Artwork of The Divine Comedy

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In July, I spotlighted seven artists who illustrated The Divine Comedy, either in full or for one canticle. Now let’s look at some standalone art. Many of these pieces have been used in my Dantean posts.

Joseph Anton Koch, an Austrian-born painter of the Neoclassical and German Romantic schools, did four frescoes in Rome’s Casino di Villa Massimo, in what is now called the Dante Room, from 1827–29. The first fresco is entitled Dante nella Selva con le Fiere e Virgilio (Dante in the Forest with the Beasts and Virgil). Though the word fiere means “fairs” in Modern Italian, Dante used it to mean “beasts.”

The next fresco depicts Inferno as a whole, with illustrations of a few major episodes (e.g., the neutrals in Ante-Inferno, Charon with his ferry across Acheron, Minòs, Dante and Virgil on Geryon, Agnèl being turned into a snake, Francesca and Paolo, Cerberus, Count Ugolino).

All frescoes of Inferno copyright Sailko.

Koch’s third fresco, La Nave del Purgatorio, depicts Canto IX, one of my all-time favouritest in the book, at the top. There’s so much power, beauty, emotion, and tension jam-packed into its 145 lines. At the bottom is a boat of souls arriving in Purgatory. The right tells the story of Buonconte da Montefeltro, who died in battle and was fought over by the Devil and an angel. On the left are two angels vanquishing sin in the form of a snake.

Copyright Sailko.

Koch’s final fresco depicts souls from all seven terraces of Purgatory. The poem’s dramatic midway point, Canto XVI, is also shown, as Dante clings to Virgil in a thick, blinding cloud of smoke. Among the historical figures are Pope Adrian V and King Hugh Capet of France (my 34-greats-grandpap).

The ceiling, I Cieli dei Beati e l’Empireo (The Heavens of the Blessed and the Empyrean), was done by German Romantic painter Philipp Veit, and depicts Paradiso as a whole. People who appear here include Piccarda Donati, Empress Constance of Altavilla, Byzantine Emperor Justinian, Rahab of the Bible, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante’s great-great-grandpap Cacciaguida, Roman Emperor Trajan, King David, St. Benedict of Nursia, St. Peter, St. John the Evangelist, Adam, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and Mary.

All closeups copyright Sailko.

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Jumping back to Canto I of Inferno, here we have French landscape and portrait painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s 1859 work Dante et Virgile. Monsieur Corot (who was creepily, unhealthily co-dependent on and joined at the hip with his parents until his fifties) presented this shortly after he did it, but then forgot about it for years. When he ran across it in his studio, he told a friend, “Why, it’s superb; I can hardly imagine that I myself did that!” Today it’s in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which means I probably saw it at least once.

Dutch–French Romantic painter Ary Scheffer did at least six versions of this artwork, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta Appraised by Dante and Virgil, from 1822–55. The oil painting is known by various titles—Les ombres de Francesca da Rimini et de Paolo Malatesta apparaissent à Dante et à Virgile (The Louvre); De gedaantes van Paolo en Francesca aanschouwd door Dante en VergiliusThe Ghosts/Shades/Shadows of Francesca de Rimini and Paolo Malatesta Appear to Dante and VirgilDante and Virgil Encountering the Shades of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta in the Underworld (Pittsburgh); Dante and Virgil Meeting the Shades of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo (Cleveland).

Here’s one I haven’t shown yet, La Barque de Dante, aka Dante et Virgile aux enfers (1855), the first major work by French artist Eugène Delacroix. It depicts Canto VIII of Inferno, as Phlegyas ferries Dante and Virgil across the River Styx, the City of Dis in the background. Today it hangs in the Louvre.

Between 1853–58, Édoard Manet did two copies of this painting, now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.

Italian painter Domenico Morelli (1823–1901) did this artwork, Dante e Virgilio nel Purgatorio, possibly around 1855. It depicts Canto II, as a light-enshrouded boat of newly-deceased souls draws close to the Mount of Purgatory, guided by an angel. In 1845, he did another piece drawn from the Commedia, L’angelo che Porta le Anime al Purgatorio Dantesco, which won an award. For the life of me, I’ve been unable to locate this other painting!

