THE BURNING SOULS
The following is not my usual fare. Let's say I got up this morning feeling more sublime than is usual for a Sunday morning...
For a man who, if time had been somewhat kinder to him, would have been 750 years old today (or thereabouts), Durante degli Alighieri is something of a hero to me but most definitely not in the same way a lot of my heroes are - and likely never will be.
To begin with, it's likely you know him better simply as Dante. Most people who went to school for at least one day in their lives will have heard of his book Divine Comedy, but it's also very likely you've never picked it up or even looked at it. Not coincidentally, William Blake is one of my other literary heroes - and that all stems from the drawings he 'roughed up' for Divine Comedy that captivated me back when I was young and impressionable.
Divine Comedy is often mistakenly referred to in its totality as Inferno (which is only the title of the first instalment), but neither was it first called Divine Comedy. The original title of the book was Commedia (or Comedy) which, using the mediaeval definition of the word, means ' a story with a happy ending' - so if you're venturing in, don't expect a lot of laughs because you won't find many at all.
None in fact.
The basic concept of Divine Comedy runs thus: Dante, in his middle age, finds he has lost his way and at the request of Beatrice, (likely an unrequited love from his life), the Roman poet Virgil goes in search of him. Virgil finds Dante in the woods on Good Friday in the year 1300 and together they begin their journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise to find God. I don't think it would be a huge spoiler if I reveal that Virgil gets replaced by Beatrice for the last leg of the quest - everybody knows there are certain places Pagan's aren't allowed to tread.
Amazingly, the whole journey takes just three days.
So far so good, but this book from Taschen - this monstrous, divine in itself, outrageously most beautiful book I have in my collection (and have ever owned) - is more about Blake than it is Dante, and yet, for all its epic classicalism, Divine Comedy without Blake is only half the book it should be. By my estimation, that means that for roughly 650 years, readers of the classic tale really lucked out on some magic.
Whilst his work on Divine Comedy is not Blake's only undertaking, it is (arguably, I reluctantly suppose) easily his best. The collection ranges from drawings that began around 1824 and run to 1827 when Blake died, leaving only a few completed watercolours of a proposed 102 and some large engraved plates based on seven designs. These were also left incomplete at his death. For the record here, the watercolours remained in his patron John Linnell's collection and estate until their sale at auction in 1918. Through a scheme organized by the National Art-Collections Fund, they were dispersed among 7 participating institutions: the Ashmolean Museum, Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, the British Museum, the Fogg Art Museum, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Royal Institution of Cornwall, and the Tate Collection - so if you see what I see in his work, it's entirely possible to see them in the flesh but so far as I know, this is the first time they have been brought together in print like this.
All of which is pretty much the official sequence of events but when you actually have this material in front of you, the game changes somewhat. Any fool can dissect a work such as this. It's not like there's no reference material to fall back on - and yet, as I sit here with this book in front of me - and believe me it feels like a cheap shot calling it 'a book' - none of those paragraphs above mean a damn thing.
To put some kind of meaning to it as a product, here's how big it is using a regular sized paperback as reference:
324 cloth bound pages with 14 fold out spreads make this so much more than a simple 'art book' - it's actually something of an experience. If you can get into it and lose yourself in what's going on, what you should find is the hive mind of Dante and Blake working together, hundreds of years apart, to create something that neither of them intended this story to be.
If you're game for some deep thought, there's a Canto titled 'The angel who records the failings of the Christian rulers'. To paraphrase, Dante questions the idea that at the Last Judgement, many Christians will be further away from Christ than those who know nothing at all of him. In itself, it's a genius concept that you could argue about forever with scholars (should you be of such a mind) but once combined with the accompanying image from Blake, the whole idea transcends being a clever, moral observation and morphs into something once again magical/mystical... or at the very least majestic. Critical as Blake may occasionally be in his interpretation of the original work, he certainly manages to be faithful to the spirit of the adventure.
As a writer, you can sometimes think you've delivered gold, but throw in an artist who understands what you're trying to achieve and a whole new set of rules appears in the shape of that very hive mind. I'm no scholar. I know a reasonable amount about both of these men but I'm certainly no expert on either - and I'm pleased about that. Knowing just enough to form a simple opinion allows you to get lost in the adventure without worrying that you've missed something or misinterpreted events along the way.
This way, it's nothing more and nothing less than exactly what I see before me: two of the most powerful artists known throughout history working for no other reason than to tell a story as it needed to be told. Maybe that wasn't the original intention but I guess a few hundred years can change your perspective on anything.
To wrap up: All writers sit in Dante's shadow when it comes to relaying simple concepts of great importance. Blake on the other hand, makes all artists who followed him seem lacking in their understanding of the workings of the world and of what goes on behind the curtain.
And than there's Taschen, who put all other art publishers to shame on a grand scale.
My work here is complete.
William Blake. The drawings for Dante's Divine Comedy Hardcover, clothbound, with 14 fold-outs and ribbon bookmark, 12.8 x 18.0 in., 324 pages
Published by Taschen. The catalogue/shop page is here.