21st Century Inferno: Exploring Dante’s Digital Legacy with your Students

Keith C. Russo (ABD, Western Michigan University)

Background:

I was recently asked to take a syllabus for my World Literature course for second-year high school students and apply the Harkness Method to it.[1] For those who are not familiar with the type of educational system that the Harkness Method represents, I will briefly relate its philosophy. It was designed by Edward Stephen Harkness, a wealthy philanthropist, in conjunction with the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy and debuted in the early 1930s.[2] The centerpiece, quite literally, of this method is an ovoid table around which students can discuss the day’s topics.[3] Since my dissertation is on Arthurian materials, I jumped at the chance to create my own “round table” in the classroom. The most intriguing feature of the Harkness method is that is completely student-centered, allowing (or forcing, depending on your perspective) the students to take control by generating, sustaining, and regulating the discussion. The instructor assigns the material and then monitors and evaluates the dialogue that ensues during class. This was both an exciting and terrifying prospect for a Socratic teacher like me. However, I used my imagination and Dante Alighieri’s Inferno in my curriculum planning in order to dream up what this might look like.

It was easy to use Dante’s most famous canticle of the Commedia because it was the pinnacle of a course that I had already designed to teach my students the classics. I resisted the urge to plan a course based either on American multicultural literature or a contemporary survey of literature from around the world. I resisted even though I value the contributions of contemporary authors like Amy Tan and twentieth-century innovators like Aimée Cesaire and despite the fact that the textbook company with which my school had been contracted offered a book fashioned around such authors and learning programs. I took this unfashionable stance because I wanted to give my students the knowledge base upon which other authors, including the contemporary ones, build. Yes, the canon is a tautology, but I found ways of celebrating Chinua Achebe and Gabriel Garcia Marquez later in the course, in a briefer survey of semi-canonical, modern international authors. However, it was through my resistance to the textbook’s insistent political correctness that I discovered the digital worlds at the fingertips of any teacher or student that wishes to take a moment to look.

Every single classic text that has no copyright attached to it has been reproduced in one digital format or another, and in many cases on several websites. Since I was working in a private school for students who at least had access to the web, if not laptops that they could bring to class every day, I designed the majority of a curriculum based on reading the electronically-transcribed canon. The caveat is that there may not be an authoritative, scholarly translation of a text that would be preferable. Consequently, many of the translations available on the web use archaic English translations like Chapman’s Iliad. Many students have not been introduced to “thee” or “thou” and it is a labor of love to be the teacher to do make those introductions. However, if you introduce and reiterate these archaisms throughout the year, it makes a section on Shakespeare easier. While exploring the breadth of online texts, I discovered the Dante Project at Princeton University. With this invaluable tool in mind, I planned my first semester around leading my students into Dante’s imaginative recreation of hell.

With administrative vetting and support I made a brief trip into the Hebrew and Christian Testaments that I thought would be helpful to secular students and billed it as world philosophy. I was happy to teach the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tse and Confucius’ Analects to justify that reasoning.  However, the rest of my curriculum included works such as Aristotle’s Poetics, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, specific books of the The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer, The Aeneid by Virgil, and selections from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Poetics was included to give a genre-based foundation for the course, centering the student learning around the classical ideas of epic, tragedy, and comedy. The other selections gave the students the knowledge of Greco-Roman mythology, journeys, and trips to the underworld upon which Florence’s most famous son based his most famous canticle.

After designing an entirely digital curriculum, I came to realize that Dante’s Commedia, and specifically the Inferno, is the subject of multiple sophisticated electronic resources that go far beyond simple transcriptions or translations. The resources serve different, but overlapping, purposes and can be used to round out a research-based and student-oriented educational model. I have used these sites to direct my students towards a research project that includes a lengthy paper. The following curriculum is the result of nearly four years worth of experimentation with these texts, guides, and research materials. Below, I give an outline of each resource and how I have had students use them, how my pupils have discovered their uses on their own, and, if I have not observed it already, how I imagine that students might use them in an exploratory, student-empowering model such as the Harkness Method. I also provide sample assignments as they best correlate to each resource. It would require far too much space to detail the use of each tool for every aspect of every canto, so I will explain how best to use each resource (complete with caveats). Then, I will employ the Harkness model by letting you explore the twenty-first century Inferno for yourself. You can decide which digital tool will best suit your needs and ambitions with the Inferno.

