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The Image of Dante, the Divine Comedy and the Visual Arts: Part II

The Image of Dante, the Divine Comedy and the Visual Arts
in the Ashmolean Museum and the Taylor Institution

II: The Divine Comedy Illustrated

This is the second of two short articles concerning the iconography of Dante as represented in the collections of the Ashmolean Museum and the Taylor Institution in Oxford. The first concerned the image of Dante himself. This one is focused on Ashmolean and Taylorian illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy.

It has often been said that the Divine Comedy is impossible to render in another medium – and that those who have tried to depict the Comedy have all, more-or-less hopelessly, failed. Some have been criticised for being too literal, failing to engage with the higher purpose of the poem; others for sacrificing Dante to their personal artistic ambitions. Underlying these criticisms is an idea of Dante’s text as a pure and independent work of art. Anything added to this is suspect. Such arguments are equally by-products of a misguided cult of authenticity, reinforced in this context by an enduring academic tendency to privilege the word over the image.

Rather than making a fetish of some imagined original and ideal reader of the poem, and consequently lamenting the supposed corruption of interpreters, it makes more sense historically to consider with an open mind the various ways in which the Comedy has been experienced across the seven centuries since its composition. Reception has always entailed visualisation – whether in the material frame of the text or in the mind of the reader. The reception history of the Comedy, seen through the material evidence of the book in its many editions, is a constant reminder of the ever-changing variety of Dante’s readers. In fact, the evidence of imagery associated with Dante, which can be sampled from the holdings of the Ashmolean Museum and the Taylor Institution Library, indicates what we know ourselves as readers: that text and visual images are constantly in mutual dialogue.

The Comedy began to be illustrated almost as soon as it was written down: the earliest manuscript copies containing pictures date from the second quarter of the fourteenth century. More than five hundred codices of the poem from this and the following century have some form of pictures, although half of these cases include only minimal imagery, while some 150 are extensively illustrated. The arrival of printing, therefore, did not inaugurate the illustrated Comedy. The Bodleian Library possesses important examples of this early manuscript tradition, whilst the illustrated texts in the Taylor Institution Library are printed versions from the late fifteenth century onwards.

Sandro Botticelli, Illustration to Inferno Canto XV, facsimile Zeichnungen von Sandro Botticelli zu Dantes Goettlicher Komoedie: nach den Originalen im K. Kupferstichkabinett zu Berlin (Berlin: G. Grote’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1887) Taylor Institution Library: REP.X.55 (plates)

Botticelli’s enormous project to illustrate the Comedy was, in a sense, the culmination of the medieval tradition of illustrated manuscript copies of the poem. Botticelli’s drawings themselves are now divided between Rome and (for the greater part) Berlin. The acquisition of these sheets in 1884 by the Kupferstichkabinett zu Berlin (Museum of Prints and Drawings) was followed by the publication of facsimiles of the complete series, made to the highest standards of the day and disseminated, as an act of cultural diplomacy, to the major collections of Europe. The Taylor Institution Library owns a copy of the portfolio of loose plates.

Botticelli’s patron must have been a wealthy Florentine patrician, who was content for his artist to work on a grand scale, and to allow his imagination, responding to the poem, to build creatively on the pre-existing repertoire of illustrations to the Comedy. The moment was an important one in the process of Tuscan re-adoption of the exiled Florentine: in 1481, a decade after the appearance of the first, north Italian, printed edition, the Comedy was published in the city of Dante’s birth. This version was accompanied by an extensive commentary and a patriotic introduction by Cristoforo Landino, who boasted that the new edition effectively repatriated the author: ‘…Firenze lungo tempo dolente ma finalmente lieta sommamente si congratula col suo poeta Dante nel fine di due secoli risuscitato et restituto nella patria sua’ (‘After a long period of grief, Florence can finally and happily celebrate to the utmost with her poet, Dante, who after two centuries has been restored to life and to his homeland’). The book was also illustrated with woodblock prints, which for the first half of Inferno were based on the drawings on which Botticelli was evidently simultaneously at work. For the rest, Botticelli’s progress was evidently too slow to be of use, and other designs were deployed. These woodblocks would be re-used in diverse editions over several years.

Commento di Christophoro Landino fiorentino sopra la comedia di Dante Alighieri poeta fiorentino (Venice, 1491) Taylor Institution Library: ARCH.Fol.It.1491(1)


















The Ashmolean Print Room possesses a number of detached woodcuts from this series, painstakingly cut out from copies of the book by early collectors of printed images. In some cases, previous owners of the books had enhanced the pictures with the addition of colour.

Woodcuts from the Comedy published in Venice in 1491(?) Ashmolean Museum: Douce Collection WA.2003 (Italian sequence, unmounted)

Landino’s extensive commentary made a visual announcement that the text was quasi-biblical in its need of authoritative exposition. By the same token, however, the annotations threatened to overwhelm the text, which, like the Bible, was also known in less intellectualised forms. In an evident reaction against the perceived clutter of the Tuscan layout, the great Venetian publisher Aldus Manutius produced a simple text edition, with the collaboration of Pietro Bembo. The latter owned a copy of the Comedy once given by Boccaccio to Petrarch, which encouraged the editors to think their version superior to others. Their claim was that modern Tuscan versions had corrupted the text with changes in vernacular usage, whereas they were presenting the ‘authentic’ Dante. Once again, an idea of authenticity is contrasted with the supposed inadequacy of anything which might betray the process of reception and the passage of time. Aldus’s end-note authoritatively declares: ‘Venetiis in aedibus Aldi accuratissime men’. The title page bears the simple legend: ‘Le terze rime di Dante’. The text appears unencumbered.

Lo’nferno e’l Purgatorio e’l Paradiso di Dante Alaghieri (Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1502) Taylor Institution Library: ARCH.12°.It.1502

But although the prestige of the Bembo-Aldus text meant that it was frequently copied thereafter, it was in fact far from perfect, giving the opportunity for the Tuscan Alessandro Vellutello to condemn its failings and so to reclaim the book for Florence. Vellutello’s extra-annotated edition of 1544 (ironically published in Venice) would in turn provide the initial basis for the official Florentine imprint of the Accademia della Crusca in the 1590s. The 1544 printing also introduced a number of diagrams of Hell, based partly on the work on this subject written in Florence in the fifteenth century by Antonio Manetti. Sixteenth-century readers were interested to apply the latest techniques of geographical measurement to their reading of the poem. It is often pointed out that many more editions of Petrarch than of Dante appeared in print before 1600; yet the latter was not seen as outdated.

La comedia di Dante Aligieri con la noua espositione di Alessandro Vellutello (Venice, 1544) Taylor Institution Library: ARCH.8°.It.1544(2)

In 1564, for the first time, the author appeared on the title page both in the largest lettering and in a portrait (apparently derived from those by Raphael, or otherwise from those fifteenth-century Florentine depictions on which Raphael himself had drawn).

Dante con l’espositione di Christoforo Landino et di Alessandro Vellutello sopra la sua comedia dell’Inferno, del Purgatorio, & del Paradiso (Venice, 1564)
Taylor Institution Library: ARCH.Fol.It.1564(1)

The Ashmolean Museum possesses an extraordinary testament to the status of Dante in mid-sixteenth-century Tuscany, in the form of a wax relief, probably made in the late eighteenth century as a cast copy of its Renaissance original. That work was made by the young virtuoso sculptor Pierino da Vinci, on commission from the prominent Dante scholar, engineer, and Medicean governor of Pisa, Luca Martini. The subject is the shocking scene, described in Cantos 32 and 33 of Inferno, of the imprisonment and starvation by Archbishop Ruggiero of Pisa of his enemy, Ugolino, together with the latter’s sons and grandsons. Both the patron’s deep knowledge of the poem and his official posting to Pisa explain the appearance of this, the first Dantean subject to be rendered as an independent work of art.

Pierino da Vinci (after), Ugolino and His Sons and Grandsons in the Tower of Famine. Wax relief. Probably late 18th-century Ashmolean Museum: WA1897.190 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Only months before this commission, in the late 1540s, a famous discussion had been conducted in Florence concerning the status of the various arts. Benedetto Varchi, who orchestrated that debate together with Luca Martini, proposed that in order to render Dante’s Inferno or Pugatorio in visual art, the better medium would be, not painting, but relief sculpture. Giorgio Vasari, who saw the relief which ensued, commented that ‘In this work Vinci displayed the excellence of design no less than did Dante the perfection of poetry in his verses, for no less compassion is stirred by the attitudes shaped in wax by the sculptor in him who beholds them, than is roused in him who listens to the words and accents imprinted on the living page by the poet.’ Bearing in mind this reference to a wax version, it is not altogether impossible, on the available evidence, that the Ashmolean relief was made by Pierino da Vinci – even if the arrival of the bronze in Britain creates a plausible context for the manufacture of a wax version (together with several terracotta casts which are known, and of which the Ashmolean possesses an example: WA1888.CDEF.S28) for an eighteenth-century collector. (The bronze version, which for more than two centuries resided in the house of the Dukes of Devonshire at Chatsworth, was in 2010 sold to the Prince of Liechtenstein; it is now in that family’s palace in Vienna.)

The afterlife of Pierino da Vinci’s bronze Ugolino had momentous consequences for the imagery of the Comedy in the nineteenth century. By the seventeenth century it had been attributed to Michelangelo: not a foolish idea, given Pierino’s admiration and emulation of the master which is so evident in the figures. Acquired and brought home by a travelling English artist around 1700, it was seen by the painter and critic Jonathan Richardson, who in an influential essay on art criticism praised the sculptor’s ability to lift the communication of great ideas even beyond the power of words.

Joshua Reynolds, himself a passionate admirer of Michelangelo, responded to Richardson’s challenge with a painting of the same subject, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1773 (now at Knole, Kent). Once John Dixon had in 1774 made an engraving after Reynolds’s picture, the tragic subject was launched as an ideal point of reference for the Romantic imagination, as Dante’s poem came back into favour around 1800. Along with the episode of Paolo and Francesca, that of Ugolino’s imprisonment dominated the selection of scenes from the Comedy chosen for depiction by numerous nineteenth-century artists.

At the same period a number of artists rose to the challenge of illustrating the entire poem. By the time that Gustave Doré embarked on his Dante series in the 1850s, the poet was thoroughly established in French and European culture, which helps to explain the enormous impact of those particular designs. It was, by contrast, at a relatively early moment in the nineteenth-century boom in Dante’s critical fortune that William Blake, in the 1820s, undertook a similar project. Blake’s response to Dante was so personal, that it has often been assumed to have sacrificed the poem to Blake’s idiosyncratic visual mythologies. This does injustice to the work, on which Blake was exclusively and passionately engaged in the final, illness-ridden years of his life. Blake had enormous respect for Dante, despite disagreeing with aspects of his theology; but the strength of his imagery stems from the fact that he regarded himself as equal to the medieval poet as both poet and visionary. A century ago Blake’s watercolour drawings, which he made as steps towards a never completed series of engravings, were distributed to various museums by the Art Fund. One given to the Ashmolean is amongst the most beautiful of the set. It relates to Paradiso Canto 24, and represents Dante and Beatrice in the Constellation of Gemini.

William Blake, Beatrice and Dante in Gemini, 1824-7. Watercolour over graphite with some pen and ink and black chalk Ashmolean Museum: WA1918.5 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The Print Room also holds a set of the seven partially completed prints by Blake, which his friend and publisher John Linnell had solicited from him.

