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!

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.

Dante’s septcentennial death anniversary, and what he means to me

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Seven hundred years ago today, very near the end of the day on 13 September 1321, Durante di Alighiero degli Alighieri, one of the deepest souls, greatest minds, and greatest writers the human species has ever produced, drew his final breath in Ravenna, Italy. He was 56 years old, and was felled by a mosquito who infected him with quartan fever on his way home from a diplomatic mission. Had he returned by ship instead of on horseback, he might’ve avoided getting bitten by that lethal creature in the swampy marshes.

As I said in my review of the 1911 film L’Inferno:

It’s hard to put into words just how very, very much Dante means to me, how much I love and admire him. He represents the best the human race is capable of, a beautiful antidote against all the evil, ignorance, and cruelty that exists. No matter how far we might fall, how badly we’re lost, there’s always hope of finding our way back.

What more can I say about one of my literary idols, whom I’ve already written so much about this year and still have a few more posts yet to write about? A few well-chosen words from the heart often mean more than thousands of words belaboring the point.

Some people cynically, pessimistically beg for a meteor or asteroid to strike Planet Earth and end everything already, but we shouldn’t lose hope for the future of humanity. If we can produce someone like Dante, and many more people endowed with the same creative, intellectual, and spiritual potential, our species will be just fine as long as world there is.

And remember, despite how a lot of people only read the first third of his magnum opus, Dante didn’t want readers to stay in Hell or end on a low, sad, hopeless note. He and Virgil see stars when they emerge from the abyss, and soon begin the climb up Mount Purgatory.

Dante wanted to take his readers, both present and future, into the very heights of Paradise with him and experience his intense spiritual journey that culminates when he sees the light of God and with it the perfect union of all realities.

To the high force imagination now failed;
But like to a wheel whose circling nothing jars,
Already on my desire and will prevailed
The Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.