Cambridge, Mass. — “When I was a student, long ago, I heard about the famous Dante Della Terza,” I say. He says, “Dante Della Terza is me!” Yes, indeed.
I lay my iPhone on his desk, to record our conversation. He picks it up and looks at it, quizzically. “Riccardo Muti,” he says. Yes, I interviewed that conductor about two weeks ago. Professor Della Terza has read the label on the relevant recording. He is my second venerable Italian of the month.
Dante Della Terza is one of the great dantisti, one of the great Dante scholars, of our time. They share a name, as you can see. It happened “innocently,” says the professor, with a smile. “That is what my mother named me.” He has another connection to Dante through his last name. The poet’s rhyme scheme, remember, is terza rima.
Della Terza has an office high in Widener Library, here at Harvard. It is stuffed with books, journals, and mementos, of course. On his desk, within reach, are the three key volumes: the three cantiche of The Divine Comedy, namely Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Della Terza’s copies show many years of use.
He is a professor emeritus, having retired 25 years ago, in 1993. Today, at 94, he comes to this office on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, from 10 to 3. In general, he spends his days as he always has: reading and writing. When I arrive, he is reading something by his onetime student Luigi Fontanella.
As for Dante Della Terza, he was born in 1924 — two years after Mussolini came to power. (Coolidge was president in America, having taking over from the deceased Harding.) Della Terza’s hometown is Sant’Angelo dei Lombardi, in the province of Avellino, in the region of Campania (southern Italy). His father was a “worker,” he says — specifically, an electrician. “I had to start from a very humble position,” says the renowned professor. He was the middle of three sons. His older brother, Ettore, became a judge; his younger brother, Aldo, became a banker.
Little Dante was very, very bright. He went to a prestigious liceo, or high school, in the town of Avellino: Pietro Colletta, named after a Neapolitan general and historian (1775–1831). He then won a place at a prestigious institution in Tuscany: the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa. He was on his way.
Della Terza was joined in Pisa by another boy from Avellino Province, who also attended Colletta. His name is Antonio La Penna, and he became one of the great Latin scholars of the day. (Like his classmate, Della Terza, he is still with us.)
In Pisa, Della Terza was trained by Luigi Russo, a literary critic born in 1892. The student has great and abiding affection for the teacher. Indeed, Della Terza points to a photo of Russo, on the wall.
When Della Terza was a student, many people read The Divine Comedy as a religious work, he says. They regarded Dante Alighieri as a saint. Obviously, there is a religious component to the poem — but the “dramatic aspects,” says Della Terza, are well-nigh inexhaustible.
He was 15 when the war began; 21 when it ended. Probing a bit, I say, “It was difficult, I imagine.” “Yes,” he says. And one more time: “Yes.” And that’s all.
From Pisa, he went to Zurich, to study at the famous polytechnic institute (alma mater of Einstein). He was taught by Theophil Spoerri, the Swiss philologist. Then Della Terza himself taught — in Paris, at two famous lycées: Henri-IV and Louis-le-Grand. Eventually, he made his way to America.
He had met an American girl, Mollie, from Seattle. They got married. They would have two children, Giorgio and Grazia.
In America, Della Terza came under the influence of another scholar, another great literary critic, Leo Spitzer, from Vienna. Yet I should mention other teachers, other influences — ones Della Terza did not know in the flesh but rather from books.
Very important to him is Francesco De Sanctis. “He came from the same province I came from,” Della Terza points out. De Sanctis was born in 1817 in a little place called Morra Irpina. In 1937, it was renamed Morra De Sanctis. A political opponent of the Bourbons, De Sanctis had to flee Italy in the 1850s, and he found refuge in Zurich, where he taught at the polytechnic institute.
He meant a great deal to Benedetto Croce — who, in turn, meant a great deal to Della Terza and others. De Sanctis was “a great mind of the 19th century,” says Della Terza, and Croce was “a great mind of the 20th.”
Another such mind was Erich Auerbach, born in Berlin in 1892 (the same year as Luigi Russo). Auerbach plumbed Homer, Dante, et al. as few had. Della Terza was one of the first to translate him into Dante’s language, Italian.
Before reaching American shores, Della Terza knew German, French, and, of course, Italian very well. But, with English, “I had to start from zero,” he says. (An American wife helped a lot.) He taught at UCLA. “My students were very tolerant of me,” he says. He found a way to communicate with them, and they found a way to communicate with him.
Impressed by him was Renato Poggioli, a Florentine who worked at Harvard. He was a scholar of Slavic languages and literature, and a titan in the field of comparative literature. Indeed, he was a founder of that field. And he invited Della Terza to come to Harvard.
When Della Terza got here, Poggioli was gone. He had been killed in a car accident (May 3, 1963). Della Terza feels a great debt to Poggioli — whose picture he has on the wall, next to Luigi Russo.
