Dante in the news… and everywhere else.

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I have a truckload of Dante at my home.  I have the authoritative Charles Singleton prose translation, the Dorothy Sayers verse translation with her copious notes, along with her two volumes of Dante essays, I have the overlooked Peter Dale translation, I even have the Longfellow translation, and Daniel Halpern‘s “Dante’s Inferno: Translations by Twenty Contemporary Poets,” including Seamus Heaney, Carolyn Forche, Deborah Digges, C.K. Williams, W.S. Merwin, and others. I have books on Dante by John Freccero and Mark Musa and R.W.B. Lewis, and William Anderson and heaven knows who else… that’s in addition to several translations of La Vita Nuova and De Monarchia. What more can be said?  Lots, it appears.

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San Francisco as Paradise.

Dante Alighieri is in the news again … and how could it be otherwise with a new book from Dan Brown (of Da Vinci Code fame) called Inferno?  “For all its absurdities, Brown’s book is a comfort, because it proves that the Divine Comedy is still alive in our culture,” writes Joan Acocella in The New Yorker. Otherwise…

As we saw in The Da Vinci Code, there is no thriller-plot convention, however well worn, that Brown doesn’t like. The hero has amnesia. He is up against a mad scientist with Nietzschean goals. He’s also up against a deadline: in less than twenty-four hours, he has been told, the madman’s black arts will be forcibly practiced upon the world. Though this book, unlike The Da Vinci Code and Brown’s Angels and Demons (2000), is not exactly an ecclesiastical thriller, it takes place largely in churches and, as the title indicates, it constantly imports imagery from the Western world’s most famous eschatological thriller, Dante’s Inferno. Wisely, Brown does not let himself get hog-tied by the sequence of events in Dante’s poem. Instead, he just inserts allusions whenever he feels that he needs them. There are screams; there is excrement. The walls of underground caverns ooze disgusting liquid. Through them run rivers of blood clogged with corpses. Bizarre figures come forward saying things like “I am life” and “I am death.” Sometimes the great poet is invoked directly. The book’s villain is a Dante fanatic and the owner of Dante’s death mask, on which he writes cryptic messages. Scolded by another character for his plans to disturb the universe, he replies, “The path to paradise passes directly through hell. Dante taught us that.”

Acocella doesn’t stick with Brown, however. Most of her focus is on the new translations of The Divine Comedy by Clive James and Mary Jo Bang.  Both poets take a lot of liberties.  We’ve written about the latter translation here, and as for the James translation … it sounds like it’s worth a read.  But read Acocella’s whole review here.

Acocella notes that “Translators are not the only ones drawn to Dante. Since 2006, Roberto Benigni has been touring a solo show about the Divine Comedy” – the we wrote about that here – “In 2010, Seymour Chwast rendered the poem as a graphic novel. There are Inferno movies and iPad apps and video games.” Ahhh, but she does not complete the list.  She neglected to mention San Francisco’s very own version of Dante (also on our shelves) by Sandow Birk and Marcus Sanders, published by Chronicle Books, which opens:

About halfway through the course of my pathetic life,
I woke up and found myself in a stupor in some dark place,
I’m not sure how I ended up there; I guess I had taken a few wrong turns.

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Chris and her “Postcards from Hell”

Meanwhile, a trip to the recent 46th International Antiquarian Book Fair in San Francisco, I met Chris Lowenstein, the “Chief Bibliophilic Officer” for  Book Hunter’s Holiday – who is so fond of Dante that she has a whole section of her website devoted to Dante books and artwork.  On this particular day, she showed me her “Postcards from Hell.”

Only they weren’t.  Not all of them, anyway.  She has a set of 54 cards – that’s 18 from the Inferno, 18 from Purgatorio, and 18 from Paradiso.  (Purgatory is pictured at the top of this post, and according to my Singleton translation, it says, quite rightly, “The angel who came to earth with the decree of peace, wept for since many a year…”)

“They’re in good condition, too – no writing on the cards or creases on them. That’s pretty rare,” Chris said of the cards, which are around a century old.  Needless to say, I was thoroughly charmed by them.

Here’s the description:


[SBORGI, E.]. Alighieri, Dante. LA DIVINA COMMEDIA. Firenze, Italia: Sborgi. 54 postcards, horizontal format.  3 1/2” x 5 1/2”. Color postcards printed on heavy cardstock, likely early 20th century, as Sborgi, a major printer and publisher of chromo- lithographic art cards, operated as a business from 1910-1917. Each card features an embossed and elaborately illustrated, gilt-ruled frame of angels, devils, and condemned souls along with Dante’s verse depicted in the picture inside the frame. On the left side of each card is a portrait of Dante at his writing desk. The right side of each card features selected scenes from one of the cantos of the Commedia.The verso of each card has a verse from the canto depicted on the front, some lines for writing, and a space for a stamp. All of the cards are unused, bright, and attractive with very mild corner wear. Two of the cards have small areas of rubbing on the front (Paradiso XVI and Paradiso XXXI).

They sell for $1,000.  Alas, “too dear for my possessing.” I didn’t have the coin for such a purchase, but I did take a few photos with my cellphone – at right and above.

In addition to iPad apps and video games Acocella mentions, there have been plenty of literary, art, and musical interpretations down through the centuries. Lots has been composed, written, and riffed about the Francesca da Rimini episode of the Inferno (we wrote about that here) – but too often overlooked is Puccini‘s only comedy, Gianni Schicchi, a one-act opera often paired with his Suor Angelica.

Renata Scotto performed both in one afternoon – that’s a lot of singing, and explains why some sensitive connoisseurs found this exceptional “O mio babbino caro” a little ragged around the edges – as is this low-res youtube clip. But it’s well worth the two minutes.  Scotto’s endearing interpretation of the role is matchless – concert performances of this aria by Callas & Co. tend to treat it like high tragedy, but in the context of this short opera, from an episode in the Inferno, is clearly about a spoiled brat trying to wring some bling out of daddy-o.

See what you think…


4 Responses to “Dante in the news… and everywhere else.”

  1. leo Says:

    One of our men once presented a book on Dante’s Inferno. It was refused as too radical for that French University just North of here. The worth of Brown’s books is what he says about various things. It appears he is getting better as a writer. But he is a great mystery writer, You just can’t put the book down once you read it. Fantasy and all. Leo

  2. myclassicalgas - the social network for friends and lovers of classical music - View Blog Says:

    Dante in the news… and everywhere else. | The Book Haven

  3. Chester Kisiel Says:

    Hello Cynthia,
    Your postcards look super but I can’t afford them. It’s amazing how copious Dante can be. At one time I also had thought of updating the Divine Comedy by populating it with contemporaries (what fun!) but don’t have the talent. Maybe you would be interested in joining the Dante Redux discussion group on Shelfari.com. We’d love to have you. Check us out.
    Best wishes,
    Chester Kisiel

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Will do, Chester – and nag me if I don’t!

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