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"You are a Genius!"

Robert Hollander

Professor Hollander at his desk

Robert Hollander passed away in 2021. He had a long and distinguished career as a Princeton Professor of European literature, and French and Italian, and was one of the world's preeminent Dante scholars. His course on Dante's Inferno won him the admiration and in some cases lifelong friendship of undergraduates, despite it having the reputation of "the organic chemistry of the humanities." It spawned Dante Reunions held for over three decades, at Princeton Reunions and in Italy. He was interviewed for the Princetoniana Committee's Oral History Project in 2012. The following is an except from that interview. The transcript for the entire interview may be found here

Jean and Robert Hollander

Jean and Bob Hollander

Fifteen years ago, a woman in New York wanted to get me to come to the city to meet this Italian actor who recited Dante. I came home, dutifully said to Jean, “There’s this thing at a discotheque near Greenwich Village. I don’t want to go, but I thought I should let you know.” She replied, “I’ve never been to a discotheque.” I said, “It’s going to be some Italian actor killing Dante.” She said, “I want to go.” And I said, “Well, I really don’t want to go.” “You never want to do anything. You just want to stay home and work.” I agreed, “Yeah, you’re right. OK we’ll go. But you’ll see. It’s going to be awful.” We drove in and indeed it was a cattle drive. Then this woman’s coming along and I see she’s talking to people. She finally gets to me and asks “Are you Robert Hollander?” “Yes.” “I’m so glad I’ve found you. You were invited to come back and eat with Mr. Benigni. Would you like to meet him now?” I said, “Yes.”

Roberto Benigni

Benigni reciting Dante

We go in and it’s this Italian movie set, a Fellini set. The room is done as a tent. Benigni is sitting on a dais, raised above the rest. Everybody else is sitting around the edge of the tent, some looking at Benigni. I’m not very amused and not at all entertained by all this nonsense. We’re brought over -- Benigni jumps up -- I’m introduced. “Oh, Hollander. You are a genius! A genius!” I reply, “Oh, no, Mr. Benigni. It is you who are the genius.” “No, I insist! You are a genius. A genius.” He says “genius” four times. At that point, I say something that one usually thinks of the next day but not then: I said, “Oh, Mr. Benigni, I’m so glad you’re saying this in front of my wife because she doesn’t think so.” We both laugh. And that’s the end of it. Since we’re there, I want to hear him massacre Dante. He’s doing Francesca, Canto V. We’re sitting there, later, in the hall. Some of the biggest Italian actors have “done” Dante and many of them overdo their readings {at this point Hollander imitates an actor speaking Italian}. They begin at full tilt and go up from there. If you begin at climax, you can’t go to climax. Benigni sounds like Dante reciting his verse to a friend. “Jean,” I said, “that’s not bad,” because I was expecting so little.

Roberto Benigni has become a very close personal friend, at this point one of the people that I love the most in the entire world. He calls a lot. We talk about Dante.

Curator's Note: Roberto Benigni is an Acadamy Award winning Italian actor.

Plaque in 111 East Pyne

In Memory of Things Past