In 1892, while Willard Fiske, Cornell’s first librarian, was restoring a spacious villa in the hills above Florence, Italy, he bought a small book. He was over 350 years old with a “sad” binding. He later confessed that he bought it only because he thought it was unusual – and inexpensive.
The book was a 1536 copy of the “Divine Comedy” by medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri.
Fiske sent the book to Cornell, downplaying its value in a postcard to acting Cornell librarian William Harris. “As far as I know, there is no particular value attached to editing,” he wrote. “If the library already has a copy, please forward it to the Dryden Library. “
This little book was the first in an avalanche of documents that now constitute the largest Dante collection in North America – the Fiske Dante Collection, in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC) at Cornell University Library.
The collection forms the basis of “Dante’s Visions” exposure to Herbert F. Johnson Art Museum. Marking On the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death, the exhibition of around 100 works in various media explores the visual nature of the “Divine Comedy”, which has inspired scholars and artists from medieval times to the present day.
“A whole group of people – curators but also exhibition coordinators, clerks, curators, photographers, video technicians and web designers – have joined forces to create one of the largest and most comprehensive exhibitions on Dante in 2021 ”, explains Laurent, co-curator of the exhibition. Ferri, curator of collections prior to 1800 at RMC.
“Visions of Dante” is not only exhibiting a large part of the Fiske collection for the first time. It also brings together works on loan from notable institutions like the Morgan Library & Museum and 20th century and contemporary artists from William Blake to Salvador Dalí, Robert Rauschenberg and Kara Walker.
Each play presents a different version of the “Divine Comedy”, in which Dante the narrator finds himself in an allegorical situation that any human being can identify with: lost, alone and fearful in a dark wood.
With Virgil and his beloved Beatrice as guides, he travels through hell, purgatory and paradise – described in the three parts of the poem “Inferno”, “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso”. Despite suffering and trials – or perhaps because of them – he emerges to reunite with God.
“This exhibition reaffirms the continued dynamism of the ‘Divine Comedy’ as a work of art, a literary work, and shows the many ways in which visual artists have made their own personal interpretations and translations of this original text,” said declared co-curator Andrew C. Weislogel, Johnson’s Seymour R. Askin, Jr. ’47 curator of ancient European and American art.
The exhibition includes awareness programs to help learners of all kinds appreciate his works. Faculty members are encouraged to bring their classes to the exhibit. A symposium on October 16 will bring together academics to discuss Dante’s continued impact as a visual poet. And thanks to the Central New York Humanities Corridor’s collaboration with the University of Rochester, students in the area are encouraged to attend.
The items in the Fiske collection are not only old and rare; they are interesting.
In 2019, Natale Vacalebre, a graduate student from the University of Pennsylvania, came to the Fiske Collection to look at a unique book and try to unravel its unsolved mystery.
The 1472 copy of the first printed edition of the “Divine Comedy” has a remarkable peculiarity. In its margins, someone has written a full transcription of a 14th century commentary on the poem. Even more convincing were the drawings in the margins, including the diagrams of the levels of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.
But no one knew who wrote the commentary – or who wrote it down and the drawings in the book’s margins.
Vacalebre was unable to determine which handwriting appeared in the margins. But he discovered what they had transcribed: a long-lost commentary by Neapolitan scholar Guglielmo Maramauro. Until then, researchers only knew about his comment on “Inferno”.
“Cornell not only owns a copy of the 1472 edition, but he also owns the most interesting copy of this book in the world,” says Ferri. “You can have copies in better condition. But we find it much more interesting to have a book with a life, a book that proves that people read the ‘Divine Comedy’, thought about it, thought about ideas, wrote down it.
Ferri himself made an important discovery while leafing through one of Fiske’s large format albums. In the fall of 2020, Ferri discovered a previously unknown pen and ink drawing from around 1805 by Felice Giani, a sought-after artist of the time. “Virgil and Dante in Charon’s Barque” shows Virgil indicating what will happen as Dante reclines thoughtfully and Charon, the boatman of Hades, rows them to hell on the other side of the Acheron River.
One of the weirdest features of the drawing – the faces screaming and melting in the waves of the river – is something one would expect from Salvador Dalí, not from an artist who lived 150 years before him. “Here in a neoclassical design you have elements that are in very different contexts with very different meanings,” says Ferri.
The exhibition also shows the many ways in which visual artists from diverse backgrounds have been inspired by Dante’s poem.
Frank Schroeder’s paintings are generally inspired by urban art, his French and West African heritage, and his personal experience of the legacy of French colonial history and the civil wars in Côte d’Ivoire. In his interpretation of “Inferno,” Schroeder quotes Henri Matisse’s “Dance”, Pablo Picasso and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Guernica” – but that’s not all, Ferri says. “In one painting we have this mix of pop art, hip hop, graffiti, and classical references – including a mask of tragedy from Hadrian’s Roman Villa in Tivoli – all dating back to Dante, with these exciting circles of hell, ”Ferri says.
Schroeder calls the painting “a sacred song of redemption,” Weislogel notes. “It offers the possibility that the struggles one encounters in Hell and Purgatory can be a melting pot that reshapes you as a person,” he says.
Kara Walker makes the same point, as an artist who recounts the brutality that the black body suffered in America via the Atlantic slave trade and the plantation economy. Her multimedia work “Dante (Free from the Burden of Gender or Race)” debuted in a September 2017 exhibit, a month after a violent rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, for the preservation of Confederate statues. “It’s her exploration of the placement of the black female body in the context of Dante’s ‘hell’ – the cleansing effects of hardship and the daily struggle of being a black woman in our society,” Weislogel explains.
And Yasumasa Morimura, a Japanese artist who remakes famous works of art by inserting himself into them, reinvented himself in his work “Self Portrait (Poppy)” as Beatrice in the painting “Beata Beatrix” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. . “Morimura really complicates the concepts of male and female beauty and sexual orientation by attacking the historic relationship between Dante and Beatrice, which is the founding principle of the ‘Divine Comedy’,” Weislogel explains. “Morimura is helping us look at this in a new way, which I think is really appropriate for this exhibition and the present moment.”
Ferri added: “These artists are living proof that even if you are from a different tradition – maybe Italian is not your language, maybe you are not interested in the Middle Ages. , or maybe you don’t believe in God – Dante is still for you.