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“I cannot well repeat how there I entered”*…

Domenico di Michelino, La Divina Commedia di Dante, 1465 — Source

A collection– and consideration– of the illustrations inspired by Dante’s The Divine Comedy…

A man wakes deep in the woods, halfway through life. Far from home, unpermitted to return, his heart pierced by grief. He has strayed from the path. It’s a dark night of the soul, his crisis so great that death becomes a tempting end. And then, as wild beasts advance upon this easy prey, his prayers are answered. A guide appears, promising to show him the way toward paradise…

[This month] marks the seventh centenary of Dante Alighieri’s death, the Florentine poet who wrote The Divine Comedy, arguably our most ambitious Western epic. Eschewing Latin, the medieval currency of literature and scholarship, Dante wrote in his vernacular tongue, establishing the foundations for a standardized Italian language, and, by doing so, may have laid cultural groundwork for the unification of Italy.

The poet’s impact on literature cannot be overstated. “Dante’s influence was massive”, writes Erich Auerbach, “he singlehandedly established the expressive possibilities and the landscape of all poetry to come, and he did so virtually out of thin air”. And just as the classical Virgil served as Dante’s guide through the Inferno, Dante became a kind of Virgil for later writers. Chaucer cribbed his rhythm and images, while Milton’s Paradise Lost may have been actually lost, were it not for Dante as a shepherd. The Divina Commedia is a touchstone for works as diverse as fifteenth-century Castilian and Catalan verse; Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842); and Mary Shelley’s Italian Rambles (1844), which finds the poet at every turn:

There is scarcely a spot in Tuscany, and those parts of the North of Italy, which he visited, that Dante has not described in poetry that brings the very spot before your eyes, adorned with graces missed by the prosaic eye, and which are exact and in perfect harmony with the scene.

If Dante’s poetry summons landscapes before its reader’s eyes, artists have tried, for the last seven hundred years, to achieve another kind of evocation: rendering the Commedia in precise images, evocative patterns, and dazzling color. By Jean-Pierre Barricelli’s estimate, a complete catalogue of Commedia-inspired artworks would exceed 1,100 names. The earliest dated image comes from Florence in 1337, beginning the tradition soon after the poet’s death in 1321. Before long, there were scores of other illustrations…

A thoughtful consideration and a glorious collection: “700 Years of Dante’s Divine Comedy in Art,” from @PublicDomainRev.

* Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy

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As we visualize, we might send well-worded birthday greetings to Samuel Johnson; he was born on this date in 1709.  A poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor, and lexicographer, Johnson’s best-known work was surely  A Dictionary of the English Language, which he published in 1755, after nine years work– and which served as the standard for 150 years (until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary).  But Dr. Johnson, as he was known, is probably best remembered as the subject of what Walter Jackson Bate noted is “the most famous single work of biographical art in the whole of literature”: James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson.  A famous aphorist, Johnson was the very opposite of a man he described to Boswell in 1784: “He is not only dull himself, but the cause of dullness in others.”

Apropos Dante, Johnson observed “if what happens does not make us richer, we must welcome it if it makes us wiser.”

Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Dr. Johnson

source

Staying current with the past…

click here to download a pdf of the article

The New York Times Sunday Magazine (or “The Magazine Section,” as it was originally known) has been in continuous publication since 1896.  David Friedman, a professional photographer and proprietor of the lovely blog Ironic Sans, has introduced a new service, Sunday Magazine, in which he promises to reach back every week exactly one hundred years to

…dole out a few of my favorite articles from each week on a new blog: SundayMagazine.org. I have a couple weeks’ worth of posts up, and the next two months’ worth already in the hopper. They range from historically interesting to downright bizarre. I hope that you’ll see it as a new source of reading material. Some of the articles are short, and some are as long as 4,000 words crammed on one broadsheet.

Read it and reap!

As we search (in vain) for the antique crossword puzzles, we might recall that it was on this date in 1755 that Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language was published in London.  [Readers will recall that Dr. J has made numerous appearances in (R)D, e.g., on his birthday, and in a nod to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s wonderful “word a day” service.]

Johnson’s dictionary wasn’t the first English dictionary; over the previous 150 years more than twenty dictionaries had been published in England, the oldest of these being a Latin-English “wordbook” by Sir Thomas Elyot published in 1538.  But in 1746 a group of London booksellers, dissatisfied with the dictionaries available, contracted Johnson to write one– a feat he promised to complete in three years.  It took him nine.  Still, he did so single-handedly, with clerical assistance only in copying out the illustrative quotations that he had marked in books.

It was, of course, an epoch-making accomplishment.  Until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary, 173 years later, Johnson’s held sway as the preeminent English dictionary.  As Walter Jackson Bate observed, the Dictionary “easily ranks as one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship, and probably the greatest ever performed by one individual who labored under anything like the disadvantages in a comparable length of time.”

Title page (from the second edition) of the Dictionary


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