Dante and late Medieval Florence: Theology in Poetry, Practice and Society

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: School of Modern Languages and Cultures


This project will: (a) recover the multiple experiences of theology in late-medieval Italy, focusing on Florence in the 1280s and 1290s; (b) examine the way in which Dante engages with the forms of these experiences in his Commedia. The project therefore casts light on the ways in which medieval theology was mediated and experienced within a specific historical and geographical context, paying close attention to its varieties and their effects upon different publics; in doing so, it will re-evaluate a key dimension of a fundamental work of world literature, a work which is increasingly recognised not only as being central within the European literary tradition, but also as a distinctive and unique theological voice in its own right.

The project, based in the Leeds Centre for Dante Studies in the University of Leeds, and in the Department of Italian in the University of Warwick, draws on a well-established link with the leading North American centre for Dante studies, the Devers Program at the University of Notre Dame, and benefits from the multidisciplinary expertise of an advisory board of internationally pre-eminent scholars. It builds upon a process of collaborative intellectual preparation which has already helped re-define its field, and which has firmly established the project's research context and questions. The project will, moreover, draw on a very rich, underexamined body of archival resources held in Florentine libraries.

Over recent years, Dante's engagement with theology has come to be seen as an increasingly important aspect of his work; and his poetic voice is increasingly prized by theologians as a singular contribution to theological debate. Recent scholarship has shown not only that he engages with particular theological ideas, but that his poetry - itself among the most daringly original in world literature - borrows and alters many of the forms in which theology would have been encountered in the late middle ages. These forms range from scholastic forms of argumentation to less "learned" realms of religious practice such as visual art and liturgy. Yet research into Dante's theology has tended to treat the theological tradition as though it were a single set of ideas and debates, divorced from the precise forms and contexts in which it would have been encountered. At the same time, there is a real danger of scholarship on Dante's theology becoming disparate, as specialised research focuses on particular aspects of Dante's theology.

This project therefore proposes to bring together a team of researchers, supported by a strong and established international network, to develop a holistic understanding of the ways in which theology was experienced in Florence in the 1280s and 1290s - the time when, by Dante's own account, he was engaged in theological study. Instead of seeing Dante's theological interests as consisting primarily of a set of ideas, the project asks how theology would have been experienced by Dante and his contemporaries in this specific context. The two primary strands of the project will examine respectively the nature of "high" theology as practised and received in the centres of theological learning, and the nature of forms of religious practice outside those learned milieux. Two secondary strands of the project will deepen and develop the findings of the first two strands, to explore particular aspects of this connection between theology and its social and cultural context: one examines the way in which the identity of theologians is presented in the Commedia and in late medieval Florence; the other will consider the manner in which theology shaped how Dante and his contemporaries thought about society.

Planned Impact

This research meets a demonstrable public interest in Dante and his religious context. It will build on the excellent track record in public engagement established by the Leeds Centre for Dante Studies. Its public impact will be facilitated by (a) a suite of online material enabling public engagement with Dante and his theological impact; (b) a series of public events grounded in the research findings of the project; (c) work with faith groups.

The project develops a uniquely rounded understanding of the forms in which Dante and his contemporaries would have encountered and experienced theology. Just as the theological forms we are examining embrace both intellectual argumentation and a range of visual, dramatic and ritual forms, so too the project lends itself to particularly rich and engaging forms of public dissemination.

The online material will build on material prepared by the Leeds Centre for Dante Studies, including its podcast and a unique online tutorial facilitating engagement with the visual arts.

The public events will develop a model pioneered in the Leeds Centre for Dante Studies in Autumn 2009 in a collaboration with Opera North and the Choir of Leeds Cathedral, bringing together parts of Dante's poetry with liturgical performances associated with the text. This format proved particularly successful in bringing the poem to life in its religious context, and attracted a paying audience of 160; as one audience member put it, "you hit just the right tone for a non-academic person". As a result of this project's research, we will be able to bring a still fuller range of religious experience to bear, helping audiences to experience the range of religious discourses of late medieval Florence, including a quodlibetal disputation, popular poetry, visual art and liturgy. We can be confident that this will be valued by public audiences nationally because of the experience gained in 2009. In the words of one audience member, the pilot event in 2009 was "a feast for the mind and the senses alike. I hope that this will mark the start of a new tradition". The Opera North Commercial Director commented that it was the best attended event of its kind so far at Opera North, and said that "this is precisely the kind of collaboration with the University [of Leeds] we'd like to see more of; the combination of academic and artistic excellence helped us achieve results we could not have achieved alone".

A particularly important audience for this project will be faith groups. There is a clear demand amongst this audience for research into Dante's theology: as one non-academic religious magazine commented in its review of a volume co-edited by Treherne on Dante's theology: "we could do with more collections like this on the priceless legacy of the past." To meet this demand, we will draw on established links with the Bishop of Wakefield (whose diocese part-funded a public lecture on Dante in Autumn 2009), and with Leeds Catholic Cathedral to ensure that our work reaches this audience.

In addition to the project leaders' track record in impact, the project will benefit from an outstanding institutional context for its public engagement: the University of Leeds has recently invested £850k in a new Arts Impact Centre, which will, by the time this project launches, have appointed a team of "impact fellows" to support all work in public engagement (with a strong possibility of a Dante specialist numbering among these fellows). This investment indicates clearly the importance which the University attaches to the impact of arts and humanities research; the Arts Impact Centre will ensure the maximum possible public benefit from the project.
Description Findings have been used to inform information developed for UNESCO and the Comune di Firenze in Florence supporting medieval material for tourists in the city.
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Economic

Description Activities in Wakefield with faith groups and creative writing groups 
Organisation Diocese of Ripon and Leeds
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution We have run events and facilitated creative activities with Wakefield Cathedral and Mirfield House.
Collaborator Contribution They have integrated our activities into their programmes, provided space and brokered agreements with faith groups.
Impact Wakefield: Heaven, Purgatory, or Hell? - an exhibition of photos and poems by local people inspired by Dante and on show in Wakefield cathedral; events at Mirfield House for faith leaders on community in Dante and late medieval Florence.
Start Year 2015
Description UNESCO material (Florence) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A new version of a leaflet, in Italian and English versions, for tourists produced by UNESCO and the Comune di Firenze in Florence.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015,2016