially the one about the cranes (which I'll leave you to look up for yourself). He even made me want to learn passages by heart, as I did after I'd read Pushkin's Boris Godunov with my late, lamented Russian teacher Joan Smith. Prof. Took said he found discussing the Francesca narrative almost too painful, but left us in no doubt of what he takes from it, or at least a part of that.
It's a masterly compression in which Dante, we decided, forges his own myth from a story which would have been recent history for his readers: while reading of Lancelot's love for Guinevere, Franceca and her husband's brother Paolo Malatesta - whom she may or may not in real life have taken for her intended before the truth was revealed - discover their own love in a passionate kiss, only to be murdered by the jealous Lanceotto. Dante's treatment is oblique: the unknown shade who comes closer to Dante through the 'aere maligno' (Blake's depiction shows the aftermath, where Dante passes out with emotion)
She abnegates her own responsibility by blaming Love for 'seizing' her and others, then when Dante pins her to relive her past happiness by narrating it in present misery - Prof. Took thinks 'dimmi', 'tell me', is one of the most drastic and severe commands in the whole of Dante - speaks only of the reading and the kiss in a highly charged 12 lines (sketch by Rossetti for his famous triptych below).
Paolo, referred by Francesca only as 'costui', 'this one,' weeps and Dante 'fainted as if I were dying, and fell as a dead body falls'. That's the end of Canto V (here depicted by Fuseli, a study for a painting which no longer exists).
With passionate eloquence, Prof. Took emphasised what I had always hoped to find in Dante even before I started reading him properly: that this Inferno is not about divine wrath, but 'the agony of what the soul chooses for itself' - and therefore the most profound meditation on the human predicament, then and now. The second circle is full of 'carnal sinners who subject their reason to their lust' (lines 38-9). Yet while Dante subscribes to the sexist view of Semiramis, who seems to have committed no sin in history other than to have been a powerful female leader, he makes Francesca so piteous in her graciousness. Three lines especially tear at the heart, Francesca of course addressing the deeply suffering Dante:
se fosse amico il re de l'universo,
noi pregheremmo lui de la tua pace,
poi c'hai pietà del nostro mal perverso.
('If the king of the universe were a friend we would pray to him for your peace, since you have pity on our perverse pain'). Yet at the same time, Took stresses how the heroine tries to mythologise her guilt away. In both aspects lies the complexity: 'mortality, psychology, ontology in 70 lines - a literary miracle'. That compression has never found its equal in any of the many homages since in art and music, though Tchaikovsky catches the pathos of Francesca and the ache of happiness lost and of illustrators the imaginations of Blake and Doré (pictured below) are surely the finest.
Next week we embark on a daunting subject, the Suicides in Canto XIII. Come along if you can and you like the idea then and/or on 5, 12 February, 5, 12, 19, 26 March - no registration needed. I hope you'll find it as inspiring as I do.