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Concerning Dante

The cultural impact of the Divine Comedy of Dante over the centuries has gone beyond the sphere of literature, influencing various aspects of the society, also thanks to a vast tradition of visual transpositions capable of creating a powerful collective imaginary, especially in the 20th century, reaching a mass dimension and becoming the focus of an entire series of various cultural studies. In the photography project Concerning Dante: Autonomous Cell, Jacopo Valentini (Modena, 1990) has investigated a series of locations in Italy mentioned by the great poet, and by placing them in relation to other landscapes and still lifes endowed with the same visual climax, he has created analogies dense with meanings. The artist has conducted documentary photographic research on Dante’s geography, from the north to the south of the country, retracing real voyages made by Alighieri and those of his imagination through the contents of his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, at times referencing cities and personalities the poet never truly saw with his own eyes, “but which he is in any case capable of making us perceive in all their concrete, forceful reality”. 1

The visual narrative unfolds around three symbolic places that are interpreted as gateways that lead, respectively, to Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, true points of contact between the fictional narration of the Commedia and the reality of the Italian territory. The ancient Romans considered the first location, the volcanic vents of the Phlegraean Fields, to be the gate of Charon, the ferryman who carries dead souls across the river Styx, where Virgil sites the descent to hell in the sixth book of the Aeneid. The Pietra di Bismantova is shown by the artist to symbolize purgatory, in keeping with an explicit reference in the text. The delta of the Po River is the representation of paradise: the location has no philological ties to the work, but has been taken as a visual reminder of the imagery evoked by the text and consolidated in collective perception, that of a suspended, timeless landscape.

One of the main aspects Valentini’s research sets out to convey, on the relationship between literary text and landscape, is how the influence of the former has shaped the perception of places, to the point of making them describable as “Dantesque”. This process has been reinforced by the great quantity of figurative interpretations of the poem across the centuries, which the photographer has approached through portrayal with the technique of the still life. Federico Zuccari, Alberto Martini and Robert Rauschenberg are some of the artists who demonstrate how “to visualize a verbal text, or to translate it into a system of visual signs, is at least in some ways an operation akin to translation from one language to another, and as such it implies a more or less complex process of critical elaboration, interpretation and evaluation of the written text”. 2 Each artistic work photographed by Valentini is one “cell” of that complex visual universe in constant mutation that shapes the Dantean imaginary, and on equal footing with commentary on the poem it appears to be a touchstone of the evolution of the society and its relationship with crucial aspects such as morals, religion and power. The first work visually reinterpreted by Valentini is Dante Istoriato (Dante Illustrated) by the painter Federico Zuccari (1539-1609), who in the second half of the 1500s made what would now be called an artist’s book, not only illustrating the text but also granting the images a leading role in the narration. The colour range utilized by the painter in each cantica accentuates its visual pathos, as is clear in the plates of the Inferno made in red and black pencil. In the book’s sequence of imagery Valentini has placed the drawings by the painter from the Marches between the volcanic views of Lanzarote and the fumes of the Phlegraean Fields, creating a visual analogy between artistic fiction and reality. Zuccari returns later on in a shot taken at the Department of Prints and Drawings of the Uffizi in Florence. In this image, the antique drawing is set at the edge of the frame, which opens diagonally to the rest of the room, imitating the movement of the depicted scene and thus drawing the gaze upward. It is the ascent to the heaven of fixed stars, with Dante, Beatrice and Statius at the apex of the representation, between the seven heavens that surround the Earth and the heavenly host. This photograph, though conceived in a formulation of a documentary nature, applies a visual strategy that amplifies the meaning of the description thanks to the close connection between signifier and signified.

The second figurative contribution Valentini has summoned in his photographs is that of Alberto Martini (1876-1954), an artist who maintained a special relationship with the Commedia for forty years. The most famous occasion was the famous competition in 1900 for the Alinari edition, a crucial juncture for the illustration of Dante’s poem because it was open to a multiplicity of modern interpretations, with the sole limitation of technical reproducibility (not by chance, the competition was organized by the company of the famous dynasty of photographers), thus acting as a factor capable of further launching the text into a context of mass culture. Valentini has worked at the Pinacoteca Martini in Oderzo, which contains a body of 298 works on Dantean themes characterized by the stylistic approach of the artist, wavering between Symbolism and Surrealism.

Finally, the third artistic presence that appears in the mediation of Valentini’s images is that of Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), who towards the end of the 1950s perfected the solvent transfer technique, taking a wide range of current photographic images from popular magazines, which he then retouched using pencils and watercolours. In the famous transfer drawing Malebolge, on the eighth circle of hell, the characters of the Commedia are “played” by athletes found on the pages of Sports Illustrated: Virgil has the features of a tennis player, while the giants are three wrestlers on a podium. Illustrating the Commedia, Rauschenberg created a pretext to address timely issues; grafting themes of a political and social nature onto the poem (the characters of his Divine Comedy include John Kennedy and Richard Nixon), he demonstrated the potential of the text to act as an ongoing vehicle of contemporary concerns.

What sets Jacopo Valentini’s work apart from a tradition of figurative expressions pertaining to the Commedia, such as those mentioned above, is the fact that it is a meta-project. Concerning Dante examines a figurative tradition in dialogue with the present, approaching the poem as a powerful device which across centuries has created and layered imaginaries, and which today is still capable of having a profound impact on reality.

Text by Carlo Sala

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