William Blake, The Six-footed Serpent Attacking Buoso de’ Donati (Inferno Canto 25). Engraving Ashmolean Museum: WA1941.27.5

In the next generation and in his own fashion, Dante Gabriel Rossetti also brought into focus aspects of the Comedy which had previously been less noticed.  He contributed to a new fascination with the youthful Dante of the lyric poetry and the Vita Nuova. The poet, in Rossetti’s imagery, shifts from the role of hero to that of lover. This is exemplified in the Ashmolean’s Beatrice at a Marriage Feast Denying Her Salutation to Dante.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beatrice at a Marriage Feast Denying Her Salutation to Dante. Watercolour and bodycolour with some pen Ashmolean Museum: WA1942.156 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Rossetti was prompted in particular directions by John Ruskin, who proposed several subjects for the artist to take from Purgatorio. One of these was the character of Matelda (or Matilda), seen by Dante in the Earthly Paradise. Rossetti’s painting of this subject is lost, but the Ashmolean holds a detailed preparatory drawing.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Dante’s Vision of Matilda Gathering Flowers (Purgatorio Canto 28). Pen and brown ink. Ashmolean Museum: WA1942.157 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Dante describes Matelda as ‘una donna soletta’ who picks flowers and sings by herself. Rossetti, ever drawn to ideas of friendship and evidently eager, perhaps under the influence of Ruskin, to emphasise a feminine principle, multiplied the female presence in his image.

Other artists in Oxford collections have engaged in diverse ways with Dante’s Comedy. Rodin’s work for his never completed Dantesque scheme, The Gates of Hell, is represented in the Ashmolean Print Room by a small engraving of Souls in Purgatory (WA1946.263). A few drawings for Tom Phillips’s Inferno (1985; WA2009.94 and WA2009.96–99) are held in the Print Room, while several boxes of related materials are catalogued in the Bodleian Library Special Collections. Also in the Print Room are sets of Geoff MacEwan’s Inferno (1990) and Purgatory (2008) engravings. In the latter the Earthly Paradise, an oasis of green ringed by purificatory flames, bursts into colour and into an abstract simplification of form. The poem continues to find imaginative responses which themselves generate new readings and new readers.

Geoff MacEwan, ‘The Garden’ 2008 © Geoff MacEwan Reproduced with the Artist’s permission


In June 2017 seminars on Dante and the visual arts were held, on two occasions for different audiences, in the Western Art Print Room of the Ashmolean Museum. The project was the result of my experience as Faculty Fellow in the Department of Western Art at the Ashmolean. I am very grateful to the following who contributed generously and enthusiastically to the collaboration: the Keeper of Western Art, Dr Catherine Whistler; the Leverhulme Research Assistant (Raphael Project), Angelamaria Aceto; the Print Room Supervisors, Dr Caroline Palmer and Katherine Wodehouse; the Bodleian Libraries’ Librarian for Art & Architecture, and for Italian Literature & Language, Clare Hills-Nova; the Picture Library Curator of the Ashmolean Museum, Amy Taylor; and Jim Harris, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Teaching Curator at the Ashmolean, together with Unity Coombes and Ben Skarratt, UEP Museum Assistants.

Professor Gervase Rosser
History of Art Department & Faculty of History
University of Oxford

LGBT History Month: Piranesi Special Seminar

A personal view: Yourcenar, Piranesi and Egypt
By Richard Bruce Parkinson

In the early 1960s, Marguerite Yourcenar wrote an essay on ‘Le cerveau noir de Piranèse (The dark brain of Piranesi)’. Earlier, in 1941, she and her American life-partner Grace Frick had bought four engravings in New York which remained with them for the rest of their lives, and one of them played a part in inspiring what remains her most famous work, Mémoires d’Hadrien (Memoirs of Hadrian 1951). The novel is a poetic evocation of the life of the Roman emperor, including his relationship with the handsome Antinous, who died on an imperial progress in middle Egypt in AD 130. The novel has always had particular resonance for LGBT readers as a profoundly ‘queer’ imagining of the ancient past, but it has also been inspirational for some Egyptologists, notably the great Philippe Derchain (1926–2012), who even composed a fictional account, in an intertextual dialogue with Yourcenar’s novel, of the Barberini obelisk that Hadrian had erected in Antinous’ honour.

Fig. 1. G. B. Piranesi: ‘Exterior of the so-called “Tempio del Dio Canopo” at Hadrian’s Villa,Tivoli’, in Vedute di Roma, vol. 5 (ca. 1769)

The above print, by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), from around 1769, shows the exterior of the so-called ‘Tempio del Dio Canopo’ at Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli from the series entitled Vedute di Roma, which forms volume 5 in Taylorian founder Sir Robert Taylor’s own set of Piranesi volumes, now housed in the Taylor Institution Library (see The villa was central to Yourcenar’s inspiration, and this is the one image she described in detail in her reflective notes on composing the novel. From ancient descriptions of the villa as containing a ‘Canopus’, the building at its centre was thought to represent the town of Canopus in Egypt, and it was traditionally regarded as the find spot for many Egyptianising works of art from the villa. In the novel, ‘cette chapelle de Canope où son culte se célèbre à l’égyptienne (that chapel of Canopus where his cult is celebrated in Egyptian fashion)’ is evoked as Hadrian attempts to summon up the ghost of his lost beloved. Piranesi’s print is a carefully captioned view of the structure, reflecting his concerns to document the ‘speaking ruins’ of ancient Rome, but it also possesses a romantic quality that appealed to Yourcenar. She described the etching as showing ‘structure ronde, éclatée come un crâne, d’où de vagues broussailles pendent comme des mèches de cheveux. Le génie presque médiumnique de Piranèse a flairé là l’hallucination, les longues routines du souvenir, l’architecture tragique d’un monde intérieur (a round structure, burst open like a skull, from which fallen trees and brush hang vaguely down, like strands of hair. The genius of Piranesi, almost mediumistic, has truly caught the element of hallucination here: he has sensed the long-continued rituals of mourning, the tragic architecture of an inner world)’.  The domed building is skull-like, with two fallen masses of the vault placed symmetrically in the foreground like jaws; they still lie in the area today.

Fig. 2. The vault and fallen blocks of the ‘Canopus’ (photograph: R. B. Parkinson)

As Nigel Saint has noted, the view down the central axis of the etching allows the viewer to look from the outside into as it were the inner parts of the emperor’s private world, as Yourcenar attempted. The strikingly symmetrical composition creates a sense of mystery: what are the three tiny figures doing in the centre of the monumental arena – are they reading palms?

Fig. 3. G. B. Piranesi: ‘Exterior of the so-called “Tempio del Dio Canopo” at Hadrian’s Villa,Tivoli’ (detail), in Vedute di Roma, vol. 5 (ca. 1769)

As Yourcenar’s emperor says of his villa, ‘chaque édifice était le plan d’un songe (each structure was the chart of a dream)’. The tree on the left seems playfully to echo the gesturing figure on the right, as if monument, nature and humans are all parts of a single grandiose ruin: such contemporaneous figures appealed to Yourcenar’s desire to explore ways to mediate between the living present and the past, through ‘[les] milliers de vies silencieuses, furtives comme celles des bêtes … qui se sont succédé ici entre Hadrien et nous (the thousands of lives, silent and furtive as those of wild beasts … who have followed in our succession here between Hadrian’s time and ours)’. For her, the depiction of a ruin becomes ‘une méditation à la fois visuelle et métaphysique sur la vie et la mort des formes (a meditation both visual and metaphysical on the life and death of forms)’.

To modern archaeological eyes, the print also shows that any historical certainty is remarkably uncertain, as excavations and reconstructions of the building continually change the picture in every sense: the traditional idea that this building was connected with Egyptianising art-works and cult has been disputed, and its identification as Hadrian’s ‘Canopus’ is far from certain, with architectural historians arguing that it was probably only a scenic triclinium for the summer months.

Fig. 4. The ‘Canopus’ with a restored pool and re-erected columns (photograph: R. B. Parkinson)

The architecture is no longer considered in any way ‘tragic’. New layers of interpretation gather around the image, but I retain a fondness for it, partly as a symbol of Yourcenar’s vision of a queer ‘monde intérieur’. And partly because a print of it hung (and still hangs) over the fireplace of the sitting room in Petite Plaisance, the house that she shared with Grace Frick in Northeast Harbor, Maine.

Fig. 5. Yousuf Karsh: Marguerite Yourcenar at Petite Plaisance in 1987 (© Estate of Yousuf Karsh)

The print thus not only evokes the ancient past of Hadrian and Antinous, but also the modern personal, domestic world of Yourcenar and Frick. For me, as a gay Egyptologist, it has become an image of what historians do in trying to recapture a sense of ancient lived experiences—not only with precision, but also with imagination and empathy.

Richard Bruce Parkinson
Professor of Egyptology & Fellow of The Queen’s College
University of Oxford

Post Script

The opportunity to view this and Piranesi’s other etchings took place during a special seminar, ‘G. B. Piranesi: Sir Robert Taylor’s Collection of Etchings & the Ashmolean Candelabra’, held at the Taylor Institution and the Ashmolean Museum in late 2017. The occasion arose from Oxford’s 2017 Slade Lectures, ‘The Material Presence of Absent Antiquities’ (, during which Caroline van Eck (Uni-versity of Cambridge) focused on the works of Piranesi, thus prompting further investigation of the Taylorian’s collection. In remarkable condition and logistically difficult to display, the Library’s full set had rarely (if ever) been shown in its entirety. The Piranesi seminar, led by Professor van Eck, thus enabled an international group of academics and curators from a variety of disciplines to examine and discuss Sir Robert Taylor’s set; and also to hear, from Christoph Frank (U. della Svizzera italiana, Mendrisio), about the discovery of a previously unknown album of Piranesi drawings at Karlsruhe, throwing light on the conservation history of one of the Ashmolean candelabra.

Fig. 6. G.B. Piranesi. Vasi, candelabri, cippi, sarcofagi, tripodi, lucerne ed ornamenti antichi (Rome, 1778)

To many, the most compelling component of the seminar was volume 17. This, an ‘elephant folio’ (79 x 61 cm.), unfolded at one end to a 3.5 metre-long etching of the Colonna Traiana (Trajan’s Column, fig. 9); and, at the other, to an equally long Colonna Antonina (also known as the Colonna di Marco Aurelio or Colonna Aureliana).

Clare Hills-Nova
Italian Literature & Language Librarian
Taylor Institution Library

Further reading

Marguerite Yourcenar:

Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoires d’Hadrien (Paris: Plon, 1951). English translation by Grace Frick: Memoirs of Hadrian (London : Readers Union, 1955).

Marguerite Yourcenar, ‘‘Le cerveau noir de Piranèse’ in Sous bénéfice d’inventaire (Paris: Gallimard, 1962). English translation by Richard Howard in The Dark Brain of Piranesi and Other Essays (Henley-on-Thames: Ellis, 1985), 88–128.

Véronique Beirnaert-Mary and Achmy Halley (ed.), Marguerite Yourcenar et l’empereur Hadrien: Une réécriture de l’antiquité (Gand: Snoeck, 2015).

Thorsten Opper, Hadrian: Empire and Conflict (London: British Museum, 2008).

R. B. Parkinson, A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity Across the World (London: British Museum, 2013), 118-121.

Nigel Saint, Marguerite Yourcenar: Reading the Visual (Oxford: Legenda, 2000).

Fig. 9. G.B. Piranesi. Veduta del prospotto principale della Colonna Trajana (Ghent University Library)

G. B. Piranesi:

Ghent University Library/Universiteits Bibliotheek Gent. Prints by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778): (viewed 03/02/2018).

Georg Kabierske, “A Cache of Newly Identified Drawings by Piranesi and His Studio at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe”, Master Drawings LIII/2 (2015), 147-179.

