A quartet of antique horror films

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For the sixth year in a row, my yearly October salute to vintage horror films celebrating landmark anniversaries kicks off with grand master Georges Méliès. So much of the language and development of early cinema was his creation.

Released 3 May 1901, Blue Beard (Barbe-Bleue) was based on Charles Perrault’s 1697 fairytale. This popular and famous story is the reason the word “bluebeard” is synonymous with a man who marries and murders one wife after another.

Rich aristocrat Barbe-Bleue (Méliès) is eager for a new wife, but none of the noblewomen brought to meet him like what they see. Not only is he ugly, he’s also been married seven prior times.

However, Barbe-Bleue’s riches convince one man to bestow his daughter in marriage (Méliès’s future wife Jehanne d’Alcy).

Barbe-Bleue gives his wife the keys to his castle before going on a trip, and warns her to never enter a certain room. While deciding between curiosity and fear, an imp (also Méliès) appears to tempt and taunt her. An angel tries to prevail upon her to stay away.

Curiosity gets the better of her, and she enters the room to discover a most macabre sight—seven bags that turn out to be Barbe-Bleue’s first seven wives hanging from a gallows in a torture chamber. In shock, she drops the key and becomes stained with blood she’s unable to wash off.

That night, she dreams of seven giant keys.

When Barbe-Bleue returns, he finds out what happened and tries to murder her too. She flees to the top of a tower and screams for her siblings to help her.

Barbe-Bleue is slain when they come to the rescue, and his first seven wives are resurrected and married to lords.

The Devil and the Statue (Le Diable Géant ou Le Miracle de la Madonna) was also released in 1901. A young man serenades his lover, then goes out a window. Presently a devil appears and begins growing to gigantic proportions.

A Madonna statue comes to life and makes the devil shrink, then opens the window so the lover can return.

The Haunted House (La Maison Hantée, also known as La Maison Ensorcelée) was released in April 1906. Though Méliès appears as one of the three characters, it was directed by Segundo de Chomón (Segundo Víctor Aurelio Chomón y Ruiz). Señor de Chomón is widely considered the greatest Spanish silent film director, and often compared to Méliès because he used many of the same magical illusion tricks and camera work.

In 1901, he began distributing his films through the French company Pathé, and moved to Paris in 1905. He remained with Pathé even after returning to Barcelona in 1910.

Three people take refuge at a house on a dark and stormy night, and spooky things immediately begin happening—chairs that appear and disappear, ghosts flying through the air, flying flames, the house tilting and rotating, the bed sliding across the floor, a knife cutting a sausage and bread by itself, a slice of sausage moving all over the table, a teapot pouring by itself, napkins moving.

This entire film is so fun! It made me eager to seek out more of Señor de Chomón’s work.

And finally we come to L’Inferno, which premièred 10 March 1911 at the Mercadante Theatre in Naples, not to be confused with the other 1911 Italian film of the same name, which I reviewed in 2016. This film was produced by Helios Film, a much smaller company than Milano Films, and made in a hurry to try to beat the other film to theatres and take advantage of the huge wave of public anticipation. It did arrive three months earlier, but is only 15 minutes long as opposed to over an hour.

Eleven major episodes from Inferno are depicted—the dark forest, Virgil’s meeting with Beatrice, crossing Charon’s ferry across Acheron, Francesca and Paolo, Minòs, Farinata degli Uberti in his flaming tomb, the usurers in a rain of fire, Ulysses, Pier della Vigna in the Wood of the Suicides, Count Ugolino, and Satan.

This L’Inferno uses only 18 intertitles (drawn right from Dante’s own words) and 25 animated paintings, compared to 54 in the full-length feature. However, the special effects are quite sophisticated, such as the lustful being blown around and Minòs’s gigantic stature.

Like the other L’Inferno, this one too is strongly based on Gustave Doré’s famous woodcut illustrations. And while both films feature nudity, the short film is more sensual regarding Francesca.

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!

WeWriWa—Trouble on Via Santa Elisabetta

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m now sharing from an alternative history with the working title A Dream of Peacocks. It starts on May Day 1274, when Dante met his great love and muse Beatrice Portinari, and will give them an eventual happy ending, with lots of Sturm und Drang.

