Johns Hopkins University Press

Among the fourteen criteria that according to Italo Calvino help us recognize a classic we find the sentence: "I classici sono libri che esercitano un'influenza particolare sia quando s'impongono come indimenticabili, sia quando si nascondono nelle pieghe della memoria mimetizzandosi da inconscio collettivo o individuale." It is true that in his short explications of the fourteen criteria Calvino does not mention Dante's Divine Comedy, yet the long history of its reception leaves no doubt that the quoted—third—criterion perfectly matches the poem. It is well known that, in the Renaissance as well as in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, readers searched in it for guidance, in particular as far as a (morally and socially) good life was concerned. The Romantics appreciated in Dante both the passionate lover and the socially and politically committed poet who managed to put up with many difficulties and, despite many obstacles, remained faithful to his beliefs. Later, in the aftermath of World War I, deeply disorientated German writers, academics, and intellectuals turned to the author of the Comedy as a model for how to keep up with high moral standards during political and social turmoil. Although the exaggerated cult of Dante has always triggered ironic comments, and some attempts to turn the Florentine poet into a German provoked raised eyebrows in contemporaries such as Victor Klemperer, it is only around the turn of the century that the problematic side of such identificatory moral readings of the poem have come into focus.

On the one hand, in a very compelling way Matthew Pearl, for instance, traces in his 2003 novel The Dante Club the extent to which the desire to model one's life and behavior on the pilgrim Dante's journey [End Page 187] through the three realms of the afterlife proves ambiguous. The murders committed by a traumatized veteran of the Civil War are based on a pathological identification with parts of Dante's fiction of Divine Justice. Yet Pearl's thriller does not jump to the conclusion that Dante classes or the reading of his poem more generally should be abolished. The story of the murderer's too-literal understanding is counterbalanced by the members of Longfellow's Dante Club who manage to retrieve and live the Comedy as a linguistically, culturally, and most of all humanly enriching experience (which includes the uncovering of the murderer).

On the other hand, the Divine Comedy—like so many other great books of world literature—has ended up being strongly questioned by human rights organizations. In 2012, the Italian NGO Gherush92 publicly asserted that the Comedy, that is to say the very text that for centuries has been acclaimed as a masterpiece of humanity, is deeply racist, Islamophobic, and antisemitic. They requested that the study of the Comedy no longer be a central part of the Italian school curriculum. They pinpointed a number of offensive passages. First of all, the way in which Dante featured the prophet Mohammed and Ali is said to be highly offensive for a Muslim pupil. The same goes for Dante's representation of Judas, the Jew who betrayed Christ, which enhances the country's already perilously growing antisemitism. Finally, Dante's depiction of homosexuals in Hell would be discriminatory because it claims that they have sinned against God's created nature. Incidentally, the Gherush92 report skips the fact that Dante does not in fact exclude all homosexuals from accessing Paradise, as some of them are allowed to purge themselves in the very fire that also cleans heterosexuals who overindulged in their corporeal desires.

It comes as no surprise that the report met with strong opposition in Italy—and that it did not bring about any change in the school curriculum. The British journalist Alison Flood ends her article about why the Divine Comedy is criticized for being "offensive and discriminatory" by quoting Maurizio Cucchi and Giulio Ferroni, who "called the comments 'another frenzy of political correctness, combined with an utter lack of historical sense.'"1 Although both are firmly convinced of the many "benefits to be gained from reading and studying the Divine Comedy," they advise that the problematic biases in Dante's poem and their being rooted in medieval thinking and beliefs should be made evident in a couple of notes. Yet the statement of the Italian NGO is [End Page 188] not so absurd as it may seem to our Western secularized eyes when we take into account the Arab and Turkish reception of Dante's Comedy.

