By Annette Hinkle
With the coldest temperatures in recent memory roaring into Sag Harbor this week, the first days of 2014 are turning out to be the perfect opportunity for delving into the depths of Hell.
And at Canio’s Books on upper Main Street, that’s exactly what they’re doing all month long.
Now until the end of January, Canio’s co-owners, Kathryn Szoka and Maryann Calendrille, are offering a four week literary workshop through their non-profit Canio’s Cultural Café led by the book shop’s founder himself, Canio Pavone. And it’s not just Hell that’s the focus of this journey — along the way participants will also get to visit Purgatory as well as Paradise.
It’s all part of the three works of poetry that make up Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy.” In case Dante’s writings weren’t something you spent a lot of time exploring in college, it is in these pieces that the seven deadly sins originated, along with the ninth circle of hell and other fiery allegorical references.
This week, Pavone opened the workshop with an exploration of the political and social scene in Dante’s 13th century Florence and discussed “La Vita Nuova’” or the new life, an anthology of Dante’s poetry predating the “Divine Comedy” in which he expresses his unending love for Beatrice, a young woman he met only briefly in life and who died young, having never known of Dante’s deep feelings for her.
In fact, Dante’s love for Beatrice which was introduced in “La Vita Nuova” became the basis for the “Divine Comedy” and in those three books, after traveling through both Hell and Purgatory, it is Beatrice who leads Dante in Paradise.
“To him the ‘new life’ is a search for the meaning of love and the meaning of poetry,” explains Pavone. “It becomes almost an introduction that leads him to writing the ‘Divine Comedy.’”
“The big theme is getting to Paradise and seeing her,” he adds. “Through this spiritual love he has for her he’ll get to know divine love.”
It’s all pretty heady stuff, but as Pavone notes, there comes a time in our lives when it’s the sort of stuff one wants to explore. There’s just something about looking back at a life long lived — the roads taken as well as paths left unexplored — and the role of fate, love and mortality that piques our interest in texts like Dante’s.
There’s also a sense of accomplishment and like Mount Everest or jumping out of an airplane, tackling Dante’s “Divine Comedy” is one of those monumental tasks that’s on many to do lists.
“It’s a little intimidating when you’re younger,” concedes Pavone. “But when you’re older, you start thinking maybe there’s something to it. As we get older, we’re ready for something like this. It’s true whether it’s movies, plays, or readings.”
“To me as I get older, the spirit becomes more and more important,” says Pavone. “When you’re really young you’re not aware of it. But now I think a lot about the spirit. Dante feeds my spirit and his poetry, his ideas about what love is and what poetry is — all of that is just on my mind.”
In the weeks to come, Pavone will spend one each on the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso — the “Divine Comedy’s” three “canticles” or books, each of which are defined by 33 or 34 “cantos” or chapters. Numbers — particularly nine, seven and three — are a recurring theme in the work, probably not by accident.
“Dante was very educated. He was brilliant and studied the sciences, literature and Latin, as well as astronomy, astrology and numerology,” explains Pavone. “It keeps the Danteologists busy. That’s all they do, and they argue all the time and take it apart.”
While it may take a PhD to decipher the deeper aspects of Dante, Pavone notes the work was actually written for the common man of the day.
“It’s very humble,” he says. “It’s the first really long piece written in the Tuscan dialect of Latin. Before that everything was written in Latin and only accessible to the educated.”
“Dante wrote in the ‘vulgar’ language of what people spoke,” says Pavone. “everyone was reading it. In his lifetime he was famous.”
For this workshop Pavone has chosen a translation by husband and wife team Robert and Jean Hollander. He’s a scholar, she’s a poet, and the books present the early Italian side by side with the English translations.
Though Pavone, who is fluent in Italian, has taught Dante many times to students as young as high school, he finds he still gets a lot of the process.
“I’m always learning – there’s so much to it,” says Pavone.
For her part, Maryann Calendrille has always wanted to tackle Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” and now she has the opportunity to do just that with Pavone.
“I have made attempts to read the ‘Inferno’ – if people do anything, they try to read that. But not a lot of people have the wherewithal and time to undertake the ‘Divine Comedy,’” says Calendrille. I’ve always wanted to tackle this, and Canio’s an expert. Here we are offering the whole thing in four quick weeks. This workshop is just the briefest of introductions.”
Tackling Dante is apparently an unspoken goal shared by many in this small village. While Pavone initially suspected a few people might be interested, this workshop sold out early and quickly had a waiting list. For that reason, he will offer it again in a few months.
“With the café we want to present experts in different fields and offer the community educational experiences,” explains Calendrille. “This was a natural fit. January is a quiet time. Canio’s enthusiasm piqued our interest. We put it out there not knowing what to expect. We are over enrolled.”
For more information about Canio Pavone’s “Divine Comedy” workshop and to sign up for the next one, call Canio’s Books, 290 Main Street, Sag Harbor at 725-4926.