Interview with the President of the Pontifical Council for Culture
The Cardinal in the house of the poet
"I have the distinct impression that even from radically distant positions a sincere question may arise for the Church: that it return to talk about the substance of its message, in short, that it return to talk about God. And Dante in this can be helpful to us".
Meeting with Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi
Interview with Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi by Paolo Mattei
For almost one hundred years every Sunday morning in Rome one hears Dante singing. It is fact that since 1914 the most famous Italian Dante scholars recite and comment on the Divine Comedy by mixing the tercets to the sound of the bells of Trastevere, where there is the fifteenth century Anguillara Palace, the historic seat of the House of Dante. Founded in 1913 on the initiative of Sidney Sonnino, then Minister of Foreign Affairs pro tempore, the House of Dante, ‘an apolitical and non-profit cultural association’, for nearly a century promotes conferences and public readings of Dante’s works and carries out activities ‘appropriate to support studies and to explain and promote better understanding of the life, times and works of the Poet’, as stipulated in the Articles. Last February Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi became president, succeeding Senator Giulio Andreotti, now honorary president.
Cardinal Ravasi, who told of having received with ‘great joy and amazement’ the invitation to accept the office, is President of the Pontifical Council for Culture of the Holy See, with whom he recently formed a scientific-organizational committee to promote the celebrations ahead of the seventh centenary of Dante’s death, in 2021. An occasion, the cardinal said, to ‘create synergies between civil and ecclesiastical institutions’.
We met him to talk about the Florentine poet, and not only.
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi with Professor Enrico Malato, during the press conference at the presentation of the initiatives of the House of Dante and the Pontifical Council for Culture in view of the seventh centenary of the death of the poet (1321-2021), Rome, 7 March 2012
GIANFRANCO RAVASI: Not from a strictly technical or academic competence, because my studies developed in another area. It is rather an ideal and spiritual symbiosis generated by two particular facts: the first is my passion for poetry, that I have cultivated from adolescence. I’ve always been a great reader of poetry, of all provenances, including foreign ones. The second fact was, so to speak, a stroke of luck: in the high school seminary in Milan I had a professor of Italian literature who was in love with Dante. His library held a vast collection of commentaries on the works of the poet and his high school analysis was constantly innervated by the different voices of these commentators. He provided for us, in that immense world, a selection through which he proposed to us, as a true enthusiast, continuous openings of horizon. I’m grateful because he taught me to read Dante with love, but also with the rigor that the poetry requires.
What do you mean by ‘rigor’?
Poetry is not the instinctive and spontaneous language of the many versifiers who compose very free and endless variations on roses and dew drops... Poetry is the highest point of rationality, it is a superior logic, transcendent, with its own grammar, its own extraordinary rigor. Imagine for a moment how important for Dante the geometric precision of the verse, the respect of the accents and caesuras, the meticulous search of rhymes... This accuracy is also essential in music. I think, for example, of Bach. Some of his compositions can be thought of with an image also often used to represent the Divine Comedy, as cathedrals. At the beginning of some of his works there is a musical ‘arch’ that returns, in the end, as necessary parallelism.
After that high school beginning, did you continue to frequent the work of the Florentine poet?
Yes, I have always tried to preserve islands of time to devote to the reading of the verses of the Comedy. Moreover, in this sense I had the illustrious example of Giovanni Galbiati, my predecessor at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana. He had a small tower built – that I then subsequently used as my private study – which he climbed each day to read a song of the Comedy. He probably regarded poetry as an exercise of the soul, like a prayer.
You will certainly love Dante for the theology present in his tercets...
Of course. As the scientist Stephen J. Gould theorized, theology and philosophy, that by studying the ‘foundation’, belong to a plane of transcendent knowledge, a plane distinct from the empirical-scientific knowledge, which deals with the ‘phenomenon’, the ‘scene’. That’s it: true poetry belongs on the same level of theology and philosophy. It is certainly the case with Dante, who knew how to incorporate and transform into the language of poetry the theology and exegesis of his time, of which he had a very deep technical knowledge. In years closer to our own, mutatis mutandis, another poet who I love very much, Thomas Stearns Eliot, was able to do so, in The Four Quartets. Theology in Dante celebrates its great epiphany and all theologians who ignore Dante as a theologian, are wrong. Moreover, Marie-Dominique Chenu explained, in his Theology of the twelfth century, how much it is necessary to pay attention to artistic works, not only literary, but also plastic and figurative, because they are not, he said, “only aesthetic representations, but genuine ‘places’of theology”. I wish we could teach Dante’s work with this basic criterion. Also because of this it would be nice to propose the establishment of a Chair of Dante Studies at the Catholic University, as Paul VI did in April 1965 with the Apostolic Letter, given in the form of a motu proprio, Altissimi cantus, written for the seven hundredth centenerary of the birth of the Poet.
