[MUSIC PLAYING] ANDREW WEISLOGEL: Hello, and welcome to a virtual walkthrough of the exhibition Visions of Dante, being held in conjunction with our symposium today. I'm Andy Weislogel. I'm the Askin Curator of Earlier European and American Art here at the Johnson Museum.
LAURENT FERRI: I'm Laurent Ferri, a curator of the pre-1800 collections in Division of Rare Books and Manuscripts in the library here at Cornell.
ANDREW WEISLOGEL: This tour is designed to be seen in tandem with talks by other speakers in our symposium today. So we encourage you to please watch the other keynotes from the symposium, which will cover works of art in the exhibition that we will not share on today's tour. Of course, the exhibition is so big and intensive that we've narrowed today's selection to seven objects on which we will focus, ranging from the Italian Renaissance to the present. Before we start, I'd like to just offer a few words of introduction. And then Laurent will speak about the meaning of our exhibition's title.
Dante Alighieri, the greatest poet in the Italian language, died on September 14, 1321, 700 years to the day of the opening of our exhibition. In 1892, Willard Fiske, Cornell's recently retired first librarian, founded a Dante collection in the Cornell Library. This bust of Dante belonged to him. By 1900, the collection had grown so much, both in books and related artworks, that the collection's first curator, Theodore Cook, advocated for the creation of a major exhibition about the collection. Well, here we are 121 years later, doing just that.
This exhibition is an opportunity, of course, to see the treasures of the collection-- manuscripts, early printed editions, later illustrated portfolios, prints and drawings, including many new discoveries. And also, it's an opportunity to show Dante's continued relevance for contemporary artists today, and also that Dante's themes and his vision still provide a framework for important discussions about our society, our notion of self, and our identity today.
LAURENT FERRI: So why Visions of Dante? Three reasons. First of all, we need to remember that Dante lived in a time when people heard voices and had visions. They could take the form of a disciplined dream or a collective hallucination or a communication with the afterlife, but they were always meaningful. In Paradiso, canto 18, Dante refers to God as a painter who sends us messages, cryptic messages, in the form of symbols painted in the sky. And poets, in particular, were believed to be granted such visions.
One of the reasons why Virgil is Dante's guide throughout hell, which is one of the three parts of The Divine Comedy, along with purgatory and paradise, is because even though Virgil died in 19 BCE, before the Christian era, it was thought that he had announced in one of his poems the birth and the coming of Jesus Christ the Savior. So that's the first reason.
The second reason is that Dante, we believe, is a very visual artist, someone who is not only a great storyteller, someone who is equipped with amazing rhetorical skills, but is also very good with visual effects, sometimes even special effects, and makes us see, sometimes even before we fully understand, what is going on. It is certainly true of hell. Less so of paradise, which is a lot about theological discussions, more abstract side. So that's the second reason.
And the third reason is that Dante has been continuously a great source of inspiration to visual artists, from [INAUDIBLE] or Botticelli to Kyle Walker and Frank Schroeder. All these artists are represented in our exhibition, and we hope that visitors will develop their own vision of Dante.
ANDREW WEISLOGEL: The first stop on our tour is designed to offer you a little bit of background and context about the history of the Dante collection at Cornell.
LAURENT FERRI: What we have here on display is the first book in Cornell's Dante collection. In 1892, Willard Fiske, the first Cornell librarian, now retired, inadvertently purchased this book in Florence and sent it out to his former employer, Cornell University. He himself downplayed the value of the book, saying, should you already possess a copy, please forward it to the closest municipal library in Dryden, it doesn't have great value.
But what he couldn't anticipate was that the book would be immediately sent to the entomology lab. Why? Because it contained active bookworms. And there was a major specialist of insects at Cornell by the time, Comstock. And he enjoyed this book very much because it allowed him to cultivate bookworms.
We know that because of this other volume, a manual for the study of insects by John Henry Comstock and Anna Botsford Comstock. And the library holds the copy inscribed to Mr. Andrew D. White, with the sincere regards of the Comstocks. On page 553, it reads, "we have bred bookworms in large numbers from the cover of a very old book, a copy of Dante's Divine Comedy printed in 1536. It seems that old books are much more subject to the attacks of bookworms than others."
Fiske wasn't deterred or discouraged, and he continued to buy other copies of The Divine Comedy, actually in a very systematic way. And the next document is a checklist of the editions of The Divine Comedy acquired by Fiske as of March 1894. And when you look at this list, you see that the man was very well-organized and very systematic. And to this day, Cornell Library has all the printed editions of The Divine Comedy since 1472 in all the languages.
