Culture

Beirut looks back at Dante and ‘The Divine Comedy’

BEIRUT: When the world is flooded or in flame, you seek solace in the stars, or the past.

That sentiment may be part of what’s driving the year-long series of events gazing back on the life and work of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), seven centuries after his death. Dante is particularly important for Italians, since his decision to write in the vernacular Italian of Tuscany (rather than Latin, as learned Europeans tended to do in those days) ensured that this dialect became the basis of the modern Italian language.

If you’ve been queuing for hours in search of gasoline, chances are your mind’s not lingering over the origins of modern Italian. Dante devoted nearly a decade to writing “The Divine Comedy,” a three-part epic poem depicting his spiritual journey through Hell and Purgatory and Paradise. Hell and purgatory are on many people’s minds these days.

Anyway, the Beirut Art Film Festival and Italian Cultural Institute in Beirut are collaborating to present “Dante 700 Beyrouth.” Running Sept. 14-26, this hybrid (sometimes in-person, otherwise online) event is staging eight evenings of poetry, music, theater, film and art, all inspired by Dante and “The Divine Comedy.”

Participating in the event are an Italian-Lebanese cast of players – musicians, scholars, a composer, an actor, a poet and a filmmaker. As BAFF Founder Alice Mogabgab sees it, these artists and thinkers are “contributing their talents to this celebration of a certain Lebanon and the hope for an enlightened future ... Culture is today the last rampart of our society while everything is crumbling; bankruptcy must not, under any circumstances, become intellectual!”

The program got going Tuesday evening with “From hell to heaven through poetry and art,” an online discussion between art historian Giuseppe Rizzo, of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, and Diane de Selliers, who edited the 1996 book “La Divine Comédie de Dante,” a study of the poems and Botticelli’s illustrations.

Commencing Wednesday evening, the event’s three in-person performances are hosted at Gouraud Street’s Dagher residence, one of those Ottoman-era palaces in Gemmayzeh wrecked by the Beirut port blast of Aug. 4, 2020, still gradually being restored.

Staged on Sept. 15-16, “Dante e Beatrice: una lauda spirituala italo-levantina” offers evenings of poetry and music dedicated to Dante’s muse, Beatrice Portinari. Featured performers are composer and multi-instrumentalist Nidaa Abou Mrad with Antonine University’s Medieval Music Ensemble – with vocals by Rafka Rizk and Christo Almawi, while Almawi and Ghassan Sahhab play oud and qanun, respectively.

Abou Mrad’s score has been devised to accompany excerpts from “The Divine Comedy” and the verses of Arab philosopher and poet Abu l-Ala al-Maarri (973-1057). Written centuries before Dante was thought of, Maarri’s “Resalat al-Ghufran” (The Epistle of Forgiveness) imagines the poet visiting paradise to meet his pre-Islamic predecessors – a premise close enough to Dante’s three-part epic to prompt (unfounded) speculation that Maarri inspired him.

Cesare Capitani will headline Sept. 17’s third in-person performance. The actor’s bilingual (Italian and French) readings of extracts from “The Divine Comedy” will be accompanied by Sahhab’s qanun improvisations.

For its final four evenings, “Dante 700 Beyrouth” goes back online.

The first of three evenings of film begin Sept. 21 with Ralph Loop’s 2016 doc “Botticelli – Inferno,” examining the decade that Sandro Botticelli dedicated visualizing Dante’s depictions of Hell.

The next night, Thierry Thomas’ 2007 doc “Dante, de l'enfer au paradis” is a scholar-guided tour of Hell as encountered by Dante and Virgil, his guide, during “Inferno.”

On Sept. 24, audiences will be treated to three works by filmmaker Nicolas Khoury, followed by his conversation with his producer, gallerist and BAFF founder Alice Mogabgab.

The short “Niemeyer 4 Ever,” 2018, examines the rise and decline of Tripoli’s Rashid Karame International Fair, designed by the famed Brazilian modernist Oscar Niemeyer. Made in the wake of the Beirut Port explosion, the 2020 short “A city and a woman,” follows the titular young woman as she walks through the rubble left in the blast's wake. These shorts will be followed by the debut streaming of 2021 “Inferno, letter to Lara,” based on a text by Mogabgab.

Beirut’s tribute to Dante closes on Sept. 26 with “Arab culture in the Divine Comedy,” an Arabic-language discussion between Francesca Maria Corrao, of Rome’s LUISS University, and Lebanese poet and critic Abdo Wazen about the influence of medieval Arab culture on Dante and “The Divine Comedy.”

Access to the online and in-person events of 'Dante 700 Beyrouth' is free of charge, but pre-booking is mandatory. Cancellation by email 24 hours prior to event is required.

 

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