In the fifteenth century Anguillara Palace, in Rome, the historical seat of the House of Dante
Often the way of presenting it to students is devoid of charm, appeal. But Dante is charming and attractive! In this sense, Roberto Benigni with his lecturae had the merit and courage to show how Dante knows how to speak to modern man; he manages to show how he was able to say in a sentence all about such deep realities that refined intellectuals would not be able to explain even with thousands of words... The merit of Benigni was this: with a ‘linear’, narrative reading, and without too many glosses, he was able to make Dante speak to millions of people. Often instead in schools teachers will offer exasperating philological interpretations of him, subjecting the text to a continuous and tiresome structural analysis... I remember the lecture of an American structuralist critic, who considered the passage of the Comedy which he was commenting on very beautiful, only because he could completely ‘dismantle’ it, take it to pieces, reduce it to découpage figurines.
What could be done that is positive for this?
Teacher formation should be worked on. And those engaged in culture and communication should change their attitude towards the general public, for whom they often nurture pessimism, if not contempt. Instead not only Benigni, but also Vittorio Sermonti has shown that there is a thirst for these things and a widespread receptivity much deeper than is thought. I attended some time ago his lectura Dantis in Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan: outside the church there were long lines of people who had been unable to enter. I, too, am often amazed at how much curiosity there is for topics that are normally considered hunting grounds for specialists. I remember with wonder the silent and attentive crowd that, in Mantua, under a relentless sun, listened to my lecture on Qoelet. And I assure you they were not teachers. Dante, therefore, can still speak to the world.
Dante also spoke to the Church of his time, and often harshly...
The love for the Church, love for the faith, can also manifest itself through passionate criticism. There is an exercise of serious, motivated, well-founded criticism, that in its arguments may also be questionable, but that stems from a genuine passion of the spirit. Dante is such. Benedict XV in the encyclical In praeclara summorum, written in April of 1921 during the six hundredth centenary of the death of the poet, and addressed to teachers and students of literary institutions of higher learning of the Catholic world, poses this rhetorical question: “Who could deny that at that time there were things to blame the clergy for, that a soul so devoted to the Church, such as Dante, must have been quite disgusted, when we know that even men who were outstanding in holiness then, reproved them severely? “. And Paul VI, in the letter Altissimi cantus, remarks: “Nor am I sorry to recall that his voice was raised and resonated strongly against some of the Roman pontiffs, and sharply rebuked ecclesiastical institutions and men who were ministers and representatives of the Church”. Precisely because his faith was not the adhesion to some rational truths, but the love of the whole being for Christ and His Church, Dante could introduce into the Comedy the entire moral dimension that distinguishes it, with emphasis on the distinction between what is good and what is bad. I am convinced that there is now need to go back to talk about the concept of evil, using the precise words: fault, sin. The concept of sin is lost, faded into a colorless fog, become extinct. Pastorally speaking, I feel it necessary to reiterate at this time – without rhetoric or emphasis – the sense of good and evil. Again, Dante may be helpful.
Dante Alighieri and the realms of the afterlife, Domenico di Michelino, Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence
Of course. The dialogue may die because often it crosses over into syncretism and fundamentalism. Unfortunately, the winning mediatic confrontation is between believers with incredibly rigid positions and ‘the non-believers with a sneer’, for whom everything is resolved in parody and show. For this reason I want to avoid that the actions of the Courtyard of the Gentiles [an institution of the Pontifical Council for Culture for dialogue between believers and atheists or agnostics, ed] be carried out by fundamentalist believers and nonbelievers. You must be able to argue and listen without however retreating a step, and this is not fundamentalism but the true meaning of dialogue. I – I have often said so – am opposed to the ‘duel’ because I am in favor of the ‘duet’ in which the voices, even if they belong to soundtracks poles apart, can produce harmony without having to give up their own identity, that is, be concrete without fading into a vague ideological syncretism. I was struck by a public discussion that I had recently precisely during an initiative of the Courtyard of the Gentiles, with Gian Enrico Rusconi. I got the distinct impression that even from radically distant positions a sincere question may arise for the Church: that it return to talk about the substance of its message, in short, that it return to talk about God. Often we get lost behind the small details and do not take the whole fresco into account. Again in this, Dante, with his ‘systematic’, medieval spirit – a breath that we have lost – can help us.
You quoted Paul VI and Benedict XV. But Benedict XVI also loves Dante...
Yes. He evoked him already as a cardinal, in his book Introduction to Christianity; and then as Pope on several occasions: in the Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, in a speech to the participants at a meeting sponsored by the John Paul II Pontifical Institute and then during the Angelus on the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 2006, where asking himself why God chose Mary of Nazareth, among all women, he quoted the verses of the beautiful prayer of St Bernard to the Virgin Mary. “The answer”, said the Pope, “is hidden in the unfathomable mystery of the divine will. However there’s a reason that the Gospel evidences: her humility. Dante Alighieri clearly emphasizes this in the last canto of Paradise: ‘Virgin Mother, daughter of thy Son, / humble and exalted more than any creature / fixed term of eternal counsel’”