A campaign to commemorate Dante distracts from a crisis on Italy’s coastline

Dante’s poem about a pilgrim who journeys from hell to reach paradise has much to teach contemporary Italy about how it treats immigrants. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Though Dante Alighieri’s poem about a pilgrim who sets out from hell to finally reach paradise was written almost 700 years ago, it remains ubiquitous in modern Italy. The Divine Comedy is still taught in schools and traces of it can be found in almost every work of Italian literature; the dialect in which it was written became the foudnation for contemporary Italian. Now, its author is poised to be commemorated in an annual day celebrating the country’s favourite lyricist.

The campaign for #Dantedì is the product of the centrist Italian daily newspaper Corriere della sera. Though innocuous, its timing could hardly be less appropriate. Under the government of Giuseppe Conte, Italy continues to close itself off to incomers. Having taken the brunt of the migrant crisis over recent months, the country has effectively closed its ports to rescue boats. Interior minister Matteo Salvini has snubbed talks organised by French President Emmanuel Macron to reach a pan-European solution, blaming other European member states for their lack of aid.

Among supporters for the Dante day is Italy’s minister for foreign affairs Enzo Moavero Milanesi, who recently expressed his enthusiasm for the project in an article penned for Corriere. “Dante is fully and pervasively part of the genetic code of what it is to be Italian,” Moavero Milanesi wrote. Given that Dante’s poem is heavily Catholic, and shows Prophet Mohammed split in half by a demon for “sowing schism”, conflating Dante with modern Italian culture reflects ideas that are outdated – and nationalistic.

This uncritical celebration of the past diverts attention from the dark conditions on Italy’s shores. While Dante’s pilgrim makes an arduous but enlightening journey towards paradise in order to escape the inferno, Moavero Milanesi and Salvini would prefer that the migrants remain in limbo. Rather than supporting their assimilation, Moavero Milanesi has laid out a plan that advises migrants against attempting the crossing.

Italy’s relationship with migrants has worsened over the past few years. As a pan-European agreement looms, Italy insists that migrants should be flown over the country, and that migrants should be educated about the disasters that await them on Italian shores. Salvini has reportedly done little to discourage news spreading that migrants live in slave-like conditions in Italy’s south, in the hopes that it might make his beloved patria entirely unappealing to future arrivals.

Dante himself was exiled from his birth city of Florence for being a political adversary. The poem is peppered with references to displacement, especially that of his children. He sympathises with a condemned count, who languishes at the very bottom of hell for eating his children, blaming the corruption in the city of Pisa for bringing about this gruesome end. Descending deeper into the depths of Dante’s creation, what is striking is not necessarily the author’s national pride, but the story’s sympathy for the displaced.

One of the most famous sections of the poem is about Ulysses, the Greek hero who attempted to sail to Mount Purgatory, a man Dante greatly respected for his desire for knowledge and betterment. Ulysses's rousing speech to his crew is one of the most poignant of the poem: “‘O brothers,’ I said, ‘who, in the course of a hundred thousand perils, at last have reached the west […] do not deny yourselves the chance to know the world where no one lives.’” Dante writes a laudatory account of a man who will not settle for an inadequate existence. Ulysses, in this version of the story, is drowned along with his crew, before they reach their destination.

Rather than turning backwards, Italians should use the day to consider the incredibly difficult journeys that migrants make in order to leave an inferno behind. Confronting the current situation will be achieved by creating new paradises, not by shutting the gates of hell.

Emma Leech is a Danson Foundation intern at the New Statesman.