To honour Dante Alighieri on the 750th anniversary of his birth, 2020 sees celebrations worldwide of his life and great literary endeavours.

The Dante Alighieri Society in Melbourne, established in 1896, counts as the 'oldest branch of the Dante Alighieri Society in an English-speaking country.' The organisation actively promotes Dante and Italian language and culture through events, poetry recitals, competitions, lecturers and scholarships that shed further light on Italy and its rich language, history and culture.

Thank you for welcoming me to conduct this interview about your very important society, your work and contribution to the Melbourne literary, cultural, and arts scene. Why is Dante Alighieri so important for Italian culture? (both now and in the past).

Dante Alighieri is still today the most important poet to the national culture of Italy as he wrote his masterpiece La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy) in Tuscan or Florentine Italian, thus making it the standard language of the country. Today his work still influences the artistic works of writers, artists and other poets and is constantly translated into other languages and commented on.

Even though The Divine Comedy is over 600 years old, its themes are still relevant to today's politics and human behaviour. His Divina Commedia is the cornerstone of the Italian literary canon and has been the basis for the cultivation of an Italian national and cultural identity. As reflected in his great work, his life was concerned with the moral questions that cross the divide between faith and politics; two dominant strands that have historically challenged Italians as they have negotiated living in a land that both houses the seat of a would-be unifying Catholicism and twenty regions' worth of proudly diverse customs, languages and identities.

What should the world know about Dante Alighieri?

Gladly, the world is partly aware of Dante Alighieri and The Divine Comedy. It has been translated into many languages and extracts are in a number of school curriculums. The Divine Comedy is a voyage through the very depths of human behaviour, thoughts and character, it makes us think and examine ourselves and what surrounds us. It tells us about culture, history, and religion and everyone can interpret it the way they want from different points of view.

Alighieri wrote his Commedia under great political and personal duress, driving him to take to the greatest heights the bounds of his vernacular. Though his values and vision for an ethical and just world may differ vastly from ours today, the integrity with which he sought to justify what he believed was right and speak out against the injustices of the powerful, still serves as a model for reasoned dissidence in the modern world.

Illustration of La Divina Commedia by Salvador Dalà­.

How do you keep Alighieri's legacy alive in the Victorian community and at Melbourne colleges and universities where Italian is taught?

The Dante Alighieri Society in Melbourne has a long tradition of promoting the Italian language and culture in the Victorian Community. For 123 years the Society has run Italian language classes and competitions for school students. It provides scholarships for teachers, awards to university students and organises conferences, films, and social and special literary events. It fosters the "“Italiansimpatia" that "“special love" for the Italian culture, the style of life, its music, arts and, of course, cuisine.

Through poetry recitation competitions featuring Dante's poetry and the work of other poets we aim to challenge and inspire secondary students.

We encourage tertiary students to undergo various courses on his works to bring people together to share their passion for debate and new ideas, and annual formal "“Lectura Dantis" to critically examine his work. A study of The Divine Comedy is also available in short courses for English-speaking Italophile

You are currently busy preparing the 750th anniversary celebrations in honour of Dante's birth. What festivities will feature as part of your agenda?

Last year there was an idea raised to have a "“Dante Day". The Society will propose this idea to schools and perhaps teachers can raise ideas for their students to have one day a week where they celebrate Dante Alighieri - the man, the poet the politician. The formal "“Lectura Dantis", conducted annually, will also be a special event. Perhaps our annual lunch to mark the birthday of the Society will also be a more special occasion.

What can we learn from La Divina Commedia (commenced in 1308 and completed in 1320) and why has this literary masterpiece become so instrumental in understanding not only Italian society but the world at large and "“the human condition?"

We learn from the Commedia how personal fortunes are always moulded by the powers and institutions of their times. It speaks across time and place to the dangers and rewards of ambitions, to the search for meaning in life, and to the ever-evolving quest to find our place in the cosmos.

How has the Italian language changed and evolved since Alighieri's times?

It has, naturally, become more dynamic and accessible to man, it has been more influenced by English terms and sayings and, therefore, with the advent of the Internet and all that it brings, many words which have its Italian noun have been substituted by an Anglo-Saxon version. We can see this in advertisements, media and politics. Luckily there is Dante Alighieri Society with over 200 branches worldwide which has as its mission to protect the purity of the language and make it more approachable.

Perhaps the most significant thing that can be said is that it has undergone a remarkable degree of standardisation, resulting in both a loss of diversity and a national streamlining as Italy's dominant language, and that this has come about in large part due to the introduction and spread of televised Italian.

Illustration of La Divina Commedia by Salvador Dalà­.

Should Italian be included in the curriculum at Melbourne - even Victorian colleges across the board?

We say strongly YES and are happy that Italian is already present in many school curriculums both in Melbourne and in regional areas. Dante Alighieri Society is always present in supporting teachers and students in the learning of Italian with its activities. It is also very strong at tertiary level.

What are some of the most important or significant contributions of your organisation to the surrounding community?

The Dante Alighieri Society is proud to cultivate the love for Italian in young people and the wider community through its constant hard work. This includes our annual poetry, discourse and poster competitions, which reach thousands of students across the state, our formal events, which bring together Italophiles of all kinds and particularly seniors, and our courses, where small but dedicated groups of passionate learners expand their minds and sharpen their Italian tongues. Many students go on studying Italian in tertiary education and pursue a career where Italian becomes a great asset. Often many remember with affection the times spent learning Italian at school once they become adults.

What should the world learn from Italy, its values and rich culture?

Italy has produced Italian geniuses from all walks of life: mathematicians, scientists, architects, engineers, researchers in medicine, artists, writers and poets. From its rich and vibrant classical and modern history, we have inherited that determination, perseverance and a strong sense of family and tradition.

Where do you see the Dante Alighieri Society heading in the future?

The future looks very optimistic for the Dante Alighieri Society. The world is gradually "“getting smaller" and as we are in constant contact with "“Dante" in Rome, we are always planning new projects. For a while now, Italian immigration has seen the arrival of new young people eager to join and continue the promotion of Italian. Our "“Dante Giovani" committee members and co-opted members is a group of enthusiastic lovers of all aspects of Italian culture who are eager to continue working with and promoting the Society here in Melbourne.

Do you collaborate with other Melbourne organisations that promote Italian language, arts and culture - like Co.As.It and the Italian Institute of Culture?

Not only do we collaborate with Co.As.It. and the Italian Institute of Culture, but we share resources and work in partnership with the Dante Alighieri Society branches in Australia. We also have close links with Il Globo newspaper, Rete Italia, SBS radio, and the Italian Clubs.

How do you attract both old and young members to your organisation?

We have a section of the Society called "“Dante Giovani" and the members organise events especially addressed to the younger community. We also welcome the new group of young immigrants arriving in Melbourne who are highly qualified, talented and resourceful.

Dante Giovani, a section of the Dante Alighieri Society run by young people, for young people

Where do your members come from? While the bulk are 1st or 2nd generation Italians, do you welcome members from other cultures too? How do I become a member of the Dante Alighieri Society?

Members come from all backgrounds and ages and anyone is most welcome to join and actively take part in the organisation of the activities. To become member is very easy. Our website www.dantemelbourne.com.au has all the details on how to join. Prospective members can write an email to dante.alighieri.melbourne@gmail.com and we will be happy to contact them.

Do have any final message to our Segmento readers?

The Dante Alighieri Society is for everyone and people should not be deterred by its namesake. Everyone is welcome, especially those who have a love for everything Italian and an interest to belong and to learn more.

Segmento wishes to thank Claudia McLean and Nicholas Sgro-Traikovski for their additional input responding these questions.