Marking Ukraine Independence Day: 24 August 2022

Ukraine Independence Day at the Sackler Library
Book Display

By Jamie Copeland

 

The Sackler Library has hosted a display celebrating the unique cultural heritage of Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion back in February (see below for one such iteration).

 

A previous version of the Sackler Library’s Ukraine book display

 

Although the display was curated and regularly updated (by Graduate Library Trainee Izzie Salter, during her traineeship) it was felt that something new should be created; both to mark Ukraine Independence Day and to do what the Libraries could to promote an awareness of Ukraine’s artistic, archaeological and architectural heritage. There was also the opportunity to display the breadth of the Sackler’s collections, stretching from archaeological findings, including Scythian jewellery, through the Golden Age of Kyiv and the treasures of the churches, up to the strife of recent centuries and events where avant-garde and contemporary artists have continued the varieties of a resilient Ukrainian culture.

As the deadline of Ukraine Independence Day was close, I wanted to focus largely on the Sackler’s collections as they were immediately accessible (compared to the items held in other libraries) and could be selected for visual impact and as part of a curated collection focusing on material culture. I also wanted to take the opportunity to highlight individual artists who I felt had made important contributions to Ukraine’s culture. One of the more interesting issues of the conflict was also the debate about what constituted an independent Ukraine and whether there was such a nationality as the Ukrainians; from the history of nomadic populations and disputed borders to the internationalism of the USSR, masking famines and deportations. By promoting individual artists, I felt I could examine the histories of people such as Kazimir Malevich, an ethnically Polish artist born in Kiev, highly regarded as a leading figure in the Soviet avant-garde who described his nationality as Ukrainian when arrested for crimes against ‘Socialist Realism’. Another figure I found to be of interest was Donia Naschen, born in Zhitomir (then Russia, now Ukraine) whose family fled tsarist pogroms to settle in London, illustrating editions of Gogol, translations of the Haggadah, and WWII propaganda posters. I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight such individuals, from various backgrounds, linked by war and exile, but marked, I felt, by the shared environment of Ukraine and its cultures.

It was also necessary to create a poster to publicize the display. While researching the artists I had seen a particular work by Malevich which, unlike his more abstract works, shows a figure, almost devoid of feature, standing against a background that closely matches the Ukraine flag. Although the figure is faceless it seemed that this made it more representative of a people, with its seeming motionless, expressing an air of steadfastness.

 

 

While reading about the painting technique used by Malevich, the building of layers of paint to achieve a unique colour through the accumulation of surfaces, it occurred to me that I could add a (digital) layer of yellow to the image to heighten the resemblance to the flag without completely effacing the underlying image. I felt that this could be symbolic of the various histories of Ukraine and work as a promotional poster for the display, which I intended to reflect the Sackler’s holdings on Ukraine’s culture, celebrating its Independence Day, while extending beyond the war. The alterations to the image were made with GIMP, using largely fill and brush effects to retain a paint resemblance and allow the original image to show through. This was then pasted into a Word document to enable revisions to the text of the poster to be easily made.

With the art, archaeology and architecture collections that would make up the display, I wanted to include some books, such as ‘The gates of Europe: a history of Ukraine’ that would give an accessible overview of the nation’s history, combined with books, preferably in one of the languages previously/currently used in Ukraine, and from the Sackler holdings, that could address more specific topics. I wanted these, as being largely textual, to be arranged in a stack similar to a bookshop display to encourage people to feel free to browse the volumes without feeling that they were tampering with an arranged display.

To complement this and to reflect the strengths of the Sackler Library collections in architecture, archaeology and art I decided to group books in an order that would broadly follow the layout of the collections around the Sackler’s five-floor building. (See below image galleries.) So, starting from the left-hand side of the display, with items from the archaeology collections (normally housed on the Library’s lower floors) forming a pillar surmounted by a striking visual image. Complementing this, I placed a German language book on the early history of the Crimea, choosing a map showing the Scythians’ movement through the Crimea, which I hoped would display the long history of migration while showing Ukraine and the currently annexed Crimea as deeply connected geographies. The facing page also had illustrations of archaeological finds, which I wanted as a demonstration of the scientific aspect of that collection. While arranging the display I became concerned that a prominent map of an invasion might not be suitable for a day celebrating that nation’s independence. To balance this, I placed a book showing the collection of the Lviv Picture Gallery, open at a page containing a portrait of a woman dressed in blue and yellow.

 

 

Echoing this, and shifting to the Sackler Library’s art collections, I placed a selection of books on individual artists in the space behind, with the book, ‘Alexis Gritchenko: Dynamocolor’ opened at a painting that again had strong use of yellow and blue facing the chapter title quotation ‘The Young Ukrainian Artist Has Conquered Paris’ which I felt demonstrated the importance of Ukraine’s contribution to global culture and refuted the claim that Ukraine was merely a Russian province whose sense of nationhood was a recent Western creation.

