Cantiere Dante

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Preamble to the journey

by Marco Martinelli and Ermanna Montanari

We’d like to start out with the 18th century words of Giambattista Brocchi who, in his Letters on Dante (1797), wrote:


“I do not doubt that Dante would have been the equal of Aeschylus or Shakespeare if in his day the art of theatre had been in vogue in Italy and he had wished to cultivate it.”


We set out from this because we agree with the erudite Venetian and take up the implicit challenge: to transform into theatre the masterpiece that gave birth to the Italian language and its literature. Others have already attempted it: we feel that it is not so much a case of putting images of Dante’s cantos on the stage as of extracting their intimate theatre “nature”. In our view Dante really was the “equal of Aeschylus and Shakespeare”, and his 14.233 hendecasyllables in terza rima are an astonishing theatrical device. In our view the word “theatron”, which means “vision”, encloses precisely what the author defines as “miraculous vision”, hence miraculous theatre, capable of embracing in its visual field the whole of humanity in its multiple experiences, from the obscene and bloody low of the Inferno to the melancholy colour change of the Purgatory and the final ascent to the place where vision and word transmute into ineffable Paradise.


It’s a challenge we have cherished since adolescence when, in the same classroom of the Dante Alighieri High School in Ravenna, we listened for the first time to the music of those verses. Our intention is this: to tackle that vertiginous poetry without betraying it and without being crushed by it. To take the author’s intention seriously, certainly anachronistic and presumptuous in relation to our own times, when he says that the purpose of his poem is actually to give the reader “happiness”. He describes his aim thus in Epistle XIII to Cangrande della Scala:


“… to free the living from the state of misery in this life and lead them to happiness.”

Happiness, no less.


We are so accustomed to hearing the verses of Dante again and again in a thousand interpretations that their sulphurous, incendiary character often skims by without touching us: “habit is a great mute,” as a twentieth century poet and lover of the Comedy, Samuel Beckett, underlines.


Whereas Dante is “damned” serious when he says, to himself and to us, that human salvation is what is at stake. Dante’s first horizon is the Gospels and the Christian revelation: uprooting him from this matrix condemns us to not understanding the concealed meanings of this journey. One doesn’t have to be a believer to “understand” Dante: likewise it is important to keep in mind the modernity of an author, a spearhead in his day, who audaciously opened up to visions of the world that were not strictly Catholic, such as Islam, and to respect for the modernitas of science, bringing into dialogue pagan culture and the faith, philosophy and theology. But we should be aware that his “central fire” was fundamentally Christological. A Christ-Beatrice, surprising.


This firm stance on the plane of philosophy and wisdom was not disembodied from our author’s “political” being: the poem is at once religious and political. The Dantesque universe does not tolerate divisions: it is an integral humanism, a “trasumanar” with which he provokes us at a distance of seven centuries. In a land torn by corruption, “Oh Italy you slave”, the cry of this man in exile, in an age marked by party feuds and bloody vendettas, condemned precisely with the accusation of being a corrupt official, rings with an increasingly burning contemporaneity.


And for all that it is rooted in the Italian middle ages and in the faith that built cathedrals, the poem speaks to all humanity and to the most distant cultures: we need only think of the highly refined analyses by Japanese scholar Michio Fujitani, who has proposed a thought-provoking reinterpretation of the work in the light of Buddhism and the culture of the Far East in which the devils of hell are also guide-figures, “helpers”, because in their way they help Dante to become aware of his own interior “inferno”.


A mediaeval legend that began to circulate immediately after diffusion of the poem maintained that the Commedia would be understood only after seven centuries: the time that has passed since his death in Ravenna on 14th September 1321.


The three canticles: from 2017 to 2021.

The first key with which we shall translate the “trasumanar” into stage terms will be to think of the work in terms of a mediaeval sacred representation. Theatres were not built in Dante’s day, but the whole city was a stage, from churches to piazzas: and in the “mysteries” the professional players were flanked by hundreds of citizens as “extras” while other citizens dealt with building the sets, making costumes and organising the lighting. It was an entire city that put on the show.

But as Elsa Morante said in her fine essay on Fra Angelico:


“Propagandist works of art are a truth drug. If the propaganda is spontaneous and sincere they work well. Otherwise they give birth to monsters. Even in the modern age there have been some cases of spontaneous propaganda: for example the poet Mayakovski who believed in the goods he was pitching. On the day he no longer believed he preferred to kill himself.”


This linking of Fra Angelico’s painting with Mayakovski interests us, and linking Dante with the Russian poet might also ring true: it makes us think about how much mediaeval theatre, with its set places and the participation of the people, anticipated mass theatre in Russia in the years following the revolution, marked by the ingenious experiments of director Mejerchold and “his” playwright Mayakovski. It interests us because in both these epochs there was the vital connection between the polis and the soul of the artists central to it.


