Tuesday, January 8, 2019

What fresh, cute Hell is this?

     The Divine Comedy of Dante Allighieri has been in print, continuously, for longer than there has been print to be in: nearly 700 years, starting with hand-copied editions in Italian (titled, simply, "Commedia," the "Divine" part was added in the 16th century) through the earliest uses of moveable type, first in Italian, then in every language of the globe including, in 2010, Icelandic, "Gledileikurinn Guddomlegi," translated by Erlingur E. Halldórsson.
      With the digital explosion, Dante's popularity has only grown, with everything from a popular video game that has almost nothing to do with the original, to Columbia University's Digital Dante, an exhaustive, not to mention exhausting, portal to texts, commentaries, history, celebration and analysis. 
     And while I am by no means conversant in all the versions, illustrations, maps, guides, and learning tools produced recently, never mind over the past seven centuries, I would like to introduce one to you today with a sentence that I am confident has never before been used in reference to Dante's canon:
    It's soooooo cute!!!
    Take a look at "The Topography of Dante's Inferno" by Alpaca, an Italian cooperative of 
interactive designers and illustrators. Winner of the Grand Prix and Gold Prize for Didactics at the 2017 International Institute of Information Design Awards (who knew?).
     You can wander the Nine concentric circles of Hell graphically, zooming in here or there, or dragging the image with your mouse. Clicking on the various damned brings you who they are and the relevant passages from Dante's poem. Or search by the types of damned consigned there—panderers and seducers, simoniacs and sorcerers, thieves, adulterers, hypocrites and all the rest of the suffering crew. Or you can search by Canto—there are 33—or by location, the specific ring or sub-circle.
     The site was noticed by my Facebook friend Ann Hilton Fisher, who shared it with me (that's why I can't quit Facebook. Sure, they helped deliver our country over to the Russians. But look at the cool stuff you can find there!)
     A highly useful tool, particularly for students. Yes, they use the tired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow translation, because it's out-of-copyright. But nothing's perfect. The only genuine qualm I have is the aforementioned cuteness. Did not these darling orange and burnt umber winged demons somehow undermine the entire atmosphere of hopeless horror that Dante was going for? It's just not very hellish. 
      I put the question to the folks at Alpaca—nothing yet, but I'll keep you posted. The bottom line to me is, as with all matters cultural, one version does not crowd out another. And a simplified rendition of something does not efface the complex original. Bugs Bunny cartoons where Bugs and Elmer sing grand opera do not undercut the real thing — just the opposite, they introduce potential fans to the genre, drawing in those who might never consider checking out the source material otherwise.
    So why not a cutesy horror? If you recall my reaction to the Illinois Holocaust Museum, I was a little taken aback that they've turned to the greatest atrocity of the 20th century into a lesson about bullying. But their prime audience is not me, but 5th graders from Kane County. So maybe that's appropriate.
     Anyway, I saw this, and wanted to share it. 



  1. To me, the art resembles a cross between Native American petroglyphs and James Thurber's cartoons. Cutesy rather than cute.

    Glad to see the continued interest in Dante, however, even though he's not a favorite of mine.


  2. I was going to say that His Orangeness has a place reserved in the lowest circle of Hell, but upon further review of the image, I find that he could go to any of them. Or all of them.

    My wife interviewed the architect of THE Holocaust Museum (the original, in D.C.) when it opened in 1993. She was doing a story on the bar code they assign to each visitor, which eventually leads to the memorable experience of finding out whether you survived or became one of the millions of dead. We finally visited the place in person, several years later, on a bright cool Saturday in April. After several hours inside, we emerged into the bright sunlight. It felt like emerging from a manhole in the street. Or coming up from Hell itself.

    I have not been to any other Holocaust Museums, but if they have dumbed down the visitor experiences in Illinois, I have to wonder whether the original museum, after two decades, has done the same. Since the target audience is comprised of so many visitors from abroad, doing so would probably reinforce negative beliefs about America and its ignorance. The D.C. museum does...or did...have a simplified version of the Holocaust in its lower levels, designed for younger and more sensitive visitors.


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