 

 

To support the poster, I placed a book with Malevich’s name clearly visible. Although the Sackler has impressive holdings of publications on this artist I was careful about keeping the focus upon Ukraine Independence Day, so I restricted myself to one book on Malevich and one book about the Anna Leporskaya collection of his work, as she was an important Ukraine artist in her own right. I also felt her work as an archivist indicated the importance of cultural institutions as collective memory-banks. Below this, I placed a copy of the Haggadah, open at Donia Naschen’s illustration of Israel’s bondage, as I felt this would be a recognisable scene and that the yellow matched the adjacent promotion of badges supporting Ukraine.

Ukraine badges

(Please collect your Ukraine badge from the display.)

Finally, I placed another group of books themed around religious art and church buildings, as this would represent the Sackler’s holdings on architecture, and the significance of the granting of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in 2019, described by the then president as ‘a charter of [Ukraine’s] spiritual independence’.

Although reasonably happy with the final arrangement of the display, I was conscious of the need to show traditionally underrepresented artists and cultures within the Ukraine spectrum. Although work on these categories has been published recently, many of these publications are available primarily online so I was unable to include them in the display. I also wanted to make better use of the Sackler’s collections of art journals, especially regarding more contemporary artists. As the plan is to update the display in coming weeks I hope to be able to include this material in future arrangements.

Jamie Copeland
Library Assistant, Reader Services, Sackler Library

Book Display List

Andersen, Troels K.S.
Malevich: the Leporskaya archive
N6999.M34 A834 AND 2011
https://solo.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/permalink/f/89vilt/oxfaleph019770336

Brett, C. E. B.
Towers of Crim Tartary: English and Scottish architects and craftsmen in the Crimea, 1762-1853
947 K.Bre

Exter, A.
Alexandra Exter: Farbrhytmen
927.9 Ext.K

Müller, S. & others
Die Krim
580 M.104

Nakov, Andrei B.
Malevich: painting the absolute
N6999.M34 N35 NAK 2010

Nikitenko, N. N.
Sobor Svi͡atoĭ Sofii v Kieve: istorii͡a, arkhitektura, zhivopisʹ, nekropolʹ
S.vii. 87

Pekarska, L. & others
Jewellery of Princely Kiev: The Kiev Hoards in the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art 
S.iv. 376

Plokhy, Serhii.
The gates of Europe: a history of Ukraine
Week 45 (15)

Povstenko, Oleksa
The Cathedral of St. Sophia in Kiev
947 K.Kie

Roth, C., & D. Nachschen
The Haggadah: a new edition with English translation
HL3H [Nizami Ganjavi Library]

Shevchenko, Taras,
T.G. Shevchenko: zhivopis.
927.9 She.Z(1964) [pamph.]

Stepovyk, D. V.
Taras Shevchenko: zhyvopys, hrafika, alʹbom
927.9 She.S

Ukrainian Millennium Committee in Great Britain
A Millennium of Christian culture in Ukraine
M88.C00608

 

Sackler 101: New Acquisitions Lists

Many readers have commented on our visually and intellectually stimulating New Books Displays. Updated on a weekly basis, hard copy materials continue to be essential research tools for Sackler readers and we, too, think it’s important to showcase all the new acquisitions we receive.

(Photo credit: Grace Brown, Sackler Library)

The New Books Display is one of the final stages in a monograph’s journey to the Sackler’s shelves. It begins with our four Subject Librarians, specialists in their fields, who decide which new books (and journals) should be acquired. They make these decisions informed by their knowledge of the subject, their familiarity with relevant courses offered within the university, their understanding of readers’ areas of research, study and teaching, and also based on information received via reader recommendations. Our Subject Librarians liaise with Acquisitions staff who place orders with appropriate book sellers (aka ‘vendors’) and create what is known as a ‘minimal bibliographic record’ for each title on SOLO. (Hence researchers can use SOLO to find out whether a publication is ‘On Order’.) When books arrive from vendors they are passed to Cataloguing staff who create the full bibliographic records you see on SOLO. The books are delivered to the Sackler Library, and Reader Services staff transfer them to the New Books Display. (There is a parallel process for journal issues.)

New Books Displays were suspended during the early stages of the Covid pandemic, when the Sackler Library, along with the other Bodleian Libraries, was closed. Once we reopened (August 2020) and books began arriving again, we were able to reinstate our Displays.

While our physical New Books Displays are a great resource our readers have long expressed their interest in another important tool: New Acquisitions Lists. Similarly suspended during the pandemic, these have taken longer to reinstate (largely owing to e-infrastructure changes affecting the Bodleian Libraries as a whole). We are very pleased to re-launch these lists, beginning with a monster group of ‘back-lists’.

