To celebrate the 700th anniversary of his death in 1321, the Ashmolean is presenting a free exhibition Dante: The Invention of Celebrity, in Gallery 8, open from 17 September 2021 until 09 January 2022.
Personality cults; style icons; reality TV: these staples of our modern world have an origin. They can all be traced to the Divine Comedy, an epic poem completed around 1320 by the writer and philosopher Dante Alighieri.
In it, Dante exposed the hollowness and hypocrisy of worldly reputation and power, and, for the first time, the lives of ordinary people were dramatised on a world stage. Its impact inspired the literary giant Jorge Luis Borges to describe the Divine Comedy as ‘The most beautiful book in the literature of the world’.
And by writing a best-seller, Dante, in turn, became a celebrity. As the man who had been to Hell, who told truth to tyrants and exposed the corruption of popes, and whose own love story with Beatrice was the ultimate romance epic, Dante himself acquired the status of an icon and an international poster-boy for justice, liberty, and love.
Dante: The Invention of Celebrity at the Ashmolean will display over 60 artworks, many drawn from its own collections, alongside loans and new commissions.
It will feature iconic artists of the past, including William Blake, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Salvador Dalí, and their interpretations of either the story of the Comedy or the personality of its creator. It will also showcase differing, present-day responses to Dante and the Divine Comedy by contemporary artists such as Tom Phillips RA, Geoff MacEwan, Barrie Tullett and Rachel Owen.
The exhibition will even explore Dante’s influence in the mass marketing of innumerable products, from package tours to tile filler to Fiats.
And, looking to the future, in an age of rapidly expanding Artificial Intelligence, the fame of the Comedy now resonates with intelligent computers.
The artist-robot Ai-Da has produced works in response to Dante exclusively for this exhibition, engaging with themes of the Comedy that invite further reflection on what it means to witness the world; the nature of creativity; and the value of human relationships.
The Dante anniversary year is also marked by a related, free display at the Bodleian Library focusing on the Comedy as a book, whose material form has varied from illuminated medieval manuscripts to modern cartoon and manga versions.
The Divine Comedy: From Manuscript to Manga, at the Bodleian Library’s Weston Library, runs from 08 September to 14 November 2021.
Both exhibitions have been curated by Gervase Rosser, Professor of the History of Art, and form part of The Oxford Research Centre for Humanities’ (TORCH) Dante in Oxford ‘21 celebrations. TORCH will also be collaborating with the Ashmolean for a special Heaven and Hell After Hours on Friday 26 November.
Gervase Rosser said: “Dante’s relevance is timeless; his presence global. His Comedy holds up a mirror to our world which remains disturbingly familiar. Dante’s insights on worldly reputation speak directly to our own celebrity culture.
The unforgettable characters of the poem owe their enduring fame both to Dante’s words and to artists, including a number represented in this exhibition, who have been inspired by them.
English readers played a major part in the spread of public enthusiasm for Dante in modern times, and Oxford’s collections bear witness to this. The exhibition aspires, in turn, to encourage a new generation of readers of the Comedy.”