At the turn of the twentieth century, following the founding of the Dante Alighieri Society in Italy in 1889, chapters of the society began springing up in various parts of the world where Italians were numerous, including Massachusetts. There is evidence that the Massachusetts Chapter of the Dante Alighieri Society was already active in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1911.
Records show that the Massachusetts Chapter remained dynamic until 1927, after which little is known about the Society’s activities. During the period leading up to and during World War II the society along with many other “foreign” organizations was labeled “un-American” and forced to disband.
In 1961 the society was still listed as a subversive organization, but during a visit to Rome, Professor Philip Cordaro was asked by Dante Society Headquarters to reorganize a Dante Alighieri chapter in Massachusetts. With the help of Ted Kennedy the Dante was removed from the subversive list in 1962. Elected President, Professor Cordaro served until 1966, with Ted Kennedy as a member of the Board of Directors. The meetings of the society were held at the Harvard Divinity School on Francis Avenue and in the meantime funds were collected for the construction of an Italian cultural center.
By 1966 tens of thousands of dollars had been raised for this purpose, which allowed the present cultural center to be developed and built between that year and 1988 under the presidency of Samuel Ussia. The groundbreaking ceremony for the Dante Alighieri Cultural Center took place on December 10, 1980 and the Center was inaugurated on June 15, 1985. Important contributions to the building included those made by Dino Pasquale, an engineer and future president who first suggested the location; and by Mayor Alfred Vellucci, who was instrumental in obtaining the site at the corner of Hampshire Street and Cardinal Madeiros Avenue, in Cambridge, in the vicinity of MIT and Harvard.
Many people helped in making the building a reality. These included Louis Di Giovanni, who donated $250,000; Cambridge Mayor Al Vellucci, who organized a major fundraiser that brought in over $140,000; and the Shelzi Brothers, whose company donated all the concrete for the building. One fundraiser that brought in $119,000
witnessed the enthusiastic participation Ted Kennedy, in addition to that of Board of Directors members Foster Furcolo, John Volpe, and Frank Sargent, all Governors of the Commonwealth. Sal Lombardo and Joe Sanchez raised $40,000. This widespread cooperation illustrates how keenly the Boston area Italian community favored the construction of a cultural center to highlight the accomplishments of Italians and Italian-Americans.
The architect Pietro Belluschi, Dean of Architecture and Planning at MIT and 1974 winner of the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal, was the original consultant on the planning of the center, and the architectural firm of Jung/Brannen translated his sketches into reality.
A major benefactor of the Dante, Carl A. Pescosolido, donated over $1,000,000 to the society to retire the large mortgage it labored under since the Center’s construction. Once the largest independent oil distributor in New England, “Pesky” supported the Dante Alighieri Society and its cultural objectives, and on September 27, 1998 the Society renamed its headquarters the “Dante Alighieri Cultural Center, Carl A. Pescosolido Building” in his honor.
Dante’s native city of Florence gave the Society the large head of the poet in white marble located in the lobby. In the main hall there is a bust of Dante in plaster donated by sculptor Charles Stigliano of Malden, a member of the society. The statue of Dante Alighieri in front of the building, donated in 1997 by Frank and Jean Privitera, is the work of Richard Aliberti.