This week’s excerpt right after last week’s, and begins the chapter’s third section. Dante is on his way to spend the florins his father recently gave him when he runs into some of his friends. Corso Donati was a real-life villain who led the enemy Black Guelphs and, before that, kidnapped his sister Piccarda from her convent to force her into a politically advantageous marriage.

Piccarda Donati fatta rapire dal convento di Santa Chiara dal fratello Corso (Piccarda Donati was kidnapped from the convent of St. Clare by brother Corso), Raffaello Sorbi

Saturday afternoon, I tucked the bag of florins into my tunic pocket, picked up a basket, and set out for Pasquini Apothecary on Via Santa Elisabetta. This was one of my favorite neighborhood stores, since they carried a lot of exotic sweets and spices from places like Persia, Spain, the Holy Land, and Byzantium. They also sold beautiful imported papers that looked like marble, with a rainbow of swirled colors. Someday I hoped to buy one of their blank bound books with a marbled cover.

Along the way, I passed a tempting array of stalls offering spices, carpets, flowers, roasted meat, dyed fabrics, fruit, silver and gold bowls, furs, honeycombs, and parrots. Had I a giant cart full of florins instead of merely a small bag, I would’ve bought something from every merchant.

Several blocks away from the apothecary, I caught sight of my friends the Donatis. Corso was eating a greasy skewer of goat meat as he walked, picking his teeth as always, while Maso and Sinibaldo carried a Persian rug with a bold pattern of black, red, and white. Ravenna, Piccarda, and their cousin Gemma wore glove puppets and were animatedly making up a story about characters with nonsense names. Only Forese wasn’t walking with them, being occupied at a honeycomb stall.

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to complete the scene.

Before I had a chance to call out greetings to them, a herd of pigs came stampeding down the street. This was an unavoidable annoyance of city life, pigs permitted to run freely through town. Complaining about it to the authorities or farmers never accomplished anything.

Faster than anyone could react, Corso stepped forward and laughingly pushed Piccarda right into the path of the pigs, who promptly knocked her down into a filthy puddle. Piccarda began loudly crying as Corso walked off, still laughing. Without a moment’s hesitation, I rushed to help her up. Forese pulled her up on the other side.

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!

WeWriWa—Choosing new clothes

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m now sharing from an alternative history with the working title A Dream of Peacocks. It starts on May Day 1274, when Dante met his great love and muse Beatrice Portinari, and will give them an eventual happy ending, with lots of Sturm und Drang.

This week’s excerpt comes a bit after last week’s, when Dante came home from school to find the family tailor. His father said he earned extra money from an unexpected new source of business, and announced plans for using the rest of their windfall. He then gave Dante a bag of florins to use on sweets and a new book.

The phrases “the richness of the choice” and “[Name] agonized long and hard over the richness of the choice” are among my trademarks that crop up in just about every single book I’ve ever written. Though it comes from the 18th century French erotic novel Thérèse Philosophe, I usually don’t use it in erotic contexts!

After Ser Landolfo took all my measurements, I had the delightful task of looking at the richness of the choice contained in the many bottles. Most of the dyes and pigments were beautiful, distinctive, arresting colors, but not all of them were my favorites, and some didn’t seem as if they’d look good on me. I also needed to choose colors which weren’t too dark and thus wouldn’t absorb too much heat during the coming summer months.

All the same, I didn’t know when I’d next get the chance to have new clothes made, and it weren’t as though my existing clothes were terrible or worthy of a lowly peasant. Lightweight fabrics like linen and cotton would also keep me comfortable in heat. With all these factors considered, I finally selected light teal, Byzantine blue, and scarlet for tunics, and blue-grey, charcoal grey, and pale green for hose.

“Can you make the blue and teal tunics in linen, and the scarlet one in wool?” I asked.

“I always endeavor to please my customers,” Ser Landolfo said. “All these garments should be ready by the time you leave for Fiesole. I’ll return for a fitting a few days beforehand.”

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish the scene.

“We very much appreciate your services,” Babbo said. “If my business continues improving, I may summon you again next year. Perhaps I’ll eventually be able to justify the cost of silver and gold embroidery or luxury fabrics.”

While Babbo counted out Ser Landolfo’s fee, I picked up the bag with my precious florins and went upstairs to my room. As magnificent as it was to have new clothes tailored, studying Latin grammar was even more important. Fine clothes might impress a certain type of person, but a fine mind was even more impressive, and would be there regardless of what types of garments I donned.