ANDREW WEISLOGEL: So lest we think that the Cornell Dante collection is entirely composed of books, this is a good opportunity to show that, although the collection began with Fiske in the 1890s, it's continued to build and build over the intervening decades. And this series of engravings after scenes from Dante's Inferno by the English romantic poet and artists William Blake are a terrific example of this continuous collecting to add to the Dante holdings at Cornell. These engravings were commissioned from Blake in his later years, toward the end of his life, by a fellow artist and publisher named John Linnell. And so between 1825 and 1827, Blake labored at these seven copper plates that produced these seven scenes from Dante's Inferno.
The one that we're looking at here today tells the story, the famous story from Inferno, canto five, of Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini. Paolo and Francesca were both people known to Dante in his own life. And they were ill-fated lovers whom he comes across in Inferno, canto five, in the circle of hell reserved for the lustful. And Dante tells us that, in Inferno, canto five, the lustful, those who have been ruled by their passions in life are constantly buffeted about by hot winds in hell, and casted out and thrust against each other.
And so here, in this upper part of the composition of the engraving, we see Paolo and Francesca. The way that Blake shows us this, they are both simultaneously clasping onto each other and being torn apart, a constant process that happens throughout eternity. But what's really interesting about Blake's particular take on this scene is that he also inserts this circle at the top here, in which we see Paolo and Francesca kissing right above the head of Virgil, who is standing here.
And so Dante is also bringing us the narrative, not only his direct encounter with Paolo and Francesca in hell, but he's also bringing us the story of their original first kiss, where they first betrayed her husband, who was also Paolo's brother, who later came and killed them both, and sent them down to hell.
Their first kiss was occasioned by a reading together in private of the courtly poem of Guinevere and Lancelot. And when Guinevere and Lancelot kissed for the first time, likewise Paolo and Francesca. And so what's really compelling about Blake's depiction of Paolo and Francesca is that he sympathizes with them. In addition to depicting their current state in hell, he sympathizes with that moment in which they first committed that sin, first fell in love.
LAURENT FERRI: This section of the exhibition is about Dante's fame and legend. And even Walt Disney plays a role in that. What we have here is [INAUDIBLE] Topolino. Topolino is Mickey Mouse's name in Italian. And it's a comic book published in Milan in 1949.
It's interesting to see how Mickey Mouse changed over time. When he was first introduced in 1928, he was this kind of mischievous jokester. And then he became more of a virtuous US citizen, someone who helps the police, someone who is an ambassador of US democratic values. And he especially played that role during World War II against Nazism and fascism.
This [INAUDIBLE] adaptation made Mickey Mouse marketable to the parents. And it had a huge influence on at least two generations of Italian readers, so much so that, in February of 2021, a top-ranking official in the Italian education department made a huge blunder when he announced his appointment on Facebook and quoted from Dante. But the problem was, it wasn't from Dante, but from Topolino, according to Walt Disney.
ANDREW WEISLOGEL: This beautiful and quite tempestuous drawing that you see here to my left is a good opportunity to talk about the research discoveries that spring from the process of investigating a rich Dante collection like the one held at Cornell. In the process of preparing the exhibition, my colleague, Laurent Ferri, was flipping through the large-format scrapbooks that Willard Fiske had put together in the 1890s, and came across this beautiful drawing by Italian artist [INAUDIBLE] who is not a household name today, but was quite prolific and successful in his own day, primarily as a mural painter, a painter of interior decorations, which is why we don't see so many of his easel works circulating in the art world and his name is not so well-known.
But a really wonderful artist, and an artist who, in his youth, experimented a little bit with depictions of scenes from Dante, but really started to delve into a passion for depicting Dante after 1800, partially inspired by other illustrations of Dante, such as other ones that we have in the exhibition. After about 1800, [? Gianni ?] produced a number of Dante-related drawings. And this is a brand-new one that has never been seen before.
What we have here also is somewhat unusual in the moment he's chosen to depict in The Divine Comedy, from Inferno, canto three. Inferno, canto three is the moment where Dante and Virgil enter through the gates of hell, and Dante gets his first taste of the madness and the sights, the sounds, the smells. And he's so deeply affected that, in fact, he faints.
So actually, what we're seeing here depicted in the center of the drawing, amidst all these wonderful sort of arched rocks of hell and surging waters and personified faces howling madly, is Charon, the boatman of hell, ferrying Virgil and Dante across the river Acheron to their next destination. But this is not actually narrated. Dante does not actually narrate this part in Inferno in The Divine Comedy, because the next thing that we see is that he's awake on the other side. So the artist has taken a little bit of artistic liberty here. And I think that means that the concept of Dante and the Inferno had reached a point in popular culture and in the minds of collectors that they would have been familiar enough that they would have been interested in kind of a looser interpretation of the text itself.
