Thursday, 25 July 2013

Dante Resources for the Discerning Victorian Researcher

Preparing papers on Dante and George Eliot for the Glocal Victorians conference in Venice last month and for the upcoming Leeds Cross-Cultural BookFair made me reflect on helpful resources to access when parachuting into Dante studies from the land of Victorian literary and cultural studies. The Commedia texts (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso) are not short texts in themselves, and a wealth of wider discourses collect around them. However, they are wonderful texts to read for whatever reason. Dante’s journey is basically an extended multi-faceted gossip column of medieval Italy (with classical literature thrown in for extra seasoning), and then taken to metaphysical and philosophical levels; all sorts of tragic heroes and heroines, monsters and villains leap out at him (and you) from every turn.
It’s particularly helpful for a Victorianist to read Dante’s work because the Victorians loved the Commedia (in translation, generally). When H.F. Cary published his translation, in 1814, Samuel Taylor Coleridge popularized the text and it caught the public imagination. Allusions and references extend throughout the century, from the works of Christina and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, to the poetry of Tennyson, and to the Savoy operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. Of course, mid-century, it gained an extra resonance due to the Risorgimento (/very/ briefly -the collection of city states which we now know as Italy had been in the hands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; people like Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi fought to free these states and to unite them as a single Italian nation, which officially occurred in 1861). There was a large Italian refugee community in nineteenth-century London, and the English were in general sympathetic to the Italian cause (for example, a fashion item, the ‘Garibaldi Blouse’ was named after Giuseppe Garibaldi). Dante’s epic, the first in the Italian language, became a rallying symbol for the idea of Italian national identity: a common linguistic and literary heritage which might unite a common Italian ethnicity.1 Consequently, characters, phrases and scenes from the Commedia were a major part of Victorian cultural vocabulary.
There have been multiple translations of Dante’s work. I found it essential to read two alongside each other: H.F. Cary’s translation, for the Victorian context, and a modern translation with commentaries, to ensure my own understanding of the text.
Here are some resources which I’ve found helpful exploring Dante from a Victorian perspective (and the books also serve as a bibliography for this post). This list is by no means exhaustive!


Princeton Dante Project
This project helpfully brings together the text of the Commedia along with (searchable) notes, summaries, and commentary, including useful maps and diagrams. They’ve also got a great list of web links.

Dartmouth Dante Project:
A searchable text-and-commentary affair. Very comprehensive: they’ve got about seventy commentaries!

Dante Worlds
This is a wonderful visualization of Dante’s journey: they link beautiful illustrations with comprehensive diagrams and commentary.

The World of Dante:
Each canto is laid out in Italian-English translation, with helpful hyperlinks by topic, which open in separate windows. There’s also the opportunity to access music for Purgatorio and Paradiso.

Divine Comedy Online:
Here, you can see different translations and access different illustrations to go with them – if you enjoy illustration, as I do, then this facility provides a fascinating insight into shifting interpretations of Dante across 19th/20th centuries, moving from William Blake to Gustave DorĂ© and to Salvador Dali

Leeds Dante Diaries:
I’ve had some really helpful Dante-related conversations with a couple of people here. Their blog provides some interesting musings on intersections with Dante and gives a general flavour of life in Dante Studies.

Dante Today: Contemporary Sightings and Citings of Dante:
This site provides lots of fun (a working holiday in Dante research) but also some intriguing cultural connections. ‘Contemporary’ takes in a wide span – post medieval world, pretty much. The blog covers a number of angles: food, consumer goods, literary studies, and the internet world. Nineteenth-century researchers may enjoy posts on Gladstone’s and Melville’s enjoyment of the Commedia.

Books (just a few):
The Durling and Martinez editions of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso:
No matter how many great Dante sites one finds, physical copies can sometimes be essential. These are accurate and evocative translations with lots of helpful notes and diagrams. I hated having to take them back to the library, so broke down and bought them myself.
Dante and the Victorians
Alison Millbank’s book is both comprehensive and insightful –a nuanced evocation of intersections between Dante and various aspects of Victorian culture
Dante in the Long Nineteenth Century- This recent work provides a global and interdisciplinary approach to Dante’s afterlife. You may be able to access a comprehensive preview through Oxford Scholarship Online.
Nick Havely has a number of useful books which give background on Dante’s life and afterlife: Dante in the Nineteenth Century, Dante’s Modern Afterlife from Blake to Heaney, and Dante.
A.N. Wilson: Dante in Love – A comprehensive and readable exploration of Dante through a philosophic love. Wilson provides a fantastic summary of numerous aspects around Dante specifically for people new to the subject and to his contemporary world (if you thought the Wars of the Roses was complicated, Guelph and Ghibelline Italy cubes those minor squabbles). Wilson then explores Dante’s afterlife; my only quibble is that his exploration of Dante’s Victorian afterlife doesn’t take in Christina Rossetti’s Monna Innomminata or any work by George Eliot, who loved Dante’s texts and peppered her own with references to them.

1 See Martin Clark, The Italian Risorgimento (Harlow:Longman, 2009), among others.