It is known that Dante's two tercets about Mohammed and Ali have been a very sensitive topic in Islamic countries, although, interestingly, they have not hindered the Comedy's reception and acclaim as a poetical masterpiece in Arab-Islamic cultures. In fact, the tercets are mostly left out in the translations into Arabic as well as into Persian. According to the Iranian translator Lady Farideh Mahdavi-Damghani she could not help censuring the lines because of her religious commitment. It is only in 2002 that the two tercets are included in an Arabic translation by the Iraqi Kāẓim Ğihād, who lives in Paris in exile and considers himself a layman. Still, he too prefers not to name the two prophets and adds a note according to which the fact that Dante lets Mohammed speak for himself is a sign of respect. In any case, the topic remains highly sensitive.

Apparently, in Islamic countries there is a strong connection between Dante's infamous portrait of Mohammed—which from a historical point of view is neither original nor outstanding among Western defamations of the prophet—and the deeply rooted Occidental bias towards Islam. At least, this is what may be deduced from a letter that the Osman-Turkish diplomate and poet Abdülhak Hamid Tarhan wrote in August 1918. Therein, he refers to the difficulty which a diplomat of Islamic belief faced when he had to negotiate with the British prime minister William Gladstone:

I did know that his person was vehemently against Turkey for both religious and economic reasons. I could say he was a prime minister and prime priest at the same time. He always carried the Holy Bible in his right pocket. To him Islam had no place in humanity. He knew Latin as well as a Pope. He used to read Dante and Homer all the time, and had an affection for Ancient Greek scholars whom he liked to discuss with our old ambassador Muzuruz Pasha. He probably liked and admired Muzuruz Pasha because he was Greek, and non-Muslim. Moreover, there is no doubt that he knew our holy prophet only from that Inferno book by Dante.2

The description is very telling about the Arab belief that Dante's depiction of Mohammed had modeled the Western ideas of the founder of Islam and, consequentially, nurtured Islamophobia among Christians. Why, though, of all the defaming portraits in Western literature and art, should Dante's be the one said to cause the long history of [End Page 189] aggressive misunderstanding between the Christian and the Islamic cultures? Apparently, this is the darker side of the influence that, according to Italo Calvino, classics exercise: "I classici sono libri che esercitano un'influenza particolare sia quando s'impongono come indimenticabili, sia quando si nascondono nelle pieghe della memoria mimetizzandosi da inconscio collettivo o individuale."3

The statement of Valentina Sereni, the president of Gherush92, that "Art cannot be above criticism" and, therefore, ought to be censured, is certainly a simplification.4 Yet, the Arab response to Dante's Mohammed is a strong case in point that the statement about the "offensive and discriminatory" aspects in the Divine Comedy should not be dismissed as ridiculous or as the result of a lack of historical consciousness. It may even prove to be beneficial, because it makes us more sensitive to what is so distinctive about Dante's poetic art—a distinctive quality that is not, moreover, limited to the usual suspects (i.e., those who are religiously or sexually diverse). Since history gives us ample evidence of the extent to which censorship eventually turns out to be counterproductive, Sereni's proposal—the total or partial omission of the offensive traits—does not seem to be a valuable solution. In my view, we should rather take the statement as an eye-opener for how Dante's gallery of infernal portraits might have been received by his contemporary readers, which may in turn help us to better understand what is so specific, so poignant, in Dante's characterizations; in a nutshell: how he succeeds in walking the tightrope between downright slander and psychological insight.

Thus, instead of delving into the few passages which Gherush92 pointed out as offensive, I'd prefer to increase students' consciousness of how defamation works and which emotions it triggers. Unfortunately, this turns out to be rather complicated. Before teaching such a class, I read what Dan Wylie, professor at the English Department at Grahamstown in South Africa, wrote about his teaching Dante's concept of Hell. "I put the students on the ethical spot by asking them to devise a similar schema for contemporary southern Africa. Who today should be assigned to what punishment, on what level of Hell, of what crimes? They frequently feel uncomfortable with this, unwilling to play the Dantean god with the putative futures of the living—though one or two have taken a certain grim delight in assigning Robert Mugabe to being eternally buggered on the seventh level."5 The whole project of placing people in Hell seems to have become disturbing for young [End Page 190] people at the beginning of the twenty-first century. A similar reaction may have been at the bottom of Jean Lamore's mapping of the afterlife. The American-French artist refrained from painting an African version of Hell for Simon Njami's exhibition on "The Divine Comedy—Heaven, Hell, Purgatory by Contemporary African Artists," but did give an exciting African version both of the Paradise and the Angelic circles turning around God's light. Is this unwillingness to assign contemporary VIPs to Hell a sign of the much more refined degree of civilization we've reached?