Here we see French painter Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin’s Le Dante, conduit par Virgile, offre des consolations aux âmes des envieux (Dante, led by Virgil, offers consolations to the souls of the envious) (1835). It depicts the Second Terrace of Purgatory in Canto XIII. I particularly like the look of compassion on Virgil’s face.

This painting is now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon.

Pre-Raphaelite Greek–British painter Marie Spartali Stillman did many Dantean subjects, such as this 1887 work, Dante’s Vision of Leah and Rachel, depicting Dante’s third and final dream in Purgatorio. In the Earthly Paradise (i.e., the Garden of Eden) on top of the mountain, in Canto XXVII, he dreams of Leah gathering flowers by the river while Rachel gazes into the water.

And finally we have German painter Carl Wilhelm Friedrich Oesterley’s 1845 work Dante and Beatrice, depicting their contentious reunion in Canto XXX of Purgatorio. Dante is so overcome with shame and remorse, he’s unable to look her in the face.

And what do you know! By hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence), nine artists were featured, representing Dante’s lucky number!

When the parade goes by without you

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While I’d still have to say my favourite of Maud Hart Lovelace’s books is Carney’s House Party, I have to give the nod to Emily Webster as my favourite of her characters. As a fellow introvert who wasn’t part of the popular crowd and didn’t come from a cushy bourgeois family, I can really relate to Emily. I also deeply relate to her as someone whose life hasn’t unfolded on the same timetable as that of most of my peers.

Emily Webster (based on Marguerite Marsh, a year older than Mrs. Lovelace but two years younger than her Doppelgänger Betsy) lost her mother in infancy and her father at two years old. Her grandparents stepped up to raise her, but her grandma died when Emily was ten years old. Now Emily lives alone on the edge of town with her grandpa Cyrus Webster, an 81-year-old Civil War vet.

Emily of Deep Valley (Deep Valley, #2) by Maud Hart Lovelace

When Emily graduates high school in 1912, all her peers head off to college—the University of Minnesota, Carleton College, Vassar, a few local schools. But because Grandpa Cyrus has no one else to take care of him, Emily is unable to pursue higher education. It’s not even something she weighs the pros and cons of. Staying with Grandpa is just something she must do without question.

Because Emily lives so far on the outskirts of town, and because she has so many heavy responsibilities, she hasn’t had the cliché kind of high school experience Betsy did. Though she is frequently invited to come along to get-togethers and events, and does take up some of these offers throughout the book, it seems obvious she’s invited more out of sympathy and obligation, and that she’s always on the periphery of this crowd.

Emily is very intelligent and serious, though, and was the only girl on the acclaimed debate team. She loves reading, history, and politics, and her dream is to become a social worker like her shero Jane Addams. Emily’s graduation speech (which she has to memorize instead of reading from a paper!) is about Ms. Addams.

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Emily does have extended family, though—her beautiful, sophisticated, glamourous second-cousin Annette, and Annette’s parents, whom Emily calls Aunt Sophie and Uncle Chester, despite not being related to them in that way. Aunt Sophie regularly has new clothes made for Emily by town dressmaker Miss Mix, and has Emily and Grandpa over for holidays.

There’s also love interest Don Walker, who was on the debate team with Emily. Over the summer, he regularly visits and discusses books. One time, he brings Emily a book of Robert Browning poetry. But it’s obvious to everyone but Emily from the jump that Don isn’t very sincere or nice.

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Emily sinks into despondency when her erstwhile friends leave for college. They’re all going places in their lives and having fun, while she’s stuck in Deep Valley as Grandpa’s full-time caretaker. At first, Emily tries to lift her spirits by attending a high school pep rally for a football game, but a comment from the new coach is like a lightning bolt that wakes her up and makes her realise she’s unhealthily clinging to the past and not moving forward into a new adult life.

Instead of going to the game, she hurries home to put her hair up in a Psyche knot. Prior, she wore her hair in a braid with a huge ribbon like an overgrown schoolgirl. Emily also gets some new hats to accommodate this change in hairstyle, and a few new clothes.

After this, it’s like a magic wand has been waved. Because she finally looks her age, Emily begins getting attention from a slightly older crowd who’s still in town. For the first time, Emily feels like she’s found her tribe, people with serious interests that match her own. One of her new friends, Cab Edwards, takes her out to several dances. (I found Cab much better-developed in this book than in the Betsy-Tacy series!)

