Divine Comedy celebration highlights long history of Dante studies at Notre Dame

The Center for Italian Studies and the Devers Program for Dante Studies hosted its annual “Dante Now!” event consisting of community recitations of Dante’s Divine Comedy with students across various fields of study.

Participants gathered to read aloud selections from the poet’s most famous work, culminating in a recitation of Dante’s prayer to the Virgin at Notre Dame’s Grotto of our Lady of Lourdes (Paradiso, 33.1-21). The event on Friday, September 22 marked 11 years since “Dante Now!” was inaugurated in 2012.

“Dante Now!” is dedicated to celebrating the work of Italian poet Dante Alighieri, often referred to as the “Father of the Italian Language.” Professor Theodore J. Cachey Jr., the Ravarino Family Director of the Center for Italian Studies and the Devers Program in Dante Studies, explained to the Rover that Dante earned himself this title “because he proved in his poem, the Divine Comedy, that the Italian language could be used to express the whole of reality—from the lowest depths of hell to the heights of the empyrean and beyond.”

Cachey also noted Dante’s approachability for Italian speakers even today. He told the Rover, “Linguist Tullio De Mauro has demonstrated that 80% of the vocabulary used in modern Italian can already be found in Dante’s poem. This is why students at ND who study Italian and Dante can easily read Dante’s poetry in the original, even though it was written over 700 years ago.” “Dante Now!” gives students the chance to celebrate the most famous figure in Italian literature and engage with Italian culture more broadly. 

Anne Dunn, a student of Italian language at Notre Dame, said, “This event was an incredible opportunity to practice the beautiful language I have been learning in class. It was a great joy to share Dante’s poetry in the original Italian with the broader Notre Dame community and even some Ohio State fans who watched our group walk across campus.” Dunn’s favorite part of the event was the prayer to the Virgin at the Grotto. 

Professor Cachey, who co-edited Dante Now: Current Trends in Dante Studies, further commented on the political and social centrality of the poet, noting: “Dante, in his Divine Comedy, envisions a united Italian national identity, both linguistically and culturally. This vision predated Italy’s eventual political unification in 1861 by several hundred years. Dante’s poem greatly influenced Italian patriots of the Risorgimento [Italian unification], including notable figures such as Garibaldi, Mazzini, and Cavour, ultimately leading to Italy’s political unification. The Divine Comedy has also had a no less significant global impact as a classic of modern literature.”

Notre Dame holds a distinct reputation as a preeminent center for Dante studies in North America. Although the Devers Program in Dante Studies was formally established in 1995, Notre Dame has boasted an extensive collection of Dante’s works for over a hundred years. According to the Devers Program, “The Zahm Dante Collection in Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of Notre Dame” ranks among the most important and historic Dante collections in North America. The fifteenth and sixteenth century imprints, which constitute the heart of the Dante collection, were primarily acquired in 1902 by John A. Zahm, C.S.C. from the Italian ‘Dantophile’ Giulio Acquaticci. The collection currently holds nearly 3,000 volumes of rare editions and critical studies ranging from the Renaissance to the present.”

When asked why English speakers can benefit from reading Dante, Professor Cachey responded: “For the great Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, the Divine Comedy was ‘the best book mankind has ever written … It is a book that everyone ought to read. Not to do so is to deprive oneself of the greatest gift that literature can give us. Why should we deny ourselves the pleasure of reading the Commedia?’ I couldn’t agree more.”

“Dante Now!” community recitations were followed by a lecture entitled “Dante, Jazz, and the Black Radical Tradition” delivered by Professor Joseph E. Rosenberg, an Assistant Professor in the Program of Liberal Studies.

Daniel Martin is a junior in the Program of Liberal Studies from Skippack, Pennsylvania. He has minors in Italian as well as Irish Studies. In his free time, he can be found attempting to complete his homework solely by the power of “l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.”  He can be reached at dmarti29@nd.edu.

Photo Credit: Notre Dame Center for Italian Studies

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