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Dante, 700 years on

We, too, are exiled from Florence


On Reflection: 700 years of Dante Alighieri edited by Tess Tomassini

In an age when we have been caught up in the minutiae of daily life, we find in The Divine Comedy the eternal verities, the unavoidability of death and judgment, and a grand narrative of morality that put our cares into proportion.

On Reflection: 700 years of Dante Alighieri, Tess Tomassini (ed.), Cherryboy (£25)

Published in a handsome red-cloth covering with embossing, On Reflection: 700 years of Dante Alighieri collects a diverse set of responses to Dante’s legacy in word and image. Rosh Mahtani writes of her finding meaning and comfort in Dante’s guidance through Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, giving a sense of perspective and grandeur. The exhibition at Crypt Gallery in St Pancras New Church included a display by Alighieri Jewellery by Mahtani. Leonardo Frigo’s etchings of scenes and characters of the Divine Comedy stand alone; he also applied his imagery (combining maps, figures, buildings and decoration) to classical instruments, painting 33 violins and one cello. In an interview with curator Tess Tomassini, the artist describes his obsession: “Perseveranza: perseverance. [Dante] taught me that. I think he had a very difficult life.” Frigo understands the pain of distance. Dante was exiled from Florence, and Frigo (who is Italian) lives in London.

Tess Tomassini offers photographs of people wearing Dante’s iconic white cap, scarlet robes and hat, with laurel crown. Andrew Child’s colourful design incorporates the nine circles of Heaven and Hell. Sofia Silva’s approach is more tangential, with radically reduced figure paintings. Sarah Pickstone draws diagrams equating the rivers of the underworld to the underground rivers of London. Nour El Saleh’s sooty drawings give us grotesque visions of damnation. Luci Eyers has drawn a female Sisyphus carrying a boulder up an endless incline. Robin Kirkpatrick’s poems dwell on the horrors of Dante’s Hell.

There are stills from a dance choreographed and performed by the Royal Ballet’s Valentino Zucchetti. Based on Paolo and Francesca, the piece recalls Paolo Malatesta, a medieval noble from Rimini, who fell in love with his sister-in-law, Francesca. Her husband discovered the couple together and murdered them both; since then they have been seen as the archetypical lovers fated to die young because of their passion. Separated by a loveless political marriage but united in death, the couple were damned to Hell for infidelity. In Dante’s telling, the couple are trapped in the first circle of the Inferno, buffeted by the winds of passion — a suitably dramatic context for a dance.

Publications seem a good way of evading such capriciousness

Catherine Keen (professor of Dante Studies at University College London) contributes short essays explaining the impact of Divine Comedy and Dante’s other verse. She talks of its immediate popularity and the Dante’s early influence on Italian art.

“Dantesque details appear in dozens of painted iconographies, most recognisably in Last Judgements and scenes of hell. […] though rooted in a vernacular text by a lay author, [the Divine Comedy] was evidently approved of by patrons and even by the ecclesiastical authorities whose church spaces would house these artworks. Between 1354 and 1357, for instance, Nardo di Cione completed an almost canto-by-canto visualisation of Inferno in the Strozzi chapel frescoes at S. Maria Novella in Florence.”

Professor Keen concludes, “Whatever the site, the language or the technology adopted, Dante’s Commedia continues to call insistently for an embodied and experiential, as well as an intellectual, response from those who encounter it.”

The book’s publisher is Cherryboy, an “independent, experimental agency” founded and curated by Phia (Sophia) Bowden in 2016. “Through cross-practice collaboration”, publisher Cherryboy “aims to encourage an extension of creative horizons and bridge the gap between creatives and curators”. The concept of making a project that combines multi-medium artistic production and a high-end limited-edition publication seems a fruitful and stimulating one. In an age when government regulations shut down events arbitrarily and without warning, publications offer a good way of evading such capriciousness and offering another line of monetisation for creators. The art works might be hit or miss, but none are less than diverting or amusing, some reach the level of touching, delighting and original.

This resourceful approach to creativity in times of isolation is worth attention and encouragement, especially when travel to Italy has never been more unattainable. Like Dante, we too are exiled from Florence.

Tess Tomassini (ed.), On Reflection: 700 years of Dante Alighieri, Cherryboy, 2021, cloth hb, 112pp, fully illus., £25, first edition of 333 numbered copies, ISBN 978-1-3999059-9-2

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