Q: When did your interest in Dante and the Divine Comedy begin?
A: I wanted to do a postgraduate degree many years ago and, as I wanted it to be on book illustration, a colleague suggested Dante – with me being Italian.
I looked for something original and decided to work on two completely different artists who had completed all 3 canticles of the Divine Comedy since the 18th century. John Flaxman and Gustave Doré were the only ones. They couldn’t be more different from each other! Researching them, though, took me to many more interesting Dante illustrators and the rest is history, as they say.
As a result of that tangent I think I may have one of the best – maybe even the best – post 18th century collections of illustrated Dante.
Q: Which illustrated version of Dante is your personal favourite? Is there a particular edition in your collection that you find yourself returning to more than others? And what makes it so special?
A: Each has something that I really like or really don’t like. I discover something new and love it (or not), but each design or style fits a moment or mood. I like being able to pluck a Dante book off the shelf because something has reminded me of it and I look again through the illustrations. I don’t always think that the artist gets it but I might like the style.
There’s so much out there and there are ones I’d really love but my budget doesn’t allow. When I was Librarian at The Portico Library I would get asked which was my favourite book – and I couldn’t answer that either. Those I loved had different qualities but they were invariably illustrated and that’s what drew me to them.
Q: At the time of writing The Divine Comedy, was Dante responding to the political climate within Florence? Is there a clear ideological motivation behind the poem, or do you encourage a different reading?
A: I do think that Dante responded to the political and religious climate around him, particularly as it resulted in his permanent exile. He was part of a continually warring faction within a faction, so one wonders if we only know about his exile because of successive fame with the Divine Comedy.
“I do think that Dante responded to the political and religious climate around him, particularly as it resulted in his permanent exile. He was part of a continually warring faction within a faction…”
But I think he also wrote it for other reasons – showing off his intellect (I suspect he was quite vain), to take his revenge the best way he could on those who harmed him, angered or hurt him. And, of course, to feed his obsession with a woman that we know so amazingly little of – if she ever existed as anything other than the woman who filled Dante’s head. This isn’t to say that he didn’t feel that he had reached a juncture of self-questioning, one that required him to go on a spiritual journey through his writing.
Q: James Joyce said that: “I love my Dante as much as the Bible,” adding: “He [Dante] is my spiritual food, the rest is ballast.” What was it about Dante that caught the glances of Modernist writers?
A: Joyce did speak of “the Divine Comic Denti Alligator” in his Finnegans Wake and both that and Ulysses is based on the Divine Comedy, however loosely. Joyce also said that Dante inspired him to invent a new language. Dante didn’t invent a new language, though. He simply wrote in the language he and those around him commonly spoke – his Tuscan dialect. Which, to the rest of Italy at that time, I suppose, was like a new language.
Dante inspired T S Eliot’s poetry. Lines from his poems are borrowed from Inferno and Purgatory, for instance. The Italian novelist, Curzio Malaparte, was fond of projecting Dantescapes from Inferno into his films.
Even though I don’t know that much modernist writing I do think that Modernist writing would have tried to address questions of existentialism. Dante’s journey and the questions he poses to us in the 20th and 21st centuries would have touched cords. He goes deep into souls and this is why he doesn’t stop being relevant to pretty much anyone who meets him.
“He goes deep into souls and this is why he doesn’t stop being relevant to pretty much anyone who meets him.”
Q: Your talk focuses on Dante’s influence on popular culture. Do you continue to be surprised by his impact? Where is the unlikeliest place where Dante’s influence has appeared?
A: No, I’m not surprised by his influence, although some of the places he appears make me laugh!
I will show this in the talk, but a Dante body painting competition is one that struck me as slightly unlikely – it’s how relevant it keeps to Dante though that’s the thing…
Q: What are you currently working on? Are there any other projects that you would like to tell us about?
A: There are aspects of Dante illustration that have not been explored – not even by the academics, who are often more concerned by the textual analysis. And I intend to see what I can do about that – without giving anything more away. Just a question of watch this space…
Thank you to Emma for taking the time to answer our questions.