LAURENT FERRI: To understand Dali's project to illustrate The Divine Comedy, one must place it in the context of his return to both classical tradition and Catholicism. However, Dali would also recycle a lot of his inventory of previous symbols. Here's a good example of that. The [INAUDIBLE] fires are portrayed in The Divine Comedy as cannibals reversing the sacrament in which Christians ritually consume the body of Christ. But in Dali's version, what you see is a melting face hanging limply and dripping over the edge of a platform, very much like the soft watch in his famous 1931 painting, The Persistence of Memory.
This composition of swirling energy, motion and colors is by artist Frank Schroeder, who was born in 1961, the son of a French mother and a father from Western Africa. He compares it to a ballet, more play than painting, in a sense. Schroeder quotes from various artists-- Matisse, [INAUDIBLE] Picasso, Chagall-- and he blends it with inspiration from street art, hip hop art and graffiti.
ANDREW WEISLOGEL: Of this piece, Schroeder writes that, to paraphrase, that hell isn't always necessarily dark. For him, the painting is an exploration, and not just through Inferno, but also Purgatory and Paradiso, all in one painting. And the journey expressed and implied by the painting is an opportunity for self-redemption, self-improvement. And in fact, he says of the painting, he refers to it as a sacred song of redemption.
We thought perhaps a good way to wrap up today's tour would be to end with this piece that brings us up into the concept of American car culture with this wonderful witty, but also quite profound piece by David Regan entitled V-8 Universe from 2003. It is a ceramic sculpture made of bisque porcelain. And the technique that you see here in the black and white is called this [INAUDIBLE] technique, whereby the artist starts with a white porcelain bisque sculpture, overlays it with a black slip, and then, very carefully, using needles and other small tools, carves away back to the white so that we get this wonderful black and white design that you see expressing the drawing of the piece.
When I spoke to David Regan about this piece, I was particularly interested about what he had to say about his connection back to The Divine Comedy, because although it is a piece that is a tongue-in-cheek reference to a car engine and an auto mechanic's view of what The Divine Comedy might look like, it springs from Regan's ideas going back to Dante, and just the mere fact that Dante expresses a blueprint that hell can have a shape, for example, that hell can have levels, be inhabitable, be peopled by different beings struck him, in a way. And so he decided to express hell's structure in the form of an engine block.
And so at the bottom, it's a three-tiered structure, befitting the three canticles of The Divine Comedy. At the bottom here, you have Inferno, which is expressed as an eternal snarling traffic jam of cars and trucks, certainly a hellish situation, driven by the dead. The next layer of the composition, above the wheel rim on which it sits, is the engine block itself. And the engine block is expressed as a sort of cathedral.
And Regan makes reference to his moments as a choirboy in the Russian Orthodox Church. And so it's populated with many sort of faux Russian Orthodox icons, and features a procession of monks carrying car parts instead of liturgical items. That's the central purgatory of the piece. And of course, at the top, we have the air filter assembly at the top, which is swarmed all over by nude female angels, certainly the stereotypical working mechanic's idea of paradise.
LAURENT FERRI: So this was obviously just a sample of what's on display in the exhibition, a joint exhibition, museum and library, that features more than 100 artifacts, including these two very rare and valuable early printed and illustrated editions of The Divine Comedy, [INAUDIBLE] 1472 and [INAUDIBLE] 1487.
ANDREW WEISLOGEL: The exhibition Visions of Dante will be on display here at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University until December 19th. We hope you will come and join us.
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Co-curators Dr. Andrew C. Weislogel, the Seymour R. Askin, Jr. ’47 Curator of Earlier European and American Art, Johnson Museum of Art, and Dr. Laurent Ferri, Curator of Pre-1800 Collections, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library / Adjunct Associate Professor of Comparative Literature, Cornell University, lead a tour of “Visions of Dante,” on view at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University (September 14–December 19, 2021).
The exhibition was designed to mark the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), the greatest poet of the Italian language. The exhibition examines Dante’s complex vision of the afterlife in his “Divine Comedy” from a range of artistic viewpoints, both old and new.
Choosing selected objects, Dr. Ferri and Dr. Weislogel will orient you to the history of Cornell’s Dante collection and explain the poet’s enduring presence in literary and cultural history. From rare illustrated editions, to woodcuts, to mixed media, our curators take you on a visual journey through artistic responses to the “Divine Comedy”—from the Renaissance to the present day.
“Visions of Dante: A Central NY Humanities Corridor Symposium” was held on Saturday, October 16, 2021, at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, in conjunction with their exhibition “Visions of Dante.” The symposium was cosponsored by the Central New York Humanities Corridor, a unique regional collaboration between Syracuse University, Cornell University, the University of Rochester, the New York Six Liberal Arts Consortium, and other liberal arts schools and colleges in the central New York region.
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