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Poster imagery for the Dante afterlives conference


2021 marked the seven hundredth anniversary of Dante Alighieri's death. Dante is, of course, Italy's national poet, the 'father of the Italian language', and the author of the Commedia, one of the most remarkable poems written in any language. This masterpiece–the first-person narrative story of the living Dante's own journey through the afterlife and his encounters with the dead–owes its perennial appeal to various factors, from its narrative power and its capacity for visualization to its linguistic and stylistic experimentalism, from its impulse towards mapping and integrating all forms of knowledge to its preoccupations with the human and with ethics. For Dante, the world is in crisis, topsy turvy, badly-led, failed by its politicians and religious leaders, with human materialism sundering the very bonds of society.

Amidst all the difficulties of the pandemic, the year 2021 witnessed a great variety of celebrations, conferences, workshops, public events, exhibitions, performances, and cultural activity. Indeed, if anything, the shift to online formats allowed for greater participation and perhaps even a greater range of events. With all such anniversary years, it is always hard (indeed invidious) to signal highlights or to reflect adequately on the range and richness of both the scholarly and the cultural significance of the year. But I will try and, for me, I had three abiding impressions.

The first was the global character of the events. One found celebrations from the United States to China, from Brazil to Japan, throughout most countries in Europe and of course in Italy, where a national Dante day or Dantedì (25 March) now forms part of the cultural calendar. By some recent calculations, Dante has been translated in over 80 countries and into over 80 languages, Austroasiatic, Baltic, Dravidian, Germanic, Hellenic, Indo-Iranian, Japonic, Koreanic, Romance, Semitic, Sino-Tibetan, Slavonic, Turkic, and Uralic. Second, the interest in engaging in dialogues with his poem through new contemporary forms of cultural and artistic activity: manga, short films, dance, ballet, and musical productions, as well as art and literary works of various kinds. And third, the ongoing vitality of Oxford's relationship with Dante. The Dante-Oxford relationship has always been a close and fertile one, from early fifteenth-century legends of Dante's visit to the city, later endorsed by William Gladstone, to marvellous satirical responses such as Max Beerbohm's celebrated cartoon 'Dante in Oxford', in which a tall and austere Dante is accosted by a proctor and two bulldogs and asked for his name and college. The anniversary year paid testament to Oxford's scholarly, cultural and artistic engagement with the poet, above all through a series of events organized by the Oxford Dante Society (one of the earliest Dante Societies, founded in 1876) and by TORCH which generously supported a programme of events entitled Dante in Oxford 2021. Some highlights included two exhibitions directed by Gervase Rosser at the Ashmolean ('Dante: The Invention of Celebrity') and the Bodleian ('From Manuscript to Manga'), a dance performance inspired by the French choreographer Luc Petton, and a poetry, dance and musical serata concluding with a performance by Jonathan Katz of Franz Liszt's Après une lecture du Dante. Fantasia quasi sonata. There were other screenings, concerts, and other exhibitions of art works (another very significant one was that of Rachel Owen's work). Nearly all the events showed a strong desire to privilege the intersections between scholarship, translation, art, dance, theatre and music, alongside a concern to promote collaboration internationally and at all ages.

One scholarly outcome of the Oxford Dante Society's activity during the anniversary year is the recent volume, Dante Beyond Borders: Context and Reception, published by Legenda and edited by Nick Havely and Jonathan Katz with Richard Cooper. The essays here are the fruit an international collaborative project, drawing upon both the diverse strengths of the present Oxford Dante Society membership and those of the wider world of Dante scholarship, including the Dante Societies in Italy, German and the United States. The twenty-seven essays demonstrate marked concern with interdisciplinary and cross-cultural approaches to the Commedia and Dante's other works, and a strong representation across the generations. Notable, too, is the volume's concern to move across chronological, territorial and national boundaries from Spain, France and Germany to North America and the Indian sub-continent.

Another remarkable 'Oxford' publication and one that speaks powerfully to the themes and significance of the anniversary is the new Oxford Handook of Dante, co-edited by Manuele Gragnolati and the Faculty's own colleagues, Elena Lombardi and Francesca Southerden. The volume is conspicuously international, richly interdisciplinary and intergenerational, with some forty-four contributions spanning diverse fields from philology and material culture to history, religion and art history, as well as from theory, queer, post-, de-colonial and feminist studies. Also notable is the emphasis the editors and many contributors give to plurality and openness of interpretation as hallmarks of Dante's art.

I conclude by signalling the energy and importance of work by new generations of scholars. Again Oxford had an important role to play here with doctoral and postdoctoral students organizing a number of important anniversary conferences. Serena Vandi, Powys Roberts Research Fellow in European Literature at St Hugh's, organized with colleagues at Leeds and Barcelona a three-day online conference L'ombra sua torna: Dante in the twentieth an century and beyond: 19-21 April). Caroline Dormor and Lachlan Hughes, DPhils in the Italian Sub-Faculty, co-organized with PhD students at Leeds a network In Via Dante 2021 (noting rightly how we are all 'in via' when reading Dante) that led to a two-day postgraduate/early career researcher conference Dante's Afterlives (24-25 June) again online. Both conferences illuminated the vitality of Dante's presence in fiction, poetry, film and art. The final event I would like to note–A Centenary Celebration of New Voices in UK and Irish Dante Studies (12-13 November)–was one that was held in person, in both Cambridge and Oxford, and was designed to celebrate not only Dante but the new voices speaking of him throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland. The conference brought together over 20 doctoral and early career speakers from the England, Ireland and Scotland, and again offered a plurality of perspectives, from intermediality and space to religious dialogue and reception.