Bringing Dante to the people

Friday 9 October 2009

A traditional event dating back to 14th century Italy is to be held by scholars at the University of St Andrews.

Over the next six years, the University will present all 100 cantos of Dante’s epic Divine Comedy.  The unique event will see the most eminent Dante scholars in the world retrace the writer’s footsteps through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise.

The University’s Italian department will officially launch the ambitious project – thought to be the first of its kind undertaken in this country – with the very first readings today (Friday 9 October).

The lecture series, entitled Lectura dantis andreapolitana, will bring leading Dante scholars to St Andrews, to read and explain what is widely accepted as one of the greatest works of literature in history. Dante’s Divine Comedy is over 14,000 verses in length, arranged in three canticas, of 34, 33 and 33 cantos respectively. In approximately 100 hours of lectures academics will read and comment on the entire work canto by canto.

The St Andrews series is the idea of Italian lecturers Dr Robert Wilson and Dr Claudia Rossignoli.  Dr Wilson said, “Dante’s Divine Comedy is one of the most widely read pieces of literature of its time, with a commentary tradition second only to that of the Bible.  Over the centuries poets and writers from all over the world, such as T.S. Eliot, have been influenced by this. There is still so much to study and comment on in this dramatic piece of work, as shown by a new interest its theological ideas for example.”

The lectura tradition dates back to 23 October 1373 in Santo Stefano di Badia in Florence, where Giovanni Boccaccio began his series of public lectures on the (Divine) Comedy of Dante Alighieri, or `Il Dante’ as it was then known.  This very first public `course’ on Dante was launched in response to a petition by some Florentine citizens for public lectures on the poem.  Boccaccio was paid a year’s salary of 100 gold florins to carry out the lecture series, but sadly he became ill and died after reaching just the seventeenth canto.

One of the driving principles of the Lectura dantis (which literally means `reading of Dante’) was to make Dante’s poem available to a wider public and the lectures were specifically for `anyone who wanted to hear them’. The lectures were attended by people of mixed social classes and education, prompting criticism from some quarters that Boccaccio was vulgarising Dante’s poem.

Dr Wilson commented, “The canto by canto approach is a very traditional one, but has been discredited by some critics. However, in some respects it is a more legitimate way to read the poem since Dante released it canto by canto as it was written over the period of time of his exile.”

“There have been many Lecturae dantis throughout Italy over the centuries, but it’s so much easier there because everyone knows Dante.  As far as we know, no-one has ever attempted to do the complete readings in Britain, so I thought this would be a good way to raise awareness of Dante in this country and attract the top scholars from the field to St Andrews to engage with the public.”

The lecture series, which will take the form of sixteen canto readings and discussions per year, will take a multidisciplinary approach to the Italian writer, and will include sessions by philosophers and art historians as well as historians and scholars of literature.  The entire lecture series will be recorded and eventually made available online.

Lectura Dantis Andreapolitana will be launched with the first readings by Professor Zygmunt Baranski (Cambridge), Professor Douglas Dunn (St Andrews), Professor Robert Hollander (Princeton) and Dr Robert Wilson (St Andrews), introduced by Dr Claudia Rossignoli (St Andrews) at Parliament Hall, 9.30-6pm, Friday 9 October 2009.  The meeting is open to the public.  For further information and the full programme visit



Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews
Contact Gayle Cook, Senior Press Officer on 01334 467227 / 462529, mobile 07900 050 103, or email [email protected]

Ref:  Dante 081009
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