Dante and Somerville, an exhibtion – 1-7 February

Rebecca Bowen and I have curated an exhibition to celebrate Somerville’s long history of study and teaching of the poetry Dante Alighieri.

Somerville exhibition landscape poster

The exhibition is made up of items from the library’s special collections, including a 16th-century edition of the Divine Comedy, complete with commentaries a lovely woodcut illustrations, a first edition of Gustave Doré’s 19th-centrury illustrations for Dante’s Inferno, and Mary Somerville’s own copy of the Divine Comedy.

Current graduate and undergraduate students – Anna Branford, Katie Bastiman, Sofia Derer, Aleksandra Rutkowska, and Joanna Raisbeck – have researched and written a lot of the information included in the exhibition. We are also very grateful to Anne Manuel, Sue Purver, and Matthew Roper for their help and advice, without which this exhibtion wouldn’t have been possible.

The exhibition is Library Loggia, and you can ask at the porters’ lodge for directions and access.

Dante’s World

This looks likes a wondrous exhibition. It’s exciting to see the level of engagement and re-elaboration of Dante’s work across media at the moment.

The exhibition of Rachel Owen’s new illustrations of the Inferno at Pembroke College, Oxford, represents another rich addition to this tradition.


Part of this must certainly be to do with this particular temporal sweet spot, between the 750th anniversary of Dante’s birth (which we celebrated in 2015) and the 700th anniversary of his death (to come in 2021), but this isn’t the only explanation.

Dante’s have been a source texts for visual, musical and new literary art for centuries, something I’ve written about elsewhere, and it’s rewarding, as a researcher, to see the everliving and developing nature of his artistic legacy.

Ordered Universe

A new exhibition opens in Durham this week, at the Palace Green Library Galleries. Curated by Annalisa Cipollone Dante: Hell, Heaven and Hope – A Journey through Life and the After-Life with Danteopens on Saturday 2nd December 2017, and runs until early March 2018. Following Dante’s poem The Divine Comedy with its tour through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, the exhibition features rare manuscripts of Dante’s work, printed copies and artistic responses to one of the greatest imaginative achievements of the Middle Ages. 

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Dante Casually Running Into Beatrice In Art History


The Toast knocks it out of the park again with a reflection on quite how creepy the premise of the Vita nova and Dante’s subsequent Beatrice-oriented work could be…

“Maybe the idea of a gentleman who beheld your visage but the twice writing a series of time-alteringly famous books where you are forced to guide him through Heaven and gaze beatifically on his bed a’nights is just exactly what gets you going, though. What this post presupposes, though, is: what if it wasn’t awesome?”

Source: Dante Casually Running Into Beatrice In Art History

A Divine Comedy: adaptations & new (in)versions

I’ve been a bit quiet on here lately, except for a fair few reblogs from the Women and the Canon Conference blog. In my defence, I’ve been writing those too, but it doesn’t quite feel the same!

So, as the dust settles from the Edinburgh fringe, I just wanted to nod to an interesting adaptation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Mike Maran’s A Divine Comedy, which BroadwayBaby gave ★★★ – one for each realm?

“Dante Alighieri. Lost love. A load of puppets. Whilst that might all seem an odd combination, Mike Maran brings it all together admirably in A Divine Comedy: a stand-up storytelling parody of the immortal works of Dante Alighieri.”

Maran’s sounds like a far more apt adaptation than the forthcoming movie scripted by Dwain Worrell, which, Warner Brothers tell us, sees “Dante [descending] through the nine circles of hell tosave the woman he loves” – a grimly chauvanist inversion of the narrative that I’ve ranted about before, when it formed the crux of a 2010 videogame adaptation of the poem.

Maran’s approach, which I hope he takes on tour, so I get a chance to see it, sounds like its based on a love for the source and a genuine desire to adapt rather than misogynise the text. This approach, along with some of the reporting of the new movie happily demonstrate that at least not everyone is buying into this revisionist claptrap.

Of course, there’s something quite appropriate about revisionist adaptation, as that was one of Dante’s specialties and I talk about one such example in this article on the episode of the Siren in canto XIX on Purgatorio. The gist of the article is that the Siren represents Dante’s past errors of writing and reading which he attempts to revise through the figure of the hag who becomes a siren and then is revealed once more to be hideous. OK, so perhaps the text isn’t entirely non-misogynist itself… In fact, the Comedy buys into plenty of the misogynistic tropes of its day, but it does also do some rather radical things in terms of ascribing full rational agency to its female characters (not a trifling thing for a text of its period to do) and, of course, placing an authoritative women, Beatrice, at the heart of its narrative. Beatrice who teaches Dante about the ways of grace and the heavens, Beatrice who saves Dante, NOT the other way around.

Source: A Divine Comedy: Broadway Baby, Brighter Coverage.

Dante, Eünoè, and The Future of Higher Education

Dante’s imagery crops up in the unlikeliest of places. Here, in Marina Warner’s impassioned defence of the Humanities, the freedom of learning and enquiry, and the importance of ‘good, active knowledge’, the river Eünoè in Dante’s Purgatorio appears as an image for the best kinds of engaged learning, research, and teaching.

