- Performing Dante or Building the Nation? The Divina Commedia between Dramaturgy of Exile and Public Festivities
Dantism during the Risorgimento: A Winning Idea
Dante, the “anima di fuoco [soul of fire]”—like Mazzini and Garibaldi, the two other main icons of the Risorgimento—gave off “scintille di senso [sparks of meaning]” across time, as Italian historian Mario Isnenghi so aptly put it. This meant he was surrounded by the same constant “effetto alone [halo effect]”1 that continued even through decades or centuries of apparent silence. Catapulted into modernity by literature and the visual and performing arts, the “Genio gigante [great Genius]”, apostle and prophet of the nation, poet of Italian regeneration, symbol of an individual and collective fate, therefore represented a pulsar memory, both inside and outside the text.2 For this very reason, as Alberto Savinio stated, “Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare are great names but they are timeless: we would say detached from life…they are men-oases, or men-islands, detached from the chain, or better the conveyor belt of ideas.”3 In the nineteenth century, Mazzini’s thought, the romantic myth, Italophilia, and the civil religion of an Italy devoted to unity and national pride (despite some severe divisions) promoted the internationalization and democratization of culture. These phenomena were responsible for reshaping a cult that was already transnational and reflecting its own identity, capable of combining both high and low culture, scholarship and popularization.4 So much so, in fact, that patriotic and literary causes were fought in the name of Dante, who was a national hero in the theater, through the 1865 Dante Festival—an event proposed by the English Dante scholar Henry Clark Barlow in the pages of Athaeneum and the Morning Post between 1858 and 1861,5 following in the footsteps of the national German and English festivities in honor of the literary glory of Shakespeare, Schiller, and Goethe.6 [End Page 37]
But how far could Dante’s work be pushed in a Risorgimento key? And what was its impact on mass imagination? To answer these questions, we will try to assess the popular reception of Dante within Italy and abroad under two different lenses. On the one hand, we will examine the “dramaturgy of exile,” fed by Italian refugees through dramatized readings, improvisations, musical evenings, academic lectures, theater performances, and artistic works inspired by the Commedia or by Dante the character or auctor. On the other hand, we will look at the “dramaturgy of the festival,” provoked by the Universal Exhibitions and the Sixth Centenary in 1865: the modern global stages or shop windows for art as a product and the first national congress of the newly formed Italian civil society, defined eloquently by Carlo Dionisotti as the “final scene of the fantastic drama of the Risorgimento,”7 held in Florence, the Kingdom’s new capital. Recent historical and cultural studies have shown that “Dantean literature of the Risorgimento”8 and the Commedia can be considered both an “Italian book” and a “universal book,” as the political message could be transferred from the patriotism of one country to another, and took on different meanings depending on the various ideologies and the corresponding rhetoric that fed it, adapting to the ideas narrated and the roles conferred. One can therefore see in Dante a large collective autobiography of nineteenth-century man, a sought-after father of the nation who could speak to a variety of readers, fusing art and industry and appealing both to the masses and to the elite. Moreover, in the same way, one may consider the Commedia the first “textbook” of the new, secular, post-unification education, which the Risorgimento as teacher would update, furnish with comments, and canonize as a memento of the nation.
Dante on Stage: The “Dramaturgy of Exile
The Commedia stands out in nineteenth-century theater both as a repertoire for performances during the “Grande Attore [Great Actor]” period and as a model for drame romantique, with its inherent theatrical vision. Peter Armour describes how Dante’s poem initiated a new form of reading: no longer silent, private, and individual, but instead a public act involving declamations and readings, following the medieval tradition of...