Ulysses and the Limits of Dante’s Humanism


Thursday, November 18, 2021, 6:00pm


to be confirmed
Dante, poised between the mountain of purgatory and the city of Florence, displays the incipit Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita in a detail of Domenico di Michelino's painting, Florence, 1465

A Special Lecture by Lino Pertile to mark the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante

Dante develops the character of Ulysses in Canto 26 of Inferno, but the figure of the Greek hero pervades the whole Divine Comedy. As he travels from Hell to Paradise, the figure of Ulysses comes to Dante’s mind time and again as both a stimulus to search for answers and a warning of the limit which human intelligence cannot cross without risking its own downfall. Standing on the threshold of the Renaissance, Dante seems to perceive both the appeal and the dangers of the coming age, and his story of Ulysses’ doomed attempt to reach earthly paradise is a compelling example of this conflict. The wily, resourceful Ulysses embodies a fundamental, and still relevant, moral issue: What are we to do with our intelligence?  How far may we go with it? Should we resist the temptation to let our intelligence run freely without moral restraint? Dante’s story of the hero’s tragic shipwreck illustrates both the limits of the poet’s humanism and the risks of our own.

Lino Pertile is Carl A. Pescosolido Research Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures, Harvard University, and a member of the Accademia Ambrosiana and Accademia dei Lincei. A graduate of the University of Padua, he taught Italian Literature in France and Italy (1964-68), and, from 1968, the United Kingdom (Reading, Sussex, Edinburgh) before joining Harvard University in 1995, where he served as House Master (2000-2010) and Director of Villa I Tatti, the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence (2010-15). He has published essays on the French and Italian Renaissance (Montaigne, Bembo and Trifon Gabriele), and on 20th century Italian literature (Pavese and the contemporary novel). His books on Dante include La puttana e il gigantedal Cantico dei Cantici al Paradiso terrestre, 1998, La punta del disio. Semantica del desiderio nella Commedia, 2005, Dante in Context, co-ed. 2015 (paperback 2017), Dante at 700, Special Issue of Forum Italicum, 55/2, co-ed. 2021, and, just published,  Dante popolare, 2021.  

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