1320. That's the year Italian politician, poet, and philosopher Dante Alighieri completed his most famous work --- The Divine Comedy --- a narrative, autobiographical poem considered among the most influential works of the Middle Ages and a defining piece of Italian literature.
1321. The year Dante died.
"I never actually knew anything about Dante, except his name before this project," says Nicholas Capobianco, Grade 10 student at St. Michael's College School (SMCS). "Growing up in an Italian family and not knowing Dante's story shows that he's losing recognition for his accomplishments, which is exactly the reason for this project --- to inform others."
An enduring source of intrigue and subject of study by scholars, academics, and others, The Divine Comedy depicts a man's spiritual journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise. The over 700 page poem took Dante more than eight years to complete.
So how does an educator teaching high school students the Italian language in 2021 convey the impact of a literary icon seven centuries later, in a foreign language? Irma Fiacco welcomed the challenge.
"On the anniversary of Dante’s death, many institutions in the world commemorated him by inviting the community to take part in various events and tributes," says Fiacco, who teaches French and Italian at SMCS and is a native of Italy's Tuscany region. "Among the various initiatives, Dantedì struck me because it showcased the reading of the most famous verses of The Divine Comedy."
Dantedì, or national Dante Day, took place on March 25, 2020. Officially declared by the Italian government, it is among various celebrations scattered throughout this year to remember the famed poet whose death anniversary is in September 2021.
"Despite the limitations of this unprecedented school year, I accepted this open invitation to take part in Dantedì," says Fiacco, a former journalist in Italy, now in her second year at SMCS.
"I introduced Dante to my students as a representative of the region Tuscany, which is one of the many regions of Italy that we studied in class," she says. "After I explored The Divine Comedy with my students, I asked them to read aloud, record, and post on Edsby a few verses of it. I then made a collage of all their performances and created a YouTube video with pictures and music, and included Italian and English captions for a better understanding."
"The Divina Commedia project challenged my Italian speaking skills enabling me to accentuate certain letters and words that were far more difficult than any other tasks I have executed in the Italian course," says Daniel D'Avella, Grade 10 student.
"Before Professoressa Fiacco assigned the Dantedì, Divina Commedia project, I was uneducated on the topic and had never heard of Dante Alighieri," he continues. "Throughout this project I learned who Dante was and why he was so important to Italian literature. My Italian comprehension and speaking skills are strong, however they have escalated substantially over the course of the year."
"Personally, I've always struggled with understanding it [Italian]," says Capobianco. "But the past unit has helped me significantly. Going through my script and listening to everyone else's, I noticed that everybody's roles had their own meaning. Overall, I learned about his book, The Divine Comedy, and its significance in the Church and in literature."
The weight of the epic work, its relevance today, and transferring that knowledge in a foreign language in an engaging and impactful way --- no small feat for all involved.
"We need the poetic imagination to spark dreams that practicality otherwise stunts, and to help grow the sense of ethics from forms that are beautiful and thought-provoking," says John Dalla Costa, founding director of the Centre for Ethical Orientation and recent-appointee to the SMCS Board of Directors.
"Your work with students bespeaks both this breadth and width,” he says referring to Fiacco's approach.
"Looking at their work, I was very happy about their ability to recite the verses of The Divine Comedy, which is written in old Italian and more difficult to pronounce than contemporary Italian," says Fiacco --- who took the assignment and the finished product even further.
"Our class’ video ‘Dantedì at SMCS’ will be shared at the Italian Contemporary Film Festival (ICFF) that will take place at Ontario Place during the month of July," Fiacco adds. "It will be included as part of ICFF Letteratura in honour of Dante."
A unique bonus and rare epilogue for an in-class assessment.
"I am truly honored that my video will be shared at the upcoming film festival," says D'Avella. "It is my pleasure to celebrate and engage in such a beautiful language and culture."
Adds Capobianco, "I feel proud and happy to be in the video. I'm excited to see the outcome of it!"
For Fiacco, having the student's work showcased to a larger audience was, in many ways, a natural next step in this story.
"I chose to submit the video to the ICFF to apply what we learned in class to a real-world setting and to establish a direct relationship between our classroom and the external community," she says, adding, "The ICFF is an exceptional annual event for the Italian community in Canada and I wanted my students to be a part of it."
2021. Commemorating one of the fathers of Italian literature, language, and culture by SMCS Italian language students and their teacher.
The Italian Contemporary Film Festival runs June 27 to July 17, 2021 at Ontario Place.