Italian Literature Classics: “Divina Commedia” and “Promessi Sposi” [Italian Listening Exercise]

By Manu Venditti | Advanced

Podcast #35: Italian Literature Classics: "Divina Commedia" and "Promessi Sposi"

Whether you like it or not, today we are going to talk about school in Italy and in particular we are going to talk about Italian literature, that we Italians have to study at school.

Hi everyone and welcome to this new episode of the Italy Made Easy Podcast, the podcast created specifically for you, as a student of Italian, who understands Italian but still needs to study it more and deepen your understanding… and especially as someone who needs interesting materials that help you get used to listening to the spoken Italian language.

And that’s why I’m here with this all-Italian topic, that is, Italian literature in Italian schools. But I’ve already said that, ok. I’ll take off my glasses - If you aren’t watching me, don’t worry, it’s nothing important - but in this video podcast I started off with glasses on just to be funny.

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​So, Italian school… yes, I went to school in Italy because I’m Italian. How do Italian schools work? I know that the Italian system isn’t the same as the system in the English-speaking world - to generalize anyway it’s not the same as the American, Australian or British system… it’s different - so how does it work:

There are 3 levels of school in Italy. Obviously, this is apart from preschool, which is the school we go to before starting proper school… but we won’t consider that. Let’s start from Elementary school.

Elementary school starts when we small Italian children… we children… when we’re 6 years old, 5/6 years old, and goes until we’re about 10 or 11 years old. So that’s 5 years of Elementary school. When I was in Elementary school, at the end of my fifth year there was an exam.

Imagine a child of 10/11 years that has to do a hard exam, difficult… I think, I don’t know now if it was difficult, but for me it was difficult. Nowadays this exam is no more as it’s been moved in a certain sense.

The next level of school is what we call Middle school. Middle school starts when we’re about 11 years old and finishes when we’re 14. So that’s 3 years of Middle school. We finish it with an exam… and that one still exists.
I forgot to say, obviously in Elementary school we learn about the basics of life and culture… we learn to read, to write, maths… The fundamental aspects needed in order to create an intelligent adult, one hopes.

Middle school is when we start to seriously study important subjects of culture such as history, geography, literature, languages… even though in Italy we already start studying languages in Elementary, but it’s in Middle school when it becomes a bit more of a serious subject and a more serious matter.

And then we have High school, another 5 years for us Italians. And so, if you’ve been keeping count, in Italy we have 13 years of school before we can finish and go to university. This is very different to many other cultures that do 12 years… or also 11 I think… for us it’s 13 years. We Italians are always at school.

In Italy there are many different types of High schools depending on the student’s interests… and it’s not so different from the concept of university. That is, a 14 year old student that finishes Middle school must already decide - more or less - what they want to do as an adult. Do they want to be an accountant? Well then they go to a school for that. If, on the other hand, they want to be a linguist or anything that has to do with culture and language - as I did - then they go to a Linguistics High school.

If they are trying… hoping… if, on the other hand, the boy - or the girl - hopes to find work immediately after school, they can go to a hospitality training institute…. But all of these have in common that they end with a final exam, that’s called the “Esame di Maturità” (High School Diploma Exam).

If you’ve followed the Italy Made Easy Podcast since the beginning you’ll remember, probably, episode number 3, where we spoke about a film and TV series called “Immaturi” (The Immature), that talks about this exact High School Diploma. It’s a hugely important but awful exam for us Italian students. It produces a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear for almost all of us.

By the time we’ve finished High School we’re old, because we’re 19, and we’re ready to go to university. In Italy, the duration of university varies depending on the type of degree. Generally we distinguish between short degrees, of 3 years, and specialist degrees that go for 5 years.

When I went to university - many, many years ago - short degrees didn’t exist and so we were obligated to do 5 years of university before we could finish our studies.

Let’s go back to talking about High school, as it’s there that we study a lot, and I mean we really, really, really study a lot… well, it depends on the school and the student, but we have curricula that are very thorough and very, very detailed.

One thing that all schools have in common is the Italian curriculum. Basically, we can say that every Italian High school has to teach the same things regarding the Italian language and Italian literature, especially literature. And there are two books that we study a lot during High school. One is called “I Promessi Sposi” (The Betrothed), written by one Alessandro Manzoni, and the other one is called the “Divina Commedia” (Divine Comedy), written by... Ah-ah… Dante Alighieri.