Standing at the Gate of Hell: Introducing the Inferno

The school for which I originally wrote this curriculum held an open house to attract new students. At that time we were studying the Inferno and I asked the students to present to the prospective students’ parents something that would give them an idea of what we studied, but in a dramatic way. The students and I found an odd private website that was perfect for the occasion. If you visit http://foxtwin.com/inferno/ you will be greeted by an ominous sequence that should be easily recognizable to even the casual Dante student. Words fade in and out, beginning with “I am the way into the city of woe” and continuing, phrase by phrase, through the entire inscription over the gates of hell at the beginning of Canto III. I had one of my male students read it for the parents and prospective students as the inscription flashed behind him on a projected image of the website on the wall. It had the desired effect. Those who recognized the final “abandon all hope ye who enter here” were amused and impressed. The rest were enthralled and interested.

This website has the same effect on students when they are first introduced to the Inferno. They are confused, disoriented, and interested by the flashing words, much the same way I imagine Dante Pilgrim felt when he beheld the inscription. When the introduction fades, a series of circles from “off screen” come together to form concentric rings that are then numbered and augmented with some extra features (see Figure 1). I often show this at the end of the class before we begin studying Dante’s work. I then give them a few necessary hints and then tell them to explore, starting with the “Dark Wood” icon in the upper right of the screen. After being thus intrigued, most students cannot wait to explore the site themselves and come back the next day discussing how they played with the website. I use the verb “play” because they see it as interactive enough to actually qualify as a game. It is an extremely effective way to hook the students on the Inferno and let them have fun with it. I usually ask them to find a few sins and punishments that they think are interesting and to bring back specifics for the class. However, this site can be used as the most rudimentary introduction for any teacher and a companion guide if a class does not have the time or pedagogical leaning for some of the more intensive sites presented later in this article.

Figure 1:

DANTE'S INFERNO: A virtual Tour of Hell

The website offers two ways of navigating hell, either by clicking the numbered rings or by utilizing the squares at the bottom of the screen. Obviously the numbers correspond to the circles of the Inferno. One of the several drawbacks of this site is that it does not present a canto-by-canto introduction. Thus it handicaps the understanding of the student and puts the burden of explanation more on the instructor. Be sure to have the students click on the key first, as it provides a helpful guide through the idiosyncratic notation found throughout this site. The rest of the website is simple enough to understand. If you begin with the Dark Wood icon, you will be presented with a typical sample of the presentation of the first episode (see Figure 2).

Figure 2:

The Dark Wood of Error: "Worldliness"

All of the colorful squares and circles represent either beasts or characters, and the grey arch is the “gate of hell” itself. You must begin with the Dante icon  Dante Icon or else the order of this representation of the first three cantos makes no sense. Throughout this website, all of the depictions are low-resolution reproductions of Gustave Doré’s Inferno drawings. They are helpful for students to imagine the landscape and characters, but are frustrating in their poor quality. Another double-edged feature of this website is the explanations of characters or objects if you click on the icons. For instance, if you click the “Mount of Joy” Mount of Joy, it explains that it “represents immortality or happiness; it is achieved, in the medieval view, by worthy actions on earth [sic], and by preparation, in this life, for the afterlife.”[4] There is no citation or reference for this allegorical representation. And most medievalists would cringe at the monolithic term “medieval view” without the necessary clarification of theological and political orientations, let alone what chronological part of the Middle Ages is being discussed. As I said, this is merely an introduction to the Inferno, meant to give a taste to students who will explore this book much further. The next layer of our exploration is meant to give more than a facile prologue to Dante’s work.

A Companion on the Journey: Notes on the Inferno

For those who can spend more time and effort exploring the depths of Dante’s creation, the University of Texas at Austin has compiled a very good companion to the Inferno that references all the beasts, persons, and many of the ideas running throughout each circle. It is arranged by circle, rather than by canto and, again, presents a challenge to understanding the work in its entire complexity. Dante did imagine his underworld in circles, but he formulated the poem in cantos. Again, it is up the instructor to teach such poetic details. Upon the first visit to the “Dante Worlds” version of Inferno at http://danteworlds.laits.utexas.edu/index2.html we are again presented with a Flash© movie of what appear to be color versions of Barry Moser’s impressionistic artwork in a rapid succession of images.[5] We are then presented with a two-dimensional cross section of Dante’s cone of spiritual despair and terror (see Figure 3). Each circle, as well as the “Dark Wood” and the “Gate of Hell,” can be scrolled over in order to render the subject of area, including cantos covered, category of sin, and the more specific types of sinners that reside in the circle.

