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Daniela Fargione
2022
s take on Scott as spelled out in Life on the Mississippi: (accessed January 7, 2022). 4 To be precise, Gladstone's family had a statue of the poet placed on the exterior wall of the library built in his honor in Hawarden, Wales. On Gladstone's cult of Dante, see Havely 2014, 179-86; Havely provides a helpful chronology of Dante in British culture with several pages devoted to the modernist period 284-98. On Douglass and the image of Dante in his private library, see Looney 2011, 62-63. "This
more » ... one of the unusual instances when Harnett actually depicted the titles of the books in his paintings. More typically, the texts appear as props for invoking a leisurely moment in a bachelor's private quarters." Martha M. Evans, Claude Raguet Hirst: Transforming the American Still Life 95, note 122. Also helpful is the essay by Judy L. Larson in William M. Harnett. 7 CoSMo Comparative Studies in Modernism n. 20 (Spring) • 2022 the edition by Filippo Giunta, edited by Girolamo Benivieni with a dialogue by Antonio Manetti on the topography and dimensions of hell. The famous 1506 Giuntina marked a deliberate attempt by Florentine cultural warriors to reclaim their poet after the success of the 1502 Venetian Aldine edition. If Florence couldn't have Dante's mortal remains, at least his city of birth could lay claim to the definitive text of his masterpiece. 6 That Harnett paints ROMA instead of FIRENZE probably shouldn't be overinterpreted; on some level it's certainly an artistic decision based on the realization that there is more space for the letters of one city's name than the other. But for onlookers attuned to the cultural debates in the Renaissance over Dante's reputation, there is a more subtle point to be had: no, not Rome, not Venice either, but Florence! There is another juxtaposition in the heap of books to sort out. The other legible title is represented on the cover of a paper-bound volume positioned catty-corner on the edge of Dante's poem, upside down to the viewer. You can make out Juliette, which is the title of a scandalous novel by Marquis de Sade about the sexual education of a very young woman. Juliette, or Vice Amply Rewarded, is the novel for which Napoleon had Sade imprisoned for the final thirteen years of his life. One of a pair of novels, its counterpart, Justine, or Good Conduct Well-Chastised, is the story of a proper young woman, Juliette's sister, who follows the rules and gets nowhere. Juliette, by contrast, once introduced to libertine pleasures in the convent where she was placed at a young age, never slows down. Even her encounter with the pope, whom she debates on the paradoxes of Catholicism in the age of Enlightenment, ends in an orgy. This structural pattern is consistent in the novel: the main character speaks at great length before launching into energetic sex, that is, extensive theorizing on libertine philosophy is followed by a display -to call it pornographic is no exaggeration -of the practice previously discussed. The ultimate point that Sade intended to make is that with vice you prosper in the economy that matters most, that of pleasure. You would think that the juxtaposition of the two authors whose titles are on display in this painting wouldn't require much commentary: Dante and Marquis de Sade, the moralist versus the libertine. In Inferno 5, Dante the poet condemns adulterers like Paolo and Francesca to hell for their incontinence, for their lack of self-control, which is precisely what Marquis de Sade glories in. Dante emphasizes how reading about courtly love, symbolized by the knight's helmet in Harnett's composition, leads the lovers of Inferno 5 to their death and damnation. Like Twain's Southern readers, they took chivalric romances way too seriously. But there is more here. Like Juliette, not to mention Marquis de Sade himself, Dante too has some bones to pick with the Church. As readers know, he doesn't refrain from assigning clerics of all ranks to the appropriate section of hell for eternal damnation, not for lust, as it turns out, but for lack of control with money, for corruption, and for any 6 For Florence's attempt at recouping the poet from Venetian culture, see https://www3.nd.edu/~italnet/Dante/text/1506.florence.html. Accessed January 7, 2022. For a detailed description of the edition, see Gilson, Reading Dante in Renaissance Italy 35-42. 8 CoSMo Comparative Studies in Modernism n. 20 (Spring) • 2022 number of other kinds of fraud. For speaking truth to power in this way, Dante was held up as a symbol of freedom by Italian nationalists and, through connections with them, similarly by Anglo-American abolitionists in the nineteenth century. Without too much effort one could find commonalities, surprising though they may be, between Dante's positions on the abuses of clerical authority and Sade's critique of the Church. It is difficult to determine the extent to which Harnett himself is attuned to these subtleties of interpretation. But his painting is certainly nuanced enough to allow interpretations on multiple levels that point to the polysemous quality of the reception of Dante. This still life attests to the ongoing engagement in the second half of the nineteenth century with Dante, both the political man and the poetic text of his big narrative poem. Harnett painted dozens, if not hundreds, of still lifes, many with books on display, and the vast majority of those are copies with no titles. But one author's name is highlighted repeatedly and recurs in slightly different permutations -Dante Alighieri. In "Still Life with Tankard," formerly in the Harriet and Mortimer Spiller Collection in Buffalo (auctioned in 1997 for a tidy $827,500), the spine reads "Purgatorio / Divina Commedia." In "Still Life with Flute, Vase, and Roman Lamp" (1885), in the Yale University Gallery, the painter also emphasizes Dante's second canticle but reverses the order: "Divina Commedia / Purgatorio." A thorough inventory of Harnett's corpus would likely show other details worthy of comment. My point is that Harnett wanted his viewer to engage with Dante first and foremost, to put the poet in dialogue with other texts, to give him a voice, as it were. On the cusp of modernism, a painter of still lifes, arguably the best in America at the time, was striving to bring Dante to life. Harnett is representative of that moment in Anglo-American culture when Dante was coming into clearer focus. Modernism would move Dante from the back of the picture, as it were, to front and center and would give him a voice that would speak loud and clear to readers and to viewers of film and art inspired by the Commedia.
doi:10.13135/2281-6658/6855 fatcat:qc3cigiqffdv7fusvd5ybzm2jq