Georg Kabierske, “Vasi, urne, cinerarie, altari e candelabri: Newly Identified Drawings for Piranesi’s Antiquities and Sculptural Comporsisions at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe” in Francesco Nevola (ed.), Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Predecessori, contemporanei e successori: Studi in onore di John Wilton-Ely  (Rome: Quasar, 2016), 245-262.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, [Opera Piranesi]. Rome, [1748-1779]: v.1-4. Le antichità romane. — v.5-6. Vedute di Roma. — v.7. Ioannis Baptistae Piranesii antiquariorum. — Osservazioni. — v.8. Antichità d’Albano e di Castel Gandolfo. –Antichità di Cora. -v.9. Alcune vedute di archi trionfali. — Opere varie di architettura prospettive grotteschi antichità. — Le rouine del castello dell’Acqua Giulia. — Trofei di Ottaviano Avgvsto. — v.10. Ioannis Baptistae Piranesii antiquariorum regiae. — v.11, 12. Vasi, candelabri, cippi, sarcofagi. — v.13. Descrizione e disegno dell’emissario del Lago Albano. — I. B. Piranesii Lapides capitolini. — v.14. Raccolta de tempj antichi. — Diversi maniere d’adornare i cammini. — v.15. Différentes vues de quelques restes de trois grands édifices. — v.16. Raccolta di alcuni disegni del Barberi da Cento. — Carceri d’invenzione. — Il teatro d’Ercolano alla maestra di Gustavo III. — v.17. Trofeo o sia magnifica colonna. — Colonna Antonina come si vede oggidi. — Colonna eretta in memoria dell’apoteosi di Antonino Pio.

The Image of Dante, the Divine Comedy and the Visual Arts

The Image of Dante, the Divine Comedy and the Visual Arts
in the Ashmolean Museum and the Taylor Institution Library

I: The Image of the Poet

Oxford’s dedication to Dante is deep-rooted. The University’s Dante Society was set up in 1876 (thirteen years before the foundation of the Dante Alighieri Society in Italy), and has provided a focus for the reading and discussion of his work ever since. The intellectual preoccupation has been overwhelmingly literary and textual. Yet the cult has had more extensive visual dimensions than its devotees may have realised (or wished to acknowledge). Oxford bears rich traces of this visual culture.

Earlier this year, the Ashmolean Museum’s Print Room hosted two seminars — one for the University’s Dante Society, the other for the Print Research Seminar — at which works in the collections of the Ashmolean and the Taylor Institution Library were presented and discussed. This is the first of two short pieces deriving from those seminars. Both posts focus on the iconography of Dante, as this is represented in particular in the collections of the Ashmolean Museum and of the Taylor Institution Library in Oxford. The second piece (to be posted later in the year) will consider illustrations to the Divine Comedy between the sixteenth and the twenty-first century. This, the first post, addresses the image of Dante.

Reception of Dante has always been inflected by perception of the poet. Each age, just as it re-reads the Comedy, at the same time re-envisions its author. Readers always believe they know what Dante looked like – a remarkable claim to authentic connection, considering how little information we really have. The Ashmolean possesses a plaster mould of what in the nineteenth century was reputed to be ‘Dante’s death-mask’.

Mask of Dante. Plaster, 19th century (Ashmolean Museum: WA.OA1767 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

Mask of Dante. Plaster, 19th century (Ashmolean Museum: WA.OA1767 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

This example was given in 1879 to the Oxford Dante Society by Seymour Kirkup, a fanatical Dantophile and long-standing resident of Florence (who believed he was in direct spirit communication with the great poet). The minutes of the Dante Society in November of that year record the gift:

Baron Kirkup having at the suggestion of Signor de Tivoli kindly presented to the Society a Cast from the Mask of Dante in his possession, which formerly belonged to Signor Bartolini [Lorenzo Bartolini (d.1850), sculptor and maker of casts in Florence], and which has been on good grounds believed to have been taken from the Mask originally placed upon Dante’s Tomb at Ravenna. Resolved that the best thanks of the Society be conveyed to Baron Kirkup [via] Signor de Tivoli. Signor de Tivoli informed the Society that it was also the wish of Baron Kirkup that in the event of the Society being at any future time dissolved the cast should remain in the possession of the Secretary for the time being, or other chief officer of the Society.

In the event, however, the head was in 1920 consigned by the Society to the Ashmolean Museum, where it has been little noticed.

The head, which was made in two halves, may have been created from the plaster head of Dante kept in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, which had formerly belonged to Kirkup. (This is the head around which revolves the plot of the book, Inferno, published in 2013 by Dan Brown.) Kirkup had also, in 1840, employed a restorer to look for the supposed Portrait of Dante by Giotto in the chapel of the Bargello, of which he produced a tracing and drawing, on the basis of which a chromolithograph was published by the Arundel Society in the following year.

Portrait of Dante after the image in the Bargello, published by the Arundel Society, 1841 (© The British Museum)

Portrait of Dante after the image in the Bargello, published by the Arundel Society, 1841 (© The British Museum)

In reality the fresco in the Bargello dates from after Giotto’s death, and is not likely to represent Dante. The Palazzo Vecchio head, and another in the Florentine Palazzo Torrigiani del Nero, were thought in the nineteenth century to be based either upon a death-mask or upon another three-dimensional image created for the poet’s tomb at Ravenna in 1483. None of this has any basis in historical fact. The stories tell us, in despite of the absence of evidence, about a recurrent desire for proximity to the poet through his supposed likeness.

The history of Dante’s portrait took a new turn in 1865 when, in the six-hundredth anniversary of his birth and in the highly relevant context of the Unification of Italy, his bones (seemingly authentic) were rediscovered near to the tomb in Ravenna. The availability of the skull (albeit lacking the jawbone) led – after some time and strong official resistance to any interference with the sacred relics – to attempts to reconstruct Dante’s facial appearance on this basis. This has continued to generate versions which have made their own respective contemporary claims to the Dante aura.  That produced in the 1930s by Fabio Frassetto was framed in the political language of the time, and was claimed to prove (against other theories) that Dante was ‘of the Mediterranean race’.

Fabio Frassetto, Head of Dante, bronze (From: A.Cottignoli and G.Gruppioni, Fabio Frassetto e l’enigma del volto di Dante (2012])

Fabio Frassetto, Head of Dante, bronze (From: A.Cottignoli and G.Gruppioni, Fabio Frassetto e l’enigma del volto di Dante (2012])

In 2006 anthropologists at the University of Bologna, working on the skull with new methods of facial reconstruction, came up with what La Repubblica announced on its front page to be, at last, ‘the true portrait of Dante’.

Reconstruction of the head of Dante by the University of Bologna, 2006 (© La Repubblica)

Reconstruction of the head of Dante by the University of Bologna, 2006 (© La Repubblica)

The only relatively early verbal description of Dante, which can be set alongside this reconstruction, is that given by Boccaccio, presumably based on conversations held in Ravenna with people who had known the poet in his fifties:

“Our poet was of middle height and in his later years he walked somewhat bent over, with a grave and gentle gait. He was clad always in the most seemly attire, such as befitted his ripe years. His face was long, his nose aquiline, and his eyes rather big than small. His jaws were large, and his lower lip protruded. His complexion was dark, his hair and beard thick, black and curly, and his expression ever melancholy and thoughtful.”

What, meanwhile, have remained more plausible (if less ‘scientifically’ authenticated) portraits of Dante were those made at the beginning of the sixteenth century by Raphael, as part of his decoration for the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican Palace. Raphael had seen in Florence a number of fifteenth-century depictions of Dante which had together established a more-or-less canonical image: these must lie behind his depictions. Dante appears in Raphael’s frescoes among the theologians witnessing the Disputa concerning the Holy Sacrament, and again as one of the poets joining Apollo on Parnassus. Later artists would copy these representations of the poet, especially the former, which is closer to the eye level of the visitor. The Ashmolean owns a fine black chalk drawing after the Dante of the Disputa which may have been made by a pupil of Thomas Lawrence (but not, pace Francis Douce who owned the drawing before giving it to the museum, by Lawrence himself, who only visited Rome late in life and when working in a different style).

Pupil of Thomas Lawrence(?), Dante, after Raphael (Ashmolean Museum: WA1863.1413© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

Pupil of Thomas Lawrence(?), Dante, after Raphael (Ashmolean Museum: WA1863.1413 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

The nineteenth century would see a shift in taste from this type of the Dante portrait, haughty and austere, to a focus on a more youthful and romantic image. The change was facilitated by the publication of the Bargello ‘portrait’. It was the presentation to his father (by the indefatigable Kirkup) of a copy of this image which kindled in the young Dante Gabriel Rossetti an interest in the supposed relationship between Dante and Giotto, and fostered his own commitment to become an artist. The Ashmolean has relatively recently acquired a drawing for Rossetti’s painting of Giotto Painting Dante.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante (record photo) (Ashmolean Museum: WA2014.36 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante (record photo) (Ashmolean Museum: WA2014.36 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

Another drawing for the work is in the Tate and the finished painting (c. 1852) is in the collection of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante (© Tate, London 2017)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante (© Tate, London 2017)

The importance to Rossetti of this image of friendship between the poet after whom he had himself been named and the ideal painter is indicated by the fact that he made a watercolour copy in 1859 (Fogg Art Museum), in which his own features were given to the figure of Giotto – a further creative dimension of the nineteenth-century Dante cult.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante (Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop © President and Fellows of Harvard College)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante (Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop © President and Fellows of Harvard College)

Professor Gervase Rosser
History of Art Department & Faculty of History
University of Oxford

A tale of two sisters: Simone and Hélène de Beauvoir’s La Femme rompue

‘I was her first “reader”, and I would draw’, writes Hélène de Beauvoir (1910-2001) in Souvenirs (De Beauvoir, 1987, p.72), where she recalls how, in the early years, she came to choose the vocation of artist, whilst her elder sister, Simone (1908-1986), preferred to write.

De Beauvoir, S. and H. de Beauvoir, 1967. La femme rompue. Title page. Paris: Gallimard. W.J. Strachan Collection, Taylor Institution Library, Oxford

Many years later, shortly after giving a speech on the subject of women and creativity during a visit to Japan in 1966 (Francis, Gontier and De Beauvoir, 1979, pp.458-474), the author of Le deuxième sexe (Gallimard, 1949) wrote to her younger sister with an invitation to create a series of engravings based on her new novel, La femme rompue (Gallimard, 1967). Although Gallimard initially hesitated to take on the project, over fears of it being a rather controversial piece of literature, the completed work, including its illustrations, was finally published in 1967 and also appeared in Elle magazine’s October-November issue of that year (Weber-Feve, 2010, p.82).

De Beauvoir, S., and H. de Beauvoir, 1967. La femme rompue, pp. 162-163. Paris: Gallimard. Bodleian Libraries, Oxford. W.J. Strachan Collection. (Image: Koninklijke Bibliotheek/National Library of the Netherlands)

The novel is written in the form of an intimate diary and recounts the experience of a housewife who struggles to come to terms with the sudden discovery that her husband has another woman in his life. The main themes covered in the story are echoed in the individual memoirs of the Beauvoir sisters, with particular regard to their mother’s confined domestic life in their family home in the rue de Rennes, Paris, and Simone’s later experience as the second woman in her relationship with philosopher, novelist and political activist Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). It is this more personal content in La femme rompue, which drew scathing remarks from (male) critics, who viewed the novel as too autobiographical and less interesting than some of the author’s previous work.

Hélène readily accepted the invitation to create illustrations for her sister’s novel and strongly defended the text against the harsh criticism it received. As an art form, the livre d’artiste (artist’s book) was already well-established by this time, with a long tradition of artists, authors, designers and printers collaborating to produce books that were highly sought after by private collectors and bibliophile societies.

