By Guy Raffa
Taking a new approach to guiding students, teachers, researchers, and general readers of Dante’s Divine Comedy, we built Danteworlds with integrated, multimedia content that allows users to proceed geographically as well as textually, not only canto by canto but also—as Dante and his guides do—region by region through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. I wrote original scholarly commentary, based on a close examination of the poet’s biblical, classical, and medieval sources, to help locate the characters and creatures Dante encounters in his journey and assist in decoding the poem’s vast array of allusions to religion, philosophy, history, politics, and other works of literature. I completed the Danteworlds website, with artwork by Suloni Robertson and technical support from Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services, in 2005, and the Danteworlds reader’s guides I wrote were published by the University of Chicago Press in 2007 (Inferno) and 2009 (Complete Danteworlds).
Consistent with the Divine Comedy‘s own web-like design—the way in which related passages point forward and backward to one another—Danteworlds takes advantage of web technology by including links within the entries that encourage users to connect episodes and trace the development of important themes in the poem. In addition to the entries, each region features an extensive gallery of images (the site contains over 400), audio recordings of selected verses (in the original Italian), and a series of study questions designed to aid individual study and foster group or class discussion. A winner of multiple awards for innovative instructional technology, Danteworlds was selected by the NEH as “one of the best online resources for education in the humanities.” Choice Reviews calls the website “an invaluable resource for specialists and novices alike,” adding that Danteworlds is “the sort of multimedia experience that those in the digital humanities strive for.”
Featured in literary blogs of the New Yorker and Los Angeles Times—and used by Electronic Arts to introduce players of their Inferno videogame to Dante’s poem—Danteworlds models how work in digital humanities also serves the public. While the project targets academic users and produces verifiable improvement in student performance, an analysis of web traffic and social media suggests a healthy amount of extracurricular interest: Danteworlds welcomed between 765,000 and 1 million visitors each year from 2009 to 2013, and has been “liked” by over 75,000 subscribers to StumbleUpon, the popular web-sharing site. Danteworlds brought my scholarship to the attention of reporters (who interviewed me for articles in Slate and The Atlantic), and this public engagement inspired me to write Dante-related pieces on a wide range of topics—from Google, Mad Men, and contemporary culture to marriage equality and medieval warfare—for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Life & Letters, Signature Course Stories, PopMatters, and Military History Quarterly. As seen in this public lecture, I have built on the success of Danteworlds to show how digital scholarship advances the reciprocity of university research and teaching while making this work available for the benefit of society at large.