“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, che la diritta via era smarrita…”
As part of my course on Dante that I’m taking this month, one of our assignments is to memorize the first eighteen lines of Canto I of the Divine Comedy. No biggie. I mean, I had to memorize Hamlet’s soliloquy “To Be or Not to Be” in high school, so how much different could the first 18 lines of the Inferno be? That was until I found out that we had to do so in Italian. The next day everyone in our class was walking around muttering the words, “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, mi ritrovai per una selva oscura che la diritta via era smarrita.” Our professor jokingly told us that we would be performing our recitations on the steps of the Duomo and invite everyone in the town who wanted to come.
In order to help us memorize, most of us found a recording on YouTube of Roberto Benigni, who is known for his recitations of the Divine Comedy. If you have a minute (or ten), go search “Roberto Benigni Inferno Canto 1,” and the first one that pops up will likely be his recitation of the first canto in front of Santa Croce in Florence. We’ve been playing the recording over and over. During our class on Thursday, our professor pulled up the video and we watched it together. I’d never actually watched the whole thing before, since I only have to recite the first 18 lines, but yesterday we watched it all. I don’t expect you to actually watch the whole thing, but if you have time, watch the thirty seconds, and then skip forward to minute number seven, and you will notice that nearly the entire last two minutes of the video are spent with the crowds in the Piazza de Santa Croce applauding Benigni. I heard someone tell me about this a few days ago, and I thought, “Well, that’s pretty remarkable to be able to memorize that much of a poem,” but I didn’t really think it was that spectacular beyond that feat. But when I watched it, I realized that the applause doesn’t come from Benigni’s talent at being able to memorize large quantities of poetry. Granted, that is pretty remarkable, but for the Italians, there’s more inherent in his act of reciting. The audience isn’t just clapping for Benigni. They’re clapping for something that is a piece of their heritage, and this great poetic masterpiece in many ways defines them as a culture. They’re clapping because Dante brings them together and reminds them who they are.
Once I realized this, I couldn’t help but wonder why we don’t applaud celebrities in the United States when they do stuff like this? Part of it is that we don’t have anyone who does stuff like that. Our celebrities are famous because they’re either rich, in movies, or have what many Americans defined as “glamorous” social lives. We give them attention because of that. And we wonder how America has become such a consumerist culture. But we also don’t have anyone like Benigni because we don’t have a piece of literature that functions in the same capacity; we don’t have as extensive a cultural and literary heritage. The importance of Dante is often compared to the importance of Shakespeare, but Americans don’t identify with Shakespeare as much as Italians identify with Dante. Alexis de Tocqueville comments on the lack of original literary genius in America, saying that Americans in many ways just mimic Europeans. I have to say that in this case, he was right. But what would happen if someone in American chose to memorize and recite a piece of literature that was, in fact, formative in the nation’s history or cultural development. What would it be? And would they receive the same kind of standing ovation that Benigni receives?