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Bringing Dante to Life

Caelin Miltko | Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Certain literary pieces were intended to be heard, not read. For many, the works of William Shakespeare are nearly impossible to fully comprehend until brought to life on stage.
Similarly, the words of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” deepen in meaning when read aloud to an audience.
This is the idea behind the Italian Studies Department’s “Dante Now!” event happening this Friday all around campus. “Dante Now!” features Italian language students (and anyone else who wants to join) performing pieces of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” in Italian from 2:00-3:00 pm.
“From a linguistics point of view, it helps students get used to talking in the formal, standard language that was based on Dante,” said Anne Leone, Italian Studies Research Assistant Professor and one of the organizers of the event.
The students have a chance to practice their language skills while indulging in one of the most important aspects of Italian culture.
Dante is to the Italians in some ways what Shakespeare is to the British.
Just as the British annually recreate the Shakespeare plays, there is a group in Florence, Italy, that publicly performs Dante every year.
It was these Florentines who inspired the project here at Notre Dame.
“It has such a foundational place in Italian culture. Maybe it’s so much a part of their culture that they don’t think about it,” Leone said.
Performing the “Divine Comedy” builds a community within the Italian Studies department, as they are able to bring to life something so integral to the culture.
“The Dante Now! Program is important precisely because it brings the Notre Dame community and the local and visiting communities together and in communion with each other, with Dante, and the beauty of the Italian language,” senior Christian Coppa said.
Performing Dante in this way makes it into an artistic exhibition that allows even inexperienced speakers to join in.
“People can hear the musicality of it even if they don’t know the language,” Italian Studies graduate student Xiaoyi Zhang said.
Last year, the event certainly caught the attention of spectators.
“One guy saw us at the Knute Rockne statue and said he’d never seen anything like this before and joined in with us and started following the group,” Ph.D. student Courtney Smotherman said.
The performances end when all nine performance groups meet at the Grotto to say the Prayer to the Virgin from the end of Dante’s “Paradiso.” For Leone, Zhang and Coppa, this was the most memorable part of the event.
“It was a powerful instance, for me, of what makes poetry, and Dante’s poem in particular, so special,” Coppa said of the final recitation. “Seeing how students alike not only relished in the beauty of the poetry, but in some cases prayed the poem, opened up new meaning for me personally.”
Bringing the performance to end in what is arguably one of the most important communal parts of Notre Dame’s campus reinforces the community aspect of the event.
According to Leone, performing the “Divine Comedy” as a group reflects the message of the story itself.
The poem begins as Dante’s individual crisis, where another person saves him. The poem is his attempt to save the souls of other people.
Similarly, in the reading aloud of Dante, the story comes alive not only for the reader but the audience as well.
“It makes you want to Wikipedia Dante,” Zhang said.
The event closes with an illustrated lecture on Dante’s “Inferno” at the Snite Museum of Art given by two Notre Dame professors and one visiting professor, which helps the students and audience members visualize the scenes they’ve been hearing.
Dante Now! begins at 2:00 p.m at various locations around campus. Each performance takes about seven minutes and the performers will move locations every 20 minutes.
Many of the performers will be wearing red Dante hats with golden laurels, so don’t be afraid to stop by and listen.
Contact Caelin Miltko at
cmoriari@nd.edu