In 1983, Della Terza would be given a plum title: Irving Babbitt Professor of Comparative Literature. After he retired from Harvard, he taught for a few years at a university in Naples, Federico II. (We are not talking about Florida.)
The professor is known for Dante — at least by me — but he has other authors. Two of them are Dante’s great contemporaries, Petrarch and Boccaccio. Petrarch is the fount of lyric poetry, says Della Terza; Boccaccio is the fount of a storytelling prose.
Della Terza has also written about Tasso (16th century) and about his own times, the post-war 20th century. Umberto Eco was a good friend. (The author of The Name of the Rose died two years ago, at 84.) One of Della Terza’s books is about European intellectuals in the United States. He might well have consulted himself, among others.
Asked about his favorite writers, Della Terza makes a tender statement: “Leopardi was always very dear to me.” He is talking about Giacomo Leopardi, the poet who lived from 1798 to 1837. “He was often physically ill, but he had a great lucid mind, a creative mind.”
Across the decades, Della Terza taught many students who became leading lights themselves. One of them is the earlier-mentioned Luigi Fontanella, who, in addition to being a scholar, is a poet, playwright, and novelist. “I am 74,” he tells me, over the phone. But he is still one of Della Terza’s kids, so to speak — and a protégé of whom Della Terza is especially and obviously fond.
Fontanella is now at Stony Brook University in New York. He has many letters and other materials related to Dante Della Terza. (One day, he may write a little book about the professor.) These materials are kept in a file marked, simply, “Dante.” We chuckle over this. Usually, when a professor of Italian has a file marked “Dante,” it is devoted to Alighieri.
“He was a great teacher,” says Fontanella of Della Terza. “He was able to combine scholarship with personal experience — with his travels, with his relations to other writers. It was a pleasure to listen to him. He would use a particular passage as a vehicle to other domains — domains beyond the literary: a historical domain, a philosophical domain, and so on.”
His knowledge was vast, says Fontanella. He had read everything, in classical languages and modern languages. Also, he had “an incredible memory” and a lively sense of humor. He was not merely erudite, Fontanella emphasizes: “He entered deeply into the spirit of a text. He was able to capture the soul behind the words.”
Up in Widener Library, I ask Della Terza, “What would you ask Dante, if you could meet him? Any mysteries you would like cleared up?” Della Terza thinks for a moment and says, “I would ask for forgiveness. We do not have the knowledge of him that he deserves. You would like to be up to it, but there is the problem of the centuries that separate us.”
Della Terza says that everyone should read Dante, or try to. He makes life better. At the same time, you need “assistance.” Almost no one can pick up Dante and get him, just like that. Still, “the person who has the courage to put aside the difficulties will find himself rewarded,” Della Terza says. (I am struck by that word “courage.”) “After a while, you find yourself involved in the story.”
Paradiso is the most difficult of the cantiche, says Della Terza, because of theoretical and doctrinal considerations. Inferno is “more human.” It is “at the level of life.” It is about “the mistaken activities of men,” and what happens to them as a result. Purgatorio? A ’tweener, let’s say.
I ask whether it is possible truly to know and love the poem in translation. “This is a very good question,” says Della Terza. The answer, in a nutshell, is yes, with the right translation — but there’s nothing like the real thing (if I may borrow from a 1960s song).
How many times has he read the Comedy? Hundreds? Many hundreds? Della Terza sort of shrugs and smiles. I then ask how much of the poem he ever memorized. (There are 14,233 lines.) Many cantos, he says. It was compulsory when he was a student. And then he starts, from the beginning, unbidden.
“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” — he goes on for eleven more lines, four stanzas. He recites the poem musically and dramatically. He is utterly focused and his eyes are lit up. He first encountered these lines when he was 15 or so.“Have you ever written poetry yourself?” I ask. No, he says. “Just prose. I never used poetry for personal expression. I like it, but I did not do it.” At this, he smiles warmly.
I quote to him the judgment of T. S. Eliot: “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them. There is no third.” Does Professor Della Terza agree? Yes. I then ask the old, old question, “Who is greater, Dante or Shakespeare?” Judiciously, he hesitates to answer, saying that each deserves his place and must be granted his authority.
But it is Dante, his fellow Italian — the founder of the Italian language, in a sense — with whom he has spent his life. Della Terza uses the word “accompaniment.” Dante has accompanied him, and he has accompanied Dante. They have been good for each other, I think.
The Comedy begins with an allusion to the age of 35 — that is “the middle of a life’s journey,” which is supposed to span “threescore years and ten,” as the Psalmist says. Dante Della Terza is almost a quarter-century beyond that threescore and ten. And when you meet him, you feel that you have touched something historic: a link in a golden chain, maybe. Here is a great scholar, schooled, in person or otherwise, by his great predecessors, and passing it all on.
When we part, we decide we will not say addio, which is like a final goodbye. Instead, it’s arrivederci — see you later.