I’ve noticed a lot of tricolons in this introductory spiel, perhaps I’ve been ensnared by thoughts of Dante’s terza rima… Here are his lines describing his experience of the waters of Eünoè in the Earthly Paradise:

“Ma vedi Eünoè che là diriva:

menalo ad esso, e come tu se’ usa,

la tramortita sua virtù ravviva.”

Come anima gentil, che non fa scusa,

ma fa sua voglia de la voglia altrui

tosto che è per segno fuor dischiusa;

così, poi che da essa preso fui,

la bella donna* mossesi, e a Stazio**

donnescamente disse: “Vien con lui.”

S’io avessi, lettor, più lungo spazio

da scrivere, i’ pur cantere’ in parte

lo dolce ber che mai non m’avria sazio;

ma perché piene son tutte le carte

ordite a questa cantica seconda,

non mi lascia più ir lo fren de l’arte.

Io ritornai da la santissima onda

rifatto sì come piante novelle

rinovellate di novella fronda,

puro e disposto a salire a le stelle.

   ‘But see Eunoe streaming forth there.

Bring him to it and, as you are accustomed,

revive the powers that are dead in him.’

   As a gentle spirit that makes no excuses

but makes another’s will its own

as soon as any signal makes that clear,

   so, once she held me by the hand, the lady* moved

and, as though she were mistress of that place,

said to Statius**: ‘Now come with him.’

   If, reader, I had more ample space to write,

I should sing at least in part the sweetness

of the drink that never would have sated me,

   but, since all the sheets

readied for this second canticle are full,

the curb of art lets me proceed no farther.

   From those most holy waters

I came away remade, as are new plants

renewed with new-sprung leaves,

pure and prepared to rise up to the stars.

Purgatorio XXXIII, 127-145 (text and translation, as ever, from the Princeton Dante Project)

* The lady here is Matelda, an enigmatic figure who plays I vital role in helping Dante navigate the Earthly Paradise at the top of the mountain of Purgatory.

** Statius is a Roman poet of the Silver Age whose works include The Thebaid and The Achilleid

Marina Warner · Learning My Lesson · LRB 19 March 2015.

St. Francis Manuscripts Headed to U.S., in First Trip Out of Italy in 700 Years – NYTimes.com

This exhibition is definitely filed under ‘times I wish I lived in New York’…

Not only does it engage my general manuscript nerdery, but it also ticks the ‘birth of the Italian language’ and ‘roots of Italian poetry’ boxes to make a trifecta of medievalist joy.

St. Francis Manuscripts Headed to U.S., in First Trip Out of Italy in 700 Years – NYTimes.com.

In Dante’s Paradiso (XI, 55-57), Francis gets this glowing write-up:

‘Non era ancor molto lontan da l’orto, / ch’el cominciò a far sentir la terra / de la sua gran virtute alcun conforto.’

‘Not much time as yet had passed / when he first lent his comfort to the earth / by the greatness of his virtuous power.’

For Dante, Francis may have been a model of exile and of the humility of which Dante himself keenly felt the lack. In this episode in the Divine Comedy, Dante gives us a biography of Francis that hinges on the image of Francis in love with an oft-scorned lady, who is a symbol for poverty. The importance of the poverty of priests to Dante’s view of the ideal church is paramount and the cause of much ranting in both the Divine Comedy and in the Monarchia in particular.

To see the early manuscripts of such a significant figure as Francis would be truly exciting.

Oh well, here’s hoping they bring it on tour, or indeed, that I get the chance to visit the archives at some point! (If the Vatican Library let me in, I may have a shot!).



Text and translation, as ever, from the Princeton Dante Project.

Day to day Dante: BBC News – “US agents rescue 360 pitbulls in dog fight raid”

**First of all, a trigger warning, as I discuss the issue of child abuse in this post.**
This is slightly old news now, but this post has been languishing as a draft for quite some time and it’s part of an ongoing trend in day to day language, so I thought I’d polish it up and put it on display! This story (BBC News – US agents rescue 360 pitbulls in dog fight raid) caught my attention because the US Attorney overseeing the case said:

“I believe if Dante were alive today and rewriting the Inferno that the lowest places in hell would be reserved for those who commit cruelty to our animals and to our children.”

Initially, I want to say that I find the direct correlation of child abuse and cruelty to animals to be insensitive and wildly disproportionate. While I do believe that animal cruelty is a significant problem, and that animals should never be put through unnecessary suffering, such cruelty is of a very different order to the abuse of children. I also find it odd that anyone would believe that violence against children would not be punished in Dante’s Inferno, for reasons you’ll see below. I did find this statement to a press conference interesting, though, for a couple of other reasons: firstly for the fact that Dante’s concept of Hell is still such a touchstone for modern conceptions of how evil-doing should be punished (“There’s a special circle in hell reserved for x-offence” is a commonplace); and secondly because it got me wondering about how we would or could apply Dante’s categories for some contemporary crimes.

