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The crowd dances in front of Dante Alighieri’s grave. We arrived at the final destination after almost 50 km of trekking through the Apennines to Ravenna, where the poet spent his last years after being exiled from Florence. In Italian, we sing “The love that moves the sun”, from the last lines of the Divine comedy, to an ensemble comprising accordion, guitar, Italian bagpipes and a choir of bells. The group’s maestro, Ambrogio Sparagna, put passages from the poem to the songs in an old folk style.
The 700th anniversary of Dante’s death is omnipresent this year in Italy, from museum exhibitions to the Ravenna Festival, which from June 2 to July 31 dedicated new commissions, theatrical performances, an installation and more to the founding father of the Italian literature. The four-day Carovana Creativa sul Cammino di Dante (Creative Caravan along Dante’s Path) trekking concert was created in collaboration with the Trail Romagna tour company as a tribute combining music, poetry readings, nature walks and culinary experiences.
The trip begins with an early morning pop-up concert in Florence’s Piazza del Duomo, in front of the Baptistery where Dante was among those admitted into the church. The marble building is adorned with bronze doors depicting biblical scenes, the work of Renaissance sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti.
Erasmo Treglia – one of the three soloists of the Orchester Popolare Italiana who joined Sparagna – blows in the tofa, a giant shell supposed to bring good luck. The empty place provides ideal acoustics for its bugle call, the rustling of the tambourine and the mechanical hum of the strings of the ghironda (a hurdy-gurdy) until the bustle of tourists begins.
It is impossible to piece together the exact path Dante took after losing his place in Florentine politics and being sentenced to death, yet some of the sites he visited are mentioned in his pinnacle of the opus, the Divine comedy. As we cross the border from the region of Tuscany to that of Emilia Romagna, we take a break under the scorching sun at the waterfall that emerges at Canto XVI of the Hell. Sparagna and his wife, Annelita, give a short performance with an accordion and a small Dante puppet.
After a four-course dinner, we are transported by electric cars to a Benedictine abbey, in the village of San Benedetto in Alpe, for a nighttime concert. In an almost religious tone, Sparagna recalls that Dante’s poetry was transmitted orally by pastors who could neither read nor write. The group takes up one of the songs that accompanies our journey, taken from the first words of the poem: “Halfway the path of our life / I find myself in a dark forest. The musicians alternate between a range of instruments and respond fluidly to each other in improvised passages, retaining an energy and a conviction that prevent me from sinking into a post-trek sleep.
Dante’s importance in Italian culture is comparable to that of Shakespeare in England, or in the English-speaking world in general, and yet the Divine comedy is so closely linked to Catholic values that his poetry penetrates society on an even deeper level.
On the second day we walk to an 11th century monastery founded by San Pier Damiani, who appears as a spirit in Canto XXI de Paradiso, the last part of the trilogy. The stone complex has stood the test of time with little sign of decay. Inside an immaculately maintained chapel, Sparagna pulls out her accordion and the group sits in silence.
According to our guide, Andrea, the Divine comedy was inspired by the act of walking himself as he ascends from Hell through Purgatory to Heaven. When an actor representing Dante appears in a red dress with white trim and a book in his hand above the town of San Godenzo, about 50 km northeast of Florence, he reminds us that the poet did his way without hiking shoes or horses.
At best, the trek serves to strengthen the links between nature, artistic inspiration, spirituality and conviviality. But there are also invented moments: each day opens with a group song filmed for a promotional video. We’re even accompanied by a drone camera as we weave our way through sweat-stained clothing through exposed dirt roads.
Perhaps the most picturesque vistas emerge on the last stretch of town from Brisighella to Oriolo dei Fichi, with hills of vineyards and fruit trees. At this point, the group was brought closer together through the experience of surviving the elements, exchanging anecdotes, sharing wine and platters of antipasto. And what better way to break down barriers than to make music?
In the courtyard of Oriolo dei Fichi Castle that evening, I find myself in a procession led by men swinging giant bells between their legs. I was given a smaller set of bells to shake according to Sparagna’s gestures. The cicadas chirp rhythmically in the background and the Italian umbrella pines silhouetted against the night sky.
The scene is all the more moving given the horrors of the past year. Once the European epicenter of the pandemic, Italy has rebounded, recently winning Euro 2020, Eurovision and a handful of Olympic gold. Beauty always reigns throughout the landscape and our social interactions within it.
It becomes clearer when we get to Dante’s tomb. The crowd grew steadily around our performance celebrating this love that moved the sun and the other stars. The schoolchildren call for a reminder and swing by the arm. At the end of the event, conversations begin with village-like intimacy. Is it a contradiction that we are at the burial place of a medieval poet? No, on the contrary, it was a fitting tribute to keep his words alive while walking, listening, singing and – when I get home – writing.