Three years ago, in 2017, I took inspiration from Wylie's 2005 account in a class I taught at the Georg-August University of Göttingen. I had been wondering if something had changed in the meantime. The newspapers do not cease to cover the extent to which messages of hatred and bullying are not only pervading social media and social life but, by now, also triggering outrageous actions in Germany. Therefore, I wondered if students might find analogies between Dante's depiction of sinners and today's strategies of slandering and bullying. However, I met with a similar resistance as Wylie did. I'm not sure whether the resistance was due to psychological hindrances, an interior critic who forbids such a revolting procedure—or if it was the result of an awe which the Divine Comedy still inspires in students of world literature classes. Interestingly, the same unwillingness cropped up while searching for aspects of slander in Dante's depictions of the sinners. Instead of capturing the defaming core of the portraits, students focused on the refinement of Dante's art of characterization, or the deep humanity and understanding for all human concerns in the poem. In their view, art turned out to be above (moral) criticism. I then took another approach to challenge their admiration and had them trace the historical background in which Dante's art of defamation may be placed.

If the Italian reaction to the Gherush92 report insisted on the necessity of approaching the Comedy on its specific historical terms, this implied that while reading Dante's cantos the students should be aware of the extent to which Dante had been a contemporary of the Latin Middle Ages and, therefore, could not help recycling many of the (false) beliefs upheld by the Christian Church. Although Dante has quite a critical and personal take on many topics, his Comedy can be considered as an encyclopedia of all things medieval, including medieval biases and points of ignorance. However, what still tends to be neglected or [End Page 191] even overlooked in Dante Studies is the historical context of defaming pictures with which Dante was familiar; these are also referred to as "Schandbilder" by the German historian Robert Davidsohn in his history of Florence. The historian Gherardo Ortalli was the first to do a study on the legal practice of defamation arising in the second half of the thirteenth century, notably in Florence and Bologna. In addition to the usual punishment inflicted on the culprit in the form of fines or corporeal offenses, judges issued the order of painting a portrait on the walls of a public building such as the city hall or, in Florence, the Bargello, because the culprit—for instance a merchant who used the wrong measures or did not pay customs—was unable to pay the fine or because the punishment of the crime (a murder) should be commemorated as a deterrent to spread terror among the people.

These portraits showed the culprit—we don't know how accurately the portraits were executed, but they are likely to have become more accurate in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when famous artists such as Andrea del Castagno and Leonardo da Vinci were eager to get these commissions—along with his misdeed or crime and the respective punishment. His name and some biographical information were written on a script roll. The intention was to damage the culprit's reputation by pouring infamia onto him. It is not surprising that in the case of merchants who had cheated, the defamation had a strong impact on their credit rating. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the use of the legal practice shifted because a growing number of mural paintings started being instrumentalized by politics. The winning faction would order the painting of portraits of their political adversaries who they said were guilty of treason of the common good. The pictures demonstrated both the newly gained power of the political faction and its actual want of power because many of its political adversaries managed to escape.

Apart from some novellas of the fourteenth century, we don't know much about how people—the concerned as well as the bystanders—reacted to the defaming mural paintings which they could not ignore on the many façades of public buildings. In a short foray, Ortalli suggests that the Comedy should be read as a huge collection of defaming portraits, similar to these depictions of criminals in Dante's time.6 If we take up his suggestion, then Dante's portraits may have been meant to be provocative and disturbing, or at least contain an aspect of aggression. This interpretation may prove an efficient lever for challenging our [End Page 192] concept of Dante's awe-inspiring art and, instead, make us sensible to the underlying aggressive force in many portraits of the Divine Comedy that tend to get lost in our modern reading of the poem.

