The Ashmolean occasionally stages a small specialised exhibition in its Gallery 8. I was drawn to this as it focussed on Dante Alighieri (c1265-1321), the great politician, philosopher and, of course, poet of early Renaissance Florence. I do like these one room exhibitions where one can enjoy and appreciate the work of the curator without being beaten by the number of images and words of the big blockbusters. For those with a passing interest in Dante and want to see beyond the familiar pre-raphaelite perspective of Ruskin and Rosetti this is a must if you come to Oxford.
Celebrity and the age of personality is the underlying theme of the exhibition. Andy Warhol famously said “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes”. Observers of media performances such as Big Brother, the X-Factor and others perceive this to be a modern idea and the selfie most definitely a phenomenon, original to our age. Gervase Rosser, in his accompanying guide, argues this is the ‘arrogance’ of modern thinking, making his case that this culture has origins in the European cultural past, while promoting Dante as the original celebrity.
Longevity of celebrity status is, of course, what Warhol hadn’t anticipated and that comes from associateship. The significance of the Divine Comedy is its representation of the ordinary person. Although the main characters are Dante, the Roman poet, Virgil and Beatrice, the Florentine’s unrequited love; the story can be of the everyman of every age. The immediate and long term success of the Comedy is its continuous resonance with the present day. The story of men (and women) who have been through hell and have returned, the truth told of sinners and tyrants. Again using Rosser’s words Dante was the original ‘poster boy’ with something to say.
The eight hundredth anniversary of the poet’s death inspires this exhibition to reveal the durability of the his celebrity, almost anticipating the phenomenon of the selfie. We see images of Dante with Charlie Chaplin, Ingrid Bergman, even an etching of Dante in Oxford (a city he almost certainly never visited) with the nineteenth century academics. We see Dante selling olive oil, Olivetti typewriters and even on picture postcards promoting the health of bathing in the river. The exhibition is a mixture of paintings, prints and manuscripts mainly from the Ashmolean collection.
The Bodleian Library in parallel is running a small exhibition of some of its original manuscripts, etchings and some other unusual items, to coincide with the Ashmolean and the eight hundredth anniversary of Dante’s death. Going under the title, Divine Comedy: From Manuscript to Manga, it can be found in the hall of The Weston Library on Broad Street at the heart of the University.
Xiying Wang (Sissi), an ex colleague and friend from Warwick University is now studying the art and imagery associated with Dante at Manchester University. I hope she gets to this exhibition, if only to enjoy a more light hearted view of the poet, as a relaxing day away from the academic rigour of more intense research!
Dante: The Invention of Celebrity is at the Ashmolean until 9th January 2022, free but will need pre-booking.
Vasari’s six Tuscan poets are Cini da Pistoia, Guittone d’Arezzo, Petrarch, Giovanni Boccaccio, Dante Alighieri and Guido Cavalcanti.