And slowly but surely, Emily starts coming into her own and making lemonade out of the lemons life handed her. She might not be a college girl, but there are so many other rewarding things she can do, like start a Browning discussion group, help the people in Little Syria, and resume music lessons.

I really enjoyed watching Emily’s gradual growth into a strong, confident woman who knows her own mind and how to find fulfillment and happiness. I can also relate to her more than Betsy (who makes a brief appearance that really feels shoehorned in). Emily faces a lot of real challenges that aren’t easily, quickly resolved; she’s not Miss Popularity; boys aren’t beating a path to her door; and she doesn’t have class privilege.

Emily is truly Mrs. Lovelace’s most mature, complex character, with a storyline to match.

How not to translate Dante

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I first heard of Mary Jo Bang while researching my post on translations of The Divine Comedy, but didn’t include her among my list of best-known editions since I’d never run across her name before. While I’ve not read or dipped in and out of most of the translations I listed, I at least was familiar with their existence.

And as I mentioned in that post, I personally prefer a translation done by someone with a scholarly background in a field like Dante studies, Medieval history, or Italian literature, not a mere English professor or poet. Ms. Bang falls into the latter category. Of course I’ve nothing against such people, but there’s an inevitable, very noticeable difference in how they approach translation and supplemental material.

To use another comparison, wouldn’t you more trust a Bible translation by a Biblical historian or religious scholar instead of someone with only surface interest in Hebrew, Greek, or the ancient world? Or a translation of The Iliad by someone who’s been immersed in all things Ancient Greece for 20+ years over a poet who studied the language for a few years and nothing more?

I’m not a pedantic nitpicker who demands a translation be one million percent true to the absolute letter of the original. While I prefer it be as accurate and literal as possible, I have nothing against gentle creative liberties within reason. After all, that’s often necessitated if the translator is using a style like blank verse in iambic pentameter or a certain kind of rhyme scheme. And oftentimes, it can enhance the beauty or emotional impact of a passage, or just make the meaning clearer than a literal word-by-word rendering.

But what I’m absolutely NOT okay with? Inserting words, phrases, and entire passages not even indirectly suggested by anything in the original, esp. when you do that over and over again.

I was beyond gobsmacked to learn Ms. Bang’s translations of Inferno and Purgatorio (the latter of which was just recently released) are full of anachronistic references and allusions to modern politics, pop culture, artists, and writers. Donald Rumsfeld, Andy Warhol, Usain Bolt, Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, Amy Winehouse, Gertrude Stein, South Park, Pink Floyd, Star Trek, Tootsie Fruit Chews, MGM’s Leo the Lion, Shakespeare, Freud, you name it.

Oh, and she describes something as a lemon meringue mountain, says the winds of Hell are like “a massive crimson camera flash,” and takes extreme liberties with many other lines. The famous first tercet alone is rendered as:

Stopped mid-motion in the middle
Of what we call our life, I looked up and saw no sky—
Only a dense cage of leaf, tree, and twig. I was lost.

WHAT?!

The bulk of that tercet is entirely her own imagination! Find me one other translation that strays THAT far from the original Italian!

I also read a really weird 2011 op-ed by Ms. Bang claiming if you only read Inferno, you’ll falsely think of Beatrice as a damsel in distress from the story Virgil tells in Canto II. Because she’s tearfully pleading with him to save her friend, despite the fact that Beatrice is the one who rescues Dante. She also sets out to summon Virgil after a conference with two other women, the Virgin Mary and St. Lucia.

You haven’t read the text thoughtfully at all, nor done any real outside study, if you truly believe Beatrice only wants Virgil to rescue Dante from the three beasts impeding him. Are you so jaded after years of English teachers’ overanalysis that you now refuse to consider any deeper meanings for anything?

I’d have zero problems with her approach if she were doing a 21st century retelling. That would give her the perfect opportunity to play around with the general concept while keeping core elements of the original material. But she presents this as merely a fresh translation, not a reimagining.

And to make it even more shocking, the Dante Society of America, which I’m a member of, endorses this nonsense!

My Dantean memorization journey

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This is how it all began in March 2021. Initially I only planned to learn the first twelve lines of Canto I of Inferno in the original Italian, to match what I’ve known in English for years. Then I worked on memorizing six lines from Paradiso, and returned to Inferno I in April.

