Tom Phillips’ Dante
The frontispiece of Tom Phillips’ artistic rendition of Dante’s Inferno seems to have received iconic status in the years since its appearance in 1985. I have seen it displayed at exhibitions, reproduced in scholarly volumes and in newspapers, as well as appearing on websites including the blog of the energetic and learned Kenneth Clarke, Miglior Acque.
I used it myself in a lecture last weekend at a well-attended study-day on Medieval Italy at the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education. My purpose was to illustrate the latterday Anglo-Saxon fascination with the dark forest of Dante’s mind, which he have inherited from our Victorian great-grandparents. I took the opportunity, however, to do something, which seemed to be appreciated by the audience and which I am repeating here. An icon is a work that transcends its immediate purpose and production but, in the process, it can suffer by losing its context. It has become easy to overlook Phillips’ ultimate source for his image: a fresco by Luca Signorelli in the Cathedral of Orvieto.
Signorelli’s draughtsmanship, with his tendency to rather weather-worn human figures, may not be to everybody’s liking. The image I have reproduced, in fact, takes the depiction of Dante out of its own original context, surrounded by grotesques and four grisaille images of scenes from the Comedy. But the juxtaposition of it with Tom Phillips’ better-known picture can, I think, remind us of the freshness of his image, precisely by showing us where he was imitative and where not. He takes the hunched, engrossed character and makes him more noble, with sharper outline. He transforms the nature of the book, so it pays homage to his ‘Dux’. He adds the intriguing vista. Placing them together, I think, helps explain to us why the later image is becoming an icon.