Dante-Study Day at Royal Holloway University of London, 2nd March 2021

A Report for the University Council of Modern Languages by Stefano Jossa (RHUL)

A one-day mini conference on Dante’s presence in British culture and society today was organised by Dr Stefano Jossa (RHUL), with the support of the UCML, RHUL-HARI and the Italian Cultural Institute in London. This took place in coincidence with the celebrations for the seventh centenary of Dante’s death (1321-2021). The conference programme can be found here.

The day was aimed at an academic and school audience, to foster engagement with Dante, his works, his myth, and his reception in the English-speaking higher education world. Originally planned as an on-campus event, including both learning activities for sixth formers and a mini conference for a wider audience, the event was moved online due to force majeure and was split into two different kinds of activities: two meetings with high school students and a one-day mini conference on Teams. 

UCML funding was specifically dedicated to support participation of pupils from state-maintained school. Dr Jossa took contact with Colchester Sixth Formers, which is among the very few local-based high schools that offer Italian as an independent subject. Teachers Giovanni Gravina and Monica Alussi enthusiastically embraced the project and a collaboration began with the aim to introduce students to better understand Dante’s relevance in both Italian and English culture today. Originally planned as a treasure hunt to be developed on RHUL campus, in search of the various Dante traces spread across Founder’s Building and elsewhere, followed by students’ recitation of Dante’s verses in both the original Italian and English translation, the activity was moved online due to the restrictions related to Covid19 and was transformed into two seminar-like meetings to take place on Teams. The first meeting, led by Dr Jossa, explored issues of Dante’s presence in the English language (such as stereotypes derived from Dante’s masterpiece, the Divine Comedy; and quotes on road signs; graffiti; and tattoos), as well as of national identity, pop appropriation, and marketing icon. The second, conducted by Francesca Masiero from UCL, expanded on the previous meeting taking into consideration Dante’s use in contemporary tv and internet advertising, as well as Dante’s sentences that have become proverbs in contemporary Italian usage. The second meeting was followed by an online quiz for students. The three best scorers were awarded prizes in the form of book vouchers from the Italian Bookshop in London. This was a highly rewarding experiment in engagement of school teaching practices with academic oriented events, which will hopefully lead to further collaboration and future initiatives. 

Colchester Sixth Formers’ students also participated in the study day that took place online on Teams on 2nd March 2021 – which featured a wider audience too, including academics and members of the general public. Thanks to RHUL-HARI funding, the day was splendidly supported by a PhD student with secretarial duties, Francesca Masiero, who was in charge of social media communication and produced a wonderful Facebook page. The day was opened by introductory greetings from the Director of the Italian Cultural Institute in London, Dr Katia Pizzi. The first session, chaired by Prof Sarah Wright (RHUL), featured the following speakers: Dr Stefano Jossa (RHUL) on ‘Dante at RHUL’; Prof Jane E. Everson (RHUL) on ‘Dante and Dance’; and Prof Andrea Mazzucchi (University of Naples “Federico II”, Italy) on ‘Dante’s visual presence in the UK: illuminated manuscripts between the 14th and 15th century’ (in Italian). Dr Jossa went through the various traces of Dante presence at RHUL, from Dante’s head on the façade of Founders’ Building to the mention of Dante’s name alongside Homer and Shakespeare in the space of the pediment on the North Quad – in what looks like a direct quote from the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico. As it happens, the decorator of Founders’ Building was an Italian, architect Ceccardo Egidio Fucigna (1834-1884), an acquaintance of the great Victorian art-architect William Burgess. Further traces can be found in a bust of Dante preserved at the Archives at RHUL as well as in the legacy of the teaching of Prof Peter Armour, including a Peter Armour Memorial Prize awarded to the best performance in Medieval and Dante courses, and allusions to Dante spread across the board, for example in the recent SF novel by Prof Adam Roberts, Purgatory Mount (Gollancz). Therefore, Dante’s presence at RHUL goes well beyond nineteenth-century Victorian Italianate fashion and is testament to the very European inspiration of the College. Prof Everson took the move from the various descriptions of many kinds of movement in the Divine Comedy to explore three significant ballets that took place in recent years: Ashton’s Dante Sonata; Tice’s Inferno; and MacGregor’s Dante Project. And Prof Mazzucchi presented the website ‘Illuminated Dante Website’ (http://www.dante.unina.it/public/frontend) with plenty of images and relevant commentary. 

The following session, chaired by Dr Selena Daly (RHUL), included the talks by Dr John Sellars (RHUL) on ‘Dante the Aristotelian Philosopher’; Dr Catherine Keen (UCL) on ‘Dante on and off the page’; and Prof Giacomo Benedetto (RHUL) on ‘Medieval Politics for Contemporary Europe?’. Dr Sellars fascinatingly explored the poet’s distinctive engagement with Aristotle’s ethics in the Monarchia and ways in which it pre-empts the work of later Renaissance Aristotelians such as Pietro Pomponazzi. Dr Keen enticingly explored the multiplicity of Dante’s afterlife, offering a wide-ranging presentation of Dante’s presence in contemporary culture, from Benigni’s public lectures to Italian Disney’s revisitation. Prof Benedetto addressed a key question such as: ‘Which aspects of medieval republics survive in European politics today?’, showing by examples from Switzerland and the UK the extent to which medieval communalism can be useful to shape modern society’s approaches to democracy.

The last session was chaired by Prof Giuliana Pieri (RHUL) and featured journalist and writer Ian Thomson as guest speaker, dealing with ‘Dante and Islam’. It might seem strange, Thomson argued, that a poem most emblematic of medieval Christian Europe, The Divine Comedy, should contain so many Arabic loan-words as well as references to Islamic intellectual life. And yet, despite following the medieval Western tradition of being bitterly opposed to Islam as a religion, Dante acknowledged the great debt of the West towards Arabic thinkers and philosophers.

The event got more than 100 contacts, has been recorded and will be posted on RHUL Languages, Literatures and Cultures YouTube Channel.

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