Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Tom Phillips, Dante's Inferno

In April of last year, the Bodleian Library announced that it had acquired an archive of material belonging to the artist Tom Phillips, mainly concerning his translation and set of lithographs of Dante's Inferno. Some of this material was displayed in the Three Crowns Exhibition (which I posted about here). Readers of the rather wonderful The Poet's Dante: Twentieth-Century Responses, ed. Peter S. Hawkins and Rachel Jacoff (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002) will recognize the above Phillips as their frontispiece. I have recently come into possession of the Thames & Hudson 'facsimile' of the amazing 1983 Talfourd Press livre d'artiste edition and have been immensely enjoying making my way through it. I would love to see the original (I don't even know where to look), but the facsimile is not bad at all and I think it would be very good to teach with. There is something very appropriate about Phillips's relationship with the book and his work on Dante coming together, being a kind of Limbourg Brothers working on what must be like a Book of Hours for many of us.

The book figures prominently in the Comedìa. The word 'libro' interestingly only appears twice, first in the great Inf V 137, 'Galeotto fu il libro e chi lo scrisse'; and again in Par XXIII 54. The word with a higher register and prestige value is volume and it is only used to refer to God's book, the Scriptures, or His created universe. It is for this reason that the single appearance of the work outside Paradiso is so interesting. In Inf I. 84 Dante, speaking to Virgil, talks about the 'lungo studio' and the 'grande amore | che m'ha fatto cercar lo tuo volume'. Here volume refers to the Aeneid. In Paradiso, the figure of the book appears eight times in all, though of course Dante uses the imagery of the book with other words, like quaderno or squadernare. In Pd II 76-8, 'sì come comparte | lo grasso e 'l magro un corpo, così questo | nel suo volume cangerebbe carte', where the moon is compared to a book whose pages are of varying thickness. In Pd XIII 121-3, 'Ben dico, chi cercasse a foglio a foglio | nostro volume, ancor troveria carta | u' leggerebbe "I' mi sono quel ch'i' soglio"', the volume refers to the Rule of St Francis, a big word for a small rule. In Pd XV 50-51 there is the 'magno volume | du' non si muta mai bianco né bruno', where the volume refers to God himself, or divine foreknowledge. This use of the figure of the book for a divine vision is repeated at the end of the Pd, at XXXIII 85-87: 'Nel suo profondo vidi che s'interna | legato con amore in un volume, | ciò che per l'universo si squaderna'. It all comes together in the end. The apocalyptic Book appears in Pd XIX 112-14, 'Che poran dir li Perse a' vostri regi, | come vedranno quel volume aperto | nel qual si scrivon tutti suoi dispregi?', where the echo is to Rev 20: 12, Et vidi mortuos magnos et pusillos stantes in conspectu throni; et libri aperti sunt, et alius liber apertus est, qui est vitae: et iudicati sunt mortui ex his quae scripta erant in libris secundum opera ipsorum' ['And I saw the dead, great and small, standing in the presence of the throne, and the books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged by those things which were written in the books, according to their works.']

There are occurrences of the word volume and volumi which are from the Lat. volvere, at Pd XXIII 112; XXVI 119; XXVIII 14.

For more, readers may wish to turn to: John Ahern, 'Binding the Book: Hermeneutics and Manuscript Production in Paradiso 33', Publications of the Modern Language Association, 97 (1982), 800-809; John Ahern, 'Singing the Book: Orality in the Reception of Dante's Comedy', in Dante: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. by Amilcare A. Iannucci, Major Italian Authors (Toronto; London: University of Toronto Press, 1997), pp. 214-239. Specifically on Dante see the article by Antonio Lanci, 'Volume' in Enc. dantesca 5: 1146. A simple search on the Dartmouth Dante Project will get lots of interesting material to chew over.

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