U.Va. Professor Receives $186,000 NEH Grant to Enhance and Expand ‘World of Dante' Web Site

September 01, 2006
Sept. 1, 2006 -- In creating the “Divine Comedy,” Dante Alighieri drew heavily on the imagery and culture of medieval Italy to portray a world that is both visually rich and complicated for today’s readers to understand. Thanks to an $186,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, University of Virginia Italian professor Deborah Parker will bring to life the poet’s journey through the afterlife for students and scholars alike.

The award allows Parker to expand the already successful World of Dante Web site, which currently includes on-line teaching materials related to the “Inferno.” She created the site almost eight years ago as a fellow with the University’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and has used it extensively in course work with her students. The “Inferno” project is a pilot for the new two-year effort that will redevelop and expand the World of Dante and incorporate materials on “Purgatory” and “Paradise.” The multimedia electronic teaching resource features searchable text (both in Italian and English), illustrations and other visual materials that will enhance the understanding and study of the “Divine Comedy.”

Randolph D. Pope, Commonwealth Professor of Spanish and chair of the department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, praised the use of digital technology to integrate understanding of the text and the culture that influenced the creation of the “Divine Comedy” while addressing today’s students’ everyday immersion in their own rich visual world. “We need to address this. It’s extremely important because we do not only teach a language, but a culture.”
The idea for the site grew in part out of Parker’s teaching the “Inferno” and the need to incorporate visuals that could be readily accessed to enhance close reading of the text. “The ‘Divine Comedy’ is the most illustrated classic text ever,” she said.

“Dante is unparalleled in his clear visual descriptions. As he wandered in exile, he visited many of the places he refers to in the poem, which are not easy to visualize without some knowledge of Dante’s world.”

Understanding the poem is further complicated by Dante’s skillful use of language and the various ways he refers to the same people, places, mythical figures, deities, architecture and artistic works of the times, often using one thing to represent something else, Parker added. A distinctive characteristic of the Web site is the encoded text that tags the multiple references. Parker said the markup text makes Dante’s world more accessible and facilitates searching the text in complex ways. This feature allows students to concentrate on themes and analyze the poem more quickly. “No other Dante site has tried to markup the text in this way,” Parker said.
Third-year psychology major David Lee Sass III, who has taken classes in both the “Inferno” and “Purgatory” with Parker, said, “The ‘Inferno’ site helped me in a number of ways. References were easy to find via Professor Parker's tagging system, which allowed us to type in an entity in the poem and find all references of it within the text. The site also allowed for an easily accessible source of pictorial media involving Dante. I used this aspect of the site extensively to write my term paper.”

Parker has seen the power of providing a rich online resource at exam time. “Having the visuals and marked up text really enhances their comprehension and immerses them in Dante’s world. Students’ results on exams have improved.”

Tagging the text also has provided scholarly insight for Parker’s research. “I saw patterns that I had not seen before in the ‘Inferno.’ I am curious to see what patterns are revealed in the tagging of the ‘Purgatory’ and ‘Paradise.’”

Advances in markup software since the “Inferno” site was created will facilitate greater ease of tagging as well as navigation through the poem, Parker said. Recent research for a book she co-authored, “Film in the Age of the DVD”, heightened her awareness of good interface and Web design. To enhance those areas of the project, a principal researcher of New Media Research at Microsoft will consult on the project. The extended World of Dante also will boast engravings, maps, iconography and photos by Sandro Boticelli, Gustave Doré and John Flaxman and other artists who created works inspired by the poems to aid the reader’s understanding of the world Dante created.

Boticelli’s Map of Hell, which is part of the original “Inferno” project, will be expanded into a virtual-reality tour through the map’s circles of hell. The tour will be created by IATH associate director and architecture school faculty member Dean Abernathy, who is an expert on 3-D modeling. “The modeling will give users a sense of what it’s like to descend the spiral of hell,” Parker said.

Dante’s vision of Purgatory will come alive thanks to Parker’s collaboration with U.Va. music professor Paul Walker, who is recording all the hymns mentioned in the poem that inspired the poet, sung by the early music ensemble Zephyrus. The site will also be expanded with the help of history professor Duane Osham and U.Va. Library’s global information system specialist Chris Gist, who will provide guidance for the creation of a map of Dante's Italy."

Parker will collaborate with faculty from Princeton University, Bowdoin College, University of Oklahoma, Ohio State and colleagues at U.Va., to develop on-line teaching materials for the site.
The NEH grant affords Parker multiple opportunities to collaborate with professors at U.Va and other institutions in a wide variety of disciplines. Dante’s appeal is not limited to Italianists, Parker said. “He crosses many academic areas of research and study including great books courses, art history, history, comparative literature as well as Italian.

“The goal is to create a powerful analytical tool for the teaching and research of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ and the world that fostered its creation.”

The "World of Dante" Web site, which currently includes only research materials on the "Inferno" may be viewed at http://www3.iath.virginia.edu/dante/

Italian Professor Deborah Parker can be reached at (434) 924-4654 or dwp7k@virginia.edu.