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Three Fathers of the Italian Language

October 15, 2012

“We are teaching you standard Italian,” modern language professor Tom Means told a packed audience of students in Richard Harris Terrace.

From 400 to 1400 AD, he explained, “Italy was a collection of city states; the ‘Kingdom of Florence’, the ‘Kingdom of Pisa’ and so on,” and their inhabitants spoke what became dialects of Italian.

One of those dialects eventually dominated, and became what is today’s standard Italian, Means said, all because of the “perfect storm” of creative genius happening in one place at one time, and centered on three writers known as “The Three Fathers of the Italian Language.”

Le Tre Corone, The Three Crowns

Also known as “The Three Crowns,” the writers whose phenomenal popularity ensured that their own Tuscan dialect of Italian would emerge as its standard were Dante Alighieri (1265-1321); Francesco Petrarca, known in English as ‘Petrarch’ (1304-1374), and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375).

Dante, of course, is renowned for his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, said modern language professor Kristina Varade, who co-hosted the event with Means.

Petrarch, she said, “presented opposites as a convention of literature,”  while Boccaccio, in his famous medieval allegory, Il DeCameron was one of the first literary advocates of female intelligence. He is also, she said, credited with developing the Italian sonnet, now known as the Petrarchan sonnet.


Guest artist Alessio Bordoni, who has performed in award-winning short films as well numerous theatre productions, played Dante himself, in Divina Commedia at the Prague Fringe Festival.

Standing before a room of students in Richard Harris Terrace, he read—in early 14th-century Italian—“Canto V” from a small, red copy of the Divine Comedy.

“This is the most famous canto,” Bordoni said, “the story of the ill-fated lovers Paolo and Francisca.” The lovers meet three-headed Lucifer, or Satan, “who is chewing the greatest sinners feet-first; Judas, Brutus, Cassius,” Bordoni continued. “Everyone is in ice, up to their waist; even Satan is trapped in ice, flapping his wings.”

In the audience of over 40 students, not a single electronic device was being consulted, and some listeners closed their eyes as if to take in, without distraction, Alessio’s melodic Italian, which communicated currents of emotion, if not precise meaning, to the beginning Italian speakers in the room.
“This makes me appreciate the language more,” said Laura Garcia, a business management major. “In high school, I took Italian and my teacher said, ‘You are of more worth to your company, the more languages you speak’. Also, I feel like Italian is closer to Spanish, so I can learn it with less difficulty.”

Fellow student Haris Misut, a Travel & Tourism Hospitality major at BMCC, added that “English is my second language, and I’m fluent with four others, which will enable me to prosper in my career.”

“A perfect piece of art”

In closing the event, Professor Means declared Dante’s masterpiece to be “a perfect piece of art, mathematically; 100 chapters, and innovative in terms of rhyme.”

He explained how politics of that period informed Dante’s choice of characters, that he was trapped in a power struggle between the Holy Roman Emperor, who ruled Italy, and the Papacy—and as a result, he was exiled from his beloved Florence.

“He was a man on a mission, who felt at the core of his being that he had been wronged and kicked out of his country,” said Means, “and here we are talking about it a thousand years later.”

Or in Professor Varade’s words, “Hopefully it speaks to you, at some level.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Italian Heritage Month is sponsored by the offices of President Antonio Peréz, Senior VP Sadie Bragg, Dean Sunil Gupta, and the Modern Languages Department. The next event is Nov. 12 at 5 p.m. in Richard Harris Terrace: Diego Florio in the one-man play, L’autodafè del camminante.

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  • Professors Kristina Varade and John Means present as part of Italian Heritage Month, an overview of the Romance languages
  • NYC Actor Alessio Bordoni performs a dramatic reading from "The Inferno," a section of Dante Alighieri's 14th-century epic allegory,The Divine Comedy
  • Students enjoy a complimentary buffet lunch, and Q & A session at the event’s close

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