Background History

The first Dante Alighieri Society was founded in Rome in 1889 and from there it established branches in many major cities in the world. It took its name from the famous Florentine writer and poet Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321) who wrote, in the vernacular idiom of his city, the vast poem “The Divine Comedy”, an imaginary journey of the human soul to Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. The prestige derived to the language of Florence from this literary masterpiece, as well as from further literary works by other Florentine authors such as Petrarch, Boccaccio, and many others in the following centuries, eventually empowered the Florentine language to the status of the Italian national language.

The Beginnings of The Dante Alighieri

Society in Perth

by  Pat Adamson

A branch of the Dante Alighieri Society may have existed in WA before Wolrld War II, according to a newspaper article which announced the opening of the Perth Branch of ‘a Roman cultural society’ in the early days of January 1954. Dr Lanteri, Italian Consul, was quoted as saying that the new group already had 100 members. In the article reference was made to the DAS being founded in Rome sixty years previously and to the fact that it was not confined to Italians. Its aim was stated as to promote understanding and good relations in the ‘cultural, artistic and social spheres’, and it would foster social and cultural activities such as exhibitions, concerts, special films, recitals and excursions.

Even in these early days there was a suggestion that courses in Italian and literature were planned and that a reading room might be established in Perth. Mr Francesco Vanzetti, lecturer in Italian at the University of Western Australia, had been elected president and Dr Joseph Gentilli, of the Geography Department, had been elected secretary. In The Unbent Poplar, Dr Gentilli’s tribute to Francesco Vanzetti, there is an amusing account of how the two men decided how best to serve the Society. It is Francesco Vanzetti and Joseph Gentilli that we must thank for the successful launch and early progress of our DAS.

In the West Australian of 19 June 1954 a photograph appeared of a group of members in the garden of hostess Mrs J Dent. These were amongst the 60 persons attending the first gathering of the DAS. Some members may still recall Angela Travia, Walter Knott, Jill Zeck and Clair Marzo.

An accurate account of the beginnings of the Society, in greater detail, is recorded in The Unbent Poplar, the story of Francesco Vanzetti and his times.

Dr Gentilli attributes the beginnings of the Society to Mr J P Pupazzoni, a refugee from the Egyptian revolution of 1952.

After the Egyptian revolution of 1952 a number of refugees from that country came to Western Australia, among them a Mr J P Pupazzoni, of Italian descent, who was a keen supporter of the Dante Alighieri Society for the diffusion of Italian language and culture. Mr Pupazzoni called together a meeting of interested people.

When we discussed the invitation, Mr Vanzetti told me that it had been suggested that he should be the foundation president, and that he disliked the idea. I replied that if he did not accept the presidency someone else would, perhaps a much less suited person. He accepted the logic of my argument on condition that I accepted nomination as secretary, to which I agreed. (p. 54)

Of special interest is the agreement at this time about the nature of the Society and its activities:

From the beginning we agreed on the principle that the main task of the Dante Alighieri Society in Western Australia should be to make Italian language and culture, in all their aspects, known to the Western Australian public and not specifically to provide entertainment or social gatherings for Italian immigrants. (p. 54)

Francesco Vanzetti had been appointed lecturer in Italian at the UWA in December 1928, commencing duties in 1929 at a salary of fifty pounds per year (Gentilli, pp. 44-46). His students engaged in cultural activities as a ‘Circolo Italiano’. The program planned for their Riunione Annuale del 24 Ottobre 1930 could easily be taken for an early meeting of the Dante Alighieri Society.
The pages of the program were held together with red, white and green ribbons.

The meetings of the Society were first held in the Adult Education rooms at 3 Howard Street in Perth. Here the Society’s library of Italian books was housed. Subsequently the meetings were held in the Skinner Galleries at the west end of St George’s Terrace, actually in Malcolm Street, then in the Civilian Maimed and Limbless headquarters at the west end of Murray Street. Another move took meetings to the Secondary Teachers College at the corner of Hampden Road and Stirling Highway in Nedlands.

The Society’s book collection had become a problem with regard to housing. An approach to the Perth City Council was received with favour and for a time the books were kept in the Council’s Library.

Eventually the Society surrendered the books to the Council seeing this as the best way to make them accessible to all. No doubt they are now in safe custody in the Alexander Library.

From the Murray Street venue the Society moved to occupy rooms in Lotteries House in Stirling Street.

The inadequacy of the accommodation to cater for language classes led eventually to a final move to the Society’s present headquarters adjacent to the Italian Club.

As one looks back over the story of the Dante Alighieri Society in Western Australia, there are two names which stand out, those of Francesco Vanzetti and Joseph Gentilli, but there are many others to whom we owe a great deal for the growth of the Dante Alighieri Society in Western Australia.

The Society has been fortunate to have been served over its forty-two years by a band of people dedicated to the principles which were first put forward by the first president and secretary.

References

  • Gentilli, Joseph 1988 The Unbent Poplar, Francesco Vanzetti and his times, Department of Geography, UWA Nedlands

  • West Australian Tuesday 19 January 1954, page (?) and another undated article

  • Minutes of the Annual General Meeting Monday 6 December 1954

  • Notice of first monthly conversazione, 28 March 1955

  • Programma, Universita’ dell’Australia Occidentale, Circolo Italiano, Riunione Annuale del 24 Ottobre 1930