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22.05.05 Collins (ed.), Reading Dante with Images

22.05.05 Collins (ed.), Reading Dante with Images

As with virtually all things Dante, new visual responses to the Divine Comedyhave rarely been in short supply. Apart from the late sixteenth to early seventeenth century, when critics preferred Petrarch’s Latin to Dante’s vernacular, there has been a steady, often heavy flow of miniatures, prints, drawings, paintings, sculptures, and other visual interpretations of the Commedia.

Nor, in recent years, has it been hard to find new scholarly studies of this imagery. Since the late nineteenth century, and especially in the last several decades, literary critics, art historians, and enthusiastic amateurs have written hundreds of refereed articles and books on the many ways in which artists have visually responded to the Commedia. The earliest of these studies often concentrated on the provenance, attribution, and/or aesthetics of the images. But especially from Pieter Brieger’s monumental 1969 collaboration with Millard Meiss and Charles Singleton on a two-volume catalogue of Commedia miniatures, scholars have increasingly addressed the kind and degree to which the images function as commentaries.

In the first eight essays in this collection, that approach has been blended with the Lectura Dantis tradition, in which Boccaccio and other post-medieval writers and/or speakers have analyzed the significance of the Commedia canto-by-canto. Via relevant imagery ranging from the earliest miniatures to contemporary film, each author in this first group of essays addresses a single canto. The results vary widely in their approach, observations, and conclusions, not least because, as Collins notes, he intentionally minimized their constraints. But, as he also observes, the lack of uniformity from one essay to the next is richly compensated for by that very diversity and by the appropriateness of each entry for its particular canto.

K. P. Clarke leads off the essays with a reading of imagery for the first canto, particularly the miniatures in the early-fourteenth-century manuscripts Biblioteca Palatina Parmense 2385 and Musée Condé 597. With regard to the former, he concentrates on its general intervisual and intertextual resonances, and with regard to the Musée Condé example, he looks specifically at how and where the miniatures intersect with Guido da Pisa’s accompanying commentary on the Inferno. The result is an enlightening interpretation of not only the ways in which the illuminators were aware of their textual base but also how they manipulated their media to meet the challenge of Dante’s new form of poetry and, in the Musée Condé case, Guido’s extraordinarily detailed and sophisticated exegesis.

Skipping four cantos that will presumably be addressed by subsequent entries in the book series for which this is just the first volume, Gianni Pittiglio then discusses Inferno 6, particularly the portrayal of Cerberus. Building on Peter Brieger and Millard Meiss’s discussion of this figure in the miniatures compiled for their 1969 collection of Commedia illuminations, Pittiglio tracks possible visual sources for an infernal guardian that Dante describes only briefly. This close focus on just one aspect of Inferno 6 nevertheless hints at the entire canto’s and indeed the entire Commedia’s layered intertextuality and the rich rewards of recognizing and exploring that background.

At the other end of the spectrum of approaches to Dante’s text, Michael Papio devotes the next essay in this collection to a thorough survey of Inferno 10. Proceeding chronologically through 62 visual interpretations of this canto, he reveals the great range with which even the more descriptive passages of the Commedia have been interpreted over the years. In focusing on the many ways in which the canto’s central sinner, Farinata degli Uberti, has been characterized not only in two-dimensional static images but also in films, poems, and other artifacts, he also demonstrates how even the most thoroughly described and well-documented historical figures in Dante’s text have been adapted to the circumstances in which the interpreter is operating.

In addressing Inferno 26 for the following essay in this volume, Peter Hawkins also discusses numerous images, but rather than pursue a core subject through his examples, he allows each image to guide his interpretation. Nevertheless, certain common denominators stand out among these responses, not least the fact that many of the images for this canto are incomplete and even erroneous in portraying the relevant portions of Dante’s text. We are reminded that, despite the almost unprecedented descriptiveness of the Commedia, it can be a tricky text to faithfully portray via the tools at an artist’s disposal and often requires extraordinarily deep textual knowledge to achieve that goal.

For the following essay, which tackles Inferno 33, Christian Dupont returns to the format of a chronological survey, as he concentrates on how Count Ugolino has been portrayed from the early miniatures to the present day. In discussing variations in the number and prestige of the artists who have addressed this controversial character, particularly in the Anglophonic world, Dupont points to the vast diversity of approaches artists have taken to even single details of the Commedia, and also to the tremendous impact an artist’s circumstances may have on those interpretations. And he simultaneously demonstrates the degree to which Dante’s inclusion and characterization of a person, place, or thing may exert its own influence on subsequent perceptions of not only that subject in and/or outside the Commedia but also of Dante’s text as a whole.

In the sixth essay, Silvia Argurio bends the format of the chronological survey to a history of how artists have explored and enriched Purgatorio 2. In close accord with the spirit of the traditional Lectura Dantis, she focuses less on the images as images and more on what they reveal about the Commedia. Nevertheless, along the way, she often subtly and with great sophistication reveals the richness of the images not only as commentaries but also as works of art in and of themselves.

Dario Del Puppo then devotes the seventh chapter in this collection to a broader understanding of the contexts in which Commedia images comment on Dante’s text, as he examines the possible intersections of Purgatorio 5 with the memories and imagination viewers bring to images of it. Building on the ways in which the natural world suffuses the Commedia as a whole, Del Puppo explores how viewers might refract Dante’s detailed descriptions of that realm through their own experience and creativity. The result highlights the individuality of artistic and viewer reception even while acknowledging the constraints variably constructed by Dante for those responses.

