After the last event of this past weekend’s conference “Dante’s Volume from Alpha to Omega: A Graduate Symposium on the Poet’s Universe,” assistant professor of Italian David Lummus dismissed the participants and thanked them for their attendance — but Italian professor Giuseppe Mazzotta chimed in with a reply.
“That’s it?” exclaimed a disbelieving Mazzotta from his seat at the table of panelists. “That was so short!”
“Yes, but Dante is so big,” Lummus sympathetically responded.
Lummus’ words summarize the central issue scholars addressed at the conference: the encyclopedic nature of the “Commedia,” written by Dante Alighieri in the early 14th century and better known today as “The Divine Comedy.” The three-day conference, organized by graduate students in the Italian Language and Literature Department, served as a forum for Dante scholars from both the United States and abroad to convene and contemplate issues ranging from whether readers should consider Dante primarily a poet or a theologian to scientific principles, such as projectile motion, in the “Commedia.”
The Dante scholars and enthusiasts gathered at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Whitney Humanities Center to discuss the extraordinary number of disciplines the author makes reference to in his magnum opus, from philosophy and physics to astronomy and geography. Though older and more venerated scholars in the field led discussions and panels, the majority of the 35 speakers were graduate students still seeking degrees.
“In a way, conferences like these are very exciting — you get to witness the future of Dante scholarship,” Mazzotta said. He added that while he disagreed with some of the speakers who he thought had made “youthful errors,” he was on the whole impressed with the scholarship he observed.
The group of international participants present at the conference hailed from Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom.
University of Göttingen student Jennifer Helm gave a presentation titled “Dante’s Orthodoxy and the Authority of Knowledge,” which explored the Catholic Church’s attempt to censor parts of the original poem it considered profane. In an interview Sunday, Helm said the gathering gave her valuable insight into the dynamic between students and professors in the United States: While she said there is more of a hierarchical relationship between the two in Germany, she added that she was struck by the free exchange of ideas she witnessed here between famous professors and their students.
“Inspiring is only one word, but it can mean so much” Helm said.
While there were no participants from outside of the Western hemisphere, those present raised the question of what the future of Dante studies will be like in countries such as China and India.
English Professor Alastair Minnis, who taught two courses on medieval poetry at Peking University in Beijing during the fall semester, said a more robust exchange of ideas between western and eastern cultures must be established before Dante will be significantly studied in the east.
“The key is accepting that they have a lot to say,” Minnis said. “We must accept [their works] into our own institutions.”
Every now and then, when the scholars were not discussing highly intellectualized notions of love or the afterlife in the Commedia, they centered their attention on lighter issues such as representations of Dante in popular culture. Included in the program was a screening of a 1911 silent film by Giuseppe de Liguoro, loosely adapted from Dante’s poem. The group even discussed the release last month of a video game more loosely adapted from the Commedia; instead of playing the role of a pilgrim journeying to God through hell, purgatory and paradise, the game’s players are given control of a scythe-wielding warrior who must conquer the minions of hell to save his frequently shirtless beloved, Beatrice.
Millicent Marcus, chair of the Italian Department, said that just as Dante “vernacularized” literature by choosing to write in Italian instead of Latin, she saw the game as another step in making certain art forms more accessible to a wider audience.
“There are good vernacularizations and there are bad ones, and [the game] is certainly a bad one,” she said. “It just failed at taking it to the next level.”
The conference was accompanied by a small display of the Beinecke’s holdings on Dante, tracing the steps in the Commedia’s publication history through early editions of the poem.