(Photo credit: Izzie Salter, Sackler Library)

This post provides links to lists of all new print acquisitions (monographs and journal issues) received by the Sackler Library since 2020:

– New Acquisitions, 2020-2021: monographs

– New Acquisitions, 2020-2021: journal issues

– New Acquisitions, 2020-2021: offsite material

– New Acquisitions, Michaelmas term, 2021: monographs

– New Acquisitions, Michaelmas term, 2021: journal issues

– New Acquisitions, Michaelmas term, 2021: offsite material

– New Acquisitions, Hilary term, 2022: monographs

– New Acquisitions, Hilary term, 2022: journal issues

– New Acquisitions, Hilary term, 2022: offsite material

Future lists will be released on the Sackler Library blog, on a regular basis.

 

Jennifer Bladen-Hovell, Senior Library Assistant, Sackler Library
Clare Hills-Nova, Librarian in Charge, Sackler Library

Viewing our Special Collections: An Event for History of Art Students

Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy. Translated by T.G. Bergin. Illustrated by Leonard Baskin (New York: Grossman, 1969)

 

This blog post documents my experience as a Graduate Library Trainee assisting at the ‘Introduction to Bodleian Libraries Special Collections’ event, held for History of Art undergraduate and graduate students at the Taylor Institution Library in December 2021.

 

Setting up for the Bodleian Libraries Special Collections event held for History of Art students at the Taylor Institution Library, December 2021. In the foreground: Edgar Allan Poe. The Raven. Illustrated by Mario Prassinos. (Paris: P. Vorms, 1952)

 

Across the libraries, we hold a myriad of intriguing and unique items. Still, it may be difficult for readers to know how to find these, and where to start. It is here where the then Subject Librarian for Art & Architecture Librarian and Italian Literature & Language, Clare Hills-Nova, was able to draw upon her knowledge of the Bodleian Libraries’ collections to introduce History of Art students to a few of our less well-known holdings.

Since having arrived at the Sackler in September 2021, I have been fortunate to spend plenty of time around visual culture materials. I’ve arranged a Japanese photobook display (in support of the Ashmolean’s Tokyo! exhibition), relabelled items from the WJ Strachan collectionand processed new publications about architects and artists on a broad range of periods and geographic areas. This is a far cry from my undergraduate haunts of law statutes and case reports – albeit a very welcome change. When Clare asked me to support the event she was planning for the History of Art Department’s students, and subsequently attend it, I was more than happy.

Artist interpretations of Dante’s Divine Comedy (14th Century – 21st Century)

The event comprised two parts. The first, held in the Voltaire Room, expanded upon the Taylorian’s exhibition on Dante Alighieri and his Divine Comedy, which my fellow Trainee Malcolm Spencer has so wonderfully discussed. The exhibition’s curator, Professor Gervase Rosser led a presentation here – titled ‘Illustrating Dante’s Divine Comedy – on artists’ interpretations of the themes expressed in the Comedy.

Voltaire Room
‘Illustrating Dante’s Divine Comedy’. Exhibition installation: One of the display cases in the Voltaire Room, Taylor Institution Library, showcasing work inspired by Dante’s The Divine Comedy. (Artists represented: Federico Zuccari, Giovanni Stradano, John Flaxman and Leonard Baskin.) Credit: Malcolm Spencer

 

This incorporated a vast range of work and approaches, as Professor Rosser traced the fluctuating reception of Dante’s Divine Comedy through the centuries. The talk (and display) included: a facsimile of one of the earliest illustrated Dante manuscripts of the 1330s; an edition of Doré’s seminal engravings, through which he became considered a ‘master of the visually dramatic narrative’ (Angel, 2014) (see image below, line 2, tile 1);  and  American artist Leonard Baskin’s compelling illustrations (1969). Also on view were some of the many recent translations of the Divine Comedy — some of them with striking book covers and other illustrative material.

 

A selection of translations of and commentaries on Dante’s Divine Comedy, from 1544 to 2018, shown at the event.

 

 

Edouard Goerg. L’Enfer [Dante’s Hell] (Paris: J. Porson, 1950)

 

 

In advance of this, Malcolm and I gathered together items on artists’ engagement with Dante from our libraries.

