(ITAL 310) The course is an introduction to Dante and his cultural milieu through a critical reading of the Divine Comedy and selected minor works (Vita nuova, Convivio, De vulgari eloquentia, Epistle to Cangrande). An analysis of Dante's autobiography, the Vita nuova establishes the poetic and political circumstances of the Comedy's composition. Readings of Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise seek to situate Dante's work within the intellectual and social context of the late Middle Ages, with special attention paid to political, philosophical and theological concerns. Topics in the Divine Comedy explored over the course of the semester include the relationship between ethics and aesthetics; love and knowledge; and exile and history.
This course was recorded in Fall 2008.
01 - Introduction
Professor Mazzotta introduces students to the general scheme and scope of the Divine Comedy and to the life of its author. Various genres to which the poem belongs (romance, epic, vision) are indicated, and special attention is given to its place within the encyclopedic tradition. The poem is then situated historically through an overview of Dante's early poetic and political careers and the circumstances that led to his exile. Professor Mazzotta concludes by discussing the central role Dante's exile was to play in his poetic project.
02 - Vita Nuova
This lecture is devoted to the Vita Nuova, Dante's autobiographical account of his "double apprenticeship" in poetry and love. The poet's love for Beatrice is explored as the catalyst for his search for a new poetic voice. Medieval theories of love and the diverse poetics they inspired are discussed in contrast. The novelty of the poet's final resolution is tied to the relationship he discovers between love and knowledge. This relationship is then placed in its larger cultural context to highlight the Vita Nuova's anticipation of the Divine Comedy.
03 - Inferno I, II, III, IV
Professor Mazzotta introduces students to the Divine Comedy, focusing on the first four cantos of Inferno. Stylistic, thematic and formal features of the poem are discussed in the context of its original title, Comedy. The first canto is read to establish the double voice of the poet-pilgrim and to contrast the immanent journey with those described by Dante’s literary precursors. Among these is the pilgrim’s guide, Virgil. The following cantos are read with special attention to the ways in which Dante positions his poem vis-à-vis the classical tradition. The novelty of Dante’s otherworldly journey is here addressed in terms of the relationship, introduced in the previous lecture in the context of the Vita nuova, between love and knowledge or, more precisely, between their respective faculties, will and intellect.
04 - Inferno V, VI, VII
This lecture examines Inferno 4 -7. Dante’s Limbo, modeled on the classical locus amoenus, is identified as a place of repose and vulnerability. Here, in fact, among the poets of antiquity, the pilgrim falls prey to poetic hubris by joining in their ranks. The pilgrim is faced with the consequences of his poetic vocation when he descends to the circle of lust (Inferno 5), where Francesca da Rimini, in her failure to distinguish romance from reality, testifies to the dangers inherent to the act of reading. From the destructive power of lust within the private world of the court, Dante moves on to the effects of its sister sin, gluttony, on the public sphere of the city. The relationship posited in Inferno 6 between Ciacco and his native Florence is read as a critique of the “body politic.” In conclusion, Virgil’s discourse on Fortune in the circle of avarice and prodigality (Inferno 7) is situated within the Christian world of divine providence.
05 - Inferno IX, X, XI
In this lecture, Professor Mazzotta discusses Inferno 9-11. An impasse at the entrance to the City of Dis marks Virgil’s first failure in his role as guide (Inferno 9). The invocation of Medusa by the harpies that descend while they wait for divine aid elicits Dante’s first address to the reader. The question of literary mediation, posed in the previous lecture in the context of Inferno 5, is explored further, and the distinction Dante draws between the “allegory of poets” and the “allegory of theologians” is introduced. Inferno 10 is read with a view to view to the uniqueness of the sin it deals with - heresy. The philosophical errors of the shades encountered here, Farinata and Cavalcante, are tied to the political turmoil they prophecy for Florence. From the disorder of the earthly city, Dante moves on to the order on its infernal counterpart, mapped by Virgil in Inferno 11. The moral system of Dante’s Hell is then discussed with a view to its classical antecedents.
06 - Inferno XII, XIII, XV, XVI
This lecture focuses on the middle zone of Inferno, the area of violence (Inferno 12-16). Introductory remarks are made on the concentration of hybrid creatures in this area of Hell and followed by a close reading of cantos 13 and 15. The pilgrim’s encounter with Pier delle Vigne (Inferno 13) is placed in literary context (Aeneid III). The questioning of authority staged in this scene resurfaces in the circle of sodomy (Inferno 15), where the pilgrim’s encounter with his teacher, Brunetto Latini, is read as a critique of the humanistic values he embodied.