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Dante 'unveiled' at 2 Adams Road

A statue of Dante Alighieri is now to be found in the garden of 2 Adams Road. This statue created and gifted to the College by its eminent Canadian sculptor, Timothy Schmalz  was officially 'unveiled' during a ceremony on 5 July 2022. On this sunny summer afternoon, a reception was held in the Adams Road Garden to celebrate the arrival of this new work of art. The programme included readings from Dante’s Commedia, in both English and Italian, the singing of two of the psalms that are of central importance in Dante’s text and a short address introducing Dante’s work and its sculptural representation by Professor Robin Kirkpatrick, a Life Fellow of Robinson College, Emeritus Professor in English and Italian Literature.  A plaque is being prepared to acknowledge the gift. This will read:

This statue stands  as the gift of its creator, 
Timothy Schmalz, 
whose generosity is as great as his artistic vision. 
The figure represented here is Dante stirring in the Dark Wood 
at the beginning of  a journey that will lead him into 
the presence of God. 
The sculptor follows the poet through every stage of this journey
in a  sequence of one hundred bronze plaques. 
The full series is to be seen displayed in Dante’s own city, Florence.
Legato con amore in un volume

♦ A Reading of the opening lines of Inferno Canto One by Dr Scott Annett (Fellow of Robinson College,  Associate Professor of English, Admissions Tutor (Sciences), Tutor and Director of Studies) and Professor Vittorio Montemaggi (senior Member of Robinson College, 1997, Theology):

At one point midway on our path in life
I came around and found myself now searching 
Through a dark wood, the right way blurred and lost,
How hard it is to say what that wood was,
A wilderness savage, brute, harsh wild.
Only to think of it renews my fear!

So bitter that thought that death is hardly more so.
But since my theme will be the good I found there
I mean to speak of other things I saw.
I do not know I cannot rightly say,
How first |I came to be here – so full of sleep,
That moment, abandoning the true way on.
But then on reaching the foot of a hill
Which marked the limit of the dark ravine
That had before so pierced my heart with pain,
I looked to thee height and saw its shoulders
Already clothed in rays from the planet
That leads all others, on any road, aright.


Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!
Tant' è amara che poco è più morte;
ma per trattar del ben ch'i' vi trovai,
dirò de l'altre cose ch'i' v'ho scorte.
Io non so ben ridir com' i' v'intrai,
tant' era pien di sonno a quel punto
che la verace via abbandonai.
Ma poi ch'i' fui al piè d'un colle giunto,
là dove terminava quella valle
che m'avea di paura il cor compunto,
guardai in alto e vidi le sue spalle
vestite già de' raggi del pianeta
che mena dritto altrui per ogne calle.


♦ Psalm 51, Miserere, sung by the Dominican friars of Blackfriars, Father Dominicand Brother Reginald

An introductory address by Professor Robin Kirkpatrick

Now … probably the best-known line in Dante’s poem is 'Abandon hope all you who enter here: Lasciate ogne speranza voi ch’entrate.’ But let me say at once that to take this line out of context is to misrepresent completely Dante’s actual achievement. And this has a bearing in two ways on the present occasion. In the first place, we’ve been arguing for decades, especially here in Robinson, that the Comedy really is a comedy, not exactly a laugh a minute, perhaps, but a source of vital creativity, even of hilarity. And now in the second place, we are here surely to applaud the vital creativity of Tim Schmalz’s art. Schmalz’s sculptural representation of Dante’s narrative sustains this spirit in a series of 100 panels, corresponding to the one hundred cantos of Dante’s poem. Though we only have a single example with us today, I’ll say more in a moment about the extraordinary gift that Tim , out of the blue, has chosen to give us.

Let us, however, begin with the first word that Dante shows himself to utter in the Dark Wood, This word is Miserere, and this, out of context, may seem to support a miserabilist interpretation. But in fact it is a quote from Psalm 51 and is intended to invoke compassion as the power that gives meaning and energy to human existence, even in its darkest hour. We can hear a little of it now, from the lips of our visiting Dominicans. 