Figure 3:

Dante's Inferno

The interactivity of the website is enlivening and useful for keeping the attention of over-stimulated teenagers. It also includes images taken from several sources, including Gustave Doré, Moser, and others. However, the main function of the website is the encyclopedic comments on most every subject in the Inferno. The quality of the commentary ranges from the perfunctory to the reasonably extensive for this format. For instance, if we compare the notes on the five ancient poets in Limbo and the annotations on Brunetto Latini, we see a vast difference in the comprehensiveness of the comments. If you click on Circle 1 (Canto IV) the hyper link for the “Classical Poets (Homer, Ovid, Lucan, and Horace),” we are brought down the page to a paragraph that outlines a few of the works of these founders of the Western literature. Including Virgil, three of these poets are easily the most influential writers in the history of the Western European canon. And yet they are all relegated to a paragraph. I can only hope that this is what is meant by “an abridged version of the complete commentary” in the book versions of Dante Worlds. Compare this to the notes on Brunetto Latini in Circle 7 (Canto XV) and we find a serious discrepancy. Brunetto, as the website notes, is “[o]ne of the most important figures in Dante’s life and in the Divine Comedy” and is thus accorded a blurb, a short biography, and even a short debate as to whether he belongs with the sodomites or is there for “a substitute vice for the sexual one” such as a “linguistic perversion, unnatural political affiliations, a quasi-Manichean heresy.”[6] It seems almost absurd that even someone as important as Latini would garner almost three times as much commentary as four out of five of the canon’s founders.

Despite this quibbling over the relative number of words afforded to each topic or personage, Danteworlds is extremely helpful to student and teacher. Not only does everything have a note, but there are multiple images for many of the subjects of the circles. The images are also collected in one area, for convenience at http://danteworlds.laits.utexas.edu/gallery.html .

Also, of particular help to instructors are the study questions at the end of each circle. Two of my favorites from the circles just sampled are

1)    What are the implications of Dante’s self-identification as “sixth” among the great poets?

and

2)    We learn in canto 16 that Dante once thought to capture the leopard (1.31-43) with a cord, which he now gives to Virgil to summon Geryon (16.106-14), the “image of fraud” (17.7). What connections do you see among Geryon, the cord, and the leopard? How might this new information help us to interpret the three animals–the leopard, the lion, and the she-wolf–from canto 1?

The first is a question I always ask my students or one that they come up with on their own. It leads them to the idea that Dante might suffer from a form of hubris that lead him off the diritta vita. The second question links the categories of sins that the first three beasts represent directly with the examples in the following cantos. This sort of connection is helpful when analyzing the themes around which you wish to build your curriculum. However, this site is little more than a skeleton with some flesh on it, as all compendiums of comments will be. For those who wish to vivisect the Inferno with a virtual Virgil by their side, the next two sources are the most comprehensive of all.

Taken by the Hand through the Heart of Hell: The Princeton Dante Project

The first source, the Dante Project at Princeton University is much more than just a website about the Commedia. It includes texts, links, references, and bibliographies to or about every aspect of Dante’s life and works. This is really a multimedia interactive world that could be used at any level of Dante study from high school to graduate school and can be as effective for teachers and professors alike. If you enter through the main portal at http://etcweb.princeton.edu/dante/index.html you may see the explanation and the tutorial, which can guide you through the multifaceted realm that this website represents. However, if you are bold enough to “enter” on your own, you will find it easy to navigate, if not self-explanatory (see Figure 4). However, there are a few tricks to manipulating this site.

Caveat magister: This entire series of pages works with pop-ups; abandon all blocking devices, you who enter here. If you have any open browser windows, clicking a link will populate them automatically. Make sure it does not take over a window that you were using for something important. I recommend you right click the link and open every new link in a separate page or tab, but it may get a little confusing if you open too many. Lastly, when searching something in the commentaries or the images, it will take you to your results without an apparent way to go back. Use the “backspace” key on your keyboard in order to go back to the last unique URL. I will endeavor to explain a few of the secondary links before I delve into the text because they are of importance to our discussion of the use of the interactive text. I will begin with the most useful, disregarding the “Minor Works” entirely.

