Wednesday, November 20, 2019

434. Dante, War and Ricketts

The Book of Italy appeared during World War I, in 1916, and its chief aim was to help the Italian soldiers' and sailors' families in the United Kingdom, and the Italian Red Cross, as editor Raffaello Piccoli wrote in the preface.

At the time of publication Piccoli was lecturer in Italian at the University of Cambridge (later he became professor). After the War he would become a visiting professor at Northampton and Chicago, and became a professor of English Literature at the university of Naples where he was born in 1886. In the course of his life he would meet authors such as T.S. Eliot, and philosophers including Ludwig Wittgenstein. Among the magazines that published his articles was the Burlington Magazine of Art. [A portrait of him was published on Literary Magdalene, 2016.] He was an opponent of fascism. His obituary appeared in The Times, two days after he had died in Davos on 21 January 1933. He had been in ill health for some years.

Charles Ricketts, 'Dante at the Tomb of Pope Anastasio',
in The Book of Italy (1916)
As a connoisseur of both English and Italian culture, Piccoli was the obvious person to act as an editor, although he was quite young at the time (around 30 years old). During the war, he left England for Italy to take part in the fights at the front; he was subsequently wounded, and held prisoner in a concentration camp. 

The Book of Italy was published in April 1916 in two editions, one in blue cloth (7s 6d) and 'a fine edition' bound in white vellum (21s). The volume brings together various contributions from authors, critics, musicians and artists and contains a reprint of a woodcut by Charles Shannon ('Fruit Pickers', from 1898) and a reproduction of a painting by Charles Ricketts.

Ricketts's illustration is a painting (or a drawing heightened in watercolour). The location of the original is unknown to me and unfortunately it has been reproduced in black and white (in half-tone) in The Book of Italy. It was given a prominent place, facing the first text on page 1. However, the place of honour was for a work by John Sargent, 'Head of a Neopolitan Boy', which was reproduced in colour as a frontispiece (there were seven colour illustrations).

Ricketts's contribution is called: 'Dante at the door of the tomb of Pope Anastasio (Inferno, Canto XI)'. The reference is to lines 7-9 of Canto XI:

In su l'estremità d'un' altra ripa,
  Che facevan gran pietre rotte in cerchio,
  Venimmo sopra più crudele stipa;

E quivi per l'orribile soperchio
  Del puzzo, che il profondo abisso gitta,
  Ci raccostammo dietro ad un coperchio

D'un grande avello, ov' io vidi una scritta
  Che diceva: "Anastasio papa guardo,
  Lo qual trasse Fotin della via dritta."

In this canto (a translation is available online) Dante and Virgil lingered awhile between the tombs and Virgil explains to Dante (and the reader) how the deeper layers of hell are classified. They see an inscription indicating that this is the resting place of Pope Anastasius, who was led astray from the right path by Photinus. Anastasius and Photinus lived during the fifth century, and played their part in the Acacian Schism between the Eastern and Western Christian Churches.

Virgil then says that they should slowly start the descent into hell, so that they can get used to the appalling stench. Ricketts may have chosen this passage to indicate that the war would bring even more misery. But he may also have wanted to refer to the schism in contemporary European culture, where the West was at war with the East and the North with the South.

Charles Ricketts, 'Dante at the Tomb of Pope Anastasio' (detail),
in The Book of Italy (1916)
From below not only flames and dirty vapours rise, but also a steady wind, given the billowing mantle of Virgil, whose young face, like Dante's, is directed towards the name Anastasio. Ricketts misspelt the name, he left out an 'a': 'ANAS | TSIO'.