In my eyes, a class on Dante's defamations may be inspiring in different ways. If we are willing to read the Divine Comedy as infamy-producing machinery, a Dante class should start by setting up lists of portraits and recognizing different modes of portrayal. By taking inspiration from the long reception of the Comedy's characters, Dante students may also explore in a more distanced way how readers reacted to different types of defamation and, then consider their own, sometimes puzzling, responses. By doing so, a new perspective may come about which might complement or enrich the traditional interest which scholars have taken in how the individual characters in the Divine Comedy are related to the framework of Divine Justice.

This reading might end in a range of characterizations. At the lower end, we may put the defaming portrait of Mohammed, who speaks of himself in the third person and denigrates himself as if he were one of many petty heretics who cropped up in Dante's time. In this case, it is certainly inspiring to take into consideration the two predominant Arab responses: mostly removal by censorship, as I've already mentioned; sometimes a creative counterattack. In Hamid's poem Tayflar Geçidi (The procession of the ghosts), written in 1917, the ghost of Dante is defamed as a bad slanderer and ends up admitting to having been envious of Mohammed's victories and the prophet's success. Somewhere in the middle of the scale we may place sinners such as Ciacco. In his depiction of Ciacco, Dante, on the one hand, experiments with a kind of script roll when the sinner calmly repeats what Florentine citizens said about his gluttony, which the Divine Verdict had confirmed. On the other hand, the poet puts in Ciacco's mouth the prophecy of how the civil wars in Florence would end and, thereby, seems to anticipate the upcoming political abuse of the defaming portraits, yet in a way that at first sight does not seem partisan. Ciacco is a good case in point for showcasing what it means to make the "culprit" deliver the very message that the judge wants him to. Finally, at the upper end, we may consider sinners such as Francesca and Virgil, whose characterizations trigger manifold, sometimes even contradictory, reactions in readers which are well documented in the history of Dante reception. By juxtaposing Dante's art of portrayal with the reactions he got, we may reach new [End Page 193] insights both into how subtly Dante performs the practice of defaming and into the extent to which, in the Comedy, this slander is counterbalanced by the poet's questioning the very technique of defamation.

Moreover, the analyses of defaming portraits may lead us to a more complex picture of the ways in which the Comedy was received by Dante's contemporaries. Instead of acknowledging yet again the huge success the poem immediately had, this approach would bring to the fore the other, darker side of the coin: the extent to which the poem offended some early readers and, what's more, the possibility that these offenses actually contributed to the huge success. It would be worth giving more attention to the outrage which the Comedy seems to have caused among some contemporaries, in particular by examining their documented protests against Dante's bitter defaming lines. Well known is the case of Beatrice d'Este, whose second marriage as well as her bad fortune is sadly remembered by her first husband in the eight canto of Purgatory. She commissioned her tomb in Ferrara which proudly features the heraldic coat of arms of her two husbands—the coq of the Pisan Visconti and the viper of the Lombard Visconti—as if she wanted to contest Dante's indirect but reproachful prophecy that she was unfaithful to her first husband. Taking into account receptions like this one may open another perspective on the first period of success that the Divine Comedy met in the aftermath of Dante's death in 1321.

Last, even though medieval legal practice seems very far away from our present, defamation may still ring a bell for the modern reader—just think of our current social, and by now also political, forms of defamation, such as Trump's tweets about his political opponents (and even about the civil-servant witnesses testifying at his impeachment inquiry) in the American context. Teaching Dante's art of defamation today may in fact be an opportunity to explore the return of allegedly archaic forms of behavior. By doing so, we may better understand how poetry sometimes takes part in practices we consider to be highly problematic, even revolting—but which may also contribute to the ongoing power of the poem. In the end, we may ask if the aspect of slandering in Dante matches with what Stephen Greenblatt called the circulation of social energy. In other words: Does defamation play some role in the spectacular history of Dante reception because it had the power the trigger an emotional response to the poem? [End Page 194]

