Saturday, 15 December 2007

Dante's world

Another semi-promotional post: Exeter WEA includes in its Spring 2008 listing an interesting-looking course, Dante and his world. Dante puts various contemporary political figures of his time into Hell, and this course, led by Dr Stephen Bemrose, author of A New Life of Dante, explores the various cultural and historical influences that went into the work. "By exploring passages in translation from Dante's Inferno ... this course offers a way into the mediaeval mindset and the turbulent world of Italian politics on the threshold of the Renaissance".

Its journey format and, to most modern readers, the need for a concordance, makes Dante's Inferno ideal text for hypertext representation, and there are a number of excellent Web projects for accessing the text: Digital Dante, the Flash-based Dante's Inferno, a Virtual Tour of Hell and Danteworlds are just some of them.

The potent imagery of Dante's Inferno has been remarkably productive in the works that it has inspired: see Wikipedia's Dante and his Divine Comedy in popular culture, which covers everything from the classic prints by Gustave Doré to the recent animated film version ("apocalyptic graphic novel meets Victorian-era toy theater"). My current film favourite is the 1935 one starring Spencer Tracy, which is completely unmemorable except for the stunning 10-minute Hell sequence by the designer and painter Harry Lachman. See 1935 Dante's Inferno for an update with YouTube links.

Of the literary works it has inspired, one of the best, in my view, is Inferno by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, which throws into Dante's Hell a modern science fiction author who attempts to rationalise it in terms of technology. Mary Pat Campbell's Building a Modern Hell is a good critique of it.

Addendum: Dante's Inferno by Sandow Birk looks interesting. This illustrated edition sticks faithfully to the structure of the original, but translates the text into into modern vernacular English, as well as replacing in-references from Dante's time with present-day equivalents

a literary adaptation incorporating contemporary urban slang and references to contemporary events and people, and unsettlingly vivid illustrations based on Gustave Dore's well-known engravings ... Here, the vision of Hell is full of the familiar scenes of contemporary Los Angeles (with some San Francisco mixed in). The ever watchful police helicopters search the Stygian skies, familiar images of the mythic are assaulted by corporate logos and mass-consumption detritus. The Minotaur guards the shawerma stand of the damned, while Greyon, the Beast of Fraud, is transformed into a pollution-belching SUV.

- Ray

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