Among these were a small publication illustrating Geoffrey MacEwan’s paintings, Edouard Goerg’s etchings for Dante’s L’Enfer (Hell), many new translations with images of the Divine Comedy, and the Uffizi’s recent exhibition catalogue, Dante: la visione dell’arte, documenting many of the countless works inspired by Dante and the rest of his literary oeuvre. Books additional to those already on view in the exhibition’s display cases were arranged carefully around the room, framing the exhibition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Athanasius Kircher’s L’Arca di Noë (Amsterdam, 1675)

Athanasius Kircher. L’Arca di Noë (Amsterdam, 1975)

 

The second part of the event took place in the Taylorian’s Room 2, and showcased other works from the Sackler, Taylorian and Weston Libraries’ Special Collections. These works ranged in date and publication location from 17th century Amsterdam to 1970s Tokyo, via 1960s Los Angeles. Here, the earliest work on display was Athanasius Kircher’s (1602-1680) L’Arca di Noë (Amsterdam, 1675). This publication includes, for example, as shown, Kircher’s illustrations of hieroglyphics. Kircher prolifically studied and attempted to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics – from his translations and commentaries, he became considered ‘one of the greatest polymaths in 17th-Century Europe’ (Klawitter, 2015).

The page on display at the event was a fold-out depiction of the interior of Noah’s Ark, showing Noah’s family members, barrels of food (or beer) and a menagerie of creatures. What struck me in this view was the measurements below the image, giving dimensions of the Ark itself. Beyond being a fascinating detail, this grounds the narrative in reality. For contemporaries, it made the Ark easier to conceive, and its magnificent nature – even including a pair of unicorns – that bit more believable.  

Athanasius Kircher. L’Arca di Noë (1675) [composite image of several photos, from a fold-out page in the book, pasted together]
Up close: beer barrels and unicorns; measurements of the Ark.

 

F.G. Haverfield Collection (18th century interpretations of Classical art)

Turning to 18th century England, students could also see examples from the Sackler’s F. J. Haverfield Archive — specifically,  from his collection of images of Romano-British pavement mosaics. On display was an illustration of the mosaic found at Littlecote Park, Wiltshire – the ‘Orpheus’ mosaic – alongside Joseph Bonomi’s (1739-1808) original carpet and ceiling designs (1785) for Bowood House, Wiltshire. Bonomi, like many of his contemporaries such as the Adam brothers – John (1721-1792), Robert (1728-1792), and James (1732- 1794) – for whom he worked at various points, was inspired by classical art and architecture. It is thought that Haverfield may have included the Bonomi designs in his image collection because one of their sources of inspiration could have been the mosaics discovered around this time. Indeed, the carpet bears some resemblance in shape and content to the mosaic (and is perhaps why Haverfield included it in his collection).  You can find more about these works in a blog post written by former Trainee, Chloe Bolsover. These parallels were instantly compelling. The students could see the physical copies displayed side-by-side, draw comparisons, and possibly gain an understanding of the thought processes underlying Haverfield’s collection.

 

Joseph Bonomi. Carpet and Centaur Ceiling designs for Bowood House, Wiltshire (1785); George Vertue. A Roman mosaic found at Littlecote Park (1730)

 

W.J. Strachan Collection (mid-20th Century)

In the weeks preceding the event, Clare and I had explored the Strachan Collection of mid-20th century artists’ books, made in France, for potential display items. The Strachan Collection comprises over 250 items – with, according to Strachan himself, ‘every ‘ism” from Cubism to neo-realism represented. Therefore, deciding which items to include for the event was a challenge.

William Shakespeare. La Tempête. Illustrated by Leonor Fini (Paris: Aux dépens d’un amateur1965)

 

Ultimately, we decided to focus primarily on women, non-French and other less well-known artists. Among the selection was Leonor Fini’s beautiful lithographs for Shakespeare’s La Tempête (The Tempest), and Chinese artist Zao Wou-ki’s lithographs illustrating André Malraux’s La Tentation de l’Occident. To me, Wou-ki’s work was especially well-suited for the ‘Show’ aspect of this event: his bright and gestural work seems to capture harsh emotions so succinctly: hard to miss.

Andre Malraux. La Tentation de l’Occident. Illustrated by Zao Wou-ki (Paris: Les Bibliophiles Comptois, 1962) [Lower left corner: Le livre d’artiste: A Catalogue of the W.J. Strachan gift to the Taylor Institution (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum & Taylor Institution, 1987)]

 

Hans Bellmer, a German artist, was also on display. Bellmer is best known for creating a series of life-sized dolls and photographing them. The Nazi Party labelled this work as ‘degenerate’, causing him to flee to France in 1938, where he remained for the rest of his life. His interest in dolls can be seen in his engravings for Les Marionettes, through the somewhat disjointed limbs he illustrated. These are coloured with a distinct blue and yellow. For me, this made Bellmer’s work  particularly effective for a Show-and-Tell: viewers can trace the lines of his drawings, and enjoy the unique colours against the brown paper.