Bearing in mind the Arab reaction to Dante's depiction of Mohammed, we may better comprehend what for centuries has been acclaimed without qualification as the outstanding and important power of poetry. Very telling in this regard are Heinrich Heine's lines in the poem "Deutschland, ein Wintermärchen" (Germany, A winter's tale), which he wrote in 1844. In the last, twenty-seventh part, after sketching out the menace of censorship that overshadowed literary production, he advises the king of Prussia not to bother the poets:

Beleidge lebendige Dichter nicht,Sie haben Flammen und Waffen,Die furchtbarer sind als Jovis Blitz,Den ja der Poet erschaffen.7

[Affront the living poets not.With weapons and flames they are furnish'dMore terrible far than the lightnings of Jove:By the poets created and burnished.]8

Later, he explicitly reminds the Prussian king about Dante, whose rhymes and defaming portraits were much more powerful and perennial than the Christian Hell. Even for famous sinners there was no way of negotiating the future reputation of their name:

Doch gibt es Höllen, aus deren HaftUnmöglich ist jede Befreiung;Hier hilft kein Beten, ohnmächtig ist hierDes Welterlösers Verzeihung.

Kennst Du die Hölle des Dante nicht,Die schrecklichen Terzetten?Wen da der Dichter hineingesperrt,Den kann kein Gott mehr retten.9

[And yet there are hells from out of whose clutchThere's no escape to heaven;No prayers there avail, and powerless too isthe Saviour's pardon even.

Is Dante's hell to thee unknown,With its terrible trinary verses?The man whom the poet there has shut up [End Page 195] Will never escape from his curses.He ne'er will be freed from those musical flamesBy any god or Saviour.]10

At the end of his satire, Heine pays tribute to the first European poet who brought the past and the present to Divine Justice. Heine does not leave any doubt that the poets themselves created the pagan Gods as well as their punishments of the proud. Moreover, he ironically extends the immortality of poetry—usually connected to its beauty and deeply human commitment—to the equally lasting defamation of the depicted characters whose reputation is settled forever. Four years before the revolution of 1848 broke out, Heine celebrates the power of poetry but in the same breath admits that art is not placed above the parties, but rather builds a party in its own right, one that pursues its own personal and even vindictive goals and serves as a highly efficient weapon of aggressive self-defense. Maybe it is time to reflect anew upon the reasons why Dante's poetry continues to unfold its power. Although today's readers tend to overlook its defamatory component in this respect, preferring instead to emphasize the humane side of the poem and its humanizing impact on readers, it should be a lesson to us that great and much-read art is never idyllic. In fact, its very power at least partly draws from that which civilization wants to remove and to control.


1. Alison Flood, "Divine Comedy is 'offensive and discriminatory', says Italian NGO," The Guardian (March 14, 2012).

2. Cüneyd Okay, "The Reception of Dante in Turkey," in Nick Havely and Aida Audeh, eds., The Long Nineteenth Century, Nationality, Identity, and Appropriation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 344.

3. Italo Calvino, Perché leggere i classici (Milan: Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 1991), 15.

4. Ellie Robins, "Call to Ban Dante from Italian Schools," Melville House (March 16, 2012).

5. Dan Wylie, "Why Do We Study Dante?" in Patrick Cullinan, ed., Dante in South Africa (Cape Town: Centre for Creative Writing, 2005), 73.

6. See also Justin Steinberg, Dante and the Limits of the Law (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 29.

7. Heinrich Heine, "Deutschland. ein Wintermärchen," in Sämtliche Werke, vol. 4 (Düsseldorfer Ausgabe) (Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe, 1985), 156–57.

8. Translation by Edgar Alfred Bowring, The Poems of Heine; Complete (London: George Bell and Sons, 1908), 378.

9. Heine, "Deutschland, ein Wintermärchen," Caput 27.

10. Translation by Bowring, Poems of Heine, 379.

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