If it seems as if he’s judging you, don’t worry – he is. This bronze sculpture of Dante Alighieri by Ettore Ximenes stands 11 and ½ feet tall amongst thick oak trees in Meridian Hill Park. Set back from the park’s grand 13-teir fountain, Dante hides in his own alcove. If you happen upon him, you will probably be one-on-one, in which case, you will quickly get the feeling that he’s mad and it’s your fault.
Dante has always made my palms sweat. Long before encountering his likeness in Meridian Hill Park, I studied his “Divine Comedy” sophomore year in high school – an intimidating and inaccessible experience. The language was archaic and his message far removed from my interests and understanding of the world at age 14. Who cared what a 700 year old man thought anyway? I was more concerned with what the cute boy behind me in English class was thinking.
As an awkward teenager, Dante was Medieval… literally. He lived before the Renaissance, the original one. Before Lincoln, Washington, and Columbus. He lived before “Italy” and the “United States of America“ were on the map.
Yet, in 1921, Dante served as a symbol of mutual respect between America and Italy, donated by a famous Italian American newspaper editor, Carlo Barsotti. A large group of people, including President Warren G. Harding, gathered on Dec. 1, 1921 to watch the American and Italian flags part ways to reveal the large statue of Dante, wearing a victor’s laurels and holding his “Commedia” close to his body. Newspaper accounts described the event as an “international love feast.”
In the 1930’s, the park’s Italian-style fountain was completed. A native of Florence, Dante fit nicely with the Italian scheme. In the 40’s, Dante heard the new music of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong light up the air just a few blocks away on U Street. He also watched patiently as our nation was at odds with Italy’s fascist leadership in World War II.
Dante had a front-row seat for the anti-war and civil rights rallies and protests that took place in Meridian Hill Park in the 60’s and 70’s (during which time the park was nicknamed “Malcolm X Park”).
Now, Dante stands quietly as an ideal backdrop for yuppies sunbathing and playing fetch with their dogs on nearby grassy slopes. However, he would’ve felt most at home here in times of social and political unrest.
What I missed in high school is that Dante was a political activist himself. His writing was a potent commentary about the worldly temptations of power and ego and the slippery slope of moral corruption.
He believed in a separation of church and state and spoke out, eventually leading to his ex-communication from Florence when his political party was out of power. Invited back under disagreeable terms, Dante refused and was estranged from home for life.
For Dante, banishment was form of death, which he described in the Divine Comedy:“You shall leave everything you love most: this is the arrow that the bow of exile shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste of others’ bread, how salty it is, and know how hard a path it is for one who goes ascending and descending others’ stairs…” (Paradiso, XVII (55-60))
Dante died in exile at age 56, but if he were alive today, he’d still be upset, as the same backward corruption he wrote about 700 years ago exists in our world today.
I am reminded of China’s artist Ai Weiwei, who wrote on his blog a few years ago: “What can they do to me? Nothing more than banish, kidnap, or imprison me. Perhaps they could fabricate my disappearance into thin air, but they don’t have any creativity or imagination, and they lack both joy and the ability to fly.”
Although out of prison today, some believe he’s not really free. “You can say that Ai Weiwei was transferred from a small prison to the prison outside,” Gao Wenqian recently told Newsweek, “It’s like there’s a sword over his neck and if he continues to criticize the Chinese government, that sword will come down.”
Artists hold a mirror up to society, but often we don’t like the reflection.
Ai’s physical fate rests in the hands of a government that doesn’t want to look in the mirror. Yet, like Dante, Ai’s spirit speaks louder than intimidation, imprisonment, and even death and he will continue to challenge us and hopefully, incite change.
As Dante described,“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” If this doesn’t spark a fire under us, we might as well be made of bronze.