 Twentieth century artists’ books, showing artist-designed bindings. Sir Paul Getty Collection, Wormsley Library, Buckinghamshire. (Photo: Olivia Freuler)

Several publishers and art dealers had pioneered the genre in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, notably the French art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1866–1939), who, in 1900, published Parallèlement by the French poet Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), with lithographs by the artist Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947). These set themselves apart from earlier pictorial illustrations because of the way in which they explored the broader mood and themes of the poems instead of focusing mainly on the actions or situations described in the text (Castleman, 1994, pp.27-28). Similarly, Hélène de Beauvoir’s engravings for La femme rompue the different emotional states of the main character through figures that are either enclosed in small boxes or caught in a chaotic spiral of jumbled, jagged lines, thus powerfully conveying the way in which the narrator’s life is torn apart and tipped upside down by sudden and unexpected revelations.

In her own memoirs, Hélène expressed a certain fondness for working in black and white and mentions her admiration for classic French tales by La Comtesse de Ségur (1799-1874) and Charles Perrault (1628-1703), who respectively authored Les Malheurs de Sophie (1858) and Histoire ou Contes du temps passé (1697), citing in particular the illustrations by Gustave Doré (1832-1883) for Perrault’s Contes as an early source of inspiration.

Gustave Doré. Illustration for ‘Le Petit Chaperon Rouge’ in Perrault, C. 1862. Les contes de Perrault. Paris: J. Hetzel  and Librairie Firmin Didot Freres et Fils. Woodcut.  (Image: / Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Simone was supportive of her sister’s artistic career, and frequently helped pay for her studio in the rue Santeuil, Paris, in her formative years. However, her feelings about Hélène’s capabilities as an artist — and about women artists in general — were rather mixed, as is revealed through one of her letters to Sartre written in May 1954 (De Beauvoir, Sartre and Le Bon de Beauvoir, 1992, p.504) and in Le deuxième sexe, in a chapter titled “La Femme indépendante” where she laments the way in which women artists frequently see their work merely as a way to pass the time. (De Beauvoir and Parshley, 1953, pp.663-665). It wasn’t until 1966, on the occasion of the aforementioned speech in Japan, that Simone began to defend women artists and highlight the lack of support often faced by women who chose art as their vocation – a turning point that certainly encouraged a collaboration between the two siblings.

One hundred and forty-three copies were made of the illustrated edition of La femme rompue. Of the sixteen engravings produced by Hélène de Beauvoir for this publication, five form part of the Taylor Institution Library’s Strachan Collection of livres d’artistes extracts (now housed, for conservation reasons, at the Sackler Library). The collection was built by Walter Strachan (1903-1994) from the 1940s onwards and in it are a number of other works illustrated by women artists: Michèle Bardet, Micheline Catti (b.1926), Gisèle Celan-Lestrange (1927-1991), Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979), Denise Esteban (1924-1986), Léonor Fini (1908-1996), Carmen Martinez, Germaine Richier (1904-1959), Suzanne Roger (1898-1986), Brigitte Simon (1926-2009) and Ania Staritsky (1908-1981), all of whom are listed below along with the books’ authors.

Ania Staritsky. Illustration from: Albert-Birot, P., 1978. Poèmes du dimanche. Paris: Editions sic. Etching. W.J. Strachan Collection, Taylor Institution Library, Oxford. (Image: Strachan, W. J., 1987. Le livre d’artiste)

Olivia Freuler, Graduate Library Trainee, Sackler Library, Bodleian Libraries

Texts with illustrations by women artists in the Taylorian’s W.J. Strachan Collection

ALBERT-BIROT, P. (Author), STARITSKY, A. (Artist), 1978. Poèmes du dimanche. Paris: Editions sic.

BONNEFOY, Y. (Author), ESTEBAN, D. (Artist), 1973. Une peinture métaphysique. Paris: Esteban.

BUTOR, M. (Author), MARTNEZ, C. (Artist), 1976. Devises fantômes. Paris: Martinez.

CELAN, P. (Author), CELAN-LESTRANGE, G. (Artist), 1965. Atemkristall. Paris: R. Altmann.

CELAN, P. (Author), CELAN-LESTRANGE, G. (Artist), 1969. Schwarzmaut. Vaduz: Editions Brunidor.

DE NERVAL, G. (Author), FINI, L. (Artist), 1960. Aurélia. Monaco: Le Club International de Bibliophilie.

DORCELY, R. (Author), ROGER, S. (Artist), 1961. S.O.S. Paris: Galerie Louise Leiris.

ESTEBAN, C. (Author), SIMON, B. (Artist), 1968. La saison dévastée. Paris: D. Renard.

GARNUNG, F. (Editor), BARDET, M. (Artist), 1956. Epitaphes grecques et epitaphes funéraires grecques. Paris: Les Impénitents.

GHERASIM, L. (Author), CATTI, M. (Artist), 1967. Droit de regard sur les idées. M. Paris: Editions Brunidor & Robert Altmann.

RIMBAUD, J-A. (Author), RICHIER, G. (Artist), 1951. Une saison en enfer, Les déserts de l’amour, Les illuminations. Lausanne: Gonin.

SHAKESPEARE, W. (Author), FINI, L., (Artist), 1965. La Tempête. Paris : Aux dépens d’un amateur.

TZARA, T. (Author), DELAUNAY, S. (Artist), 1961. Juste présent. Paris: Galerie Louis Leiris.

ZDANEVICH, I. (Author), STARITSKY, A. (Artist), 1982. Un de la brigade. Paris: Hélène Iliazd.

I would like to thank Nick Hearn, French and Slavonic Subject Specialist, Taylor Institution Library, for his help in researching the Zdanevich title.


CASTLEMAN, R., 1994. A century of artist’s books. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

DE BEAUVOIR, H., ROUTIER, M. (ed.), 1987. Souvenirs. Paris: Séguier.

DE BEAUVOIR, S., 1959. Memoirs of a dutiful daughter. Translated by KIRKUP, J. New York and Cleveland: World Publishing Company. (Originally published in 1958, Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée. Paris: Gallimard).

DE BEAUVOIR, S., 1953. The second sex. Translated by PARSHLEY, H.M. London: Jonathan Cape. (Originally published in 1949, Le deuxième sexe. Paris: Gallimard)

DE BEAUVOIR, S., 1969. The woman destroyed. Translated by O’BRIAN, P. London: Collins. (Originally published in 1967, La femme rompue: L’Age de discrétion. Monologue. Paris: Gallimard).

DE BEAUVOIR, S. 1979. La femme et la création. In: DE BEAUVOIR, S., FRANCIS, C. (ed.) and GONTIER, F. (ed.), Les écrits de Simone de Beauvoir: la vie, l’écriture, avec en appendice, textes inédits ou retrouvés. Paris: Gallimard.

DE BEAUVOIR, S., SARTRE, J-P., LE BON DE BEAUVOIR, S. (ed.), 1992. Letters to Sartre. Translated by HOARE, Q. London: Vintage. (Originally published in 1990, Lettres à Sartre. Paris: Gallimard).

MONTEIL, C., 2004. The Beauvoir sisters. Translated by DE JAGER, M. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press.

PERRAULT, C., STAHL, P.J. (ed.), DORE, G. (ill.) 1862. Les contes de Perrault. Paris: J. Hetzel and Librairie Firmin Didot Freres et Fils.

STRACHAN, W. J., 1987. Le livre d’artiste. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum and Taylor Institution.

WEBER-FEVE, S., 2010. (Re)Displaying Femininity and Home with Annie Ernaux and Simone De Beauvoir. In: WEBER-FEVE, S., Re-hybridizing transnational domesticity and femininity: women’s contemporary filmmaking and lifewriting in France, Algeria, and Tunisia. Lanham: Lexington Books.


BEATTIE, S., 2015. The owls are not what they seem…. [Online] Victoria & Albert Museum. [Jun 1, 2017]. Available:

KONINKLIJKE BIBLIOTHEEK. La femme rompue [Online] Koninklijke Bibliotheek. [20 April, 2017]. Available:

Further reading

JOHANKNECHT, S. et al., 2007. [Artist’s books: Special issue]. Art libraries journal, 32 (2).








Golden Age Theatre at the Taylorian: ‘El parte veynte de las comedias de Lope de Vega Carpio’ (1630)

At the start of the 15th Century, Spain entered its Siglo de Oro, or Golden Age. The country had not only been recently united with the fall of Granada in 1490, but had also grown spectacularly wealthy after Columbus’ voyage to the New World and the subsequent founding of the first transatlantic European colonial empire. This new economic and political power led to increasing patronage of the arts and masterpieces were therefore produced in several areas. Throughout this Golden Age, El Greco helped create a uniquely Spanish style of painting, composers such as Tomás Luis de Victoria and Cristóbal de Morales helped to shape Renaissance music, Miguel de Cervantes wrote the world’s first modern novel with Don Quijote, and on the stage Lope de Vega and Calderón de la Barca perfected a new form of play in the comedia, writing several hundred plays between them.

This period of intense artistic and literary creativity in Spain is, naturally, well documented in the collections of the Taylor Institution Library. Students of the Spanish Golden Age, however, may not know that the library is fortunate enough to possess not only a large amount of scholarship on this period of history, but also several early editions of works by the most celebrated authors and playwrights of the era. This blog post aims to highlight the richness of the Taylorian’s holdings from this period and also to provide a brief introduction to one book: ‘El parte veynte de las comedias de Lope de Vega Carpio’ (Shelfmark 270.G.20).

This book, published in 1630, contains a collection of plays written by perhaps the most famous Spanish playwright, Lope Félix de Vega Carpio. Born in 1562 and described by his contemporary Cervantes as ‘un…ingenio de estos reinos’ [a genius of these kingdoms] (Thacker, 2007: 26), Lope de Vega certainly led an extraordinary life. As Ignacio Arellano and Carlos Mata (2011) point out, he married twice  and had several long standing extra-marital affairs  before ending his life as a priest. Despite this religious conversion, however, his final years were not to be happy. After several personal tragedies and the loss of his favourite son and second wife in childbirth, one of the greatest Spanish authors of the period died in what Arellano and Mata (2011: 158) aptly describe as  ‘cansancio y…soledad’ [fatigue and loneliness] in 1612 .

Lope, however, was not only extraordinary in terms of his life experiences, but also in terms of his literary innovation. The playwright essentially revolutionised theatre in Spain, creating and defining the comedia  nueva in his artistic manifesto El Arte nuevo de hacer comedias en este tiempo (1609). This new form of play was, as Thacker (2002: 7) points out, ‘a hybrid form of popular theatre’  that was defined by a mixture of tragedy and comedy. Normally consisting of three equal length acts, the genre proved to be extremely popular in Spain and scholars now attribute 600-800 individual works to Lope de Vega alone.

This twentieth part of the comedias may only contain 12 plays from this impressive number attributed to the playwright, but they nevertheless demonstrate the range of the genre. This can be emphasised by a short analysis of just one of the comedias in this collection, Arauco Domado (1625). In this play, Lope de Vega dramatizes the conflict between the Spanish settlers and the Mapuche people in the territory that is now Chile, depicting an expanding Spanish-speaking world.

The work begins with the arrival of García Hurtado de Mendoza to Chile, the viceroy of Peru from 1590-96, and describes the subsequent conflict between him and Caupolicán, the military leader of the Mapuches. Interestingly, the narrative shows a native perspective of the conflict, with Lope describing in detail the relationship between Caupolicán and his wife Fresia. After several battles between the two leaders, Caupolicán is captured by the Spanish and sentenced to death. As his capture dishonours him, his wife Fresia ends the play by throwing their baby son at his feet and killing him. In this play, Lope therefore takes the classic comedia theme of honour, but transfers it to the New World, introducing a native voice in the process.

