Why Dante’s Work Still Matters, 700 Years Later
“I love the idea of continuing Dante’s journey in all three books – exploring and learning and returning to other artists who have used him,” she says. “For us it was a learning process, we worked and developed our practice through that as well.”
The exhibit also includes a major new acquisition for the library – Tom Phillips’ Dante’s Hell (1983), one of the most important artist’s books of the 20th century – and two prints by William Blake, on loan from the National Gallery of Victoria.
When he wrote The Divine Comedy, Dante was in exile from his beloved Florence; his policy had seen him banished, apparently for corruption. “There is a real poignant and a very personal element in these opening lines, about being in exile, essentially. And not knowing where to go, ”Welch says.
Many of the Australian artists who responded to the poem have a European heritage, she says, and they know what it’s like to be a foreigner in a different place. “There is a resonance there for many Australians in this regard. We are all in exile in one way or another right now – no one can get in and no one can get out. “
Dante was one of the first to write in his own vernacular. According to Welch, this is largely why the poem was so popular during his lifetime. “He looks like Geoffrey Chaucer in English, we would talk about him the same way. He too made this choice to write in his everyday spoken language, not in the language of learning, which was Latin.
There are over 400 surviving manuscripts of the poem from the 1400s, indicating its popularity. Sandro Botticelli was the first artist to illustrate it in 1481, followed by countless others, including William Blake, Gustave Doré and, more recently, Salvador Dali.
Classical music station 3MBS recently hosted a two-week special dedicated to the many musical works inspired by Dante’s most famous poem, available online. Its curator Margot Costanzo says that one of the compelling reasons for women to care about the 14th century poet is “the utterly modern portrayal of Beatrice … always a symbol of moral purity and beauty for Dante”.
While this is a great poem to read, with many translations into English, there are many ways to access the work. Actor Roberto Benigni makes an excellent rendition of the poem from memory – no small feat considering its length – on Youtube, there are graphic novels and even children’s versions.
“He casts a drop shadow right after his life and that’s something that touches us today,” Welch says. “It’s a poem for the times – whether you feel like you’re in purgatory or a few days in hell, or maybe in heaven.”
“I find it a very cathartic poem to read right now. It goes back to the archetypal nature of the experiences people have, to the frailties of people suffering in hell. The poem is notable for Dante’s non-judgmental way – of people who suffer in hell for sins serious enough to have relegated them to hell, he speaks of them with some compassion, like the adulterous lovers Paolo and Francesca. He is kind to them and sympathetic to their plight. As a writer he’s good at that kind of empathetic insight into the characters he creates and that’s what’s satisfying as a reader.
Cavalieri says she is not done with the great Italian poet yet. “For me, he’s someone who is right there, he is present in everyday life.”