The Dante Center of Ravenna

Let us return to Ravenna, where the friars, after being forced to leave in 1810, were welcomed back in February of 1949, by the then Archbishop Giacomo Lercaro. The archbishop restored the ancient Basilica of San Pietro Maggiore in San Francesco to the friars, but not the adjacent friary. In 1936, the diocese had handed the friary over to the municipality and in 1950, the municipality passed it on to the Cassa di Risparmio di Ravenna [a savings bank].

Padre Severino Ragazzini e San Paolo VI
Father Severino Ragazzini presenting St. Paul VI with a medal from the Dante Center, crafted by Sergio Benvenuti, in memory of the gift the Pontiff himself made, in 1965, of a golden cross for Dante’s tomb.

With the approach of the 700th anniversary of Dante’s birth, the conditions were right to initiate a special Dantean project. The Project Director was Friar Severino Ragazzini (1920-1986), former Secretary General of the Order. He committed himself with extraordinary passion to realize “a project that would not only last through the anniversary, but would grow over time, taking on more and more space and importance,” he recalled with pleasure. “Right next to Dante’s tomb, which puts us in touch with the deceased Dante, I wanted to create a Dante Center that would put us in touch with the living Dante. In short, I wanted to unite the Glorious Sepulchre, which houses the mortal remains of Alighieri, with the Dante Center, which houses the writings of the poet, writings that still have messages for humanity. In this way, the Dante Center would give voice to the Sepulchre.”

The early years of the Center were full of initiatives, including the first public conference in the Basilica of San Pietro Maggiore in San Francesco, held March 14, 1964 and the annual exhibitions inaugurated in 1966. Then, there was the International Dante Biennial, an international competition that awarded medals and small bronze sculptures. It was an exhibition held every two years, whose challenging goal was to bring together the best artists from all over the world. The first Biennial in 1973, was presided over by the sculptor Pericle Fazzini, followed in 1975, by Giacomo Manzù and in 1977, by Dino Cardinal Staffa. The fourth through seventh Biennials were presided over by Archbishop Giovanni Fallani, who was then President of the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Art in Italy and a great friend of the Center. In 1988, he was succeeded by Paul Cardinal Poupard, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture. Cardinal Poupard presided until the last Biennial in 2003. During the seventh Biennial in 1985, the last one organized by its founder, more than 250 artists from twenty-four nations participated. Meanwhile, research and the collection of every type of testimony continued to add to the uninterrupted legacy of the great poet.
During those years, the Center acquired some codices from the second half of the 13th century, such as the first printed editions of the Divine Comedy, including the editio princeps printed in Foligno on April 11, 1472. In 1966, the owner of the Cassa di Risparmio gave the Center some rooms in the former friary to use for Dante-related activities. By 1967, the first nucleus of the Center’s book collection was inaugurated. In 1981, the then Ministry for Cultural and Environmental Heritage declared the collection to be “of exceptional historical and artistic interest.”

Friar Enzo Fantini with St. John Paul II at Castel Gandolfo on August 31, 1997, at the end of Vittorio Sermonti’s reading of Canto XXXIII of Paradiso, thereby completing the reading of the entire Divine Comedy at the Basilica of San Pietro Maggiore in San Francesco in Ravenna.

Friar Severino Ragazzini died suddenly on May 17, 1986, the day after St. John Paul II visited Ravenna and Dante’s tomb. He was succeeded by his confrere Friar Enzo Fantini (1945-2004) who made sure that Friar Severino’s work continued, and also gave it some needed stability. Friar Enzo organized six Biennials between 1988 and 2001. He oversaw eleven art exhibitions. Some of them were dedicated to individual artists (Aligi Sassu in 1989, Enzo Babini in 1991 and again in 2000, and Renzo Copat in 1995). Other exhibitions were dedicated to national groups (“Dante in Australia” in 1993, “Dante in Bulgaria” in 1997, “Dante in Poland” in 1997, “Dante in Romania” in 1999, and “Dante in Hungary” and “Dante in Armenia” in 2001). He made many contacts with personalities from the artistic and cultural world, both at home and abroad. He was a passionate supporter for several initiatives, including the “Dante Ravenna Project” by Walter Della Monica, with readings of the entire Divine Comedy by Vittorio Sermonti from 1995 to 1997, followed by a series of international readings of “The Divine Comedy in the World.” In September of 1989, Friar Enzo transferred the Center’s renovated library and contemporary art collection to the rooms in the former friary donated by Cassa di Risparmio. Then, he opened the library and art collection to the public.

In 2001, Friar Enzo wanted “make a change of continuity in order to launch a new season” that better characterized the Center’s cultural proposal in its effort to combine “the old with the new.”
Those who succeeded Friar Enzo have also tried to better the Center’s proposal by exploring the specifics of “Our Dante.” They have promoted research on the Christian identity of Dante Alighieri’s work, in its historical, political, theological and mystical context. In February of 2003, the Center established the Department of Studies and Research coordinated by Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi. Known as “the Lady of the Divine Comedy,” she is a passionate and insightful scholar of Dante and the author of a commentary on the Divine Comedy. Her commentary was first published in 1994, by Mondadori, as part of the prestigious “I Meridiani” series. In 1999, it was republished as a textbook by Zanichelli. Her commentary is recognized as perhaps the most beautiful, insightful and comprehensive version we have today.
The year 2005 marked the 40th anniversary of Saint Paul VI giving his gift of a golden cross for Dante’s tomb. For the occasion, the Center launched the annual Dantis poetae transitu—an evening commemoration conducted every September 13. This was in addition to the more traditional Mass for Dante, celebrated on the second Sunday of September. During that Mass, the City of Florence makes an offering of oil for the lamp that burns perpetually where Dante’s mortal remains repose. The year 2007 marked the 40th anniversary of Altissimi cantus, the apostolic letter by Saint Paul VI that instituted “motu proprio” a chair of Dantean studies at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart of Milan. With that Athenaeum, an international summer school in Dantean studies was organized in Ravenna. The summer school finished its fourteenth season in 2020.
The careful study of Altissimi cantis gave the Dante Center an opportunity to redefine the way it operates, in order to continue making original contributions to the multiform approach to Dante and his work.

As for what happens next, we see this year of the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death as a time to rediscover and continue on with the responsibility that Providence has entrusted to us.

biblioteca del Centro Dantesco
The hall known as the “velarium,” located inside the Ancient Franciscan Cloisters in Ravenna,
a complex housing the Dante Center’s special library