This play, however, is significant not only for its content, but also for its publication history as it demonstrates increasing communication, and conflict, among Spanish Golden Age writers. This is because Lope’s Arauco Domado is actually a dramatic version of an epic poem of the same name written by Pedro de Oña. Considered the first poet of Chile, de Oña wrote his version of Arauco Domado in 1596 for its protagonist, García Hurtado de Mendoza. As de Oña was commissioned by Hurtado de Mendoza, it naturally presents him in a positive light and, as reflected in Lope’s later work, his adversary Caupolicán negatively. Written completely in Spanish and avoiding any reference to native terminology, this work is therefore a deliberate attempt to defend Hurtado de Mendoza’s reputation: one that had been seriously damaged following the publication of another important Golden Age work, La Araucana, written by Alonso de Ercilla and published in three parts between 1569 and 1589. As Ercilla was condemned to death by Hurtado de Mendoza in 1558, La Araucana naturally presents this conflict in a completely different way to de Oña and Lope de Vega. Hurtado de Mendoza is, instead, vilified and the Mapuche are portrayed as a noble people defending their homeland against foreign aggression, an idea encapsulated in the portrayal of Caupolicán not as a coward, but as a brave chieftain compared to classical heroes.

This comedia, therefore, is a useful resource not only because of the way it portrays Spain and the New World , but also because it shows increasing communication among Spanish Golden Age writers and their differing representations of the same historical events..

Also of note in this volume are the three aprobaciones [endorsements] that appear at the start. As the Inquisition wanted to impede the spread of heretical ideas in Early Modern Spain, books had to be endorsed by both secular and religious authorities, and this volume is no exception. Juana de José Prades (1971: 114) points out that Lope de Vega may have emphasised the importance of ‘libertad absoluta para el dramaturgo en la elección de temas’ [absolute freedom for the playwright in the choice of topic] in his Arte Nuevo de Hacer Comedias en este tiempo, but the inclusion of these three aprobaciones demonstrates that this freedom was constrained by both the Church and the monarchy.

In the first aprobación, for example, the plays are declared to support ‘la piedad de la Fé’ [the piety of the faith]; in the second, the approval of the ‘Real Consejo’ [Regal Council] is emphasized; and, in the final one, the fact that the book ‘no contiene cosa contra nuestra Santa Fe’ [does not contain anything against our holy faith] is equally highlighted. Arauco Domado and the history behind it may reveal both communication and disagreement among writers of this period, but the three aprobaciones at the start of the volume reveal that freedom of expression certainly had its limitations.

Although this volume may not contain the best-known of Lope de Vega’s comedias, it is not only interesting for the content of the plays included, but also as an object in itself, revealing much about the Spanish-speaking world and the political nature of book publishing throughout the Spanish Golden Age. This blog post has provided only a brief introduction to the collections available at the library, but Taylorian readers interested in the Spanish Golden Age can consult a variety of early works from the period. These range from other early works by Lope de Vega such as the Segunda parte de las comedias de Lope de Vega Carpio (Shelfmark: ARCH.8o.SP.1611) to early editions of Don Quijote by Cervantes from 1672-3 (Shelfmarks: BUTLER.CLARKE.O.4 and BUTLER.CLARKE.O.5) and an early volume of comedias by Lope’s successor, Pedro Calderón de la Barca from 1687 (Shelfmark: VET.SPAN.I.B.104 (v.3).

William Shire, Graduate Library Trainee
Taylor Institution Library


Primary Text:

De Vega, Lope (1630), El parte veynte de las comedias de Lope de Vega, Barcelona: Esteuan Liberos.
[This volume contains the following 12 comedias, published between 1625 and 1630: La Discreta Vengança; Lo Cierto por lo Dudoso; Pobreza no es Vileza; Arauco Domado; La Ventura sin buscalla; El Valiente Cespedes; El Hombre por su Palabra; Roma Abrasada; Virtud, Pobreza y Muger; El Rey sin Reyno; El mejor Moço en España and El Marido más Firme.]  


Arellano, Ignacio and Carlos Mata (2011), Vida y obra de Lope de Vega, Madrid: Homo Legens.

De José Prades, Juana (1971), ‘Estudio Preliminar’ in Lope de Vega, Arte nuevo de hacer comedias, Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, pp. 1-278.

Thacker, Jonathan (2002), Role-Play and the World as Stage in the Comedia, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Thacker, Jonathan (2007), A Companion to Golden Age Theatre, Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer.

The Pring-Mill Collection: Nicaragua — Part III

The Testimonio (Testimonial Literature)

Part I of this series of blog posts introduced the Robert Pring-Mill collection at the Taylor Institution Library and explored Nicaraguan poetry. The second part focused on serial publications, pamphlets and grey literature. Last but not least, Part III discusses the genre known as testimonial literature.

The Pring-Mill collection includes some very interesting books documenting the trajectory of the revolution from its early beginnings. A recurring form found in Latin American literature of that time, the testimonio flourished in Nicaragua during the course of the revolution and was developed, according to Beverley and Zimmermann (1990), by the American feminist and academic Margaret Randall in her various publications. Randall lived for many years in Nicaragua and published her well-known book Sandino’s Daughters, the story of the women who fought in the revolution, in 1981. Also in the Pring-Mill collection is her book Risking a Somersault in the Air: Conversations with Nicaraguan Writers (1984), comprising 12 interviews with some of Nicaragua’s most important writers/revolutionaries. Randall also wrote the introduction and transcribed the story of Doris Tijerino in Doris Tijerino: Inside the Nicaraguan Revolution (1978), which tells the story of one woman’s life, shaped by the country’s struggle, as an illustration of women’s experiences everywhere in times of tyranny and war. Cristianos en la Revolución (1983) comprises Randall’s interviews with some of the most important figures in the new revolutionary government, some of whom were also integrating liberation theology with the Nicaraguan movement: Ernesto Cardenal, the then Minister of Culture; Uriel Molina, director of the religious centre Antonio Valdivieso; and Luis Carrión, Commander of the Revolution and Deputy Minister of the Interior.


Barricada: Corresponsales de Guerra (1983) was a newspaper launched during the insurgency period as a means to counter the government-owned media and it became the official organ of the FSLN. It is a journalistic account of five war testimonials of events between March and June 1983 by a group of war correspondents who take up arms. It includes photographs in black and white of the involvement of these war correspondents in their first experience of war and how they bonded with other Sandinista militias while following them into combat.



In the tradition of Bartolome de las Casas’ Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, 1552), priest Teófilo Cabestrero published Nicaragua: Crónica de una sangre inocente (1985), an account of 60 civilian testimonials as victims of atrocities and crimes in Nicaragua at that time. It describes how the peasant population of Latin America was the primary victim of the violent social, economic and political struggles.

Published by the new revolutionary publisher Nueva Nicaragua, Sandino: Enfrenta al imperialismo (1981) is a large, beautiful collection of black and white photographs drawn from Nicaraguan citizens’ photographs taken during the revolutionary struggle led by Augusto Sandino (1927-1933). This book was published for the 47th anniversary of the death of Augusto Sandino (1934) by the Junta de Gobierno de Reconstrucción Nacional. Divided into nine parts, it documents the main players of the time and their movements, including Sandino’s travels through Mexico.

Another large book of black and white photographs is Nicaragua: A Decade of Revolution (1991) with an introduction by Eduardo Galeano and edited by Lou Dematteis with Chris Vail. It is a chronology of snapshots of Nicaragua from 1979, the year of the overthrow of dictator Anastasio Somoza, until 1990, the year of the election victory of Violeta Chamorro. These photographs offer a brutal but realistic documentation of the triumphs and tragedies of these years.

The Pring-Mill collection contains other publications documenting, through photography, Nicaragua during different periods and through different lenses, as well as many other books, magazines, journals and grey literature — too many to describe here but which are definitely worth further investigation. One of my favourites is the book Carlos Para Todos (1987). A biography of Carlos Fonseca and history of Nicaragua from 1936 onwards, it is illustrated, in comic-book style, by the illustrator and political cartoonist Eduardo del Rio, known by his pen name Rius.

photo37Readers may know him as the author of the very popular book Marx For Beginners which started the For Beginners series. Employing his characteristic style and satire he gives a short and simple narrative of Nicaragua from 1936, the year in which the Nicaraguan teacher and librarian Carlos Fonseca, founder of the FSLN, was born. The book tells Fonseca’s story with help of comic-book illustrations, photographs, and articles in an anarchic and accessible style.


I am very grateful to Joanne Edwards and Frank Egerton for giving me the possibility to freely explore this collection and learn so much about a country that is seldom in the mainstream media and yet whose influence on Latin American literature and identity, in terms of its committed poetry and also its liberation theology, has been so powerful.

Natalia Bermúdez Qvortrup
University College of Oslo and Akershus
Intern, Social Science Library, Bodleian Libraries

Further reading

Arellano, Jorge Eduardo (1997) Literatura Nicaraguense Managua: Ediciones Distribuidora Cultural

Beverley, John and Marc Zimmerman (1990) Literature and Politics in the Central American Revolutions. Austin: University of Texas.

Forster, Merlin H. and K.David Jackson (1990) Vanguardism in Latin American Literature: An annotated Bibliographical Guide. New York: Greenwood Press

Pring-Mill, Robert (1970) “Both in Sorrow and in Anger: Spanish American protest poetry” Cambridge Review  vol. 91/2195.


Cerezo Barredo:

For Beginners Books – About us:

Listening to Dante: An Audio-visual Afterlife

‘Listening to Dante: An Audio-Visual Afterlife’: Film – Readings – Vinyl – Books – Images
by David Bowe

2016-07-CetraIt all started with a box of LPs. Well, strictly speaking, it all started with the birth of Dante Alighieri in 1265 and his subsequent writing of the three-part epic poem the Divine Comedy (the Commedia to its friends) begun in 1308 and finished not long before his death in  1321. The LPs, a set of recordings pressed by CETRA in 1964, and featuring readings of the complete Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso by Arnoldo Foà, Carlo D’Angelo, Achille Millo, Giorgio Alber-tazzi, Antonio Crast, Romolo Valli and Tino Carraro, were placed on my library desk by the Taylorian’s Italian Literature and Language Librarian, together with a note saying, ‘I thought these might be of interest’. And they were, providing the meeting point of my love for Dante and for slightly old-fashioned recording technologies. The road this took me down was a little unexpected, as I was prompted to contemplate the range of responses that Dante’s writing has provoked over the centuries, from the earliest illuminators and commentators, to the most recent translations, adaptations, and research.

2016-08-DantePosterAs Picture

This led me to the Taylor’s collections of rare printed books, dating from the 15th to the 20th centuries, to films, operas, and symphonic poems from all across the world and on the internet, and thence to a Taylorian event at which these different media were considered.

For the Case List of Works on Display in the Voltaire Room and Vestibule, click here:

2016-05 DanteCaseList-Voltaire Room And Vestibule

In 1782 Britain saw the publication of the first full translation of Dante’s Inferno into English, by one Charles Rogers. The first English translation of the entire Divine Comedy, by the Irish cleric Henry Boyd, was published in 1802 (though his version of Inferno first appeared as early as 1785).

2016-09-dante-book-display-boyde-translations-resized2Thanks to the collecting of renowned Cardiff-born Dante Scholar Edward Moore (a fellow of The Queen’s College and later Principal of St Edmund Hall in Oxford), and courtesy of a long-term loan from The Queen’s College, the Taylor Institution Library holds copies of both of these translations. Moore was working towards the end of a 19th Century which saw the growth of both general readerly interest in the Florentine poet and the emergence of the formal discipline of Dante Studies in the Anglophone world.

Moore founded the Oxford Dante Society in 1876 and the Dante Society of America was founded by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and Charles Eliot Norton in 1881. These three had previously met as a less formal Dante Club while Longfellow prepared his famous translation of the Comedy, first published in 1867. Back in Oxford, our own Edward Moore was also responsible for the first modern edition of Dante’s works in Italian, the so-called ‘Oxford Dante’, printed by Oxford University Press in 1894. This edition of Dante’s medieval texts was a landmark for Dante scholarship worldwide and also had the honour of being OUP’s first publication entirely in a ‘modern’ foreign language..

