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  • Teatro Delle AlbeStaging Dante in Ravenna and Matera
  • Ron Jenkins (bio)

As a preamble to their epic production of Dante’s Divina Commedia, Ermanna Montanari and Marco Martinelli, directors of the Italian theatre company Teatro delle Albe, cite the eighteenth-century writer Giambattista Battista Brocchi, who wrote: “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.” [Letters on Dante, Venice, 1797]

In their innovative staging of Dante’s poem, Montanari and Martinelli both confirm and transcend Brocchi’s hypothesis. In the summer of 2019, their theatre presented a dynamic version of Purgatorio that revealed the inherent theatricality of Dante’s work at the same time that it illuminated surprisingly modern aspects of the poem that contemporary audiences might identify as cinematic. In the second part of their projected triptych, which began in 2017 with Inferno and will conclude in 2021 with Paradiso, Teatro delle Albe brings Purgatorio to life with a provocative montage of long shots, close-ups, and cross-cuts. It is a theatrical action movie in which the audience is part of the action and the cities in which it was staged (Ravenna and Matera) become the film set.

Ravenna is the place where Dante spent the last years of his life. One can still visit the churches adorned with the medieval Byzantine mosaics of angels, saints, and stars that fired the poet’s imagination as he was writing Paradiso. Teatro delle Albe’s theatre is based in Ravenna. It is in the deconsecrated church where Dante once prayed, and their itinerant production of Purgatorio brings the text to life by leading its audience through forgotten parts of the northern Italian city that is often called the exiled poet’s “last refuge.”

In Matera, the production exploits that city’s history in a different but equally compelling manner. One of the world’s oldest cities, Matera is carved out of a mountainside in southern Italy. Its elaborate network of ancient cave dwellings [End Page 71]

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Purgatorio in Matera: The Terrace of the Wrathful—citizens of Matera and African migrants are beating the map of Italy and shouting Dante’s verses, mixed with contemporary language about political corruption. 2019.

Photo: Marco Caselli Nirmal.

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Purgatorio in Matera: The Garden of Eden. 2019. Photo: Marco Caselli Nirmal.

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and temples has been so deftly preserved and integrated into the modern life of the city that UNESCO designated Matera as a world heritage site. There is no evidence that Dante ever visited the city, but climbing with Montanari and Martinelli through the labyrinth of a former monastery on Via Riscatto [Redemption Road] to a rooftop view of towering cliffs that gave birth to civilization, it is easy to imagine that one has arrived in Dante’s “Garden of Eden” on the top of Mount Purgatory.

In Ravenna, the performance begins with the spectators gathered in front of Dante’s tomb. Montanari and Martinelli open the iron gates of the monument as if to release the spirit of the poet into the twenty-first century, or perhaps to invite the twenty-first century into Dante’s world. In this production time travel goes in both directions, as it does in La Divina Commedia, where historical and mythical figures co-exist with Dante’s contemporaries. The trumpeting of a conch shell suggests that the audience is on the beach of Purgatory Island, an illusion enhanced by the marsh reeds held by dozens of performers who stand in front of the tomb, almost indistinguishable from the audience. The reeds blow in the wind as Montanari performs excerpts from the opening canto with a commanding clarity that transports the audience to the afterlife while maintaining an earthy connection to the here and now. The reeds, for instance, play an important role in the symbolic landscape of the poem as emblems of humility, but the audience in Ravenna can see and touch the reeds as a concrete manifestation of Dante’s imagery.

When Montanari comes to the...


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