So we intend to develop the three canticles in two directions of work and of visual perspective: on the one hand to invent not a simple show but to use the city as an “urban stage”, divided up into the different spaces of the pinewoods, the industrial archaeology, the piazzas and theatres. On the other hand to make the poem heard in places “for everybody” and to make the voice of “everybody” heard, putting on stage not only actors and musicians but also citizens’ choruses, many citizens, who together with the artists will create Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise.


Description of the structure of Inferno, first canticle in summer 2017.

Dante is the one who narrates the journey he has already made: but he is also the author who tells of himself inasmuch as he is a “figure”.

Who will the Dante figure be in our Inferno? Will he be played by an actor?

No. In our Inferno Dante will be the spectator. The spectator who makes a physical journey with his body, and a spiritual one (like Dante…) through the circles of hell. The Inferno in fact is a formidable cognitive map of traumas and shadows. A journey in the darkness of the unconscious. Dante makes it for us, and also with us, with we readers who follow him metaphorically, step by step.

In our Inferno the spectators will be taking these steps for real.

Here is how the first canticle is structured: in summer of 2017 the Romanesque church of Santa Chiara in Ravenna, converted into a theatre in the late 19th century, will be transformed for 34 days into the universe of the nether regions: 34 is a symbolic number corresponding to the number of cantos in the first canticle. The church already existed in Dante’s day and he must (we imagine) have entered it since he was a Franciscan lay tertiary and the church belonged to the Poor Clares, devoted to St Francis and St Clare (Chiara).

The spectator will cross the entire theatre space which is divided into many “set places”, which is to say the circles of hell: the spectator is not seated comfortably before a closed curtain awaiting the start of the show but is moving around from one part to another of the theatre which, together with our collaborators (sets, lighting, sound), we will have transformed into the city of Dis.

The musical aspect, music and voice, and the work to be created with composer Luigi Ceccarelli, will be of particular importance.

But Dante needs a guide: if the “figure” of Dante is the spectator, who will be his Virgil?

The spectator will be welcomed by an enigmatic pair of “custodians” of that space, of that memory: dressed like museum custodians (the museum of Tradition), these two will be at the entrance to welcome spectators and to take them physically by the hand, one by one, just as Virgil does with Dante, and lead them to the “secret place”:


And when his hand he had strech'd forth
To mine, with pleasant looks, whence I was cheer'd,
Into that secret place he led me on.

Inf. III, 19-21


But this pair of guides, emblem of the alchemy between a man and a woman, are put forward as a multifaceted prism: they will be Virgil, yes, but also Beatrice, and in certain lyrical situations (the author’s political invectives for example) they will give voice to Dante himself. Because Dante, unlike contemporary man, is never “alone”: the radical solitude that got him lost in the dark wood is vanquished right from the start by the intervention of Beatrice. In a certain sense Dante always goes through “evil” together with the one who saved him from the anguish of evil and the alienation of self. We repeat: Dante is never alone in his crossing: first Virgil, then Beatrice, and lastly the mystical union with the divine.


The theatre space will therefore be crossed in all its tortuous ravines and “pits”: the stalls cleared of seats, the gallery, the staircases, the offices, the bathrooms, the Romanesque apse at the back of the stage: from there, going through a small door down to the understage, we at last come out into the garden behind the church-theatre “to again behold the stars”.


Along the way, the “journey of our life”, the spectator-Dante will meet choruses and masses of the “damned” impersonated by citizens, and individual emblematic figures, heritage of the collective memory, to whom voice and body will be given by Teatro delle Albe actors and other guest actors: Paolo and Francesca, Ciacco, Farinata degli Uberti, the three Erinyes, Pier delle Vigne, Brunetto Latini, Malacoda and Alichino, Vanni Fucci, Ulysses and count Ugolino.


And as we have said, the actors will mix with the citizens’ choruses: this is why in autumn 2016 we are opening a Dante Worksite in town, open to all citizens who want to take part, with different tasks and levels of participation in the creation: song, dance and movement, set building, visual arts.

The Dante Worksite envisages the presence of a Convivio, still being formed, a group of knowledgeable friends who have tackled Dante from various viewpoints and with various tools. Philosophers, writers and literature scholars who will compare notes with us and with citizens taking part in the project: among others, Giuseppe Fornari, Gianni Vacchelli, Elisabetta Gulli Grigioni, Giovanni Gardini, Ivan Simonini, Sebastiana Nobili, Franco Gabici, Marco De Marinis and Lorenzo Mango.