Contributing to this developing context, the Pre-Raphaelites and poets like Alfred Lord Tennyson were discovering Dante’s stories, poetry, and the powerful visual imagery which emerged from his work. Few of the larger collections of pre-Raphaelite art, including that of  are without images drawn from Dante. Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum (next door to the Taylorian) has a fine collection of Pre-Raphaelite works, recently re-installed, and includes Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Dante drawing an Angel on the First Anniversary of Beatrice’s Death’.


Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Dante drawing an Angel on the First Anniversary of Beatrice’s Death (Ashmolean Museum: Watercolour and bodycolour on paper, 1853)

The 19th century wasn’t the first time that echoes of Dante’s writing had been  heard in England. The works of Chaucer are shot through with strands of allusion to and quotation or adaptation of Dante’s writing, especially the Comedy. For instance, the Wife of Bath borrows a few lines on the theme of nobility from Purgatorio Canto 7, and the Prioress’s invocations of the Virgin Mary are indebted to St. Bernard’s prayer at the start of the 33rd Canto of Paradiso. One of the most explicit acknowledgements of Dante as source text comes in the Monk’s Tale, however: the Monk tells the tragedye of one Hugelino and, having recounted the starvation of father and sons while imprisoned by Archbishop Ruggieri of Pisa, he directs curious listeners to read the Inferno (Dante’s telling of the episode is found in Canto 33).

Whoso wol here it in a lenger wise
Redeth the grete poete of Taille
That highte Dant, for he kan al devyse
Fro point to point; nat o word wol he faille.

[Whoever wants to hear it in a longer version
Read the great poet of Italy
Who is called Dante, for he can all narrate
In great detail; not one word will he lack.]

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Monk’s Tale, 2459-2462

This early foray of Dante into English was short-lived and we have to wait for Milton’s Paradise Lost for another sustained literary engagement with Dante’s works in English. This is not to say he was unknown in England during the intervening period, however. For example, thanks to the antiquarian meanderings of John Leland, we know that, in the 1530s, copies of a Latin translation and commentary of Dante’s Comedy were to be found in libraries in Oxford and in the Cathedral library of my home city of Wells. So Dante’s works were being translated into and read in the common intellectual language of Latin well before they made it into the English vernacular. Anyone interested in the fate of Dante’s works in the British Isles would do well to look at Nick Havely’s extensive work on the subject in his book Dante’s British Public, which offers an account of Dante’s readers and the fate of his texts in Britain from Chaucer to the modern day.

If translation was a part of the afterlife of Dante’s writing from a very early stage, one of the first indisputably ‘modern’ interpretations of Dante’s work emerged at the start of the 20th century in a relatively new medium, which would come to dominate the world of entertainment: the motion picture. 1911 saw the first (and possibly still the best) film adaptation of Dante’s Inferno. More interpretations would follow in 1924 & 1935 and there has been a recent flurry of animated films, an adaptation of Dan Brown’s ‘Dante-inspired’ Inferno, and there were reports last year that Warner Brothers were gearing up to make a new film in which Dante descends through the circles of Hell to save the woman he loves… There is something rather alarming about the fact that a 21st century entertainment company seems to struggle  more than a 13th century poet with the idea of Beatrice as the one doing the saving, but it remains remarkable that so many feet of celluloid (and megabytes of digital film) continue to be devoted to this medieval poem. The 1911 Milano Films’ Inferno, sometimes (falsely) advertised as the Divina Comedia, is the oldest surviving feature-length film in existence and was arguably the first international blockbuster, taking in excess of $2million in the US alone. We have a sense of some audience reactions, including Nancy Mitford’s, who described seeing it in 1922 in a letter home from Italy:

‘most bloodthirsty and exciting … a man’s hands chopped off very close and full of detail, and a man dying of starvation and eating another man very very close to … helped to add excitement to a film full of battles … , molten lead, a burning city and other little every day matters.’

And one of the episodes being described by Nancy Mitford is the case of Ugolino and Ruggieri, which so inspired Chaucer’s Monk’s Tale. (You can find the full film here, on YouTube.)


The imagery used for Dante’s hell in this film isn’t itself entirely original. The directors’ scenography drew heavily from Gustave Doré’s iconic 19th century illustrations of the Divine Comedy. There’s something very striking about those engravings brought vividly to life on film and with special effects which were cutting edge at the time and can still sometimes startle (particularly in the more gruesome torments of lower hell that so captured Nancy Mitford’s admiration). The 1911 Inferno acts as a double adaptation, then, of text into image and illustration into moving picture.

The Doré connection is proof enough (and plenty more is available) that the appeal of Dante (and his creations) beyond Italy wasn’t limited to Britain, or the anglophone world. Liszt’s 1849 Après une Lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata is more commonly know as the Dante Sonata, inspired by the Hungarian composer’s reading of the Italian poet’s  Divine Comedy. (Connect here to Vitaly Pisarenko’s rendition.) Dorè and Liszt are but two representatives of the rich traditions of translation, reception and artistic response to his work across Europe and Russia, where Tchaikovsky penned a symphonic poem called Francesca da Rimini in 1876, and Rachmaninov was inspired to write an opera of the same name, based on the events of Inferno 5. Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov were not alone in seeing the musical potential for Francesca’s story, although, of a dozen operas named after Dante’s anti-heroine, only his and Riccardo Zandonai’s remain in the repertoire. Perhaps it is unsurprising that Francesca should be so enthusiastically adopted as a tragic operatic heroine. She is lyrical, enamoured, articulate, and doomed. Her adulterous (incestuous, by medieval standards) affair with her brother-in-law and the murderous wrath of her husband (who will, according to Francesca, end up in Caïna, the zone named for the biblical fratricide Cain and reserved for those who betray, often violently, their kin), are all features that beg for melodrama. Rachmaninov’s opera — available here  — opens with a slow build towards the infernal storm — the ‘bufera infernal’ — of Inferno 5, which eternally buffets the souls of the carnal sinners. The score drives the action and reflects this atmosphere. We then see Dante enquiring about the souls and calling to Paolo and Francesca, who identify themselves and utter the immortal lines: “‘There is no greater sorrow / than to recall our time of joy / in wretchedness’” — “‘Nessun maggior dolore / che ricordarsi del tempo felice / ne la miseria’”.

Rachmaniov’s swirling, disorienting score gives a vivid sense of the frightening, overwhelming moment of Dante’s entry into Hell-proper, which the poet had previously characterised as a space full of ‘Diverse lingue, orribili favelle, / parole di dolore, accenti d’ira, / voci alte e fioche’ [Unfamiliar tongues, horrendous accents, / words of suffering, cries of rage, voices / loud and faint]. All these, Dante, recounts in Inferno III, ‘facevano un tumulto, il qual s’aggira / sempre in quell’ aura sanza tempo tinta, / come la rena quando turbo spira’ [made a tumult, always whirling / in that black and timeless air, / as sand is swirled in a whirlwind]. The vibrant and violent soundscape evoked by Dante’s poetry lends itself readily to musical and sonic responses, the text of his Divine Comedy often demands that we hear as we read, that we allow ourselves to be drawn into a synaesthetic muddling of sight and sound, just as Dante finds his own senses confounded on the 1st terrace of Purgatory.


La Divina commedia: ridotta a miglior lezione dagli Accademici della Crusca (Firenze: Domenico Manzani, 1595)

After emerging from the Inferno, the next leg of Dante’s journey will be to ascend the mountain of Purgatory where penitent sinners undergo productive torments to pay for their sins and cleanse their souls in preparation for Heaven:

    e canterò di quel secondo regno
dove l’umano spirito si purga
e di salire al ciel diventa degno.

    [Now I shall sing the second kingdom
there where the soul of man is cleansed
made worthy to ascend to Heaven.]

Purgatorio I, 4-6

After a certain amount of milling about on the shores of Purgatory meeting those souls who left their repentance to the last minute, Dante passes through the gate leading to the Mountain where the real work of purgation takes place. The mountain is divided into terraces, each of which is dedicated to the purifying of a particular deadly sinful impulse: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony, and finally Lust. The first of these sins is corrected on the first terrace of the mountain of Purgatory and, as Dante emerges onto it, he is faced with three reliefs carved into the living rock. These reliefs depict three scenes of humility, the Virgin Mary accepting the will of God, King David dancing before Ark of the Covenant, and the Emperor Trajan taking time out of his busy schedule to grant justice to a widow whose son had been slain. And these freezes are not the work of man, but the art of God himself, surpassing all other art. Dante describes his sensory confusion in an act of divine ekphrasis: his eyes tell him that he can hear Mary speaking, but his ears tell him no, he can visually smell the incense burning in the scene of the dancing David, even though his nostrils are sure there is nothing to be smelled. Dante is faced with the art of the divine, which is impossible for human sense to fully comprehend or communicate, but Dante gives it a shot… His audacity leads to some beautiful verse and, subsequently, to a vibrant artistic tradition, as generations of artists took Dante’s text as a challenge to produce their own art of the divine. One of the most notable efforts comes from the pen of Botticelli, subject of a recent exhibition at the Courtauld Galleries (London).

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Though Botticelli’s illustrative programme for the Comedy is largely unfinished, the incompleteness takes on a poetic justice in the case of this particular canto, where God’s art is described as so beyond the realm of human hand. Indeed, Dante describes the angel Gabriel who, in this relief,

    dinanzi a noi pareva sì verace
quivi intagliato in un atto soave
che non sembiava imagine che tace.
Giurato si saria ch’el dicesse ‘Ave!

     [appeared before us so vividly engraved
in gracious attitude
it did not seem an image, carved and silent.
One would have sworn he was saying ‘Ave,’]

(Purgatorio X 37-40)

Having now looked at Purgatorio, and, while any discussion of the audio-visual afterlives of the Comedy somewhat inevitably skews towards Inferno, given the comparative weight of artistic responses, translations, and adaptations of the first part of the poem, it would be remiss not to account at least briefly, for Paradiso, a realm which, even more than the divine art of Purgatory, defies representation. Even as Dante recounts the marvels he has seen, he accounts for the failure of language to express that which he has undergone. When recalling his final mystical vision in the heights of Paradiso 33, Dante tell us:

   Omai sarà più corta mia favella
pur a quel ch’io ricordo, che d’un fante
che bagni ancor la lingua a la mammella.

   [Now my words will come far short
of what I still remember, like a babe’s
who at his mother’s breast still wets his tongue.]

Paradiso XXXIII, 106-8

And again:

   Oh quanto è corto il dire e come fioco
al mio concetto! e questo, a quel ch’i’ vidi
è tanto, che non basta a dicer ‘poco’.

           [Oh how scant is speech, too weak to frame my thoughts.
Compared to what I still recall my words are faint —
to call them ‘little’ is to praise them much.]

Par XXXIII, 121-3

Of course, as with that divine art in the previous realm, this didn’t stop Dante exploring the possibility of representation in words, nor did it deter artists from endeavouring to depict the undepictable, Boccaccio again gives it his best shot, here illustrating Dante receiving a lesson on angelology from Beatrice in canto 28 of the Paradiso.

One artist who did eventually embrace the inexpressibility of Paradise, was Liszt, in another Dantean composition, A Symphony to Dante’s Divine Comedy. He had intended to compose a choral third movement to give voice to Paradiso, but was persuaded to shy away from any attempt to express the rapturous heights of heaven in his music, instead concluding his symphonic poem (as it is more often been classified), with a Magnificat.

Artists and entertainers, readers and scholars have listened to Dante in a variety of ways over the seven and half centuries since his death: interpretations, translations, appropriations, distortions, and homages ranging from the OUP’s Very Short Introduction, to Electronic Art’s very questionable videogame, from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sketches, to Mary Jo Bang’s thematically modernising translation. The Russian poet and essayist Osip Mandelstam, in the Conversations on Dante dictated to his wife in the mid 1930s, said, ‘It is unthinkable to read the cantos of Dante without aiming them in the direction of the present day. They are missiles for capturing the future.’ Our continued fascination with Dante’s poetry, the scores, and texts, and images that have been and continue to be generated and regenerated from those earliest illuminators, commentators, and biographers, to today’s artists, translators, filmmakers and writers demonstrate the continued resonance of his work and the lasting impacts of those missiles from the past. Dante has plenty more to tell us, if we continue to listen.

David Bowe, Victoria Maltby Junior Research Fellow, Somerville College
Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages

Further reading

Dante Alighieri. Inferno, translated by Mary Jo Bang (Minneapolis: Greywolf Press, 2012)

Peter Hainsworth & David Robey. Dante: a very short introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015)

N.R. Havely. Dante’s British public: readers and texts, from the fourteenth century to the present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)

Tristan Kay, Martin McLaughlin, and Michelangelo Zaccarello. ‘Introduction’, in  Dante in Oxford: the Paget Toynbee Lectures, ed. by Tristan Kay, Martin McLaughlin, and Michelangelo Zaccarello (London: Legenda, 2011), pp. 1-23 (1)

Dagmar Korbacher, ed. Botticelli and the treasures from the Hamilton collection (London: Paul Holberton, 2016)

Osip Mandelstam. ‘Conversation on Dante’, in The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, translated by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973)

Matthew Pearl. The Dante Club (London: Vintage, 2014)


The Pring-Mill Collection: Nicaragua — Part II

Serial publications, pamphlets and propaganda

Part I of this series of blog posts introduced the Robert Pring-Mill collection at the Taylor Institution Library and explored Nicaraguan poetry. This second part focuses on serial publications, pamphlets and grey literature. Part III, the last in the series, will discuss the genre known as testimonial literature.

It is in the serial publications, political pamphlets and the literacy campaign – La Cruzada Nacional de Alfabetización, with which Ernesto Cardenal was involved – that one can clearly see the role of what Pring-Mill termed “committed poetry”. In these publications, alongside political essays and journalistic accounts of human rights abuses, we find poetry and songs. Publications such as Tlaloc, Amanecer, La Chachalaca, student journals, literacy pamphlets and revolutionary martyrs’ obituaries, as well as other genres, show the function of poetry as part of a greater expression of national identity and development.

A good introduction to Nicaragua of the late 1970s and early 1980s is the magazine Amanecer: Reflexion Cristiana en la Nueva Nicaragua. It shows the strong links, in Nicaragua, between Christianity and the Sandinista movement. As its official artist and cartoonist it had Maximino Cerezo Barredo, the liberation theologian who produced liberation art throughout Latin America. The magazine provides a good insight into what was going on in Nicaragua politically and socially, covering events from the visit of Pope John Paul II (1983), to cinema festivals and peasant workshops. The Pope’s visit resulted in a variety of articles by prominent figures in the liberation theology movement expressing frustration and disappointment over the pontiff’s position with regard to the Sandinista revolution.

Amanecer includes articles and poems from the best-known intellectuals and poets of Nicaragua, authors widely represented in the Taylorian’s collections. We find poetry by Rubén Darío, Rosario Murillo, Ernesto Cardenal (Minister of Culture 1979-87), José María Valverde and other liberation theologians such as Fray Betto and Leonardo Boff, as well as interviews with the historian Hans-Jurgen Prien. There is political analysis, including the prediction of the escalation of the Contra War (Amanecer, January 1982, p.4), alongside songs and poems. This juxtapositioning shows the deep roots that the oral tradition has in Nicaragua, and the role it plays in its national identity and by extension in its political and social development.


Selection of periodicals in the Pring-Mill collection

The place of poetry in the reconstruction of the country after the revolution of 1979 is also evident in these serial publications. La Chachalaca (1985) was a publication of the Centros Populares de Cultura (Ministry of Culture) with the aim of developing “educational activities that contribute to increasing the level of culture of the citizens” (my own translation). This was the Sandinista project of cultural democratisation.

Article by Cortazar in La Chachalaca

Julio Cortázar. Article extract in La Chachalaca

Aurora, a trimestral publication on a variety of topics, comprises political essays, historical analysis, book reviews and poetry including, in 1964, Pablo Neruda’s poem Cita de Invierno. The number of articles on the Soviet Union in both Aurora and another publication, América Latina No. 4 (1976), reflects the close ties between the two regions. The latter, a Russian-Latin American academic publication, was probably collected by Pring-Mill for its article on Pablo Neruda as it includes 20 of the poet’s previously unpublished letters.

Various pamphlet series celebrating the lives of combatants who died during the armed struggle were published during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Each pamphlet is dedicated to the biography of an individual revolutionary martyr. Many of the combatants wrote poetry and this is included in each of their biographies. Some biographies also include a prayer or a passage from the Bible and frequently there is a direct comparison between the deceased and Jesus Christ or the Christian martyrs. It is here, as well as in Amanecer, that the influence of liberation theology in Nicaragua can really be seen.


A publication which aims to be pedagogic as well as religious is Historia de la Iglesia de los Pobres en Nicaragua, by the Comisión de Estudios de Historia de la Iglesia en Latinoamérica (1983). The booklet is in a simple language, within a cartoon-like format. It narrates the history of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua beginning with the colonial period and ending with 1979. It explains the differing models of the Church, how the Church dealt with the different historical periods in Nicaragua, and how the Church integrated itself into the revolution.


Less religious in focus but told in similar comic-book fashion is a translated booklet of cartoons by Roger Sánchez, a political cartoonist and social critic then aged 24, who also drew for the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN — Sandinista National Liberation Front) and its newspaper, Barricada. Sánchez’s Cartoons from Nicaragua: The Revolutionary Humour of Roger (1984) was published by the Committee of US Citizens Living in Nicaragua which, though it claimed not to align itself with the FSLN, did want to help change US policy in Nicaragua.


Part of the Sandinista project was the creation of a space with possibilities of alliance between the workers and the middle and upper classes. The aim was to increase educational attainment as well as create a shared sense of national-popular identity. Serie Educación Popular: Programa de reactivación económica en beneficio del pueblo (small booklet version, 1980) is written in clear and simple language explaining what the economic recovery programme consists of, its strategies, aims and related problems.


Other pragmatic pamphlets include, Revolución y El Campo: Boletín Informativo by the Centros Populares de Cultura, and Qué es el plan 80?: Plan de emergencia y reactivación económica en beneficio del pueblo: Ministerio de Planificación Nacional, among others. They were an attempt to inform citizens in an open and straightforward language about the economic plans and strategies of the new revolutionary government. Other pamphlets like these were part of the literacy campaign launched by the Sandinista government in 1980, in what was known as El año de la alfabetización (The Year of Literacy).


Natalia Bermúdez Qvortrup
University College of Oslo and Akershus
Intern, Social Science Library, Bodleian Libraries

Further reading

Arellano, Jorge Eduardo (1997) Literatura Nicaraguense Managua: Ediciones Distribuidora Cultural

Beverley, John and Marc Zimmerman (1990) Literature and Politics in the Central American Revolutions. Austin: University of Texas.

Forster, Merlin H. and K.David Jackson (1990) Vanguardism in Latin American Literature: An annotated Bibliographical Guide. New York: Greenwood Press.

Pring-Mill, Robert “ Both in Sorrow and in Anger: Spanish American protest poetry” Cambridge Review  vol.91/ 2195 (1970).


Maximino Cerezo Barredo:

For Beginners Books:


The World of Ariosto

The World of Ariosto

Oxford, Taylor Institution
16-17 June 2016

2016-08-Dosso Dossi

Dosso Dossi. Melissa [previously thought to be Circe] (oil on canvas, 1522-1524)

2016 marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, one of the most precious gems of the Italian Renaissance, a chivalric romance brimming with dazzling feats of arms and seductive love stories whose graceful irony and underlying seriousness have never ceased to enthral and intrigue readers and critics alike. Since the beginning of this anniversary year there has been a number of celebratory events in different parts of the world, with more being planned for the coming months. Oxford had no desire to overlook this centenary and on 16-17 June 2016 the Taylor Institution hosted a two-day international conference entitled ‘500 Years of Orlando Furioso’. (Link here to the conference programme: Oxford Ariosto Conference.) Two bibliographic displays, devoted to Ariosto and his world, were also on show. One group of works was exhibited in the Taylor Institution Library’s Voltaire Room; another group could be seen at the Weston Library.

These displays were designed to visually highlight key moments in both the publishing history of the poem and also the history of its reception and interpretation in Italy and Europe, with a focus on the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. They were conceived as visual counterparts to the Oxford Ariosto conference, whose main themes were tradition, reception, and interpretation. At the Taylorian, the items were drawn from the Italian collections of the Taylor Institution Library: though not as large as that of the Bodleian Library, its early printed book collection includes a number of valuable editions of Renaissance chivalric classics as well as works of literary criticism.

Ariosto’s fame began to spread far and wide soon after the publication of the 1532 Furioso. It was reprinted 16 times by 1540, and for the next decades every year saw the publication of at least one edition, mostly in Venice, one of the centres of the European printing industry in the sixteenth century. Particular highlights of the display were copies of sixteenth-century Venetian editions of Orlando furioso. The 1555 Gabriele Giolito edition, the 1562 Vincenzo Valgrisi Furioso and the 1584 Francesco de’ Franceschi Furioso are decorated with beautiful woodcuts (copper engravings in the case of the latter edition), and visitors could compare different illustrations to the first canto of the poem.

ORLANDO / FVRIOSO / DI M. / LODOVICO ARIOSTO / Nuouamente / adornato di Figure di Rame / da Girolamo Porro […], Venice, Francesco de Franceschi Senese, 1584

ORLANDO / FVRIOSO / DI M. / LODOVICO ARIOSTO / Nuouamente / adornato di Figure di Rame / da Girolamo Porro […], Venice, Francesco de Franceschi Senese, 1584

The endearingly tiny 1570 Valgrisi Furioso was displayed alongside these three luxurious books – an attractive pocket edition for less well-off readers or for those who wanted their Furioso to be of convenient size for carrying around.

Robert McNulty’s edition of John Harington’s 1591 translation of the poem, as well as the Spanish (Jerónimo de Urrea, 1553) and French (François de Rosset, 1625) translations, gave visitors an idea of Ariosto’s success outside Italy. His renown in his native land was further reflected in the selection of sixteenth-century scholarly works devoted to Orlando furioso, ranging from Simon Fórnari’s Spositione (1549) to Giuseppe Malatesta’s Della nuova poesia, o vero delle difese del Furioso (1589).

Other items included chivalric poems by Luca Pulci (a 1572 copy of Ciriffo calvaneo) and Matteo Maria Boiardo’s Orlando innamorato, together with Nicolò degli Agostini’s sequel in Domenico Imberti’s 1602 edition), Ariosto’s comedy Cassaria (the 1560 Giolito edition) and Boiardo’s translation of Herodotus (Giovan Antonio di Nicolini di Sabbio, 1533).

CIRIFFO CALVANEO / DI LVCA PVLCI / Gentilhuomo Fiorentino. / Con la Giostra del Magnifico Lorenzo / DE MEDICI […], Florence, Stamperia de’ Giunti, 1572

CIRIFFO CALVANEO / DI LVCA PVLCI / Gentilhuomo Fiorentino. / Con la Giostra del Magnifico Lorenzo / DE MEDICI […], Florence, Stamperia de’ Giunti, 1572


ORLANDO / INNAMORATO / DEL / S. MATTEO MARIA / BOIARDO, CONTE / DI SCANDIANO. / INSIEME COI TRE LIBRI DI M. NICOLO / de gli Agostini, già riformati per M. / Lodouico Domenichi […], Venice, Domenico Imberti, 1602.

The Taylor Institution Library display was held in conjunction with another, shown at the recently renovated Weston Library. The latter featured two illuminated manuscripts of fifteenth-century chivalric poems, a manuscript of Matteo Maria Boiardo’s collection of lyric poetry, and a copy of the 1532 definitive edition of Orlando furioso. The displays were accompanied by an illustrated catalogue (here split into two parts, for easier consultation) produced by Dr Maria Pavlova with the help of Anna Wawrzonkowska, a second-year student in Italian and Linguistics.

LINK to the catalogue:   2016-06-Ariosto-Weston and Taylorian Part 1-Taylorian

LINK to the catalogue: 2016-06-Ariosto-Weston and Taylorian Part 2-Weston

Maria Pavlova
Joanna Randall MacIver Junior Research Fellow, St Hugh’s College
Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages

DISCORSO / SOPRA IL PRINCIPIO / DI TVTTI I CANTI / D’ORLANDO FVRIOSO. / DELLA S. LAVRA TERRACINA, / detta nell’Academia de gl’incogniti, Febea […], Venice, Gabriel Giolito de’ Ferrari, 1565

DISCORSO / SOPRA IL PRINCIPIO / DI TVTTI I CANTI / D’ORLANDO FVRIOSO. / DELLA S. LAVRA TERRACINA, / detta nell’Academia de gl’incogniti, Febea […], Venice, Gabriel Giolito de’ Ferrari, 1565

Further reading

Ludovico Ariosto. Orlando furioso secondo la princeps del 1516, ed. Marco Dorigatti (Firenze: Olschki, 2006)

Orlando Lina Bolzoni and Loreta Lucchetti. L’Orlando furioso nello specchio delle immagini (Roma: Istituto della Enciclopedia italiana, [2014?])

Lina Bolzoni, et al. L’Orlando Furioso e la sua traduzione in immagini:

Sir John Harington, trans. Ludovico Ariosto’s ‘Orlando furioso’, ed. Robert McNulty (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972)

Neil Harris. Bibliografia dell’“Orlando innamorato” (Modena: Panini, 1988)

Daniel Javitch. Proclaiming a Classic: the Canonization of “Orlando Furioso” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991)

Ita MacCarthy. Women and the making of poetry in Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (Leicester: Troubador, 2007)

Marco Villoresi. La letteratura cavalleresca: dai cicli medievali all’Ariosto (Roma: Carocci, 2000)



The Pring-Mill Collection: Nicaragua — Part I


In recent months, Victor Jara has been in the news again owing to a trial being brought against a former Chilean lieutenant involved in his murder. The names of songwriters such as Victor Jara, Mercedes Sosa and Quilapayún continue to resonate in Latin America and around the world. Less well known (beyond Latin America) is the poetry, with the same kind of political commitment to revolution and the people’s struggle, that emerged in Nicaragua. These writings influenced subsequent generations, including pre-eminent Latin American musicians, and they play a prominent part in Latin American cultural history.

Part of the collection that the late renowned academic Robert Pring-Mill (1924-2005) bequeathed to the Taylor Institution Library depicts and encapsulates not only a crucial period of Latin American history — the revolutionary struggle of Nicaragua — but also the struggle in Latin America for meaning and representation through literature. As scholars such as Pring-Mill, and John Beverley and Marc Zimmerman (1990) have argued, while the novel became literary nationalism in Latin America, in Central America it was poetry that took on this role. In no other country in Central America did poetry have the significance and effect on national culture and identity as in Nicaragua. Testimonial writing is also a form of literature found in the publications of this collection, and has been a central tool for writers of revolutions in Central America.

The Pring-Mill collection is fascinating as a legacy of an era where committed poetry and testimonials take centre stage. The term “committed poetry”, a term penned by Pring-Mill himself, applies to a poetry that moves beyond the aesthetic to the testimonial of not only describing reality, but acting upon it and influencing the world, using poetry as a tool for social change through critique, protest, denunciation and reporting.

The Pring-Mill collection, which I was very generously given access to study, illustrates how art and revolution are closely interwoven in Latin America; and, in the case of Nicaragua, the close interweaving of art, Catholicism and revolution.

This article has been divided into three blog posts, published separately and over the course of the coming weeks. The first post introduces the collection and then focuses on Nicaraguan poetry. The second will explore serial publications and grey literature. The third will discuss testimonial literature.

Introducing the Collection

Steve Simpson. Postcard from Nicaragua

Steve Simpson. Postcard from Nicaragua

Some good introductory publications to both the collection and to Nicaragua of that time, for those who do not read Spanish, are: Not Just Another Nicaragua Travel Guide, by Alan Hulme, Steve Krekel and Shannon O’Reilly (1990); and Postcard from Nicaragua, by Steve Simpson (1987). They approach Nicaragua from a visitor’s perspective. The travel guide gives a fantastic portrait of Nicaragua, using humour, photographs in black and white and the authors’ personal opinions. Simpson’s book is the diary of his journey through Nicaragua in 1987, with a few illustrations.

A few documents were published in Germany, Russia, the UK, France and the US and show the support coming from different sectors of these countries. Many of these are from Nicaragua Solidarity Campaigns in their respective countries, while others, such as the New Left Review and the Latin American Bureau, are of a more academic nature.



Yet the most interesting of these, for me personally, is the counter-report on Central America by two UK Members of Parliament, Stuart Holland and Donald Anderson, with a preface by Neil Kinnock, entitled Kissinger’s Kingdom? (1984).

This report was the product of a fact-finding mission instigated by Neil Kinnock, the then leader of the Labour Party, as a response to the Kissinger Commission on Population and Development in Central America (its report was issued in 1984). The result is a wider and more balanced investigation into the struggles of the region and by extension is a criticism of American foreign policy at that time. It also includes criticism of the structural inadequacies in UK diplomatic representation and provides some analogies with other conflicts such as those in The Balkans and Vietnam. It is a short but fascinating insight not only into Central America but also into the mentality of the UK’s Labour Party at that time.

On the whole, the Pring-Mill collection on Nicaragua falls into three categories — which invariably overlap. The first and largest of the three, is the collection of Nicaraguan poetry; the second is the collection of grey material, ephemera and serial publications, mostly issued by the new revolutionary government of 1979 and onwards; and, finally, the testimonial writings.

Nicaraguan Poetry

Poetry has been identified as the starting point for the Sandinista revolution, as the vehicle for inspiration and political expression of Nicaraguans. For a good introduction to the historical development of Nicaraguan poetry there is Jorge E. Arellano’s Antología general de la poesía nicaragüense (1984). It provides a survey of all the currents, trends and styles of the poetry in Nicaragua throughout the years. It starts with pre-Columbian poetry, followed by colonial poetry, then the neoclassical and romantic poets, poets contemporary with Rubén Darío, modernists, vanguard poets and post-modernists. It also includes poets on the periphery and the ‘50s generation. But to understand the importance of poetry in Nicaragua one must go back to Rubén Darío, one of the most famous poets in Latin America. He was the first to pen the term modernismo in Latin America and later the Sandinista movement established Darío as a cult figure. There are some articles dedicated to Darío in the Pring-Mill collection, but there is more emphasis on the poets who came later in the vanguard movement, poets who in fact rejected Darío and modernismo. The Vanguardia movement in Nicaragua was, according to Forster and Jackson, by far the most vital in Central America. It was the “initial impetus”, in the mid 1920s, of José Coronel Urtecho, who published a sardonic poem “Oda a Rubén Darío” which inspired a number of famous poets whose works are in the Pring-Mill collection.  Urtecho is an important figure in Nicaragua both before and after the revolution and his support and enthusiasm for the new Nicaragua is depicted in his poem Conversación con Carlos, with engravings by Graciale Azcarate and Tony Capellán (1986), about his time with the founder of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), Carlos Fonseca.

Urtecho was mentor to Ernesto Cardenal and other 1940s poets and intellectuals who were “incubated” in the celebrated poetry workshop, Taller San Lucas. Established in 1941, the Taller was the result of a group of friends brought together by their Catholicism and love of culture and is a product of the revolutionary fervor that was growing at that time, together with the vanguardista movement of which Pablo Antonio Cuadra was very much a part. The poetry workshop was organised by another significant vanguardista, Pablo Antonio Cuadra. It was Cuadra, together with Francisco Pérez Estrada, who collected the texts for Muestrario del Folklore Nicaragüense (1978), produced by the Fondo de Promoción Cultural as part of the series Ciencias Humanas.

Photo10The Fondo was set up by the Banco de América to promote Nicaraguan culture through a collection of historical, literary, anthropological and archaeological publications. Muestrario del Folklore Nicaragüense is a collection of popular and folkloric Nicaraguan stories, theatre pieces, songs, poems, legends, sayings, rhymes, myths and more.

Photo09As the introduction mentions, it is the fruit of research conducted by the editors during their work at Taller San Lucas during the 1940s. It is one of the most interesting publications in the Pring-Mill collection, due to the richness of its content, and it was clearly a long labour of love to put the book together.


The publication is also an extraordinary record of Nicaraguan culture. Muestrario’s editors have maintained original spellings and the vernacular used by the locals who penned the works included. Loga del Niño Dios, for example, contains words in the Mangue language of the Chorotegas, natives of the region.

The voice of Ernesto Cardenal (Minister of Culture 1979-87)  can be found in a few items in the Taylorian collections, as well as in the interviews he gave for Margaret Randall’s Cristianos en la Revolución (1983) and Teófilo Cabestrero’s Ministers of God, Ministers of the People: Testimonies of Faith from Nicaragua (1983). His poem to Marilyn Monroe, as well as others, appeared in Tlaloc (Spring 1972. 3,4), a magazine produced by the students of the Department of Hispanic Studies at the State University of New York Stony Brook. A free publication distributed in Latin America and the US, it also includes poems and articles from Juan Rotta and Mario Vargas Llosa.

Photo11The surge and the establishment of the Sandinista movement in the ‘70s was supported by poets whose works form a significant part this collection. These authors are among Nicaragua’s most recognised poets: Fernando Silva, Julio-Valle Castillo, David McField, Tomás Borge, Pablo Centeno-Gómez and Fransisco de Asís Fernández.

Photo12Photo13Also central to the Nicaraguan poetry of this time is the work of poet-combatants such as Tomás Borge and Luis Vega.


Yet the most striking are the writings of poet-combatants killed in the revolutionary struggle, such as Leonel Rugama (1949-1970), Ernesto Castillo Salaverry, who died at the age of twenty, and Gaspar García Laviana, a Spanish priest who became a Sandinista leader.Photo15

I am very grateful to Joanne Edwards and Frank Egerton for giving me the possibility to freely explore this collection and learn so much about a country that is seldom in the mainstream media and yet whose influence on Latin American literature and identity, in terms of its committed poetry and also its liberation theology, has been so powerful.

Natalia Bermúdez Qvortrup
University College of Oslo and Akershus
Intern, Social Science Library, Bodleian Libraries

Further reading

Arellano, Jorge Eduardo (1997) Literatura Nicaraguense. Managua: Ediciones Distribuidora Cultural.

Beverley, John and Marc Zimmerman (1990) Literature and Politics in the Central American Revolutions. Austin: University of Texas.

Forster, Merlin H. and K.David Jackson (1990) Vanguardism in Latin American Literature: An annotated Bibliographical Guide. New York: Greenwood Press.

Pring-Mill, Robert “ Both in Sorrow and in Anger: Spanish American protest poetry” Cambridge Review  vol.91/ 2195 (1970).