Finally, in the last chapter of the volume’s first section, Arielle Saiber analyzes how artists have responded to Dante’s vague description of the Primum Mobile in Paradiso 28. As the few artists who have even attempted to tackle this portion of the Commedia have sought to visually characterize a paradisiacal realm that supposedly exists outside of time and space, their artistic tools and creativity in deploying them have been particularly taxed. Rather than having the comparatively complete guide (and restraints) of, say, the nature passages Del Puppo discusses, artists had to work with an open text for which preceding illustrations could often provide only vague models that were often so closely bound to their creator’s particular circumstances as to be of minimal or no use.

This considerable difference between the source material for the images explored by Saiber as opposed to those discussed by Del Puppo, like many of the other variations in approach and results among the volume’s first eight essays, serves as an introduction to the relevant images and perhaps to the Commedia itself, and also as a basis for assessing the intent behind those images in general and particularly with regard to those in the cycles by the artist authors of the last three essays in the collection. In a departure from the third-party analysis characteristic of the Lectura Dantis format, Sandow Birk, Robert Brinkerhoff, and Barry Moser each write a recollection of the influences, processes, and intentions with which they approached Dante’s text. The collective results test the validity of the approaches in the collection’s first eight essays, even as the latter call into question the degree to which the artists’ visual work conveys their stated methods, motivations, and meanings.

The first of the second section’s essays is by Birk, a California-based artist who illustrated and, along with Marcus Sanders, verbally translated all three of Dante’s cantiche after seeing a need for an updated rendition that would speak to the urban circumstances in which Birk works and lives. Explicitly building on a second-hand copy of Gustave Doré’s mid-nineteenth-century Commedia engravings, Birk overtly challenges the received academic ways in which Dante’s text has been traditionally interpreted and also how Doré, his sources, and his many influences have visually canonized that reading. In close kinship with the spirit in which Dante himself departs from his literary forebears, Birk demonstrates through pen and ink the living vitality of the Commedia as a commentary on not only its own time but potentially also that of its interpreters, both past and present.

Nor is Birk alone in doing so, for despite vast differences in their history, Robert Brinkerhoff, who has taught illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design since the mid-1990s, joins him in refracting the Commedia through personal experience. However, where Birk’s work manifestly grounds his interpretation in a commentary on his external environment, Brinkerhoff’s pen-and-ink drawings concentrate not on that to which he was responding, but on the responses themselves. For him, the Commedia becomes a vehicle through which to visually articulate the artist’s internal landscape, the emotions, anxieties, and personality that construct the individual experiencing both Dante’s text and the rest of the world outside of the artist.

Such reflections of an artist’s interior are not entirely lacking in Barry Moser’s youthful ink-and-wash illustrations for Allen Mandelbaum’s three-volume, early 1980s English translation of the Commedia, but, even more so than with Birk’s drawings, they are merely a lens through which the artist focuses on the broader significance of Dante’s text. In one or two paintings per canto or per group of cantos, Moser records his reading of the Commedia as encountered in tandem with the accompanying translation. Along with Birk and Brinkerhoff he demonstrates the flexibility with which the Commedia endures as a touchstone for the circumstances from which it sprang as well as for the contexts of its interpreters, providing something of a core sampler for a vast range of responses to not only this text and its creator but also to that which he actually and/or seemingly represents in his own and/or later times.

The intersection of this volume’s two groups of essays, which are not divided as such anywhere other than in Collins’s introductory remarks, thus represents a symbiotic relationship that goes well beyond the particular subject matter of these 11 papers: the scholars may inform the work of not only the illustrators included in this collection but also that of other Commedia artists, while Birk, Brinkerhoff, and Moser textually imply the limits of interpretation by not only these eight scholars responding to these three illustrators but potentially also other scholars responding to other artists. Indeed, one of this collection’s many joys is its invitation to discover whether the artists confirm the scholars’ interpretations and, if so, to unearth the degree to which the latter inform the work of the former, at least as that art is contextualized by its creators.

Among the collection’s many other virtues is the fact that it is the first large, widely distributed text to juxtapose scholarly analysis of and artists’ testimony about Commedia images in expert yet accessible prose. Each essay, whether by a scholar or an artist, offers insightful, well-written, and engaging approaches that not only delight and inform but also serve as excellent models for teaching the Commedia at the post-secondary and perhaps even secondary level. Indeed, the collection may even be beneficial for art courses that have little or nothing to do with Dante’s text, as the depth and length of the illustrators’ explanations far exceed those in any previous such commentaries. Moreover, art students may be particularly inspired by the high production values of this volume, which features 224 crisp, correctly colored reproductions of all major images the authors discuss.

The volume would have profited from an index, a collective bibliography to replace or supplement the one after each essay, and perhaps brief biographies of the contributors. But these lacunae may be addressed at the end of the series for which this is apparently just the first installment. And these are, in any case, minor quibbles about what is otherwise a beautifully produced and refreshingly innovative addition to a crowded field that, precisely through such works as this, continues to surprise us with the insights it offers to Dante, his text, its original circumstances, and those of its interpreters, both past and present.