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School of Arts and Humanities

From the pit to the pinnacle: Dante reappraised "vertically"

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has rounded off a four-year project at Cambridge University which explored the “vertical” connections across Dante’s Comedy.

Dante’s 14th century epic journey through the Christian afterlife, the Divine Comedy, has long been regarded as a literary and theological masterpiece. Over the past four years, the University of Cambridge has brought together experts on Dante from across the UK and abroad to re-examine Dante’s work in a bold new way, looking at the “vertical” connections between the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso as Dante travels from Hell, through Purgatory and finally to Heaven.

The project, which took the form of a series of workshops and public lectures hosted by Trinity College, marks the first time that a “vertical” reading has been systematically applied to Dante’s entire 14,233-line work as a whole. Scholars from around the world came to Cambridge to explore how the same-numbered cantos from all three canticles relate to each other, and what new light these connections can shed on Dante’s artistic and conceptual modes throughout the poem.

The final lecture of the series was presented by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Professor Lord Rowan Williams, and examined the final cantos of each section and their themes of “Fire, Ice and Holy Water”.

Professor Williams’ lecture, along with all others in the series, is available to view online via the University Streaming Media Service.

Rowan Williams

The cycle of 33 major public lectures by literary scholars, philosophers, theologians and thinkers began in 2012. Over four years, it has offered a radical new approach to Dante’s great work and to the venerable Lectura Dantis tradition by generating innovative readings of the Comedy as well as broadly influential debate on Dante’s position in our culture today. The series, called Cambridge Vertical Readings in Dante’s Comedy, was organised by Dr George Corbett and Dr Heather Webb as an initiative of the Department of Italian at Cambridge University, in collaboration with the Leeds University Centre for Dante Studies and the University of Notre Dame.

Dr Heather Webb, lecturer in Italian at the University of Cambridge, said: “Looking at Dante through a vertical reading is a way of starting over and exploring the poem afresh. If we read, for example, Inferno III, Purgatorio III, and Paradiso III, throwing out all our usual ideas and just looking at those three cantos, something new always comes up. This series has examined how we read Dante, what we bring to each reading, and also how Dante himself might have wanted us to read his poem”.

Dante from Wikimedia Commons

Cambridge Vertical Readings in Dante’s Comedy is also available in book form, published via Open Book Publishers, an Open Access publisher that makes books freely available to read online, as well as in inexpensive e-book and paper editions. Vertical Readings will be a three-volume collection. Volume one is currently available, with volumes two and three coming soon.

The collection offers an unprecedented repertoire of vertical readings for the entire Divine Comedy, which not only articulates unexamined connections between the three canticles but also unlocks new ways to enter into the core themes of the poem. It is hoped that the three volumes together will provide an indispensable resource for students of Dante.

Dr Webb said: “Open Book Publishers have made it so that anyone can go online and read the whole collection, which is really exciting for everyone involved in the project. We want students and enthusiasts at every level to be able to access this new approach to looking at Dante and for us to share the results that everyone who has worked on these readings have brought together over the past four years.”

Cambridge Vertical Readings in Dante’s Comedy is available to read free online and purchase via Open Book Publishers.

Image credit: Dante portrait by Botticelli from Wikimedia Commons; Rowan Williams images, University of Cambridge; Dante's Divine Comedy by Michelino from Wikimedia Commons.