Figure 4:

Princeton Dante Project: Commedia

The “Multimedia” category of links is by far the most useful for engaging the high school student because they are so visually and aurally oriented in these days of Facebook© and iPods. The “Images” link brings you to a search function for depictions by Gustave Doré and Amos Nattini.[7] The two artist’s visions are different and a useful assignment might be to choose a depiction from each on one subject and compare and contrast them; you might also use Moser’s art as well from the Danteworlds website and the more extensive selection from the Word of Dante website, explained below (see “Assignments” section). The only problem, for those who are not familiar with the work of these artists, is that both often depict the souls as Dante would have us see them: naked with all their body parts exposed. If you wish to restrict the viewing for liability reasons, be sure to search before the students do. Or, as I do, I run it by the administration and explain to the students that these are not sexualized beings (with the possible exceptions of Paulo and Francesca), but souls in torment whose bodies are contorted and punished by being exposed to their punishments. The group of sixteen-year-olds gets the giggles out in the first few minutes and then it is a non-issue. The audio links are best used within the text of each canto. I have used the Italian audio in order to teach the terza rima of Dante’s Italian (see “Assignments” section). The only true disappointment here is the “maps and diagrams” link because it does not include a map of Inferno, but rather of Italy, Tuscany, and Florence. There are helpful zodiacal diagrams and family trees and regal ascendancies for all the major powers mentioned.

The link labeled “Search Text of Poem, Commentary, Toynbee or Philology” allows you access to a complex of searches on one page (remember to open this and all links in a separate tab or page or else it may populate the actual text you were reading) that allows easy searching in Italian (see Figure 5). These searches are available while you read the text, but if you wish to find something quickly, you can use this page. It is possible to refine the search in the Commedia, the most obvious of the search functions. However, if you do not know Italian, it is better to use this function to search only proper names (be sure to use capital letters). The commentary on the Princeton Dante Project (hereafter AKA PDP) is extensive, annotated, and cited with links to the secondary source references. It is almost everything that any student of Dante could hope for in one place. I have had my students use it for everything from individual assignments like bringing in an explanation of a passage for discussion to their research papers (see “Assignments” section of this article). The individual notes are available in the text, but, again, if you wish to know about the extensive commentaries made about Paulo or Francesca for research or curriculum planning, then be sure to utilize this invaluable tool. Toynbee is a “Dante Dictionary” and a concordance. If you wish to know every reference to Virgil or “sole” as a symbol throughout the Commedia, input that term into the “Toynbee Notes search.” If you want to see the dictionary entry, input that into the “Toynbee Title Search.” The Philological search is apparent and still limited.

Figure 5:

Image of Search Engines

Back at the Commedia Front page, which should not have been altered or disappeared through all the searching, we find the “lectures” category of links. They are helpful musing by Robert Hollander, professor emeritus of Princeton University, about the topics listed. Since he is the main source of the Dante Project, it is at least useful for many aspects. The canto summaries are helpful for remembering what you want at a moment’s notice, but I try not to show that to my students, lest the lazier ones utilize it too much. His bibliography is more extensive than anything compiled except by a professional organization. Unfortunately, this biography is only a good source for students who read Latin and Italian. For others, it is not quite as helpful. The only other criticism I have of his professional links is that his lecture on the “moral situation of the reader” seems actually contrary to experience. Students, at least at the high school level, are either repelled by Dante’s judgment of many of the sins they consider less offensive or are courting Virgil’s approval with their condemnation and not confused on how “to respond to the most attractive sinners.” [8]

If you wish to work only with the text of the Commedia, you can navigate to any “cantica,” canto, and set of line numbers in either English or Italian or both from the front page. I recommend both for reasons that will become apparent. As you can see below (In Figure 6),

Figure 6:

Princeton Dante Project: Inferno V

the links from the front page are also available at the top, above the canto number. They are scroll over links. The “search” is the same link as the search on the front page, as is the “Poem search” link below the canto number. The summary is the same as the link under the “Lectures” category. These macro-research tools are useful in the ways outlines and make each canto an all-inclusive tool for understanding

The side bar of each canto is also cross-referenced to the searches on the front page, but these are all specific to each canto and methodically researched and cataloged. These are all obviously excellent tools for helping students understand the text better. With the Harkness method, I assign the students the task of coming in with at least one explanation from the commentary and an image from each canto for the discussion. This sparks discussion and promotes common understanding of difficult topics (see “Assignments” section). I play the “audio” for them in the beginning of our study of the text in order to get a feel for it, but after that it is up to them to use it as they wish. I will elaborate on the “DDP” link below, when I explain the Dartmouth Dante Project. The only caveat to these is you must click the “dot” of the image or the “line” of the audio twice, not a double click, in order to get it to work.