Let’s start by talking about the “Divina Commedia”. The “Divina Commedia” is a trilogy written in the long past 1320… or finished in 1320. As you can imagine many, many centuries have passed since 1300. And so what should you expect? Well we can expect a very different language to modern Italian, and I mean very different, because if you more or less know the history of Italian… of the Italian language - and right now I won’t start telling you everything about the Italian language - but the truth is that the Italian language that we know today isn’t that old, but we can trace the origins of the Italian language right back to this book, to this trilogy… the “Divina Commedia”. So we students have to read this “Divina Commedia”. Is that a good or a bad thing?

Well, if you ask any Italian student, they’ll all say “Oh Gosh, the Divina Commedia no, it’s horrible”. But it’s not awful. Truth is, we can be honest. There are 3 books in this “Divina Commedia”. The first is “Inferno” (Hell), the second is “Purgatorio” (Purgatory) and the third is “Paradiso” (Heaven). The particular thing about this “Divina Commedia” is that it isn’t written in prose, but is written in verses… and it isn’t written in modern Italian, it’s written in such ancient Italian that it’s really, really difficult to understand, so much so that when we go to school, part of studying and reading this book is a word-by-word analysis in order to understand what Dante Alighieri is saying... because it really is difficult.

But there’s something about which all Italian students can agree, and that is that “Inferno” - the first book - is really cool. It’s true that it is difficult to understand, but it’s really interesting, because it’s as if it were… how can I say… a science-fiction movie, a “Lord of the Rings”. Basically… it has nothing to do with “Lord of the Rings”, absolutely not… yet it describes… Dante describes the experience of a few famous people in Hell, and describes the way in which they are tortured and why. I didn’t say it was anything nice, but it is pretty interesting to read. No, it’s definitely interesting to read it, because… because it’s like a film, I said.

“Purgatorio” is a little bit less so... And then “Paradiso”, at which point all of us Italian students can’t wait to finish the trilogy, as it’s really arduous. And it’s difficult. Is it worth reading it? I’m happy to have read it, for sure… but I.. I’m a bit of a nerd and that’s why I’m putting my glasses back on, as Emanuele - Manu - truly is a nerd. I am a nerd, I like culture, but I don’t know if when I was a student I already liked the “Divina Commedia”.

On the other hand, the other book, “I Promessi Sposi” by Alessandro Manzoni, is a book that I’ve always liked, even when I was a student at school and even when I had to study it and do written exams and oral presentations on this book. I always liked it.

It’s the story… it’s a story about a love between two people who cannot be together. I won’t tell you anymore because I really recommend that you read it. If you’re unable to read it in Italian, read it in English, as this novel is awesome as well. You could say that it’s the Italian “Romeo and Juliet”... a love that is difficult, that cannot be, that cannot exist, that is forbidden… it’s a beautiful book, it’s a beautiful story.

The interesting part of both these books - as I’ve said - is their role in the development of the Italian language. Dante was the first to publish a book that was considered to be in Italian - even though it wasn’t proper Italian - but it was the first written form that distinguished itself from Latin and used the Vulgar language, and presented it as a literary language.

As I said, today we can hardly understand anything from the “Divina Commedia”, but it was the beginning of our language. “I Promessi Sposi”, on the other hand, has a more decisive role for modern Italian, as it was Alessandro Manzoni himself that established - more or less intentionally and methodically - what would then have become the Italian language, mixing a series of regional Italian variants… with the Florentine dialect being first and foremost among these.

So basically, this is the experience that all Italian students, of the past and of the future - I imagine - must have; to endure the “Divina Commedia” - it’s a classic, I know, you might get the impression that I don’t like it, but for students it really is torture, believe me - and, I think, to enjoy reading an interesting novel like “I Promessi Sposi”.

That’s just my opinion. I know someone else may think differently and might want to kill me right now for having said what I’ve said. But the important thing about this podcast isn’t what I say, it’s having the opportunity to listen to an Italian native speaker speaking in relatively slow but decisively clear Italian, as I have a perfect microphone.

I’ll say goodbye to you, I leave here for now. Make sure you do all the exercises associated with this podcast, go to the course on the Italy Made Easy Academy, download the PDF, read the transcript, read the translation, do the comprehension exercises. I really sound like a teacher… maybe because I am!



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