Dante in Toronto
Divine Comedy Gems Are Inspiration for the Ages
by Caroline Morgan Di Giovanni
The city of Toronto is home to one of the finest collections of artworks, editions, and illustrations of Dante’s The Divine Comedy available in North America.
The great poet, thinker, and writer Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265. His family was well-respected, though not very wealthy. Dante received a good education and, as a young man, he immersed himself in the life of Florence, the thriving city-state located between the Holy Roman Empire to the north and the Papal States centred around Rome. Caught up in the conflict between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, Dante’s treatise De Monarchia clearly stated his preference for the separation of Church and State. The power struggle between factions resulted in Dante’s permanent exile from Florence in 1302. For the rest of his life he journeyed from place to place throughout Northern Italy, often as the honoured guest at the courts of noblemen. Dante Alighieri died in 1321 in Ravenna. He is buried there, but the people of Florence have honoured their native son with a statue and a commemorative tomb in the Church of Santa Croce.
Dante’s superb gifts as a poet were evident early in his writing career with beautiful lyrics and songs in the dolce stile novo, the Florentine adaptation of Provencal troubadour poetry. His prose works in Latin earned him a reputation among the intelligentsia of the courtly world. Today, however, the masterpiece for which he is known throughout the world is The Divine Comedy, La Divina Commedia. Divided into three sections: the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso, this magnificent allegorical poem describes the journey of the poet in mid-life through the travails of Hell, up the mountain of Purgatory, and then to a vision of Eternal Life. He is guided through the inferno by the Roman poet Virgil, who leaves him at the base of purgatory, inspired to proceed by his love of the Lady Beatrice. Along the way the poet describes a number of historic or Biblical personalities he observes acting out their punishments for sins in their lifetime. Finally, nearing paradise, the poet envisions the heavens with Beatrice and St. Bernard, leading to an encounter with the Virgin Mother.
More than a poetic accomplishment, La Divina Commedia is the basis for the Italian language in use today. It is also a compendium of history, art, culture, philosophy, theology, and scientific ideas. The poem gives voice to characters whose example, for good or for bad, model the behaviour expected of a good Christian in the world. The powerful narrative has impressed other writers, poets, and artists down through the ages. Some of the stories, such as the passion of Paolo and Francesca, have become engrained in Western literature – as well-known as Romeo and Juliet.
Dante, the writer in exile, was not afraid to pass judgment on figures he saw as evildoers, including popes and emperors he felt were guilty of grave sin. They are situated in hell. The scenes in paradise display Dante’s spiritual aspirations, taking the reader into the realm of space, the moon and stars, with choirs of angels surrounding the Trinity of God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Around the walls of the Casa Dante rare book room are framed illustrations of passages from the Divina Commedia. The style of Gustave Doré attracts attention immediately, due to the complex details and the contrast of dark and light in the etchings he published in the mid-1800s. In the nineteenth century the Alinari Studio in Florence held a competition to stimulate the artists of the day to create illustrations for the three books of The Divine Comedy. Examples of many of these submissions are housed in the Casa Dante room.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Italian artist Amos Nattini designed illustrative plates that were printed in colour. These examples begin to show the taste of the art deco period. Most striking of all are the surreal interpretations made by Salvador Dali on commission by the Italian government for the 1965 anniversary year of Dante. The commission was later withdrawn, but Dali completed the series anyway because he was inspired. The prints were conceived in the classic triptych format, so the frames contain examples from corresponding cantos in each book, as Dali himself first presented them.
Through the oil paintings obtained from Lina and Corrado Gizzi, the Toronto exhibit gives witness to the range of artistic expression of the mid-twentieth century artists. Gigino Falconi’s Paolo e Francesca appears to place the tragic lovers on a stage set with a rocky cliff and the ocean as the backdrop.
Aligi Sassu’s La Lonza interprets the beast from the opening canto of the Inferno within an abstract colour field. Aldo Salvadori’s Lettura di Dante is a simple, pastel drawing of a hooded figure reading. Emilio Greco’s Paolo e Francesca uses two portrait faces in close proximity, while Danilo Fusi’s version has the lovers’ nude bodies in full embrace, with other lost souls depicted in the background. The ethereal Preghiere di San Bernardo alla Vergine by Luigi Passeri interprets the spiritual dimension of the third book, Paradiso.
Nearly seven centuries after his death, Dante has not lost his power to inspire. The legacy of his epic poem and the Italian language that he invented around it are alive in the old world as in the new. Alberto Di Giovanni’s efforts, as a teacher and as a curator, demonstrate that this heritage continues to flourish in Canada.
The Casa Dante in Canada is a treasure trove for students of Italian literature, language, history, and skilled artistry. This brief description hardly does justice to the fine collection of artefacts on display. To fully appreciate the powerful interaction between the timeless poetry of Dante Alighieri and the interpretive capacity of artists, writers, and scholars over the ages requires hours of thoughtful attention.
For more information on the Casa Dante in Toronto and the Centro Scuola go to www.centroscuola.ca. The Columbus Centre website is www.villacharities.com.
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