Being a Dantephile myself, I must confess that my connection with Sophie intensified when I discovered that she, too, was passionate about The Divine Comedy. Introduced to it as a teenager, she read it first in Italian, under the tutelage of her brother, Louis. It was in Margaret Williams’ biography that I discovered the vignette describing Sophie pulling out a French translation of Dante and reading it aloud to her travel companions. (They were traveling through Italy in a stagecoach, and one wonders if her trapped companions shared her enthusiasm!) She was at this point in her sixties, and I like to infer from this anecdote that she never left home without it. . . . Her lifelong attraction to Dante is understandable, given Dante’s vision of God as an ultimately loving presence identified with fire and warmth. (I heard a famous Italian Dantista once assert that a Genoese pope, early in the 20th century, called Dante’s Commedia “the fifth gospel”!)
In Part 3 (“Cancer”), Sophie quotes several lines from Purgatorio in a conversation with Guy. They are discussing the “scandal” of Célestine’s behavior, and Sophie uses Dante to help him understand his sister’s behavior. These are the central lines of the Divine Comedy (a poem of over 14,000 lines) and thus fraught with meaning. Dante’s guide Virgil expounds upon the nature of love (an idea that derives from Aristotle): “Né creator né creatura mai,” / Cominciò el, “figliuol, fu sanza amore, / O naturale o d’animo, e tu ‘l sai.” (Canto XVII) Roughly translated, the lines mean, “Neither the creator nor any of his creatures,’ he began,’ has ever existed without love, my son—whether that love be natural or of the mind, and you know this.” In subsequent lines, Virgil explains that human sin involves love for the wrong object–or love that is excessive.
In “Book of Revelations: Part II,” (Part 9) Sophie wonders about the truth of the statement that “art is the grandchild of God.” This idea is voiced in the Inferno (Canto 11, the Circle of Violence), when Virgil explains to Dante why usurers are placed in hell–because they have defiled or done violence to art. He explains, ” . . . l’arte vostra quella, quanto pote, / segue, come ‘l maestro fa ‘l discente; / sì che vostr’ arte a Dio quasi è nipote. Roughly translated: “ . . . your art, insofar as it can, follows [Nature]—as a disciple follows his master; so that your art is a virtual grandchild of God.”
The image above, by Gustave Doré, shows Dante and Beatrice (his guide through heaven) contemplating the Celestial Rose in Paradiso 31.