Review of Hell, Heaven and Hope: A journey through life and afterlife with Dante

Photograph of a round sculpture based on Dante's inferno underworld
Image courtesy of Durham University.

Dante’s The Divine Comedy takes readers on a voyage through the afterlife, exploring themes of love, justice, resilience, and hope along the way. The exhibition Hell, Heaven and Hope, on display in Durham’s Palace Green Library until March 18, similarly takes visitors on a physical journey through his fourteenth-century masterpiece and its subsequent influences on art and culture. Aalia Ahmed and Lucia Scigliano review.

The exhibition opens with a small section which contextualises The Divine Comedy both in terms of Dante’s life and contemporary society. The layout of the exhibition cleverly mimics the journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise which the writer (and protagonist) undertakes in his epic; through the use of lighting and the colour scheme chosen for the displays, we are invited to take part in this pilgrimage and learn the many lessons this masterpiece has to offer.

Various artistic interpretations of Satan (by Sandro Botticelli and Gustave Doré, among others) and the beasts which reside in Dante’s Inferno mark the beginning of this journey, characterised by dim lighting and the use of black and red in the placards. As we progress through the circles of Inferno, we can read memorable quotations and meet the different characters who speak these words, conveying the reasons why they have been punished. One of the damned is the Greek hero, Ulysses, and his words prompt us to re-evaluate the justice behind his punishment.

As we move into Purgatorio, we gain some sense of relief with the brighter lighting. In this section, there is an interactive installation which visually represents the concept of ‘umbra’, the Italian term for both ‘shadow’ and ‘shade’, and thus acknowledges the significance of this trope in the Commedia. This section also houses three very special editions of the Commedia from Livio Ambrogio’s private collection, copies of the work previously belonging to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and T. S. Eliot.

Photograph of rare books and manuscripts associated with Dante's Inferno
Image courtesy of Durham University.

Finally, we enter Paradiso, a bright, colourful room with an ethereal installation composed of suspended glass beads representing an interpretation of Dante’s version of the Universe. On display in this section, there are interpretative paintings of Dante’s work by Spanish artist Salvador Dalí, and autograph papers by Argentine critic Jorge Luis Borges and Italian Academy Award winner Roberto Benigni.

The journey is accompanied throughout by audio recordings of passages from the Commedia, recited in both Italian and English. The final section of this enticing and enlightening exhibition shows the long-lasting influence Dante and his epic masterpiece has had on popular culture, with various miscellaneous items, such as copies of comic books, the film Seven (1995), and the computer game Dante’s Inferno (2010), depicting how the Florentine writer’s vision of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise has been reimagined across the centuries. There are also cards to take away which contain quotations in English and Italian from the Commedia.

This exhibition is certainly one not to miss as it is a rare opportunity to see exclusive manuscripts, books, and art that have generously been displayed for public viewing.

Book cover of Dante Hell Heaven and the AfterlifeCatch Hell, Heaven and Hope: A journey through life and afterlife with Dante in Durham’s Palace Green Library until 18th March 2018.

A book to accompany the exhibition is available now, edited by Annalisa Cipollone and featuring essays by Giles Gasper, Michael O’Neill, Nicola Gardini, and Jason Harding, with a foreword by Richard Gameson. 



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