Even though Dante Alighieri died 700 years ago – on September 14, 1321 – his work and his spirit came alive for three days at the Dante Festival, held August 31- September 2 at Bridwell Library on the campus of Perkins and SMU.
“Dante still has much to inform us on; just as we have much that we’re still learning about Dante’s work that helps us navigate our world,” said Anthony J. Elia, the festival’s organizer and Director and J.S. Bridwell Foundation Endowed Librarian, Bridwell Library.
Dante is best known as the author of The Divine Comedy, the multi-part classic outlining Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. The poetic masterpiece created “a visual and literary roadmap of an afterlife, replete with a detailed overview of how punishment and redemption came to the swath of society,” according to Elia. Dante remains a well-known figure in the popular imagination today.
“Part of the goal of this festival was for people today — scholars, artists, composers, musicians and the community — to engage the present with the legacy of Dante,” said Elia. “We got composers to write new music around Dante’s legacy; and poets and artists to do the same. It was fantastic.”
The activities also highlighted materials held in Bridwell’s collections related to Dante and included screenings of Dante-inspired films, an art show and reception, a day-long conference on Dante’s legacy, a 13th-century Tuscan banquet with a poetic Dante performance, and a concert of traditional and newly commissioned works for the festival inspired by Dante’s works.
The idea for the festival arose last spring.
“My colleague in World Languages, Brandy Alvarez, who teaches Italian and has taught Dante for years, alerted me to the anniversary and suggested we do something,” Elia said. “I thought about it, and it started to come together in a bigger event. I just ended up going ‘all out’ with the event.”
SMU faculty, staff and students participated, along with artists, composers, musicians and members of the community, who traveled from five states for the program. Some 200 people attended the “Dante Cookies and Coffee” event on the Boulevard and opening reception on Wednesday, Sept. 1, and about 100 were on hand for a 13th century Tuscan banquet held on Thursday evening.
For the Dante Festival Concert after the banquet, an original piece composed by Marcell Steuernagel, based on a renaissance dialogue in music (a duet) for two male singers, was performed at the event. Other Perkins faculty and staff participated as panelists and moderators, including Jim Lee, who spoke on Augustine and Dante; Robert Hunt on Dante, Inculturation, and Time; Arvid Nelsen on Dante, Modern Art, and the Contemporary Book; Ruben Habito on Buddhism and Dante; Susanne Scholz, moderator; Natalia Marandiuc on Immigrant Experience, Queer Theology, and Dante; Chris Anderson on Dante and the Pipe Organ: Playing Reger’s Inferno; and Harold J. Recinos on Dante and Writing Poetry Today.
The festival concluded on Thursday evening with the banquet followed by a concert. D.C.-based actress Vivian Allvin performed one of Dante’s works, engaging conversationally with the audience during the banquet. A concert of Dante-inspired music and poetry, involving several works commissioned for the event, followed.
Avant-garde composer Gabrielle Cerberville of Michigan composed a contemporary work, where the music was represented with images on plexiglass-type discs (symbolizing the nine circles of hell) and then interpreted by local pianist Kory Reeder. Others performed classical works on lute and organ, with a finale performance of Liszt’s famous Dante Sonata by Spanish pianist Raul Canosa.
“I did a bit of research,” said Elia. “I looked up not just recipes, but also what foods existed, or did not exist, in Europe, and specifically in Tuscany and Florence at the time of Dante’s death and before. Tomatoes and potatoes, for example had not yet arrived on the Italian peninsula.”
Addison-based Axcess Catering & Events, which has a track record for specialized events, prepared the meal.
“They outdid themselves,” Elia said. “The whole banquet was exquisite, extraordinary, and as many guests kept saying, ‘magical.’”