Vassar celebrates Dante’s work, life

Courtesy of Sophia Ryder '25.

On Tuesday, Sept.14th, faculty and students gathered in the Library Class of ’51 Reading Room to celebrate the 700th anniversary of iconic Italian poet and philosopher Dante Alighieri’s death. “Celebrating Dante at Vassar ” was sponsored by the Italian and History departments, the Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program, the Library and the Dean of the Faculty. The event coincided with current exhibits showcasing Dante’s work and influence in the Main Library, Special Collections, and the Art Center. During the event, Italian students read excerpts from the Divine Comedy followed by a lecture from Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University Louis Moffa Jr. ’18 titled “Dantean Astropoetics between Astronomy and Astrology: L’amore che move il sole e l’altre stelle.”

Organizers of the event emphasized the significance of Dante’s work in literature and history, Vassar and the liberal arts in general. “Even in translation, Dante’s works speak to us both of his times and of ours,” explained Italian Department Chair Professor Simona Bondavalli. She added, “We wanted to focus specifically on Dante’s legacy at Vassar, given the lasting presence of Dante studies in our curriculum and in the library and art collections.” Bondavalli noted that Dante’s work has been a part of the Vassar curriculum since 1867, when excerpts of the “Divine Comedy” were taught under “Special Studies.” In 1921, Vassar students and faculty went on a trip to Italy to celebrate the 600th anniversary of Dante’s death and honored his tomb with a bronze plaque. The next year, the Italian Department was founded at Vassar. Now, Dante’s poetry and works are integral to the curriculum of Italian classes at Vassar. 

While a trip to Italy was not feasible this anniversary, the “Celebrating Dante” exhibits and event have been in the works for a while. “I’ve been thinking about this project for several years,” explained Head of Special Collections and Adjunct Associate Professor of History Ronald Patkus. “This past January I convened a group of faculty and administrators to discuss doing something this fall. There was great interest and our work went into high gear during the summer,” he described. 

“Celebrating Dante” includes the exhibit in the Main Library that showcases early editions of Dante’s work. There is also a display outside of Special Collections that exhibits Dante postcards that belonged to the first chair of the Italian Department at Vassar. Additionally, there is an exhibit in the Art Center organized by Curator of Academic Programs Elizabeth Norgrady which displays Michael Mazur prints of “Inferno.” 

“The significance of the exhibition in the Main Library is not only that it shows some rare works relating to Dante, but also, importantly, it highlights their connection with Vassar. For example, there are two 20th-century translations of Dante into English by Vassar alums, both published by well-known private presses,” explained Patkus. 

Emma Iadanza ’22 curated the exhibit in Special Collections and read an excerpt from the “Divine Comedy” at the “Celebrating Dante” event. “I was really lucky to be involved with the exhibit, and on a very physical level, it was amazing to interact with the editions we have at Special Collections,” she explained. “It’s definitely important for us to celebrate him, not only for his sake, but also to celebrate all the other people who have studied him. Dante has been taught at Vassar since the beginning, so it’s amazing to consider that we’re part of that legacy,” she added.

After students read passages of the “Divine Comedy” in Italian, Vassar alum Louis Moffa ’18 gave a talk on his work studying the connection between astrology and astronomy in Dante’s poetry. He explained that in Dante’s lifetime, centuries ago, Dante and his contemporaries understood the stars to have a tangible impact on events on earth. He noted examples in Dante’s work in which stars were players in their own rights.

After the speaker, organizers and participants expressed excitement about how well the event went. “We definitely didn’t expect such a big turnout. It’s awesome that so many people were interested and that we could share the exhibit and Dante’s work with everyone,” shared Iadanza. “To me, the significance of the event is that it showed a continuing Vassar interest in the poet Dante and his work, among students, alums, faculty, and administrators.”

“I think it is important for all students at Vassar to study Dante, not only for Italian students,” voiced Bondavalli. “It was wonderful to see the interest that the event generated on campus and the large turnout. I hope everyone takes advantage of the ongoing exhibits to appreciate the treasures in Vassar’s Special Collections and the Art Center,” explained Bondavalli. 

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