The Violent in the river Phlegethon (with Centaurs!), from the Manuscript Holkham Misc. 48 in the Bodleian Library

The Violent in the river Phlegethon (with Centaurs!), from the Manuscript Holkham Misc. 48 in the Bodleian Library

Of course, if we’re going to apply Dante’s categories in a modern world, the first challenge is whether we bring his sense of sin up to date too. And if we are updating them, to what? To broadly acceptable modern mores? To the contemporary pronouncements of the Catholic Church?

I think it’s safe to say that it wouldn’t be the latter. While developing his poetic identity as prophetic poet, a teller of divine truths, a decidedly Christian writer, Dante was not shy of kicking against the pricks of many ecclesiastical (and particularly papal) norms. A classic example of his nonconformity is his inclusion of excommunicated souls in Purgatory, souls whom the Church firmly declared were going to hell are granted passage to heaven by dint of personal repentance, despite the statements of the Church.

This isn’t to say that Dante would have been liberal minded. He condemned homosexuality, non-procreative sex and extra-marital sex, any non-Christian religion (or philosophical heresy), forgery, gluttony, un-managed anger, false prophesy, prostitution and pimping, the list goes on… He even put his own teacher in hell (but who hasn’t felt like doing that at least once during their school days?!).

He was innovative though (and might find some common ground with the current pope) as, in Dante’s version of Purgatory, heterosexual and homosexual lust are repented on the same terrace – repented, that is, on the way to heaven. This may not seem like a huge deal, and indeed, it is actively retrograde for a modern context, but in 13th Century Italy, it was kind of a big deal. ‘It doesn’t matter who you get overly steamy with’, Dante essentially tells us, ‘ as long as you repent and turn to God before you die, you’ll get to Heaven’. This isn’t a million miles away from Pope Francis’ statement that ‘If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?’ and, like Dante, this Pope seems liberal in some things and definitely conservative in others (e.g. recent papal pronouncements on abortion).

Anyway, to get back on track, would child and animal abusers find a place in Dante’s Inferno?

Before answering this question it’s worth remembering that, in the Inferno, motivation matters. The why can be as important as the what of a sin. A suicide (usually found in the 7th circle, among the violent against themselves) can be found among the lustful if they killed themselves for love/lust. This is what happens with Dido, who killed herself when her beloved Aeneas left her.

Now, as I mentioned before, it strikes me as odd that a speaker today would assume that violence against children is not covered by the Inferno. When it comes to animal cruelty I think the question make more sense, and while there are huge differences in the magnitude of these crimes, they would, arguably, be punished in the same place and there is already a circle set aside for the perpetrators of such offences. In fact, there might be three.

So, what are these three possible circles?

  1. The fifth circle, Anger: If you are violent towards a child or harm  an animal through uncontrolled anger then you could wind up here, mired in the Styx, where Dante saw the damned souls who ‘struck each other with their hands, / their heads, their chests and feet, / and tore each other with their teeth’. (VII, 112-114)*.
  2. The seventh circle, Violence: In the subsection of the first section of this circle, the sinners are submerged in Phlegethon,
    Dante and Virgil meet the Minotaur, from the Manuscript Holkham Misc. 48 in the Bodleian Library

    Dante and Virgil meet the Minotaur, from the Manuscript Holkham Misc. 48 in the Bodleian Library

    ‘the river of blood that scalds / those who by violence do injury to others’ (XII, 47-48). They’re also watched over by the Minotaur (who looked a little different for a medieval audience than he does for us, as you can seen from the picture on the right) and guarded by an army of centaurs. It contains a space for those who commit sexual violence, ‘violence against nature’, which I think should (and quite possibly would) be reclassified in modern context as sexual assault and child sexual abuse. With the previous caveats that I in no way consider the abuse of children and cruelty to animals to be similar orders of crime, I do think that today the idea of animals as others to whom gratuitous violence is wrongfully done has traction. Even for a medieval christian, the idea that all of creation was sacred could justify the placement of those who are cruel to animals in this particular circle.

  3. The ninth circle, Cocytus, treachery: This is the deepest circle, and while it may seem an odd choice for these 21st century sinners, it actually encompasses any breach of trust in a family or against a guest. Dante also explicitly considers violence against family members, specifically children, and guests as a manifestation of this kind of treachery. Count Ugolino is damned for killing and eating his own children when imprisoned with them and starved (XXXIII, 43-75), and Fra Alberigo ends up in the ninth circle for hiring assassins to kill his dinner guests (XXXIII, 118-120). It’s easy to see how other forms of child abuse would fall into this category, especially by family members, teachers, and others in positions of authority and care over children, in loco parentis, is after all in the place of a parent. Again, if we take the crime of cruelty animals, particularly pets,  there is certainly an argument to be made that they are either family or guests in our homes and thus cruelty towards them makes us traitors to the bonds of family or perverters of the role of host.

Dante often makes space for wildly varying levels of criminality (or sin, in his logic) within the same circle of hell and this is what I think we can do in this case. While taking issue with the Attorney’s blithe association of child abuse and animal cruelty, I do think it casts an interesting light on modern models of crime and ‘sin’ and a cultural memory of systematic punishment which seems to have become embodied in Dante’s Inferno.

* All quotations from Dante Alighieri, the Inferno, translated by Robert and Jean Hollander. Anchor Books, 2002.