Skip to content Skip to navigation

How do we memorise Dante's verses: more than a matter of meter

25 March 2021
Comparing the Divine Comedy and Orlando Furioso when rhymes, accents and verse lengths in the two works are disrupted, it is easier to learn the poetry that inspired SISSA motto

Earlier generations who relied on oral transmission were well aware of this, and children who learn poetry experience it today: meter aids memory. To investigate its role in  cognitive processes in our brain, a group of neuroscientists from SISSA has focused on two of the most famous works of Italian literature, Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy and Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, in a study aiming to quantify the effect on memory of the three principal components of poetic meter – rhyme, accents and verse length. The research, carried out by Sara Andreetta, Oleksandra Soldatkina, Vezha Boboeva and Alessandro Treves of the SISSA cognitive neuroscience group, has revealed a difference between the two works: it seems that Dante's verses have other qualities that tend to impress them on the memory even if the meter is disrupted.

“We selected passages from Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy and Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, and erased meaning by replacing several keywords with non-words while maintaining the prosody and meter” says Sara Andreetta, first author of the paper. “We then generated three further versions of each meaningless passage, one without rhyme, one with altered accents, and one with lines of variable length. We ran a specific test with about 130 participants to verify the poetic plausibility of each, i.e. the extent to which the verses 'sounded good' despite the changes, and it turned out that for both Dante and Ariosto the importance of the three components decreases in the order rhyme, accents and hendecasyllables of correct length”.

Press release