2021: the year of COP26, the Ox, and the 700th anniversary of the death of Italian poet, philosopher, and cultural icon, Dante Alighieri. It was the last of these events which triggered the creation of a new exhibition in the bowels of the Ashmolean, curated by Ertegun director Gervase Rosser. Dante: The Invention of Celebrity uses an intriguing and sometimes surprising collection of objects–from Blake engravings to olive oil bottles–to examine and celebrate how the poet’s greatest work, The Divine Comedy, has engaged and interacted with ideas of fame and celebrity over the past 700 years. At the heart of the exhibition lies a deep interest in how people become images, and then how these images are in turn added to and used. The line between individual and cultural is worried, and grows thin; Auerbach’s characterisation of Dante as the first to depict human beings as products of specific historical contexts rubs up against a desire to allegorise and export. The theme was approached from multiple angles. A case on Paulo and Francesca da Rimini illustrates the process through which Dante transformed the lives of his contemporaries into powerful images of the sins (or virtues) they had performed, and how these images then went on to reverberate through art and culture. A neighbouring section looks more closely at how Dante himself has undergone the process he arguably triggered, displaying portraits, skeletal diagrams, and even death masks (among Gervase’s favourite objects in the exhibition).
There were also images. The opening section on artistic representations of the Commedia was my favourite, and the one I lingered over the longest. I had not seen the 1911 film before, but I really enjoyed it (we are currently rehearsing for the Oxford medieval mystery cycle, which has a similar aesthetic–inspiration? Maybe fewer flames). What caught me though was the series of illustrations, some by Oxford artists such as Rachel Owen. Monika Beister’s artwork was familiar from the exhibition’s publicity. It was even more beautiful in person. According to the caption, Beiser’s illustrations were based on her examinations of illuminated manuscripts–perhaps why I, as someone who spends a lot of time with manuscripts, liked them. They were delicate and jewel-like, their appeal jointly stemming from intricacy of detail and richness of colour. Away from the paintings, I was also stuck by a reminder of those ‘who earned no infamy, and earned no praise’, standing in an anonymous and pathetic mass outside the gates of hell. In the context of the exhibition, it highlighted Dante’s ambivalent approach to fame (is it better to have loved and lost your brother-in-law than never to have loved at all? I think Dante would say it is, despite condemning the action), but it was also a more general reminder.
Having Gervase there to guide us was a gift. Not only knowledgeable about the exhibition’s subject matter, he also provided insight into its composition and process.
After we had worked our way around the exhibition, we gathered around the final items, a holographic portrait of a robot and a set of illustrations it had produced, inspired by items on display. To my eyes, the paintings looked suspiciously similar to a Botticelli sketch of Dante and Beatrice placed earlier in the exhibition, just with modified colouration. Gervase was able to confirm that this was indeed the source material, leading us to question both the workings of the robot and how the development of technology as a creative force might further complicate the questions of influence and originality lying at the exhibition’s heart (I wondered who might own the images–whether they might be classed derivatives of the Botticelli, or separate works in their own right). The conversation also turned to how circumstance had shaped the items on display. It being Dante’s 700th death-anniversary, items connected to him are in short supply, triggering Gervase to look for more unconventional items, some of which were amongst the most interesting on display. Dante’s currency in the world of Italian advertising remains strong, and he has been called upon to sell everything from coffee substitutes to cars. Cartoons amusingly demonstrated Dante’s cultural capital–I enjoyed the one casting New York as a second inferno especially.
All in all, it was a highly enjoyable visit–thank you so much to Gervase and Maria for organising and guiding us.