A short-form description of the Renaissance often centres around the rebirth of the classical tradition, drawing on the forms and ideas of ancient Greece and Rome. In addition to this, the vital transmission of text and imagery from antiquity was enabled by works produced during the Middle Ages, some of which drew upon antique sources. Among the more significant Medieval literary contributions enabling this reconnection with antiquity are the works of Dante Alighieri. His most well-known and influential work is the Divine Comedy. Describing Dante's travels through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, the Divine Comedy is primarily regarded as a theological allegory, mixing both classical and contemporary references. Dante's guide for much of the journey in the Divine Comedy is the Ancient Roman poet Virgil, best known for his epic Aeneid, and later regarded by Christian scholars as an honorable pagan for works such as the Fourth Eclogue, which some interpret as containing pre-Christian ideas and messianic prophecy.
Dante of the past
When studying the art and literature of the Renaissance, a familiarity with Dante can enrich our understanding of the era. Dante is usually depicted wearing red stylised Medieval clothing, often accompanied by Virgil in key works, such as Raphael's Parnassus and La Disputa (without Virgil in the latter). In each of these scenes, Dante's enduring contributions to literature and theology are celebrated.
Dante nestled between theological luminaries in Raphael's La Disputa
A fascinating illustration of how Dante remained a topic of discussion during the Renaissance comes to us as an anecdote, related in the anonymous manuscript known as the Codice Magliabecchiano:
As Leonardo, accompanied by [his friend] Giovanni di Gavina, was passing the Spini Bank, near the church of Santa Trinità, several notables were assembled who were discussing a passage in Dante and seeing Leonardo, they asked him to come and explain it to them. At the same moment Michelangelo passed and, one of the crowd calling to him, Leonardo said: ‘Michelangelo will be able to tell you what it means.’ To which Michelangelo, thinking this had been said to entrap him, replied: ‘No, explain it yourself, horse-modeller that you are, who, unable to cast a statue in bronze, were forced to give up the attempt in shame.’ So saying, he turned his back on them and left. Leonardo remained silent and blushed at these words. 
The veracity of this account is of course contestable, and is often regarded as an illustration of Michelangelo's erratic and antisocial nature. Despite this, the writings of Dante were a feasible topic of discussion in artists' circles. Unlike many of the classical and medieval writings in Greek and Latin being revisited by scholars during the Renaissance, the Divine Comedy was available in the Tuscan dialect, a precursor of modern Italian. Its language would have been more familiar and accessible to the artisan class.
Dante has remained a constant in the study of many fields, including literature, art and politics. A strong revival of the literary Dante depicted in art was seen in the nineteenth century, typified by paintings such as The Barque of Dante by Delacroix and the beautiful versions of the Divine Comedy and La Vita Nuova translated and illustrated by the Pre-Raphaelite artists. Those interested in exploring the diverse branches of Dante studies are recommended to seek the Cambridge Companion to Dante as an introductory text (link)
Delacroix' nightmarish vision of the boat ride described in Dante's Inferno.
Dante of the present, and future
The Florens 2012 conference presented another opportunity to explore the enduring influence of Dante with the panel "Dante in the 21st century: on the page, the stage and the web", organised by the Società Dantesca Italiana (Italian Dante Society).
The program description of the panel was promising:
The seminar is projected towards 2015, the year of the 750th anniversary of the birth of Dante, and analyses the central role of Dante in contemporary culture: it examines the importance that cultures around the world attach to Dante, and the international role of the Italian Dante Society, a distinguished Florentine academy with numerous scientific and cultural events, and which is exemplified by the presentation of their website, www.leggeredante.it, on which readings of Dante by the greatest Italian actors are available, organised in the past year by the Teatro della Pergola, the Dante Society and by the University of Florence. Furthermore, the initiative “Suddenly Dante. 100 songs for Florence“, will finally be presented. This is an initiative which has involved many readers for many years on the streets of the city.
Unfortunately, this panel did not have English translation, so was not attended directly. 3PP was able to secure some time with Dr. Eugenio Giani, a prominent Florentine public figure, and also head of the Italian Dante Society. Dr. Giani was very generous with his time, allowing near a half-hour in his office within the Palazzo Vecchio. We discussed the origins and mission of the Italian Dante Society - an assemblage of prominent Dante scholars who gather the various extant manuscripts from the middle ages and beyond and piece together definitive compilations of Dante's works, known as "National Editions". It is these compilations which become the template from which other publishers derive their editions. The National Edition of the Complete Works was cited as the most definitive version to date, though work was ongoing on critical revisions (Testo Critico) of pieces such as the Divine Comedy and La Vita Nuova, based on updated scholarly discourse and manuscript evidence.
Dr. Eugenio Giani
Dr. Giani further elaborated on the work being done in preparation for the 2015 Dante Society seminar, which aims to establish a more complete description of Dante, beyond the literary figure he is popularly regarded as. Earlier that morning, Dr. Giani had shown us a central ceiling panel in the Salone dei Cinquecento at the Palazzo Vecchio, attributed to Vasari's workshop. It is known in English as the Expansion of Florence, and depicts Dante in his role in urban planner, overseeing the revision of the city's boundaries. It provided an apt illustration of the aim of the 2015 conference to define the broader influence of Dante as an active civic and political figure.
Vasari's Expansion of Florence
Dr. Giani also touched upon the aims of the website, leggeredante, which features actors' readings of Dante since 2006. The aim of this project was to reconnect people with the tradition of live poetry readings, with the corresponding website intended to be a record of these events. The site is a well designed archive of the readings, with videos going back to 2006. To further align with the stated "international role" of the Italian Dante Society, multilingual options for the site and videos would have been a bonus, such as seen on the Dante Online website (link) Those interested in another quality online resource on Dante are also reminded of the Princeton Dante Project website (link).
Looking forward to the 2015 Dante Society conference, we can only hope that an international presence is embraced, including providing for simulcast translations, which were not available for this panel at Florens 2012.
Many thanks to Dr. Eugenio Giani from the Italian Dante Society for his time and patience, and to Melissa Pignatelli from La Rivista Culturale (an impressive cultural magazine website in three languages incl. English), who provided much needed language assistance during the interview.
1. Benko, S. Virgil's Fourth Eclogue in Christian Interpretation. Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt 2.31.1 (1980): 646-705.
2. Sourced via Richter, I. The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Oxford University Press. 1952. p.356.
3. Florens 2012: International Biennial of Cultural and Landscape Heritage. Program. p.64