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