Thank you. There’ll be more of this later – in an upbeat vein – as we come out of Hell. But first, I’d like to say a bit more about the sculptor, Tim Schmalz and then  about Schmalz’s response to Dante. 

It is no exaggeration to claim that Schmalz’s work has a world-wide impact. It is on display in Toronto, the sculptor’s native Canada, but also permanently in the Vatican – in St Peter’s Square. The one hundred sculptures of the Dante series are to be seen in one of the medieval buildings of Dante’s Florence. Add to which, when the crate containing this particular Dante arrived, we noticed with some perplexity that it had been sent from Shanghai but then we realised that the sculptor had a studio in the ancient home of bronze casting. In this light, one needs to note, with the utmost gratitude, the extreme generosity of the sculptor. Throughout he has insisted that the statue is his gift to Cambridge and has himself ensured that transport costs and such like were met from his own resources. 

Schmalz’s devotion to Dante is in large part inspired by his awareness of the poet’s importance in a Christian and theological perspective. Equally, his work is a recognition of the intimate link that exists between the Commedia and the visual arts. Within twenty years of Dante’s death, deluxe editions if his work had begun to appear, all illustrated in often highly original form. Eventually Botticelli produced illustrations of every one of the poet’s 100 cantos. And in centenary years such as 2021 graphic versions – even graphic comics – appear in great floods. Sculpture may require more of an investment of physical energy than painting. Yet Dante himself in Purgatorio Canto 19 imagines a display of carvings executed with such finesse that singers seem to be singing, although there is no sound, and incense, rising from a thurible, deceives the eye into believing that – yes – there is indeed incense while the nose says ‘no’, detecting no perfumed smoke at all. One will have to wait for Donatello for anything remotely as subtle as Dante imagines. But Michelangelo admires his fellow Florentine for a kind of muscular melancholia; and so that he writes in a sonnet how much he wishes he were like his older compatriot. Then there is Auguste Rodin. The many versions of Rodin’s The Kiss derive from Canto Five of the Inferno, while The Thinker stands at the summit of the sculptor’s programmatic depiction of Hell in La Porte de l’Enfer.

There is reason, I’d argue, to compare (and no doubt to contrast) Rodin’s work with Schmalz’s work. But first let me suggest why visuality and also material substance are so central to Dante’s own imagination. In the first place, one notes that the most frequent words in the Dante concordance are words for eyes, eyesight and seeing: Occhi, Vedere, Guardare. A nineteenth century translation of the Commedia entitles it: A Vision; and TS Eliot neatly describes Dante as ‘a visual poet.’ We need to say more than this if one is to do justice to the full range of visual engagement that the poem generates: precise, minute observation of the natural world, the full range of emotive and rhetorical gesture, allegorical pageant, nightmare, kinetic phantasmagoria, rapturous contemplation. But all these components, constantly present and inter-related, may explain why the poem exerts so strong an influence even over those who know no Italian: the narrative – and often its philosophical meaning – are carried forward in seeing what Dante has seen. 

But visuality such as this is supported and enriched by a profound sense of the value of material substance. It is a cardinal feature of Dante’s theology that human beings are physically embodied creatures, and that the material world possesses a value of its own. It would be a serious mistake, in the perspective of Dante’s theology, to suppose that our ultimate destiny were to flit around in some angelic aether. We might do so, post mortem, for a time. But please do not forget the Last Judgement,  which is the point at which we shall each return to our body and enjoy it for what it was always intended, in creation, to be. For Dante, a soul cannot by definition be separate from the particular form that it animates. Even stone can be given significance especially in sculpture – and some stones, such as gemstones, actively channel the influence of the stars.

This may help to explain why, along with words for ‘seeing,’ words for movement are crucial in Dante’s text. Everything is animated in Dante’s world: everything moves and, at best, moves in relationship one thing to another:  stars move, weather shifts, mushrooms and broccoli move as they grown in fertile ground (Incidentally: does broccoli have a soul in Dante’s view? Yes, it does, precisely because it grows.) But above all, human beings move, being impelled by love and desire, sometimes perversely but always in response to an impulse that is potentially good.

