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Students Delve Deeper into the Divine Comedy

Univ. Communications – On a Tuesday afternoon, a small group of students huddled around several rare print editions of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy in the Rare Books and Special Collections Library at the University. The books dated as far back as the sixteenth century and featured delicate engravings and woodcuts produced through a variety of technologies.

For the first time in the history of the University, a course has been developed purely for the purpose of exploring the visual culture surrounding Dante’s magnum opus. Offered by the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures, the Dante Multimedia Lab, led by Associate Professor of Italian Donatella Stocchi-Perucchio, is designed for students to engage with the text of the Comedy, study the history of the book as an object, and also to evaluate the cultural impact of the work through art.

“The reoccurring point of inspiration for me is the realization of how deep of an impact a single medieval story had on Western art, theology, and literature,” said Beau Reynolds ’12, a political science major. “Dante is so influential in Western thought that the majority of time his influence is so subtle that it goes unnoticed. We are really focusing on discovering how deep that impact goes. It is as much a study of humanity and society as it is of art and literature.”

Illustrations of the Divine Comedy date back almost to the time of its writing in the early fourteenth century. Early manuscripts featured illuminations of the text and by the 1480s the first illustration cycle done by Sandro Botticelli was printed. The tradition of illustrating the comedy continued through the centuries with such prominent artists as Alessandro Vellutello, Gustave Doré, and most recently California-based Sandow Birk. Birk actually rewrote the text of the Comedy to reflect modern jargon and to accompany his reinterpretation of Doré’s illustrations, set in a dystopian Los Angeles. Later in the semester, the class will have a video conference with Birk about his work.

The first section of the course was devoted to a classificatory exercise; the students explored the illustrators and learned about the social, geographical, and historical context in which their work was produced.  This task helps students create a “geographic and historical landscape around the Comedy,” said Stocchi-Perucchio.

All of the students in the class have taken at least one course on Dante previously and are familiar with the text of the Comedy. Only one student is an art history major. At its core, explained Stocchi-Perucchio, “this is a course that interrogates the reader of literature who watches art. And he will watch art from a different perspective than the art historian.”

As the students compare how different artists in different historical contexts represent the same scenes, they are attempting to detect the dialogue between image and text. Dante’s verse is by nature emphatically visual and this is precisely the reason it has inspired so many generations of artists. Images of and inspired by the Comedy can be narrative or symbolic; some artists aim to depict a close reading of Dante, others use the poet’s text to talk about themselves and their time.

“The format of the class is unlike any other I’ve ever participated in. It is both research and discussion intensive … Every class consists of individual presentation and discussion,” says Reynolds.  “It’s very satisfying to see individual input turn into new class objectives and material.”

Indeed the student-driven nature of the course has satisfied Stocchi-Perucchio as well. “I’ve seen the questions rising, I’ve seen the engagement, I’ve seen them excited about doing the course themselves, because I’ve not really taken stage that much so far, and I’ve seen them liking that.”

The course is part of the larger push for research in the humanities within the University.  Through their work the students are expanding the body of knowledge about a sphere of human creative production and also cataloging information for the promotion of further inquiry by others. “Research in the humanities is much less subjective than is supposed,” insisted Reynolds.  “Critical questions regarding intent and motive regarding artwork are becoming more of a natural way of thinking, as opposed to simply enjoying the aesthetics of the work.”

Article written by Maya Dukmasova, a Take 5 Scholar at the University of Rochester and an intern at University Communications. She majored in philosophy and religion and focused her Take 5 year on researching the way American media covers current events in the Muslim world. An aspiring journalist, Dukmasova has freelanced for Rochester Magazine, the Phoenix New Times, and the Daily News Egypt in Cairo. She also maintains two blogs, one devoted to culture and society in Russia (www.out-of-russia.com) and the other to photography (www.myorientalism.com).

Photos courtesy of Maya Dukmasova.

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