A Map of Hell: The World of Dante

The other superior website that goes far beyond outlines or mere translation is the World of Dante presented by the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH) at University of Virginia, found at www.worldofdante.org. This comprehensive website engages students on the textual, visual, and musical levels, but does not have an audio of either the English or Italian like the Princeton Dante Project. If you go to the homepage, you are presented with a crisp website that is easily navigated. Simply click on the canticle you want or on the section of the painting on the homepage that corresponds to your desired canticle, in this case the Inferno (see Figure 7). I will begin with an outline of the salient textual features this time because they are not cross-referenced and are slightly more divorced from the secondary sources that in the Dante Project.

Figure 7:

Inferno; Purgatorio; Paradiso

When you click on the canticle, you will find a brief explanation of the canticle and a scroll-down that will take you to a dual-language version of the poem. The English version is that of Allen Mandlebaum, an excellent translation. The most salient feature of this textual version is the easy to use references on the side. There are categories of “people, places, creatures, deities, structures, images, and music.” If you click on the category, you will find lists of clickable references that will render a pop-up with a very brief explanation of each person, place, or thing. These notes are extremely brief, with Beatrice taking up only a paragraph. However, if you click the “more information” it will give every single instance of an image from this much more extensive collection for Beatrice from all three canticles. The briefs on each item are only helpful to the beginner student and come nowhere close to the comprehensiveness of the PDP’s commentary and bibliography.

This electronic version of Dante’s imaginative world excels in the visual representations, especially in the gallery, the maps, and the timeline. The artists in the gallery include Sandro Botticelli, Alessandro Vellutello, John Flaxman, and images from the Yates Thompson 36 manuscript, as well as Gustave Doré’s prints. The range of work, from Botticelli’s and Vellutello’s monochromatic drawings to the vibrant colors of the Yates manuscript, opens up many doors for the previously mentioned image assignment (see “Assignments” section). Also, as mentioned above, the images have all been cross-referenced to every item in the text of the cantos. The other key resource on this website is the maps link. This link details Botticelli’s and other artists’ renderings of Inferno (see Figure eight), maps of Tuscany and Florence, and Ptolemaic and Christian Aristotelian cosmogonies and astronomical movements. These are all in color and in far greater detail than the similar resources on the Princeton Dante Project. Moreover, the maps of hell are “zoomable,” rendering the individual malebolge easily recognizable, a substantial feat. There are zodiacal maps that detail each reference that Dante makes to the stars and there are articles on the astronomy in the Middle Ages, the Empyrean, and the spheres of the universe and how they relate to the Earth and its geography. The Commedia is brilliantly brought to life by this site as no other has before it. The timeline link is a fluid

Figure 8:

Timeline Link

resource that details the global, political, and personal events in Dante’s life. This chronology has a macro- and micro-scale that allows a teacher to put this world into the proper historical and political contexts so crucial to an understanding of the Inferno’s making and meaning. The events themselves are also “clickable” to reveal even further details about the events, especially the exact dates, such as Friday, January 27, 1302, the date of Dante’s expulsion from Florence.

The resources of the World of Dante are very good. The search functions are much more user friendly than the PDP’s and also much more specific. The search is not case sensitive, as in the PDP. The search has a different functionality, not citing canto and line and then giving the actual lines from which the reference is taken, as the PDP does, but rather taking you there (in a separate tab) if you click the appropriate reference. You can search by any of the commentary categories listed above and get very specific or use a general search for all persons that were “ghibelline” in the people search. You can also search deities by “gender” or structures by “historical” or “mythical.” It is easy to imagine the possibilities for assignments of finding all the references to a particular character from previous texts that your class reads, like Aeneas, and then see how that allusion is used (see “Assignments” section).

The last excellent tool is the “Teacher Resources” which includes links to exterior sources, like William Blake and Salvador Dali renderings of Dante’s work, another manuscript, MS. Holkham misc. 48, other e-texts, and sites that have their own lists. The most useful link here is the “Activities” that suggest many different questions that can be posed by a teacher for projects for students, such as:

1)    In reference to images of the same object by multiple artists:  In what ways does the artist depart from Dante’s description? How do different artists depict the same entity (i.e. Minos, Geryon)?