And if we move towards and around Schmalz’s statue, it is movement – and movement directed by the eye – that will I think direct our attention. At first Dante, in the Dark Wood here has something of the character of a tree stump. I am wondering at this point whether there is any comparison to be made with Rodin’s portrayal of Balzac, displayed in the garden of the Rodin Museum. Balzac bends back where Dante here is bending forward, reluctant yet determined. But both are swathed in a heavy under-growth of fibrous cloth. Others will be better able than I to judge this possible comparison. But I also invite you to see in the movement that Schmalz gives to Dante the stirrings of something that draws materiality into another dimension, where beauty and even grace are discernible, at least as possibilities. The line of the back is the serpentine line of beauty, the ‘S’ shaped double curve that attracts  the eye and leads it into generative action. 

So, too, in Dante’s text, Dante in the opening phase is lost and bewildered in a Dark Wood. And he is alone even heading for defeat until he throws himself in the Miserere on the mercy of another presence. In this slumberous state he may still be half asleep. But that means he is half-awake. And one sign of this is the plaque or book that he holds, almost dangling, at his waist. Here the Dark Wood is transformed into a meaningful page; and entanglements themselves take on something of the nature of decorative curlicues or calligraphy. There is a pen here too. But pens are quills – penne, or feathers. And thus where there is the weight of sleep there is also (in one of Dante favourite metaphors for movement) an awareness of flight – or the lightness of being.

One might at this point note that Tim Schmalz  refers to his full series of Dante plaques as a ‘Dante Garden.’  And Gardens matter to the poet. At the climax of the Purgatorio he will enter a garden which is the very converse of the original Dark Wood. This is a place where shade protects from the violence of ecstatic light, where bird song and breeze enchant the mind, restoring its full humanity. This is the Garden of Eden as it was meant to be. And this is a place where now, having passed through Purgatory, the only fault that the human being can commit is the fault of not taking pleasure in the world around them.

Well, I won’t pretend that even the Garden of 2 Adams Road is a perfect Paradise. But we are getting there. And so let’s move round the statue, with its reluctant but undulating bulk, to the eyes and face of the poet. And here Schmalz has, I think, shown exceptional sensitivity. It is very easy to caricature Dante’s grim, beaky profile. There’s a terrible example of this perpetrated by Raphael in the Vatican Stanze della Segnatura, where the features are the prototype for a poetic Mr Punch. (Incidentally, a facial reconstruction in the 1980s suggests that Dante actually had a broken nose as if he had been playing in the Florentine Rugby Fifteen. As Scott will no doubt confirm, the Florentines invented rugby.)  But here we have something very different. The nose is unmistakably intelligent and purposeful. But the eyes are captivating, changing according to the light and angle at which they are seen. Are these eyes still half asleep? Possibly. But if so are they dreaming? Are the eyes blind? If so,  are they suffering or else seeing into deeper dimensions. Or are they suffering because these eyes are seeing deeper? Or are they, as the head begin to strain back, preparing for a flood of light?

I leave all these questions unanswered, because art of any kind surely derives its power to move or bring the mind into action from its willingness to embrace the interrogative. But finally the same questions might be asked of the way that the sculptor treats the lips of the poet. These can be seen as lips that are about to part and speak. But as yet they are parting a little only to take an enlivening breath. 

Yet one thing the lips here do not quite do is smile. And this is important, first of all to Dante himself. His reason to smile, as he will smile, is Beatrice, and alas she has not yet appeared in Robinson Garden. But the smile is important also – as I began to suggest at the outset - to a full understanding of the Commedia as a comedy. I’m not speaking here of a grin or a giggle or any kind of guffaw. I rather have in mind the sort of smile that is less often seen in Western art than on a Buddhist sculpture or a Chinese Kuan Yin. A scarcely perceptible play of facial tensions and planes which suggests both recognition and responsiveness. I’m sure that Schmalz would have achieved this in Paradise, where Beatrice is a constantly animating presence. And it is this kind of smile that we’ve been talking about in Robinson for many a long year. One knows that it is all but impossible to have an intelligent conversation which is not punctuated by smiles of acceptance or courteous qualification. So it’s over twenty years since a cast of international scholars gathered here to talk about this subject. And the outcome, as presented by one very sober American academic was an essay entitled: Dante’s Commedia: All Smiles. Our smiles today may well be smiles of recognition at the subtlety and generosity displayed by both Tim Schmalz and Dante Alighieri.

A Reading of the opening lines of the Purgatorio  read by Dr Lotte Reinbold (2010, English) and Professor Heather Webb:

To race now over better waves, my ship
Of mind – alive again – hoists sail and leaves
Behind its little keel the gulf that proved so cruel.
And I’ll sing, now, about that second realm
Where human spirits purge themselves from stain,
Becoming worthy to ascend to Heaven.
Here, too, dead poetry will rise again.
For now you sacred Muses, I am yours.
So let Calliope, a little, play her part,
And follow as I sing, with chords that scourged
The wretched Magpies (young girls once till they
Despaired of pardon for their insolence).
Soft hues of sapphire from the orient,
Collecting gently, marked the circles now
Of skies serene from height to horizon.
    And this sight- once I left the morbid air,
Which weighed so heavy on my eyes and heart –
Began afresh to bring my eyes delight.

Per correr miglior acque alza le vele
omai la navicella del mio ingegno,
che lascia dietro a sé mar sì crudele;
e canterò di quel secondo regno
dove l'umano spirito si purga
e di salire al ciel diventa degno.
Ma qui la morta poesì resurga,
o sante Muse, poi che vostro sono;
e qui Calïopè alquanto surga,
seguitando il mio canto con quel suono
di cui le Piche misere sentiro
lo colpo tal, che disperar perdono.
Dolce color d'orïental zaffiro,
che s'accoglieva nel sereno aspetto
del mezzo, puro infino al primo giro,
a li occhi miei ricominciò diletto,
tosto ch'io usci' fuor de l'aura morta
che m'avea contristati li occhi e 'l petto.

♦ Psalm  113 In exitu Israel sung as before by the Dominican friars.

A Reading of the concluding lines of the Paradiso by the Warden of the College, Sir Richard Heaton and Asia Miranno:

Eternal light, you sojourn in your self alone.
Alone, you know yourself. Known to yourself,
You, knowing, love and smile on your own being/
An inter-circulation, thus conceived,
Appears in you like mirrored brilliancy.
But when a while my eyes had looked this round,
Deep in itself, it seemed – as painted now,
In those same hues – to show our human form.
At which, my sight was set entirely there/
As some geometer may fix his mind
To find a circle-area, yet lack,
In thought, the principle his thoughts require,
Likewise with me at this sight seen so new.
I willed myself to see what fit there was,
Image to circle and how this all in-where’d
But mine were wings that could not rise to that, 
Save that, with  this, my mind was stricken through
By sudden lightning, bringing what it wished.
All powers of high imagining here failed.
But now my will and my desire were turned
As wheels when moved in equilibrium,
By that moves the sun and other stars.

O luce etterna che sola in te sidi,
sola t'intendi, e da te intelletta
e intendente te ami e arridi!
Quella circulazion che sì concetta
pareva in te come lume reflesso,
da li occhi miei alquanto circunspetta,
dentro da sé, del suo colore stesso,
mi parve pinta de la nostra effige:
per che 'l mio viso in lei tutto era messo.
Qual è 'l geomètra che tutto s'affige
per misurar lo cerchio, e non ritrova,
pensando, quel principio ond' elli indige,
tal era io a quella vista nova:
veder voleva come si convenne
l'imago al cerchio e come vi s'indova;
ma non eran da ciò le proprie penne:
se non che la mia mente fu percossa
da un fulgore in che sua voglia venne.
A l'alta fantasia qui mancò possa;
ma già volgeva il mio disio e 'l velle,
sì come rota ch'igualmente è mossa,
l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle.