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

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

Italian Characters in Search of an Author


Siena and its environs (Photograph by Gianmaria Bonari)

A few years ago, Petra Pertici, an expert on fifteenth-century Tuscan culture, published an article entitled Novelle senesi in cerca d’autore (Pertici 2011), in which she discusses the identity of the author of an important collection of novellas previously attributed to ‘Gentile Sermini da Siena’. Written in the early decades of the fifteenth century, these novellas (forty in total, preceded by a dedicatory letter) were the work of someone certainly familiar with the town of Siena, as well as with the culture and society of other parts of Tuscany and the Italian peninsula. The use that the author made of this familiarity, with significant if uneven literary results, has long given the Novelle a place in the history of Italian prose-writing. They lie in a chronologically intermediate position between earlier collections of greater reputation – those of Sacchetti and Sercambi, and especially Boccaccio’s masterpiece, the Decameron – and the later works of Masuccio Salernitano and others. The licentious nature of many of the Novelle attributed to Sermini, however, would seem to have hindered a full appreciation of this work, and perhaps also the identification of the text’s real author. Pertici recalls that previous scholars had obliquely indicated the possibility that the author was no less than Enea Silvio Piccolomini (1405-1464), better known as Pope Pius II. Along similar lines, she develops the hypothesis that the Novelle were written by the distinguished politician and military leader Antonio Petrucci (1400-1471), another member of the same culturally-advanced elite formed of sophisticated and socially-privileged Sienese of the time. In a series of recent publications, Pertici has supported this hypothesis by assembling and discussing a wide range of evidence (most of it persuasive, though not yet conclusive – see Caruso forthcoming).

Di Legami, Flora. Le novelle di Gentile Sermini (Rome: Antenore, 2009)

Di Legami, Flora. Le novelle di Gentile Sermini (Rome: Antenore, 2009)

Indeed, the collection contains various traces of a relatively uncommon intellectual independence and moral audacity. Some novellas include unconventional erotic triangles, where husbands who neglect their wives, or fail to treat them with sufficient courtesy, are finally forced to give them up to younger, more charming lovers. The female characters, meanwhile, are not passive goods for exchange, but often take on a much more active role. In other cases, the way in which characters are presented is influenced by another typical feature of early-fifteenth-century urban elites – namely, their sense of superiority and often ironic disapproval with regard to the manners and doings of those living in the countryside (clumsy peasants, self-indulgent clerics, and other members of the rural world). In the third novella, this urbane attitude takes a sinister, conservative turn when it combines with a more radical condemnation of the greed of individuals from the rising social classes: the curt and business-minded Scopone, who lives in the countryside but has no intention of obeying the cultural and economic rules set by the local landlord, is beaten up and publicly humiliated until he finally conforms to traditional values and social hierarchies.

Testa, Enrico. Simulazione di parlato. Fenomeni dell’oralità nelle novelle del Quattro-Cinquecento (Florence: Accademia della Crusca, 1991

Testa, Enrico. Simulazione di parlato. Fenomeni dell’oralità nelle novelle del Quattro-Cinquecento (Florence: Accademia della Crusca, 1991)

This taste for descriptions, attentive to the divergent behaviours of different social and geographical milieus, is also the basis of another feature that makes the Novelle a most valuable historical document. I refer here to the linguistic characterization – not only of individual speakers, but also of shouting gangs and crowds (as in the intermezzo, set in Siena, which appears after the sixth novella – see Pseudo Sermini 2012, pp. 194-200 – as well as in the first novella, set in Perugia). Especially in the case of characters from Perugia, the author would seem to have been extremely accurate in reproducing their variety, and to have done so not only in terms of lexical choices, but also at the level of phonological and morphological developments (especially diphthongization and metaphony – see Stussi 1993, p. 146; and for a more recent and detailed account, see Marchi 2010-2011). On the one hand, commentators have long pointed to the mimesis of various Tuscan and non-Tuscan varieties as a fascinating feature of Sermini’s Novelle (e.g. Vigo 1894, pp. xi-xii), all the more important as it pertains to a period for which we do not have many other works in which dialects are used to represent realistically – or to hyper-characterize – the inhabitants of particular areas. On the other hand, however, it is not easy to use this kind of information about Italy’s vernacular languages: as we shall see, attempts in this direction have led to some problematic outcomes, especially in the absence of an authoritative edition of the Novelle.

Novelle di autori senesi (2 vols.) (London: Riccardo Bancker, 1796-1798)

Novelle di autori senesi (2 volumes) (London: Riccardo Bancker, 1796-1798)

The Bodleian Libraries – and the Taylorian in particular – hold various items that help trace the editorial history of Sermini’s Novelle. These include partial editions published in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some of which are also digitally available, as well as complete editions (Sermini 1911 and 1968) and the recent critical edition by Monica Marchi (where the name of the author is finally given as Pseudo Sermini 2012).* The earlier editions were largely based on a manuscript held at the Biblioteca Estense in Modena (It. 282 = α. H. 8. 15), which bears palaeographic and linguistic traces of a non-Sienese origin. According to Pertici (2013), this version of the text of the Novelle was copied by Masolino da Montolmo, who was born in what is now Corridonia (in the Marche region, close to the Adriatic coast) and then went on to become one of Petrucci’s assistants.** Linguistically, the Biblioteca Estense manuscript has various northern Italian features, but occasionally also preserves forms which seem compatible with the author’s Tuscan background: for instance, at the beginning of the twelfth novella, this manuscript has m’allogiai ‘I stayed’, which in Marchi’s edition is replaced by the less distinctive synonym m’albergai. The second manuscript containing the Novelle (Biblioteca Marciana, Venice, It. VIII, 16 = 6167) is more recent (it dates from the second half of the fifteenth century) and shows traces of linguistic normalization; but it has the advantage of being written in Tuscan as well as offering a far more accurate transcription of the text in comparison to the Biblioteca Estense version. Marchi has therefore decided to use the Biblioteca Marciana manuscript as the basis for her critical edition.

A modern edition of the Novelle (Sermini 1911)

A modern edition of the Novelle (Sermini 1911)

As we have already seen, scholars in historical linguistics have long been encouraged to take notice of Sermini’s work. Even in the absence of an autograph (and of sufficiently certain information about the real author), the available manuscripts provide reliable attestations of non-standard words and expressions that can still be heard in Siena, and/or in the surrounding countryside, at least in the speech of the older generation. Examples include: mira ‘look!’, rovito ‘red-hot’, molle ‘wet’, catrasta ‘stack of wood’ (cf. Standard Italian catasta), banca ‘bench’ (St. It. panca), gattivo ‘bad’ (St. It. cattivo), the double consonants in doppo ‘after’ (St. It. dopo) and robba ‘stuff’ (St. It. roba), the assimilation in portallo ‘to bring it’ (St. It. portarlo), the past volse ‘(s)he wanted’ (St. It. volle) and fusti ‘you were’ (St. It. fosti), second person singular imperatives ending in -e (e.g. scende ‘get off’, as opposed to St. It. scendi), and personal pronouns with the addition of -ne, as in tene ‘you’.

Materials on Tuscan linguistic varieties in the Taylorian Collections

Materials on Tuscan linguistic varieties in the Taylorian Collections

In addition to the linguistic features mentioned above, some scholars have also claimed to have found something less predictable, and therefore potentially even more significant. In the twelfth novella, the narrator tells us that, while in a hilly area near Siena, he overheard a conversation between a man named Roncone and some other peasants, all of them grossi et materiali ‘uneducated and coarse’ (Pseudo Sermini 2012, p. 282). He then incorporates their conversation in his narration, reporting the words of these local peasants as they were uttered. Focusing on Roncone’s direct speech, Testa (1991), Franceschini (1996) and Romanini (2014) highlight the presence of the sound [d] in brigada ‘group of friends, folks’, and most notably in the participial ending of semenado ‘sown’. Modern Standard Italian, which is largely based on medieval Florentine, retains [t] in brigata and seminato. So Roncone’s words suggest that the medieval varieties spoken near Siena had been affected by voicing of intervocalic consonants to a higher degree than the varieties spoken in Florence (the term voicing is used here to refer to a phonological process fairly similar to what we find in varieties of English in which a word such as British almost sounds like Bridish). This would probably add a crucial piece of evidence to what we know about the history of Italian consonants. (On the much debated topic of voicing in Tuscany, and on its importance for Italian and Romance linguistics, see among others Weinrich 1958, Contini 1960, Maiden 1995, and Canalis 2014.) However, the reconstruction of pronunciation (i.e. oral speech) on the basis of written records is always a problematic task, whose results are inevitably exposed to various types and degrees of contradiction. In this case, moreover, the problem becomes particularly acute in the light of Marchi’s recent edition, in which brigata and seminato are both spelt with t (see Pseudo Sermini 2012, p. 289). The variants with d come from the Estense manuscript, and may be due to those northern linguistic incrustations which, together with other factors, led Marchi to favour the manuscript of the Biblioteca Marciana.

In any case, this last methodological point is only one of the many examples that confirm the potential interest of the Novelle – a treasure trove of materials that can be usefully mined by the historian of Italian culture and literature, and of Italy’s dialects alike.

Alessandro Carlucci
Postdoctoral Research Assistant
Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages


* There is also an English translation of some of the Novelle in Thomas Roscoe, The Italian novelists (4 volumes) (London: Septimus Prowett, 1825).

** The Bodleian’s Special Collections (at the Weston Library) also hold Petrucci’s zibaldone containing Latin and vernacular texts (MSS. Canoniciani italici 50; see Pertici 2011, pp. 701-703).


Angelini, Alceste (1995), ‘Saggio di lessico montalcinese’, Studi Linguistici Italiani, 21, pp. 155-194.

Bencistà, Alessandro (2012), Vocabolario del vernacolo fiorentino e toscano (Florence: Polistampa).

Borromeo, Antonio Maria (1794), Notizia de’ novellieri italiani posseduti dal conte Anton-Maria Borromeo, gentiluomo padovano, con alcune novelle inedite (Bassano: Remondini).

Cagliaritano, Ubaldo (1975), Vocabolario senese (Florence: Barbèra).

Canalis, Stefano (2014), ‘The Voicing of Intervocalic Stops in Old Tuscan and Probabilistic Sound Change’, Folia Linguistica Historica, 35, pp. 55-100.

Caruso, Carlo (forthcoming), Review of Pseudo Gentile Sermini 2012, Giornale storico della letteratura italiana.

Castellani, Arrigo (2000), Grammatica storica della lingua italiana (Bologna: Il Mulino).

Contini, Gianfranco (1960), ‘Per un’interpretazione strutturale della cosiddetta “gorgia” toscana’, Boletim de Filologia, 19, pp. 269-281.

Di Legami, Flora (2009), Le novelle di Gentile Sermini (Rome: Antenore).

Franceschini, Fabrizio (1996), ‘Tra lingua e dialetto: censura linguistica, mimesi dialettale e rappresentazioni “blasoniche” nella Toscana del XV secolo’, in La Toscana al tempo di Lorenzo il Magnifico (Pisa: Pacini), pp. 505-608.

Giannelli, Luciano (2000), Toscana (2nd edition) (Pisa: Pacini).

Maiden, Martin (1995), A Linguistic History of Italian (London: Longman).

Marchi, Monica (2010-2011), ‘Le novelle dello Pseudo-Sermini: un novelliere senese?’, Studi di grammatica italiana, 29-30, pp. 53-90.

Pertici, Petra (2011), ‘Novelle senesi in cerca d’autore: l’attribuzione ad Antonio Petrucci delle novelle conosciute sotto il nome di Gentile Sermini’, Archivio storico italiano, 169, pp. 679-706.

— (2011-2012), ‘Lo Pseudo Gentile Sermini agli Intronati’, Bullettino senese di storia patria, 118-119, pp. 487-491.

Pseudo Gentile Sermini (2012), Novelle, ed. by Monica Marchi (Pisa, ETS).

Romanini, Fabio (2014), ‘Forme brevi della prosa letteraria’, in G. Antonelli, M. Motolese and L. Tomasin (eds), Storia dell’italiano scritto, vol. 2: Prosa letteraria (Rome: Carocci), pp. 203-254.

Sermini, Gentile (1911), Novelle (Lanciano: Carabba).

— (1968), Novelle, ed. by Giuseppe Vettori (Rome: Avanzini e Torraca).

Stussi, Alfredo (1993), Lingua, dialetto e letteratura (Turin: Einaudi).

Testa, Enrico (1991), Simulazione di parlato. Fenomeni dell’oralità nelle novelle del Quattro-Cinquecento (Florence: Accademia della Crusca).

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