Heinrich von Kleist. Les Marionettes. Illustrated by Hans Bellmer (Paris: G. Visat, 1970)

 

Alongside these artists from the Strachan collection was Wifredo Lam’s etchings for L’antichambre de la Nature.  Of Chinese and Afro-Cuban descent Lam became familiar with African spiritual rites. It was also at this point that he began to be influenced by Surrealism. In 1938, he moved to Paris and met members of the art and poetry scene. He began to work alongside Picasso and became more interested by Cubism. After the Nazis occupied Paris, Lam returned to Cuba. Here, he combined his multiple artistic influences with his cultural experiences to create works on Afro-Cuban identity. To me, these various influences make Lam’s work so unique and striking. His singular work was therefore very fitting for the event, both to look at and to appreciate the diversity of the 1930s Parisian art scene.

Alain Jouffroy. L’antichambre de la Nature. Illustrated by Wifredo Lam (Paris: O. Lazar-Vernet, 1960)

 

Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966)

Edward Ruscha. Every Building on the Sunset Strip (Los Angeles, 1966)
Students viewing Edward Ruscha. Every Building on the Sunset Strip (Los Angeles, 1966)

We also showed Edward (Ed) Ruscha’s iconic Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966)Running through through West Hollywood, Ruscha pasted hundreds of his photographs of the Strip together to create an 8-metre linear image. He shot these photos from his pick-up truck, with a motorized Nikon camera positioned on top. Interestingly, Ruscha opted to set the lens to infinity, bringing everything in each image into equal focus. The result is remarkable, almost like a flattened montage. Every Building on the Sunset Strip arrived in a slim silver slipcase – deceptively, very small (18 cm.). As we unfolded it, we asked our building staff, again and again, to bring in another table to support the length of the ‘strip’. It ended up stretching almost the whole length of the Taylorian’s Room 2! In the images shown here, the viewer can grasp the extent of the Strip, as Ruscha perhaps intended it to be viewed (many museums display it in concertina format).

 

Edward Ruscha. Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966)

 

The Japanese Box (1960s-1970s)

The item I was personally most excited about was The Japanese Box, a facsimile edition (2001) of seminal photographic works produced in post-War Japan. Throughout this Michaelmas term 2021 at the Sackler Library, I worked with a lot of material on Japanese photography, particularly from the 1970s. I created a book display in conjunction with the Tokyo exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, and a corresponding blog post. Whilst researching for the post, I read a lot about Provoke, a 1960s-1970s avant-garde Japanese photography magazine, and its associated photographers. I developed a real love for the style and telos of this magazine. The photographers tasked themselves with reclaiming ‘documentation’ and they were keen to show life in 1970s Japan beyond the general perception of it as an economic powerhouse and post-war ideal. When Clare told me that the event for the History of Art students would include a box of recently-acquired facsimiles of the three issues of Provoke, alongside monographs by Provoke photographers, I was genuinely thrilled.

 

The Japanese Box: Provoke issues 1, 2 and 3; Takuma Nakahira. Kitarubeki kotoba no tame ni (For a language to come(1970); Nobuyoshi Araki. Senchimentaru na tabi (Sentimental journey) (1971); and Daido Moriyama. Shashin yo sayonara (A farewell to photography(1972)

 

The Japanese Box : Facsimile Reprint of Six Rare Photographic Publications of the Provoke Era. Designed by Karl Lagerfeld.(Limited ed. Paris, 2001)

As with much of Japanese publishing it was clear that a lot of thought had gone into the design and packaging of this facsimile set. Characteristically, the black box containing the publications was itself striking: it was designed by Karl Lagerfeld. Inside, ‘designer’ plastic bands, labelled ‘The Japanese Box’, carefully held the six publications together.  We spread them out on the table, ready for students to examine. Picking each volume up, we could see a rich array of photos of Japan and each artist’s personal experience of living there. This ranged from Nobuyoshi Araki’s photos of his honeymoon in Sentimental Journey (Senchimentaru na tabi), to student protests in Tokyo in Provoke. A few days ahead of the event, Clare asked me to introduce the event’s attendees to the box and its contents. Studying and presenting this set was a highlight of my traineeship. After my presentation several students asked to examine the Box’s contents further, and we discussed the Provoke movement while viewing our favourite images in the set. 

Concluding thoughts

At the event itself, the students appeared to be completely immersed in the works we showed. In the Voltaire Room, where Professor Gervase Rosser presented the Dante-inspired work, attendees asked questions about how different artists interpreted the themes of the Divine Comedy. In Room 2, the group lined up along the length of Every Building on the Sunset Strip, pointing at (for example) where pasted pictures cut up cars. L’Arca di Noë invited students to examine the interplay between imagination and reality, whilst others admired the various artists’ books and different mosaic patterns from the Haverfield collection. Although held on the last day of term, the event overran, with many attendees keen to continue examining and discussing the works on display. It was a huge success, and a tribute to the remarkable range of Special Collections held across the libraries. I cannot wait to explore them further.

