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References to Dante in the movie Hannibal

Several visitors of the site asked about a Dante reference in the movie Hannibal, directed by Ridley Scott. Now that I’ve finally watched the movie myself, I’ve written this page in order to answer some of your questions. Sorry for the delay!

The main character, played by Anthony Hopkins, lives in Florence in disguise, pretending to be an American scholar specialized in studies about medieval Italian literature and especially Dante Alighieri.

The main reference to Dante’s work in the movie is the scene depicting Hannibal, Pazzi and his wife watching an opera. The opera is based, according to what the characters say, on the Vita Nuova. Specifically, the piece we hear in the movie is titled "Vide Cor Meum" and is based on the sonnet "A ciascun’alma presa", in chapter 3 of the Vita Nuova. The music is by Patrick Cassidy, produced by Patrick Cassidy and Hans Zimmer; the singers are Danielle de Niese and Bruno Lazzaretti who play respectively Dante and Beatrice and are also on the stage in this particular scene of the movie.

This piece of music is available as a soundtrack in many record stores. Many of you asked instead for the entire opera taken from the Vita Nuova, by the same composer. I would have said that no such opera exists. The piece is just used in the movie as it is. There are many evidences that can lead to this conclusion.

First of all, a subject like the one of the Vita Nuova would be very hard to render into an opera libretto, let alone a pure theatrical piece. The resulting libretto would be probably a poor, not so interesting one, hard to put into music. I know there are several examples of marvelous operas (musically speaking) with simple or even commonplace librettos: the musical values are of course the most important ones in an opera and can often supply theatrical lacks. Nevertheless a work like the one by Dante is inherently hard or even impossible to render into another form of art: it’s poetical and lyrical in itself and its deep use of simbols, its further, inner meaning, which represent the most significative part of its content, would get lost if translated into another mean of expression.

Another collateral evidence of the absence of an entire opera based upon the Vita Nuova is the way the singed scene is represented in the movie. This really doesn’t look like an ordinary opera: the subjects are dressed and use masks similar to the ones used in classical ancient theater, whereas the opera form is usually another way of meaning the theater, a more modern one, strictly speaking. Nevertheless you may think of the many existing operas which are expression of the romantic age, when this form of art was very spread and popular. Yet we must always remember that the romantic idea of love, which is by the way very similar to today’s popular "common man" idea of love has almost nothing to do with the medieval conception of love, or more specifically with the Stilnovistic love. Stilnovistic love is more a religious, devotional and intellectual love, it has no physical side, differently from the romantic idea. That’s basically why it’s also quite difficult to understand when related to today’s sensitivity about the matter.

However, contradicting what I previously wrote in these pages, the "trivia" page on the IMDB (Internet Movie DataBase) about the movie Hannibal says that Hans Zimmer did compose an entire opera about this subject. Unfortunately at the moment I don’t have any other detail about it. I hope to fill this up sooner or later.

The sonnet in the Vita Nuova is referenced to in the movie with the name "Vide Cor Meum" since this refers to the Latin words in the prose introduction to the sonnet, which is also part of the Vita Nuova. In this introduction, Dante sets the time to be nine years after his first encounter with Beatrice. She appears to him again, dressed in white and with two other females and greets Dante with all her virtue. Enchanted by her sweetness and gentleness, Dante falls asleep and has a dream. In the dream he sees a mighty figure which says "Ego dominus tuus" (I’m your Lord). Beatrice is instead asleep in this figure’s arms. She brings in her arms what is recognizable as a heart and murmurs the words "Vide cor tuum" (Here’s your heart, where "Vide cor meum" means here’s my heart) while eating part of the heart. The two figures leave and Dante wakes up. He wants to tell what he has seen in the dream and writes the sonnet "A ciasun’alma presa", the one read by Anthony Hopkins to Pazzi’s wife. Here’s the text:

A ciascun’alma presa, e gentil core,
nel cui cospetto ven lo dir presente,
in ci che mi rescrivan suo parvente
salute in lor segnor, cio Amore.
Gi eran quasi che atterzate l’ore
del tempo che onne stella n’ lucente,
quando m’apparve Amor subitamente
cui essenza membrar mi d orrore.
Allegro mi sembrava Amor tenendo
meo core in mano, e ne le braccia avea
madonna involta in un drappo dormendo.
Poi la svegliava, e d’esto core ardendo
lei paventosa umilmente pascea:
appresso gir lo ne vedea piangendo.

