Arto Lindsay, Lectura Dantis. Voice and vortex

10.05.2021, by Giacomo Luperini

On the occasion of the “Year of Dante”, and the 40th anniversary of Carmelo Bene’s Lectura Dantis, Arto Lindsay breathes new life into an immortal body of work.

On November 23d of the year 530 B.C. Thespis, the first actor in the recorded history of theater, went up on a theatrical stage in Athens. Rumor has it that before that day, stories had only been told in the third person, and that Thespis was the very first man to ever impersonate somebody else. Even though the tales about Thespis are almost the stuff of legend, he remains an important figure, the symbol of a deep need for communication finally coming to life. There are several artistic forms capable of expressing what is abstract, ecstatic and unreachable. Sculpture, acting, writing and music, together with other forms of art, create an intricate mosaic describing things that by their very nature defy description. Today’s story joins together three artists, separated by time, space and means of communication, but with the same tale in common: the Divine Comedy, more specifically the Inferno.

Dante Alighieri, the most famous Florentine of all time, wrote his poem between 1304 and 1321. At the time he was living in exile, as a punishment for refusing to pay a fine for his militancy in the political faction of the guelfi bianchi. In 1305, just as he was writing about his existential anguish and punishing the evil-doers of his time by throwing them into the flames of what we now know as the “circles of hell”, the poet spent some time in the city of Bologna. And in the same city, many centuries later, another exalted artist (though considerably less famous than Dante) brought to the stage a massive, rock-concert-like event in which he read the verses of Dante’s immortal classic. His name was Carmelo Bene, and he was an irreverent and peculiar artist from the southern region of Salento. The day was July 31st 1981, almost a year after a far-right terrorist bomb attack had killed 85 and mauled about 200 in Bologna’s main train station. The attack had been organized and financed by far-right figures such as Licio Gelli, Mario Tedeschi, Umberto Ortolani and Federico Umberto D’Amato. Carmelo Bene chose Bologna’s Torre degli Asinelli, the highest, most visible symbol of the city, as his stage, and made a dedication to the victims of the massacre.

«As one who feels fatally injured, I dedicate this night not to the fatalities, but to the injured of this horrible massacre»

It was a resounding success. Over the next few days, Italian media called it an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime event, also thanks to the crowds that had filled the piazza. Unfortunately, due to political disagreements with the ruling Democrazia Cristiana party, the performance was never broadcast by Italian State TV, and for years it was believed to only have survived in the memory of those who had witnessed it. In 2006, however, a bootleg video recording resurfaced, and Carmelo Bene’s Lectura Dantis came back to life once more, if only on the screen. Meanwhile, in 1981, another artist was among the spellbound audience of that memorable evening: Arto Lindsay, the young frontman of American no wave band DNA, who had played his very first Italian concert in the same city just a few days before.

«I was there, in the audience crowding around the two towers of Bologna, listening to Carmelo Bene’s Lectura Dantis on that July night in 1981. The hum of the crowd was almost as loud as the actor’s voice, as he read “the best book ever written by man”, as Jorge Luís Borges once called Dante’s Comedy.

Carmelo Bene had chosen Dante to interrogate and re-assert the reasons of humanity faced with the unspeakable horror of the bomb attack. Grief, bewilderment and comfort became one and the same. At the time I had no familiarity with 13th century Italian, and precious little with 20th century Italian for that matter. But I felt possessed by its sound, which went through me “from one inner life to another”. I could feel, breathe and grasp its words. They were music.

In a year in which we are all carrying the weight of a sad experience, we still feel the need to hear Dante’s voice. I want to play that Lectura Dantis once again, squeeze it, highlight it, make it say everything it has to say, listen and talk to it. I want to add our moment to its moment, our sound to its sound, our music to its music».

And so it was that “Lectura Dantis. Voice and Vortex” was born. Its ingredients are few, yet sharp: a set design made of lights and spirals, of chaos and silence, where Carmelo Bene’s powerful, enveloping voice, guided by Arto, creates a direct dialogue with the lacerating screams of the lost souls. A small ensemble, formed by Arto, Melvin Gibs, Redi Hasa, Roopa Mahadevan and Rachele Andrioli provides a counterpoint and a contemporary frame to the atmosphere and the emotional vortex of a majestic performance retracing the different iterations of Dante’s Inferno: the Inferno that Dante had lived through, the Inferno evoked by Carmelo Bene as he “impersonated” Dante to create a dialogue with the suffering of his time, and finally the Inferno created by Arto, who brings to life Carmelo Bene impersonating Dante, to speak to him and make him speak, in a new language, directly with our age.

The journey started by Thespis 2490 years ago, his attempt to bring to life an ancient need to communicate and make it current, is more alive than ever and encompasses different art forms, places and centuries. Starting from Dante through Carmelo Bene, Arto Lindsay breathes new life and energy into the most important literary work in the whole of Italian culture.


treccani.it, carmelo bene by Piergiorgio Giacchè

treccani.it, tespi (Thespis) by Manara Valgimigli

osirispod.com, melvin gibbs, the burning ambulance podcast

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