“In Visions of Heaven, renowned scholar Martin Kemp investigates Dante’s supreme vision of divine light and its implications for the visual artists who were the inheritors of Dante’s vision. The whole book may be regarded as a new Paragone (comparison), the debate that began in the Renaissance about which of the arts is superior. Dante’s ravishing accounts of divine light set painters the severest challenge, which took them centuries to meet. A major theme running through Dante’s Divine Comedy, particularly in its third book, the Paradiso, centres on Dante s acts of seeing (conducted according to optical rules with respect to the kind of visual experience that can be accomplished on earth) and the overwhelming of Dante s earthly senses by heavenly light, which does not obey his rules of earthly optics. [. . .] Published to coincide with the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death, this hugely original book combines a close reading of Dante’s poetry with analysis of early optics and the art of the Renaissance and Baroque to create a fascinating, wide-ranging and visually exciting study.” — Amazon (retrieved October 18, 2021)
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“‘Onorate l’altissimo poeta!’ — ‘Honour the supreme poet!’ In Dante’s Divine Comedy, these words are said of Virgil, Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory. Now, 700 years after Dante’s death on September 14, 1321, it seems more right than ever to apply the words to Dante himself.
“Dante’s reputation has never stood higher. He has been revered by an extraordinary number of the greatest poets and writers of the past hundred years — Eliot, Pound, Joyce, Beckett, Borges, Montale, and the great Armenian poet Yeghishe Charents, to name only a few.” [. . .] –Robert Chandler, Financial Times, September 28, 2021 (retrieved March 30, 2022)
Chandler’s article, published originally in the British newspaper Financial Times, goes on to review three Dante-related books: Dante by Alessandro Barbero, a translation of Purgatorio by D.M. Black, and Visions of Heaven by Martin Kemp. View our posts for each of these by clicking their respective links. The full text of the article is available here.
This review was written in reference to Martin Kemp’s examinations of John Took’s Dante. For more analysis, read the full article here.
“Kemp’s idea is to set up a paragone, comparing, on the one hand, Dante’s scientific and metaphorical/theological understanding of light and sight in the Divine Comedy (1308–21), especially in Paradiso, to, on the other, renderings of divine light in Italian Renaissance and Baroque painting. He opens with a scholarly survey of late medieval natural science accounts of optics and of light (noting in particular the widely accepted theories of the late 10th-/early 11th-century mathematician Ibn al-Haytham, known as Alhazan), before laying out what he understands of Dante’s knowledge of, and interest in, this topic, which he terms the poet’s ‘dazzle’—the failure of sight when confronted with the splendore (blinding light) of Empyrean Heaven.
[. . .] “Kemp makes periodic disclaimers throughout the book that it is impossible to cite documented or obvious connections between Dante’s light and works of art (except for illuminated or illustrated editions of the Commedia) but, to avoid cutting the ground from under his own feet, he makes a Roger-Fry swerve: the viewer will need a special sensitivity to see the ‘Dantesque’ as Kemp does. ‘The more general and less discernible diaspora [of Dante’s divine light] is something that can be sensed as a common factor as we pass from one scheme of decoration to another. This is not a matter of firm historical demonstration so much as the deployment of visual and poetic instinct.’ Kemp is insistent, pounding away with Maslow’s hammer throughout, that it is Dante’s divine light that appears in all the works he cites. It must be said that, in the paragone he proposes, it is not a question of attributable sources that is the problem; it is the category failure of comparing poetry with painting, apples with pears. Ultimately, Dante himself says that the only possible answer to ‘Who does divine light best?’ has to be God Himself, lux eterna.” –Donald Lee, The Art Newspaper, July 2, 2021