Izzie Salter
Graduate Trainee, Sackler Library

References

Angel, Sara. “‘Too Many Illustrations, Not Enough Glory’: Known for his Art for Dante’s ‘Inferno,’ Gustave Dore Merited Wider Fame.” Maclean’s (Toronto) 127.23 (2014): 66. Web. (available publicly here)

Strachan, WJ. The Artist and the Book in France. The 20th Century Livre D’artiste. London: Owen, 1969. Print. (Sackler Library Shelfmark: 914.2 Str)

 

‘Illustrating Dante’s Divine Comedy’ Through the Eyes of Final Year Italian Students

Introduction

By Dr Rebecca Bowen (Retained Lecturer in Italian, Pembroke College)

Dante bust and exhibition poster
Illustrating Dante’s Divine Comedy. Exhibition view, Voltaire Room, Taylor Institution Library (October – December 2021)

2021 marked the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri, Florentine poet, author of the Divine Comedy, and an icon of medieval European literature. The many celebrations held in his honour ranged from exhibitions, rare book displays and academic conferences to live readings of the poem and even Dante-themed ice-creams. This cultural eclecticism attests to the enduring impact of Dante’s works as well as the celebrity of his image, an image able to be absorbed into gastronomic promotions as much as lauded for its literary might. The distorting effects of fame were a preoccupation of Dante who, at the start of his philosophical treatise the Convivio, complains: ‘I have appeared before the eyes of many who, perhaps because of some report (fama), had imagined me in another light […since] the image generated by fame alone is always greater, whatever it may be, than the imagined thing in its true state’ (Convivio. I.iii.11).

Uncovering the ‘true state’ of Dante and his works is a primary aim of Dante Studies, an area of research that has thrived at Oxford since the late 19th century. The University’s museums and libraries have always played a crucial role in this path of discovery, preserving rich records of the poet’s reception and the ongoing vitality of his readerly appeal. The recent exhibition of items from the Sackler and Taylor Institution libraries, ‘Illustrating Dante’s Divine Comedy’, was exemplary in this respect. Curated by Professor Gervase Rosser and Clare Hills-Nova with items from Bodleian Libraries collections (principally, Sackler Library and Taylor Institution Library), the display reflected the depth and eclecticism of the visual tradition held by the University, from the intricately illuminated pages of fourteenth-century manuscripts to the neo-expressionist lithographs produced by contemporary artist Mimmo Paladino of the recent centenary year.

Presided over by the Taylorian’s august bust of Dante, whose personal iconography is a topic of myth and debate, the exhibition showcased an array of colourful interpretations of the Comedy. What the poet himself might have made of this visual afterlife becomes an almost unavoidable area of speculation. In an apocryphal tale from the 1390s, the Florentine writer Franco Sacchetti imagines Dante vociferously defending his poem against misquotation by a blacksmith, exclaiming ‘I have no other craft, and you’re ruining it’ (Trecentonovelle, 114). As far as craft goes, the Comedy is very much a literary artefact, addressing its reader no less than fifteen times and frequently emphasising the ineffability of its own descriptions. What is a reader of Dante’s poem to make of visual renditions of his text?

Final year Italian Literature and Languages students from Pembroke, Merton and Wadham colleges turned their attention to this question, using their knowledge of Dante’s poem to examine the rich visual traditions on display in the Taylorian exhibition. Offering insights into the material history and visual details of some of the objects on display, Izzy, Joshua, Anna, Matt and Olivia explore the role of these illustrations as creative records of the poem’s reception, and offer reflections on why they are interested in reading Dante today.

Dante Exhibition Display Case
19th and 20th century illustrations showing works by John Flaxman (lower left), Giovanni Stradano (upper right), and Federico Zuccari (upper left)

Isobel Sanders (Merton College)

Milton Klonsky. Blake’s Dante: The Complete Illustrations to the Divine Comedy (New York: Harmony, 1980).

Klomsky presents Blake’s evocative set of drawings and engravings for Dante’s Comedy, commissioned by John Linnell who sought to provide inspiration for Blake’s creativity alongside some much-needed money towards the end of his life. Few are complete yet this doesn’t make the rest any less engaging. Rather, we are granted insight into Blake’s artistic process, imagining for ourselves what a ‘completed, coloured-in’ version might look like. The works hug the text closely, although Blake didn’t always agree with Dante’s politics, revealed through damning remarks to friends. Small deviations appear in his watercolours, too. The Angel at Purgatory’s entrance seems bored or miserable, his eyelids half-shut; in Blake’s representation of Inferno 14, fire burns upwards rather than falling downwards. Could this be an act of defiance against Dante’s choice of infernal punishment known as the contrapasso, whereby sinners experienced a form of retribution directly related to their sin, often in inverse form? Politics, theology, ideas about fortune and sexuality all add nuance to Blake’s paintings. For, after all, going from one art form to another can never enact an exact ‘translation’. Blake’s illustrations, while rooted in the Romantic era, conjure up the Renaissance – the faces have a touch of Botticelli, or perhaps da Vinci, about them. Imaginative, unsettling and profoundly beautiful, Blake’s drawings establish a dialogue not only with Dante but also with other illustrators, over borders and across centuries. A perusal of Klomsky’s book reveals just how re-presenting the work of another is itself an exegesis – an act of personal interpretation and subsequent production.

