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Ravenna, a poster of Dante Alighieri, ph. Massimo-Sestini

text Francesca Lombardi
photo Massimo Sestini

December 18, 2020

Dante and his land

On the 700th anniversary of the poet, Aldo Cazzullo tells us about the eternal text of the Divine Comedy in a contemporary key

“Italy was not born out of war. In France, a strong woman, Joan of Arc, helped a weak king to drive the English army out of the country and France, as we know it today, was born. In Spain, it all began with a royal intermarriage: the Queen of Castile married the King of Aragon. England originated from a divorce: Henry VIII rid himself of his wife and the Pope at the same time. But not Italy: it is a much younger state in terms of geopolitical age, but when it was born it had existed for centuries. Italy was born out of Beauty, culture, art and poetry. Italy was born with Dante, who gave us not only a language, but also and mostly an idea of ourselves: for the Poet, Italy was not a state but an idea”. 

Florence Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. The Divine Comedy by Dante, Domenico di Michelino (1465), ph Massimo Sestini

This is how our interview with Aldo Cazzullo begins, following the release of his latest book, A riveder le stelle,  the story, step by step, of Dante’s journey, which has two merits: it allow us to relive, in our hearts and thoughts, even the minor characters, so masterly described by Dante but easily forgotten, and provides us with a contemporary rewrite of an eternal work, a Divine work, as Boccaccio called it. With Aldo, we open the celebrations for the 700th  anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death (1265-1321).

Florence, Baptistery of San Giovanni ‘No smaller or no larger they seemed to me / Than are those booths for the baptismal font[...]’(Hell XIX 16-18). ph. Massimo Sestini

And there is no better way: as Massimo Gramellini said, Cazzullo running at breakneck speed to follow Dante’s tracks through Hell is as exciting as the supreme Poet’s pace at the time he wrote the Comedy. The same fast pace of our interview, during which we talk about Dante, his places, Tuscany…

Dante marked the birth of Humanism, the marriage of classicism, symbolized by Virgil, and Christianity. “Fernando Pessoa, the great Portuguese poet, was right- Cazzullo says - when he said that Dante, a medieval man, was the first humanist. And this civilization has its origins in Tuscany, in Florence. In my book, I follow this red thread that unites the Comedy and the present day, this idea of Italy that spans Boccaccio, Petrarca, the Renaissance and the Italian Unification or Risorgimento”.

Our journey through Dante with Cazzullo starts in our land, in particular, in Florence: “Giotto and Dante were friends: Dante mentioned Giotto in the Divine Comedy; Giotto depicted Dante, and perhaps Dante visited the great Italian artist while he was frescoing the Scrovegni Chapel".

Laurentian Medici Library, ‘The light bark of my genius lifts the sail’ (Purgatory I, 2) in the precious manuscript Tempi 1, c. 32, ph. Massimo Sestini

It is not clear who inspired who, but what strikes me as illuminating is that the Bell Tower is a work of architecture, but also of sculpture and painting. Certain medieval Madonnas at the Uffizi Gallery, certain ceilings, they show the same motifs. ….Italy, in particular, Tuscany, have always been the world’s software, the place where styles were created: Giottesque Gothic, the Renaissance, the Baroque, the Rococo, Neoclassicism, Futurism.

The place that reflected upon the world and on how to portray it. Before dying, Raphael wrote a letter to Pope Leo X, asking him to  save the vestiges of ancient Italian glory. He was referring to Rome but he meant ‘Italy’; we can go on with Ugo Foscolo who was touched by the sight of Vittorio Alfieri’s tomb in the Church of Santa Croce and wrote: bones quiver with the love of the fatherland; Leopardi wrote the ode On the Monument to Dante Being Erected in Florence and Manzoni rinsed his lexicon in the Arno…And so, Florence is the moral home of Italy which was born out of culture. And our country’s language is the language of a book- the Divine Comedy - which was born in Florence’s street markets. 

Ponte Vecchio, marble plaque, ph. Massimo Sestini

The journalist reflects again upon the city: “Every time I go to Florence, I feel the need to stop in front of Palazzo Vecchio and look at its statues, erected by the Florentines: there are Judith and Holofernes, a woman beheading an enemy general; then there is David, a shepherd killing a giant; Cellini’s Perseus defeating Medusa. These three statues span a century, from the mid-1400s to the mid-1500s. Florence was the center of the world, a Manhattan ahead of its time. In those years, the great European states had just been constructed and the city was relatively small compared to them. But, through these three statues, Florence claimed its power and independence. A message that has remained true over the centuries”. 

Cazzullo’s journey through Dante extends beyond Florence: Venice’s Arsenale, Lake Garda, Bologna’s Towers, and also Rome, Benevento, Mount Etna, Scylla and Charybdis…An exciting journey through Italy

And Dante is described by the writer as a man of great intellectual courage- he was not afraid to name the names of those he damned to Hell- but also physical courage: he fought very bravely on the front line in the Battle of Campaldino.

Florence, Palazzo Vecchio, wooden door with engraving of the Poet designed by Sandro Botticelli, ph. Massimo Sestini

A modern man, with his weaknesses and great flights of thought that made him eternal. Based on this reflection, Aldo reconstructs the links between Dante and some great figures of our time: Giuseppe Ungaretti, but also Dino Campana, Vasco Rossi, Stephen King.

A book revolving around Tuscany, which is also the destination for a network of beautiful routes following in the tracks of the supreme Poet (, awarded with the Best in Travel 2021. Sustainability award, the only Italian destination, by Lonely Planet. For those who wish to celebrate Dante by walking the same paths he walked. 

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