[Vita Nuova, chapter 3]

Here’s a free prose translation:
I write this piece of poetry for any soul taken by love and any noble heart,
so that they may write me back their opinion about it. I greets our lord, that is Love.
Love itself appeared suddenly to me when one third of the night had already passed.
If I think back about it I’m frightened.
Love seemed cheerful while bringing in its arms a sleeping woman wrapped in a cloth and in its hands my heart.
Love then woke her up and she ate this burning heart; it then went away crying.

As you may notice this sonnet may appear difficult and strange at first. It’s in fact full of symbols and fulfills the peculiar way of writing about love of the Stilnovo poetical movement. The idea is of an intellectual, erudite love, an absolute master understandable only by the ones who have a similar sensitivity and experience.

Another reference to Dante’s work is when Hopkins speaks about visual representations of the episode of Pier della Vigna in the Commedia.

He’s the main character of the 13th Canto of the Inferno, where Dante describes the circle where are punished the ones who committed suicide or who squandered all their money. Pier della Vigna was one of the advisers of the king of Sicily Federico II; the other envious courtiers accused him of betrayal of the king. Even if he was innocent, he committed suicide because of the shame. Besides being a political man, Piero was also a poet and scholarly. Some of the lines quoted by Anthony Hopkins are the ones where Pier delle Vigne answers Dante about the punishment to which the suicides are sentenced to:

Quando si parte l’anima feroce
dal corpo ond’ella stessa s’ disvelta,
Mins la manda a la settima foce.
Cade in la selva, e non l’ parte scelta;
ma l dove fortuna la balestra,
quivi germoglia come gran di spelta.
Surge in vermena e in pianta silvestra:
l’Arpie, pascendo poi de le sue foglie,
fanno dolore, e al dolor fenestra.
Come l’altre verrem per nostre spoglie,
ma non per ch’alcuna sen rivesta,
ch non giusto aver ci ch’om si toglie.
Qui le trascineremo, e per la mesta
selva saranno i nostri corpi appesi,
ciascuno al prun de l’ombra sua molesta

[Inferno, Canto 13, vv. 94-108]

Here’s a free prose translation:
As soon as the soul violently separates from the body of the suicide himself or herself,
Minos sends it to the seventh circle of the Hell.
The soul falls on the ground of this wood, where it lands by chance. There it germinates and grows easily.
It then becomes a wild bush: the Harpies eat it, causing pain to the soul; its groans can be heard through the wounds on the eaten leaves.
The Day of the Judgement we’re going to take our bodies back just like any other human soul; nevertheless we’re not going back into them because it’s not fair that man has back what he or she has voluntarily teared apart.
Then, we’ll bring the bodies here and we’ll hang them up these trees born from our hostile souls.

We can easily recognize the criterion of the contrappasso in choosing the punishment, like in any other part of the Inferno: since the man refused the unity of his or her body with his or her soul by committing suicide, he or she is damned to never gain this deep unity again.

A last, en passant reference to Dante’s background made in the movie is when the errand of scholars reunites to discuss about the opportunity of giving the position of librarian to Anthony Hopkins. One of them names Guido Cavalcanti. He was one of Dante’s friends and also one of the most important poets of the Stilnovo movement. He was also directly named by Dante in some of his works.

This is what I can say about Dante’s references in the movie Hannibal. If you want to learn something more about named works or you want to have the entire original text or an English translation better than the one I’ve given here, just visit the other pages of my site.

If you want more information on "Hannibal", commentaries about it and so on you may visit Dissecting Hannibal.