Joshua Lavorini (Pembroke College)

Dante Alighieri. Opere di Dante Alighieri: Dedicata alla sagra imperial maesta di Elisabetta Petrowna, imperatrice di tutte le Russie ec. ec. ec. dal conte Don Cristoforo Zapata de Cisneros. Illustrated by Francesco Fontebasso, Gaetano Zompini & others 1757)

This image shows Dante presenting his work to the doge of Venice. The regal stature of the doge may call to mind the exile Dante suffered during the last twenty years of his life, since he learned ‘the bitterness of foreign bread’ (‘come sa di sale / lo pane altrui,’ Par. XVII.58–59) and was always both privileged and humbled by the patronage of other courts. The position of the crown above the doge’s head may be significant: in Paradiso, Dante fantasises that one day ‘I will return a poet, and at the font where I was baptised I will take the crown’ (‘ritorneró poeta, e in sul fonte / del mio battesmo prenderó ‘l cappello,’ Par. XXV.8–9) but in this image, it is the doge, to whom the poet comes in humility, that wears the crown. The faces in the crowd also provoke some thought – why do those to the right seem to be looking upwards towards the sky? What are those on the left looking at? Only the doge seems to be looking directly at the Tuscan poet. The dedication of this edition to Elizabeth Petrovna, Empress of Russia from 1741 until her death in 1762, attests to the fact that that Dante’s presence in Russia grew in the eighteenth century. Boris Antonov tells us that Petrovna encouraged Ivan Shuvalov’s foundation of the Imperial Academy of Arts and financed the grandiose Baroque projects of her favourite architect, Bartolomeo Rastrelli, particularly in the Peterhof Palace. She was clearly very interested in the arts (she spoke French, Italian and German as well as Russian), so it should come as no surprise that she should be fond of Dante. Dante’s impact on Russian culture continued long after her death, leaving a mark on the nation’s poetic symbolism. One Russian writer who was deeply interested in Italy and, by extension, Dante, is Nikolai Gogol. His book Dead Souls, described by him as a poem (despite being written in prose form), was intended to be the first part, i.e., Inferno, (set in contemporary Russia) of his own Divine Comedy. Gogol died before finishing the trilogy, and in a Virgilian act of insanity, burned the second part of Dead Souls. As well as his imitation of classical precedents (he wanted to imitate the Odyssey and Homeric epics), Gogol shares with Dante the use of almost uncomfortable humour and criticism of corruption. Another Russian whose work includes reference to Dante is Tchaikovsky. His orchestral fantasia Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32 (1876) was inspired by an episode in Canto V of the Inferno. In his correspondence, Tchaikovsky frequently quoted lines from Inferno V ‘there is no greater sorrow than to recall moments of happiness in misery’ (‘Nessun maggior dolore / che ricordarsi del tempo felice / ne la miseria,’ Inf. V.121–23), drawing on the enduring pathos of Dante’s infernal lovers.

Dante Exhibition Display Case
Top Left: Landino’s and Vellutello’s combined commentary. Lower Right: Edition dedicated to Elisabetta Petrowna

Anna Zakonyi (Pembroke College)

Dante Alighieri, Cristoforo Landino, Alessandro Vellutello, La Comedia di Dante con l’espositione di Christoforo Landino, et di Alessandro Vellutello (Venice: Giovambattista Marchio Sessa et fratelli, 1564).

Landino and Vellutello’s combined commentary on Dante’s Divina Commedia was originally published in 1564 by the Venetian typographer Sessa, under the editorial supervision of Francesco Sansovino. Consisting of 28 introductory leaves and 392 leaves of commentary, this volume returns to the folio format of medieval tradition, incorporating woodcut illustrations from Marcolini’s Commedia (1544) and the two commentaries with citations of Dante’s poem. The illustrations, in contrast to previous iconographic tradition, act as a continuation of the commentaries, focusing particularly on the topography of Dante’s Afterlife. The combination of Landino and Vellutello’s commentaries on the Commedia (originally published in 1481 and 1544 respectively) is also novel, as it integrates two different approaches: Landino prioritises allegory whilst Vellutello focuses on meaning. Such innovation enjoyed public acclaim, and Sessa re-published the volume in 1578 and 1596 with minimal corrections. Of particular interest is the great authority given to Landino and Vellutello over Dante’s poem. Note, for example, how snippets of the Commedia are explained both by the ‘Argomento’ canto summary under the illustrations and by the double commentary which engulfs the terzine; this allows the commentators to guide the reader’s interpretation, reflecting medieval tradition whereby commentators largely assumed superiority over their subject texts. Considering Dante’s modern dominance within the Italian literary canon, such authority afforded to Landino and Vellutello intrigued me, with this hierarchical organisation – whereby the two commentators are, arguably, superior to the poet – what first drew me to the work. The combination of two commentaries, illustrations, and an extended introduction including a background on Dante’s Florence and his vocabulary, would have made this text an excellent guide to reading and understanding the poem. As a student of Italian myself, this insight into how Renaissance readers might have approached their study of Dante was what interested me most about the work.