However, I still didn’t intend to memorize the entire 136 lines, just another nine. I felt Line 21 ends on a nice cliffhanger, “The night I had endured with such anguish,” La notte ch’i’ passai con tanta pieta. I also thought it would be really cool to do a video of myself reciting them for National Poetry Month.

You know what they say about the best-laid plans of men and men (and women). Though I finished memorizing those lines by the last day of April, I hadn’t 100% mastered them, and I felt it weren’t enough of a challenge. Why quit so soon into the canto? Go big or go home!

The very next day, I memorized four more lines like lightning. Writing them out longhand was such a huge help, since I was able to mentally picture the words in my own writing when I got stuck. Skimming over the next lines before I began working on them also helped them to come faster when it was time.

Several times along the way, I hit humps and had to spend an extra few days working on tercets, lines, or groups of tercets or lines. It wasn’t so much that the words weren’t sticking, but rather that I was hitting the kind of mental wall many people face when learning new information. Only after you’ve cleared the wall can you continue.

Other times I had difficulty mastering the latest section or tercet because the words seemed too similar too close together. Obviously, not super-common words like che, non, and poi, but like in the above example, di sua vista and ne la sua. Or I just felt overwhelmed by all the lines I had to learn and how many I had to keep fresh in the memory bank while constantly adding new ones. The first half or so of this page was one of my humps, and the first major one since the beginning.

This page, and the end of the previous page, went super-fast, since I already knew those 18 lines in English, when Virgil shows up. Though I only knew up to the end of Virgil’s opening lines, the next few tercets came really quickly by association. I don’t think any other parts of Canto I flew into my personal hard drive that swiftly!

There were a few more humps on this page, by which point I was over the halfway mark. Things were starting to get real by now. I often had the feeling of, “I can’t really keep going, can I? I already know so many lines, and there are so many more yet to learn!”

The final tercets also came very fast, since I’d listened so many times to the overrated Roberto Benigni’s recitation and said what I knew along with him. I was so familiar with the concluding lines, I almost knew them even before I properly learnt them. I also knew the final line long before I reached that point, so the penultimate line was truly the last line I learnt.

Constant practice and repetition made sure every line went from short-term memory to long-term memory to permanent memory. I often said them to myself at night while going to bed, and not infrequently fell asleep in the middle after a certain point. Dante’s words were the last thing in my brain when it switched out of waking consciousness.

I also frequently said them to myself while swimming, or out loud softly while waiting for my sunscreen to set when I was alone at the pool.

Near the end of memorizing Canto I, I decided to go big or go home in an even greater way and learn the entire Commedia. After all, plenty of Italians throughout history have done just that, without even seeing it written down. Many other people have also known many cantos by heart.

The first tercet of Canto II went really fast, but then I hit another wall, and decided to just focus on perfecting my recitation of Canto I before jumping right into another huge challenge. It’s the same reason it’s best to rest for awhile after finishing a long book (either writing or reading) instead of immediately beginning the next. Everyone needs down time between climbing mountains.

This is everything I know to date, the first 45 lines of Canto II. As aforementioned, they came much slower than most of Canto I, since my top priority was ensuring mastery of Canto I for my recitation video on Dante’s 700th Jahrzeit (death anniversary) on 13/14 September.

Now that that’s past, I can finally begin making up for lost time on Canto II. I hope to have it completed and mastered by my birthday (either the English or Hebrew date) in December.

Oh, and if you can’t read my handwriting just because it’s in cursive, that’s a sad indictment of the current educational system.

Reading The Divine Comedy as a non-Christian

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Though Dante intended his magnum opus as primarily the story of his spiritual reformation and redemption, and presumed most of his readers would be Christians or future converts, you truly don’t have to share that religion to enjoy it. Many of the themes and lessons can be interpreted in alternate ways, just as Krishna famously tells Arjuna there are many different names and faces for God, and paths to her/him, but none are wrong, so long as one has a pure, devout heart and soul.

However, despite Dante treating righteous non-Christians very respectfully, struggling with his era’s teaching that only baptised Christians could attain Paradise, avoiding antisemitic tropes about Hell, and saving a few so-called pagans, there are certain things which are still a challenge to read. This isn’t a reflection on Dante, but rather my own background. Life gives all of us a different frame of reference based on so many things, religion included.

