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In contemporary Italy, where Islam is the second-largest religion, life is more dangerous. In 2002 a plot by Islamist fundamentalists to blow up the cathedral of San Petronio in Bologna was foiled: inside the cathedral is a 15th-century fresco of Hell by Giovanni da Modena depicting Muhammad’s graphic mortification by a horny-browed, bat-winged devil. The fresco, inspired by Canto 28 of “The Inferno”, continues a tradition of medieval allegorical books and poems which portrayed Muslims as renegades from Christianity. The French epic poem Le Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland), which Dante knew well, illustrates the “orientalist” stereotype as descried by Said. It shows Muslims in the act of worshipping an unholy Trinity made up of the Prophet, the Greek god Apollo and a harsh-tempered female deity called the Termagant. Islam’s roots, in the book’s 11th-century Crusader reading, are a mixture of corrupted Christianity and pagan innovation. (Da Modena’s fresco, incidentally, is now behind an iron grille.)

According to Said, Dante sees Islam as a shadowy and menacing realm geographically tied to the Orient. Yet Dante’s view of Islam (and by extension of the Islamic world) is more complicated than post-colonial revisionist interpretations might allow. In Dante’s day, Islam was not the unknowable, far-distant Orient that it would later become, but a neighbouring presence that overlapped with and often complemented the Christian world. Several works on the Islamic religion were known in Latin by Dante’s time, including two translations of the Koran, and several popular works, translated on the command of the Benedictine abbot Peter the Venerable in the mid-12th century and known as the Collectio Toletana — the Toledan Collection. Dante’s punishment of the Prophet does not necessarily suggest an Orientalist denigration of all Arabic culture. A long history of cultural exchange and tolerance bound Islam to Mediterranean Europe; indeed The Divine Comedy would not have been possible without the contribution of the vibrant culture of early medieval Islam. The Arab astronomer Alfragano (al-Farghānī) informed much of the planetary speculation in “Paradise”, the third and final book of The Divine Comedy. Astronomical knowledge was essentially an Arab science in Dante’s day and Alfragano’s treatise on astronomy — in Latin, the Elementa Astronomica — powerfully influenced Dante’s scientific imagination.

Far from being a distant Orientalist “Other”, Islam was very close to Dante’s home. We know that Islam was active in Byzantium: one of the main gates of Pisa’s city walls is named after an Arab merchant; and there are Arab influences in the architecture of the Florence Duomo. The Arabic influence was most palpable in Sicily (to the south of Dante’s native Tuscany), where the seaport of Marsala was named after the Arab marsā llāh, Harbour of God. Marsala is famous today for its — notably un-Muslim — production of fortified wine. Sicily had been under Muslim rule only a century before Dante’s birth, however; and while Muslims had been expelled from Sicily by the Normans in the 11th century, a strong Muslim presence remained — and was tolerated — in the Christian Kingdom of Sicily. Muslim and Christian learning were made equally welcome by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II at his palace in the Sicilian capital of Palermo. While Dante later condemned Frederick II to the fiery tombs of the heretics in canto 10 of “The Inferno” (he was presumably following the accusations of Frederick’s enemies), as a young man he praised the emperor-king as a paragon of chivalric virtue. A Renaissance prince before his time, Frederick had written a manual on the Arabic art of falconry, and commissioned Latin translations of Averroës and other Arab interpreters of Aristotle.
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September 1st, 2018
1:09 PM
Perhaps we should be requesting Dante be read out on Roger McGough`s Poetry Please on Radio 4 ? This is a fascinating article. The cartoon balloon of Sadiq Khan is flying in London today. What circle of Hell is Theresa May in this week? Is Anne Marie Waters our `Dante` on the horrors?

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