Matthew Webb (Wadham College)

Lippmann, Friedrich. Zeichnungen von Sandro Botticelli zu Dante’s Goettlicher Komoedie: Nach den Originalen im K. Kupferstichkabinet zu Berlin (Berlin: G. Grote’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1887).

This facsimile of Botticelli’s original drawing from c. 1481–88 depicts the Terrace of Pride in canto X of Purgatorio. Botticelli’s drawings distinguished themselves from other fourteenth-century representations of Dante’s text in their presentation of a continuous narrative. Instead of focusing on a single incident in the canto, we are taken, like Dante, through the Terrace of Pride by Virgil, whose guiding arm indicates the chronology of the scene. First, we see Dante and Virgil emerging from a crevice in the bottom left. Then, having ascended onto the terrace itself, we see four separate scenes that move in a rightward direction. The first three of these, depicting Dante and Virgil gazing at marble engravings of biblical and pagan stories exemplifying humility, layer narratives within the main narrative of Dante and Virgil’s journey, mirroring the effect Dante creates in his text through ekphrastic descriptions of the engravings. In this way, Botticelli’s drawing captures the depth and complexity of Dante’s narrative, instead of presenting one static event. I find the astonishing level of detail intriguing, particularly the representation of marble engraving in the image, a virtuosic display of Botticelli’s own skill as a painter (and maybe also a sign of pride). The original was part of a wider collection of illustrations that were commissioned by the artist’s patron, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, which, when brought to sale in the late 19th century, were purchased by Friedrich Lippmann and placed in the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin. This remarkably detailed set of facsimiles dates from around the time of the sale, an artefact in its own right.

Dante Exhibition Display Case
Left: MS. 8o It.3 (1395 ). Right: Dante’s ‘Terrace of Pride’ (Purgatorio X), as illustrated by Botticelli

Olivia Ganderton (Pembroke College)

Lippmann, Friedrich. Zeichnungen von Sandro Botticelli zu Dante’s Goettlicher Komoedie: Nach den Originalen im K. Kupferstichkabinet zu Berlin (Berlin: G. Grote’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1887).

Dante’s Purgatory I, as illustrated by Bottiicelli

Botticelli’s late fifteenth-century drawing for Purgatorio I, often thought to have been commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, piqued my interest specifically due to the challenge posed to the artist to portray both this particular canto and introduce the viewer to a whole new cantica, that of Purgatory. The drawing shows Dante and Virgil entering the realm of Purgatory, where they meet its guardian, Cato (the figure furthest right), who then advises Virgil to wash Dante clean of the filth from his journey through Hell. Moving right to left, the following elements of the canto are illustrated: Cato halts the poets and asks them their business; Virgil plucks grass to cleanse Dante; Virgil wraps reeds around Dante’s waist; a ship-full of new souls arrives on the shores of Purgatory. These events occur one after the other, yet Botticelli decides to include each moment simultaneously in his drawing, giving a sense of unity and circularity to this stage of the afterlife, whilst choosing to give each stage equal status. This continuity is further emphasised by his inclusion of the ship-full of souls furthest to the right that will be described in the second canto of Purgatory, offering a conceptual connection between the composition of the image and movement of the narrative in the text. 

 

 

 

Further Reading:

Antonov, Boris (2006). Russian Tsars. Saint Petersburg: Ivan Fiorodov Art Publishers.

Gombrich, E. H. (1979), ‘Giotto’s Portrait of Dante?’, The Burlington Magazine, 121.917: 471–483.

Parker, Deborah (2013), ‘Illuminating Botticelli’s Chart of Hell’, MLN, 128.1.

Ricci, Lucia Battaglia (2009), ‘Ai Margini del Testo: Considerazioni sulla Tradizione del “Dante illustrato”’, Italianistica, 38.2: 39–58.

Rosser, Geravse (2005), ‘Turning Tale into Vision: Time and the Image in the “Divina Commedia”’, RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 48: 106–122.