My family background and my own personal religious history are too complicated and private to get into here, but the most pertinent thing to know is that I’ve been living a Jewish life since I was eighteen, after years of longing to reclaim my spiritual birthright. The religions I feel closest to after my own are Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Jainism.

Theologically, Judaism is closest to Islam. They were even closer before Prophet Mohammad got pissed off that more Jews weren’t converting, and changed things like how many times a day one should pray (from three to five). Again theologically speaking, Judaism and Christianity are like oil and water. So many important things radically contradict one another; e.g., Jews don’t believe in Original Sin or the divinity of Jesus.

This is a topic for another post, but suffice it to say, interfaith relations weren’t very good until about 1950. At the heart of the antisemitism which culminated in the Shoah was the deicide charge. And while I’m really glad the only Jews depicted in Inferno are Judas and Caiaphas, thus avoiding grotesque stereotypes and slanders, it’s hard to not be bothered by the deicide charge in Paradiso VII. There’s also this tercet in Paradiso V:

“If evil covetousness cries out to you,
be men, and not foolish sheep,
so that the Jew among you does not laugh!”

YIKES!

Intellectually, I can explain and contextualise these statements to take some of the sting off. Dante cannot be divorced from his time and place, no matter how modern and relevant he feels in many ways. He also believed other things we now know to be false, like the Donation of Constantine and Prophet Mohammad originally being a Christian, since there was no widely-available information debunking these claims.

And compared to many other Medieval writings (e.g., the Prioress’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales, the chilling end of The Song of Roland), this is really tame. Out of 14,233 lines, these comments are a tiny drop in the bucket. Dante also questions why, if Christian doctrine says the Crucifixion was necessary, the Second Temple then had to be destroyed and the Jewish people forced into Diaspora.

But emotionally and personally, it’s really hard to read that, knowing the deicide charge formed the basis of almost 2,000 years of horrific antisemitism in Europe, and that even those few seemingly off-handed comments were part of a much larger picture that really added up.

Judaism and Christianity also radically differ on the subject of the Pharisees, who are mentioned in a negative light in the Commedia. Though all evidence from multiple sources attests to Pharisaic beliefs and practices forming the basis of post-Temple Judaism, and indeed being the very reason we were able to survive the loss of the Second Temple, their reputation in Christianity is far different.

Long story short, each of the four Gospels is successively less Jewish and more Christian in character. As time progressed, the two faiths diverged more and more, and it became obvious there weren’t as many Jewish converts as hoped for. Thus, it was felt necessary to draw strong lines between the two traditions and seek converts from other populations.

Judaism has no concept of Limbo. While there are many conflicting views on the afterlife, who goes where, if very wicked souls stay forever in Hell, whether Gehenna or Sheol is the place for the worst sinners, and what exactly all these places are like, one thing everyone does agree one is that the righteous of all nations have a place in HaOlam HaBa, the World to Come. We don’t believe only our people can attain Paradise.

Dante heavily leans towards this view too, as he struggles all through the poem with the idea that only baptised Christians (plus the righteous people of the Bible) are worthy of Paradise. What about people who live in places like India, where Christianity had no presence, or who lived before Jesus, like his dear Virgil? Indeed, he saves a few so-called pagans (Cato, Trajan, Statius, Ripheus the Trojan), and depicts a few Muslims among the righteous in Limbo.

He also says many people of other faiths, or of no faith, are closer to God than actual baptised Christians.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s prayer to Mary, which opens Paradiso XXXIII, is pure beauty, power, emotion, and devotion. Remembering back to Inferno II, Mary is the one who ultimately set Dante’s journey in motion. And given that Dante lost his mother when he was five or six years old, it’s easy to understand why he felt such devotion to Mary.

Despite not being Christian myself, I’m very moved by the image of Mary as a loving, universal mother figure. Many people who lost their mothers are particularly devoted to her for this very reason.

While specifically Christological beliefs do nothing for me and have no parallels in Judaism, most of the poem is a rich, fertile ground for inspiration. Dante intended his magnum opus as a spiritual guidebook, and despite his own strong Catholic faith, he frequently thinks of other kinds of people. Indeed, the penultimate word is l’altre, the other (in plural form). The Love he believes in, which powers everything in existence, includes a vast rainbow of perspectives and experiences, not just one.