2)    Encourage students to search for specific people or key words (i.e. Beatrice, Dio/God, Cristo/Christ, santo/holy, inno/hymn, gloria/glory). Ask students to study and analyze the context in which certain terms appear in the poem.

3)    Ask students to search for persons who are mentioned several times in the poem such as Beatrice, Eve, God, and Christ. Searching for Beatrice will produce the all the passages in which Dante uses epithets, antonomasia and other naming devices to describe her.

These are all activities designed to get students using this particular website, essentially making this a fantastic marketing tool, but it is effective for teachers searching for topics to explore. It is also a single source of questions and activities, rather than Danteworld’s canto-specific prompt questions.

The Devil is in the Details: The Dartmouth Dante Project

I alluded to the Dartmouth Dante Project as a link embedded in the sidebar of the Princeton Dante Project’s representation of a canto. That would be like saying that Virgil is embedded into the Commediaas a reference for Dante. However, this resource is completely different than any of the previously-explored tools. The Dartmouth Dante Project is a searchable database of dozens of commentaries in Italian, Latin, and English, beginning with ones written in the fourteenth century, including the 1321 text edited by Giorgio Petrocchi. This is certainly the most scholarly and obscure of the websites dedicated to the study of Dante. However, it may be useful for students to see how others have read the text, what disparities there are in the interpretations of specific passages. It is also an excellent source for the most advanced students to center their research projects (see “Assignments” section). If we search the commentaries for all references to “Francesca” in English (since a search for that name in Italian might confuse the student by referring to the French), renders several illuminating commentaries, including one on a particular phrase that the doomed lover uses. The search renders comments on lines 121-3 Canto IV of the Inferno by Longfellow and Oelsner in particular as commenting on a line almost plagiarized from Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. Even though the lines are translated from Boethius, she is probably referring to Virgil. This is certainly a fine distinction, but it is not outside the realm of an AP Literature class to reference multiple sources around an interpretation of the same line, especially when it can be used to show how the borrowing from the auctoritas, or authority, of previous writers works in the Middle Ages. This is probably the most advanced tool for the student of Dante’s world at any level from secondary to higher education and to be thoroughly researched by the instructor for use and relevance before presenting it to novices.

Assignments

I have found that many of these ideas work to get the students engaged, thinking, and researching crucial elements of the Inferno. It is no way an exhaustive list, merely a primer. Also, see the “Activities” list on www.worldofdante.org for good questions to lead them to activities.

Reading:

I have found that reading all thirty-four cantos, especially when we come to the malebolge of the eighth circle, becomes tedious for the average teenager. I also have a limited amount of time in my current school and many other texts to incorporate into my curriculum. I am sure that there is a special pouch reserved for a falsifier such as myself that dares not cover every canto. However, because I wish to keep the Inferno fresh for all levels of students, I have devised the most effective twenty-four to express the entire spectrum of historical, literary, political, philosophical, and theological aspects of the book. They are: 1-6, 8-10, 12-15, 17-18, 20, 22, 24-26, 31-33. I am sure there are immediate objections, because I have them, too. However, this is merely a guideline and anyone can feel free to slog through the eighth circle if they wish. I would warn that bored teenagers will start drawing you into the Inferno at that point.

Daily assignments:

Based on the Harkness method of the students being responsible for generating and sustaining discussion about the text, these are necessary assignments for students to not only understand the textual and visual experience, but to also flourish in conversation and to build up a base for more extensive projects.

1)    Every student, every day, should utilize the Danteworlds, Princeton Dante Project, and World of Dante images collections, usually by canto, in order to pick out their favorite representations of an event or person.

Caveat: Many artists depict the souls as Dante would have us see them: naked with all their body parts exposed. If you have liability issues, you may want to skip this assignment.

This assignment can be developed into a comparison/contrast paper on different depictions of the same thing.

This assignment can also be used as a project by which the student saves the images to their hard drive and later uses them to chart the progress of Dante, the sins, or their own interests throughout the text.

2)    Every student, every day, should pick a passage, copy it out onto a blank document, and find some commentary about it, either using the PDP’s sidebar commentary function or by exploring the special commentary categories on the side of World of Dante. Danteworlds’ commentary can also help, but should not be a primary source.

This assignment can be used to track themes, ideas, literary devices, or figurative language that can be built into a research paper.

