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  • Katie Bastiman

From Medieval Italy to Modern Finance

Before joining Crystal, I studied modern languages at university, where I developed a love of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’, a hugely influential Medieval Italian poem.

Dante lived between 1265 and 1321, so 2021 was the 700th anniversary of his death. He wrote a variety of works but the ‘Divine Comedy’ (or ‘La Divina Commedia’) is the most famous, and its influence is still visible in modern culture today. The poem tells the story of a journey through the afterlife, in which Dante (who writes himself into the story as the main character) travels through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, and speaks to the souls of the dead in each of the three realms.

It may sound niche – and I can admit that it is – but my studies of Dante’s poetry have taught me skills and lessons aside from how to read very old Italian books. Here are a few which have proved particularly pertinent to the world of PR:

1. Telling a story

When Dante sat down 700 years ago to write his epic poem, the physical tools he had at his disposal were rather dissimilar to what we use nowadays, but the intention was arguably the same: to use language in such a way that your story captures the attention of the reader.

In public relations, we may not use rhyme to embellish our narratives (more’s the pity), but whether we’re writing a speech or a press release, we are also, in our own way, telling a story.

Back in 2018, when I was first reading The Divine Comedy, I met an academic who told me that she’d never had an experience in her life that she couldn’t see reflected somewhere in Dante’s poem. Whilst one could play devil’s advocate and argue that there isn’t much in the Comedy about press releases, modern IFCs, or liaising with the media, communication is absolutely central to the narrative of the poem as well as to the very concept of poetry.

Most of the poem involves Dante the character (as opposed to Dante the poet, the real person writing himself into his work) communicating with the souls who are either suffering eternally in Hell, purging themselves of their sin in Purgatory, or part of the eternal, joy-filled party of blessedness and bliss in Paradise. The tone of these interactions varies depending on who is involved, just as modern comms professionals must adapt tone to suit the content being written.

The importance of using language carefully to facilitate the communication of ideas has always been and always will be a concern of writers. While genre and format influence the ways in which we use these tools, the building blocks of language remain consistent, from even earlier than Dante’s time up to today.

2. Digital Content

Whilst scholars of the past may have been content to shut themselves inside beautiful libraries for days at a time without interacting with another soul, academia has changed a lot since then. The internet has opened up new ways of preserving work and making it accessible to interested audiences, no matter where they are in the world.

As part of my Masters, I teamed up with a course-mate to build a website showcasing a manuscript of the Divine Comedy. Our aim was to make it easier for readers all over the world to look through scans of that particular manuscript so that they could more easily access the information within it.

And that, clearly, resonates with the world of PR - taking information and trying to place it where it can be accessed and understood by whoever may benefit from reading it. Whilst I’m quite relieved to have moved away from the strange and foreign land of coding and back to the more familiar territory of the written word, the intention remains the same: translating (if you will) material and content into a form which is concise and easy to understand, and then using the internet (amongst other tools) to share it with the widest audience possible.

You can read more about that project here and access the website I worked on here.

3. Social Media

Any discussion of communications and the internet brings us straight to the topic of social media.

I have been running a dedicated social media account to document my Dante studies since 2018, which began as a way for me to motivate myself to keep reading and has grown into something more. My account (@daily.dant3 on Instagram) has allowed me to bounce ideas off other Dante scholars and academics around the world, and to share recommendations for books and events.

Thanks to this account, in March I was invited to be a guest speaker at a virtual event run by the Centre for Dante Studies in Ireland as part of their ‘Dante Futures’ series. The event focused on how Dante scholars are using social media to support, share, and document their studies.

Naturally, there is a slightly different approach needed for the Crystal PR social media channels – I delight in keeping my Dante account informal, to distinguish it from the purely academic tone of most Dante content out there, whereas the Crystal socials maintain a more professional online presence. Nevertheless, the core aims of encouraging people to engage with you, keeping an audience updated on your work, and building relationships, are the same across both platforms.

Used correctly, social media can be the perfect arena for sharing and exchanging ideas, be they my rather niche takes on why Dante used that particular word in that part of the poem, or thoughts from someone on the Crystal team about upcoming trends in financial comms.

4. Connecting with an audience

My particular area of interest within Dante studies is song and music, and how they are represented within the poem. At various different moments during the Comedy, Dante encounters other characters who are singing. Alongside my studies, I decided to stage a concert in which my college choir would sing settings of the psalms and hymns sung by characters in the poem, with narration in between the pieces to explain the progression of the story.

The director of my choir was really supportive and worked with me to choose the best settings of the psalms and hymns for the event. After publicizing it everywhere I could think of (posters, social media, and slightly nerve-wracking announcements to my cohort at the end of lectures), the evening of the concert arrived. I hadn’t ticketed the event and was simply hoping to have more people in the audience than in the choir as my measure of a successful turnout.

I was rather overwhelmed when it was time to begin and I started my narration to a completely full house, with some audience members standing up for the duration of the concert or squeezing into extra space in the organ loft!

The work we do at Crystal may be less narrative-based and more factual but delivering information that is going to be of interest to our audience is at the heart of what we do, and if presented correctly, a story that we send out to the media has the potential to reach an impressive number of readers – even more than can fit into my college chapel. There may be a few extra steps involved in the transmission of a piece of news or an article from Crystal to our readers compared to me speaking directly to my audience at the Dante concert, but nevertheless, in order to connect with your audience, you need to capture people’s attention and provide relevant and interesting information to them.

A recording of ‘Dante and the Music of Ante-Purgatory’ is available here for anyone interested in learning more about Dante and hearing the choral performances.

A Final Fun Fact:

If those weren’t enough links between medieval Italy and modern finance for you, did you know that Luca Pacioli, who lived in 1400s Italy, is credited with the invention of double entry bookkeeping and is known as ‘the Father of Accounting’?


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