50 Years of Divine Comedy in Guatemala

One summer in my adolescence, I went to the library and checked out Dante Alighieri’s voyage to the other side of the world, a trip that preceded that of Columbus by nearly two centuries. It was Dante’s imagination, rather than prevailing winds, that took him (and me) there.

The trip, whose itinerary included Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, was a long one; Dante needed nine years to write the 14,000 couplets of The Divine Comedy—about four a day. Like Columbus, however, Alighieri traced a heritage from that nation with the most charming of cartographies, the boot of Italy.

I spent some of my childhood in Europe—literally, not just vicariously—where my uncontested favorite of the dozen countries we stayed in was Italy. Decades after my last departure, I remain stricken with things Italian, and understand what drives the worldwide Società named in Dante’s honor.

You may start with the cars, the eats, the history, the marbled fountains, or the lore of culture that Italy, as the locus of Western Civilization, has contributed to humanity. But you end with the literature and language. Italian (and its Florentine dialect, the lingua franca among Italians worldwide) is to my ear the loveliest of tongues. Sweet, musical, expressive—yet threatened with under-appreciation.

In 1889, Italian businessmen and scholars, anticipating this, founded the Società Dante Alighieri. The original mission was to bolster ties between the pioneers of the Italian diapora, by then underway, and the old country. When you disembarked in New York or Melbourne or Tripoli, the local Società comitato (“committee”) was your first stop.

Today there are over 500 committees in Italy and abroad, although their mission today is more to advance consciousness of Italy among non-Italians, through language courses and cultural events.

This is easy enough in, say, Argentina, where over half of the population has an Italian surname. There, every self-respecting city has a comitato, and the stamp of Italiana, from manners to neoclassical architecture, is profound.

But the Dante Alighieri Society is also in Guatemala, where the stamp, though lighter than in Argentina, is deeper than you might expect. This month, it is celebrated as the Society marks its golden anniversary on the 13th. You need not be a veteran Italophile to attend the events.

Canadian-Guatemalan opera maven Barbara Bickford, vice president of the Guatemala comitato from 1972-1974, was instrumental (along with then-president Angela Paniagua) in broadening the committee’s emphases by adding music and opera to literature, language and the visual arts. One of her latest projects has been to develop, on her own nickel, a chorus of 12-14 Mayan operatic voices of Italian music, a group set to perform later this year during Christmas events.

Bickford, like the Society itself, is strictly “non-profit.” Not surprisingly, the presentations of Italian music this month at the Italian Club in Guatemala City’s zone 10 will have free admission.
“But arrive early,” she says, “there’s always a crowd, and you may have to stand.”

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