In the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death, Marco Lucchesi’s book about the poet gets a new edition

RIO — A family story illustrates the intimacy of poet and translator Marco Lucchesi with “The Divine Comedy”, the seminal Italian poem that plunges into Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. His parents were from the province of Lucca, in Tuscany, mentioned in the masterpiece of Dante Alighieri, a genius whose 700 years of death will be remembered on the next 14th. Decades after having immigrated to Brazil and with his memory already impaired by Alzheimer’s, Lucchesi’s father was still reciting passages from the book in his head.

— Even though he was shipwrecked in the deepest picture of the disease, even when he no longer knew who he was and where he was, the only possibility for dialogue with him was through the “Divine Comedy” — recalls Lucchesi. — He spoke the opening part of the verses and I completed. When all the other doors of communication had closed, there was still this luminous shadow of a word that was not lost.

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Today, Lucchesi continues to talk about this work that still “lives and breathes”. In his book “Nine Letters on The Divine Comedy”, which has just received a new revised and updated edition, by Bazar do Tempo, with new chapters and images gathered by the designer Victor Burton, the current president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters invites us to unravel the mysteries of “a 700-year-old youth”. There are nine letters (like the nine circles of Hell), in which, in a gesture of brotherhood, the author addresses himself directly to the reader and discusses Dante’s contemporaneity with him. The poet, by the way, is the subject of a long-awaited biography written by historian Alessandro Barbero, which should be published in November by Companhia das Letras.

“The monumental works of scholars all over the globe only make ‘The Divine Comedy’ grow,” Lucchesi explains. — But this perception of the work’s contemporaneity occurred mainly because three great poets of the last century, TS Eliot, (Ossip Emilievitch) Mandelstam and Jorge Luis Borges, revolutionized Dantesque interpretation, finding the part most linked to the avant-garde of his work.

Illustrations by Gustave Doré for the "Divine Comedy" are the best known about the work Photo: Gustave Doré / Disclosure
Illustrations by Gustave Doré for the “Divine Comedy” are the best known about the work Photo: Gustave Doré / Divulgação

Before these three, Lucchesi believes, only the chants of Hell were a wonder to most scholars. Paradise was thought to contain a lot of “doctrine” and was Dante’s least finished series.

“Borges, Eliot and Mandelstam showed the opposite: if it were necessary to choose the most daring address in Dante’s poetry, this would be Heaven,” says Lucchesi. Dante inquires into language itself, paralyzes poetry itself, realizing that it will be incapable of carrying the most absolute light, the transcendence that is beyond all transcendence, which is the divine mystery. He makes that big No an indirect and beautiful Yes.

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In Lucchesi’s letters, Dante appears as an “Egyptian”, who “embalms” various historical and literary figures of his time. The author also maps the Italian influence on Brazilian poets like Jorge de Lima. A relatively little known fact, Machado de Assis even translated part of the “Divine Comedy”.

“The ‘Divine Comedy’ is no longer its own,” says Lucchesi. — It has gone beyond the intrinsic quality of a work and, like every great metaphor, it asks to be modified, performed, kidnapped and loved. It is this great journey that she continues to take.

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If, in poetry, the avant-garde of the “Divine Comedy” is more represented throughout Paradise, in the visual imagery surrounding the work, the opposite occurs. Hell is always more portrayed, as Victor Burton’s iconographic research for the book demonstrates. The graphic designer, who has already won seven Jabuti awards, makes a commented selection that spans six centuries of pictorial representation of Dante’s literary and philosophical universe.

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The preference of illustrators and plastic artists for Hell has a simple explanation. When imagining it, the poet is very descriptive, creating seductive images. “(…) especially in Hell, he makes use of rich and imagistic descriptions, in a language in which words refer to realities that resonate in the memory of men”, writes Burton in the book.

hell is pop

Dante was creating his Inferno just as Western culture was beginning to represent him visually. His vision contributed decisively to molding in our minds an image of darkness that remains in the collective unconscious until today.

“Hell was being built at that time, in frescoes in the thirteenth century,” Burton says. — It had to have a whole apparatus to create fear in people. It had to be popularly scary. No wonder the images are very rich. Paradise is too diffuse, too boring. Everyone prefers hell.

Engraving by Tom Phillips for "Divine Comedy" (1983) Photo: Courtesy of Swann Auction Galler / Disclosure
Engraving by Tom Phillips for “The Divine Comedy” (1983) Photo: Courtesy of Swann Auction Galler / Disclosure

Burton’s selection ranges from a fresco depicting Dante in the 14th century to engravings made by the English artist Tom Phillips, which look more like a comic book. They also include works by Salvador Dalí, William Blake and Sandro Botticceli, among others. The varied styles over time — surrealism, symbolism, collage — show how the “Divine Comedy” became the most illustrated work of all times. No artist has done more for his popularity, however, than the Frenchman Gustave Doré, present in the book with several images.

The luxury edition of the “Divine Comedy” illustrated by Doré in the 19th century was so successful that it took on a life of its own.

“To this day, few people have read Dante’s original, but many got to know it through the Doré edition, which I even find a little too literal,” says Burton. — As almost everyone already knows these drawings, I tried to use it in a different way, with more close-ups to give a greater view of the precision of the images.