3)    Toynbee’s “notes search” on the PDP can be used as a concordance, as can World of Dante’s specific search functions. Students should track one object, person, event that interests them throughout the canticle.

This assignment can be the basis of a research paper later.

4)    There should be one student assigned to present, in brief, on each canto. They should become the resident expert on that canto utilizing every available resource in order to explain the basics of the canto.

The student often latches onto this canto for their research project and uses it as a basis for their further branching out and study of themes, characters, and terms.

Singular assignments:

1)    Have the students listen to the Italian audio on the PDP for the first canto. Give them a print out and an explanation of Terza Rima. See if they can successfully apply the rhyme scheme.

Advanced assignment: Do the same and see if they can scan some number of lines for the rhythm, marking stressed and unstressed syllables.

Caveat: This may require a download of an audio program and I am not sure of the compatibility of the program with Apple machines.

2)    Use the World of Dante to access the Yates Manuscript 36 and Holkham Misc 48. Have them analyze how the text and the pictures interact on the page.

This may lead to other inquiries based visual/textual relationships in the digital age, a good subject for an advanced research paper.

3)    Develop a contextually-based vocabulary list and have the students write a story about their own trip through hell.

There is only one caveat: no real people. According to an article in this journal, the worst forms of discrimination come out when students are asked to write real people into their own Inferno.[9] I have had great success with this assignment and never had any more problem than students putting me or their friends in their version of hell. However, this may be too degrading for some teachers’ sensibilities.

4)    I am a proponent of research papers on the Inferno. There are many resources, many topics, and many ways to approach developing them. It is up to the teacher to understand their classroom, students, and pedagogy to see where a research paper fits into your curriculum. However, since my class is writing intensive and the writing portion of the SAT is difficult for students with little training, I always include longer papers.


[1] Thanks to Stephen Schwager, Rich Odell, and Steinur Bell and IMG Pendleton School in Bradenton, Florida for introducing me to and for guiding me through this innovative model that empowers students and teaches the critical skills so crucial to a college preparatory education.

[2] See the Phillips Exeter Academy website philosophy on their admissions page: http://www.exeter.edu/admissions/109_1220.aspx (accessed 23 Nov. 2011).

[3] The academy apparently runs a business on marketing the tables to other schools. For those interested: http://harknesstable.com/ (accessed 23 Nov. 2011).

[4] Since this website appears to be one Flash-driven program, the website URL does not change, so I cannot give any further reference than the original website. Also, you will lose your place if you hit the “back” button. Use only the icons to navigate.

[5] The Inferno is just one portion of http://danteworlds.laits.utexas.edu/, which is, as the website says, “an abridged version of the original commentary contained in The Complete Danteworlds: A Reader’s Guide to the Divine Comedy (2009) and Danteworlds: A Reader’s Guide to the Inferno (2007), both published by the University of Chicago Press.” Barry Moser’s work was made famous in the Allen Mandlebaum translation of the Comedy, though no references appear on the University of Texas at Austin website (accessed 26 Nov 2011).

[6] http://danteworlds.laits.utexas.edu/circle7.html#brunetto (accessed 26 Nov. 2011).

[7] The photographs of Vittorio Alinari are not available to the public, the “Das Dante-Jubilum im Jahr 2000” link is to a German website that I cannot read to tell you about, and the “Digital Dante Image Collection at Columbia” link leads you to the college’s home page, not the collection. I searched the website and could not find any images. Consider it a dead link. This indicates to me that this project is suffering from a bit of neglect with Dr. Hollander’s retirement.

[8] http://etcweb.princeton.edu/dante/pdp/moralsit.html

[9] Carl James Grindley, “A rush to Judgment: Teaching Dante’s Schema in American High Schools,” Scientia Scholae 4, 2 (Spring 2006) http://www.teamsmedieval.org/scientia_scholae/0506/dante.html (accessed 23 Nov. 2011).

 

Keith Russo is an ABD from Western Michigan University. His dissertation focuses how Merlin is an avatar for authorial intent in many medieval, post-medieval, filmic, and electronic texts. He currently teaches at the IMG Pendleton School in Bradenton, FL, where he is still testing his curriculum’s effectiveness on unsuspecting students.


Original Citation: The Once and Future Classroom, Volume IX, Issue 1, Spring 2011 http://www.teamsmedieval.org/ofc/SP09/Spring2011Dante.html

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.  The original “look and feel”  of the journal has been preserved as much as possible, but the original logos have also been removed.  No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies