Exhibition review: Designing Dante (John Rylands Library, Manchester)

Designing Dante exhibition review - Wendy Woodhead Blackpool writer and editor

Walk through the pages of history

As we bake in temperatures hotter than the sun, you could be forgiven for thinking we’ve descended into Dante’s seventh circle of hell. Which makes it a perfect opportunity to discuss the Designing Dante exhibit at the John Rylands Library in Manchester!

I have an abiding love of the John Rylands on Deansgate – the oft-overlooked gem in the heart of the great northern city. It’s in this neo-gothic research library and archives where I spent a year studying for an MA in late medieval literature and culture. Although I’ll ashamedly admit I’ve not read much Dante, this was the ideal opportunity to see some key manuscripts and printed books first-hand and learn a little more about this great work of literature.

The Italian poet Dante Alighieri wrote his epic poem The Divine Comedy (La Divinia Commedia) between 1308 and 1320, poignantly a year before his death. The poem begins on Maundy Thursday, 24th March, which incidentally is the date the Rylands’ exhibition opened in fitting tribute.

Charting Dante’s journey through the Christian afterlife, the poem narrates his visions of three realms: the hell realm (or Inferno), Purgatory and the heaven realm (or Paradise). Dante’s first-person narrator is guided by Roman poet Virgil through the first two realms, with his beloved Beatrice guiding him through heaven, followed by St Bernard.

It’s a poem filled with lasting images and sensory descriptions, most vividly of each of the nine circles of hell. In each circle a different ‘sin’ is punished in gruesome and tortuous detail according to the Christian belief at the time.

The exhibition makes as its premise an exploration of how Dante structured the afterlife as well as the how the story has been presented and told in written form over its 700-year lifespan.

Dante’s model of the afterlife takes an inverted conical form of concentric circles which he says was created when Lucifer fell from heaven. It’s through these spheres that his 35-year-old protagonist must pass who has found himself removed from God’s grace having descended into a life of sin. As he descends through the circles of hell and beyond into the realms of the saved souls, his protagonist undergoes a spiritual transformation that cleanses him and restores his faith.

Beautifully housed in the stone and brick neo-gothic tunnels and passageways of the Rylands, the display guides us on our own journey through the textual reproductions of what is considered the first major literary work in the Italian language. We traverse the earliest printed Commedia in 1472 through to more recent editions from the 1900s and modern sound installations.

What’s clear from the codices on show is how central visual cues and imagery quickly became to accessing the narrative. Hand-painted illustrations and initials accompanied the earliest printed (incunable) editions on display, and by 1481, the first printed images were added, with another appearing later in 1487.

In the 1487 Landino edition (the first to be printed in Dante’s home city of Florence), a complete series of copperplate images are included with the Inferno to help guide the reader and bring the text to gruesome life. Most notably, this edition also includes a commentary, thus marking the first clear attempt to interpret the text for a wider reader and adding another voice to the page.

More and more editions began to pop up with these helpful features of ‘mise-en-page’ designed to open up the text in a more accessible way. Elements such as colour-coded capitals, line references, page numbers and footnotes are all hallmarks of what we consider modern study texts – the kind that a school pupil might have. There was also a constant playing around with margins and layout, font size, plus the addition of larger and more commanding woodcuts and copperplate images to clearly illustrate key parts of the story.

It struck me how these typesetting aspects are all elements that anyone working with content and copy still implement and adjust today, making marketers, just as much as publishers, part of a much older heritage than we might think.

In our own age of transformation from print to digital, copywriters and digital marketers in particular are constantly looking for ways to make a page more interactive and engaging for the modern reader. That modern reader is simply part of a constant of evolution that has never been fixed, as these books show.

Making transmission even wider, the first translation of Commedia into Spanish was made in 1515, followed by a French translation in 1595. Remarkably, the first reliable English translation wasn’t made until 1814. All these codices are on display in the exhibition, and whether you are a literature lover, Dante enthusiast or just wish to take a trip around a small but comprehensive exhibition (with some atmospheric, Hogwarts-esque architecture to inspire you), I highly recommend stopping by for an hour.

The Designing Dante exhibition runs from 24 March – 1 October 2022 at the John Rylands Library, Deansgate, Manchester and is free to access.

If you can’t make it, the Rylands also offers a fantastic resource for those interested in literary and book history. You can deep-dive into the digitised versions of six key Dante manuscripts and incunable (early printed) editions in their online collection.

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