Back in undergrad my focus was more on 16th- and 17th- century English literature, but I took a class on Dante Alighieri as a comparative literature component for my English degree, and I loved it. Divina Commedia (the Divine Comedy) is fantastic. Utterly astounding in the richness of the symbolism, the depth, the allusions, et cetera. And it has many similarities (religious content, narrative structure, epic poetry) with Milton’s Paradise Lost, which is probably my all-time favorite ‘book’ … so yeah, I like it.
Anyway, I’ve been trying to find a way to get through the many photos I have from my visit to DC, so I’m going to use Dante as a guide. Inferno, Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise), meet Washington, DC, the nation’s capital.
Inferno = Washington Metro. I ride the New York Subway quite often ($2.50 per swipe … ouch!) and though when I first moved to the city I found its jarring movements very annoying and was a bit disgusted at its lack of refinement, I can’t imagine New York without it. In comparison to the NYC Subway, the Washington Metro is a downright young’un. So sleek and modern and brutalist … and so I’M STUCK IN A CONCRETE TUNNEL. Exposed concrete, fairly dim lighting. Beautiful, but in a foreboding menacing sublime sort of way. Every time I took the escalator down and down and down I felt like I was slowly approaching doom. But coming back up feels like cheating death.
Purgatorio = United States Capitol. Its design was actually the result of a design competition, followed by committees, resdesigns, and all the craziness that goes on with turning an idea into architecture. It’s a bit odd, don’t you think? Can the Capitol still be conceived of and judged as architecture? Of course it is structure, but the Capitol has so much weight as an icon and symbol of the legislative branch, the government, and the nation that it is no longer ‘mere’ architecture. With so much bureaucracy going on in that building, who the heck really knows what’s going on? All those stairs, do they lead up or down? Is progress being made and lessons learned or is it a place for walking in circles?
Paradiso = Peace Monument. Hanging out in front of the United States Capitol is the Peace Monument by Franklin Simmons, erected in 1877. The figure of Grief leans against the figure of History, commemorating naval deaths during the Civil War. While the white marble is clean and ‘peaceful’, the arrangement of the figures hovering high above, touching the Heavens, looking down with frozen sadness at all the tourists scurrying by, is actually more haunting. Perhaps that understanding of human turmoil and remembrance of our own frailty and faults is as much as we can hope for.
If you’re further interested in the Divine Comedy, my professor for the Dante class, Guy Raffa, created this website related to the Divine Comedy which is worth checking out. It’s ostensibly a study guide, but the images are pretty nifty.