Alumni Profile: Helena Phillips-Robins on Dante

2021 is the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri and a myriad of projects, talks and exhibitions are being presented to celebrate the poet’s life and work across the globe. In this month’s Alumni Profile, we spoke to Dante expert Helena Phillips-Robins, to gain her recommendations for some of the best ways to learn about, and engage with, Dante this year.

Helena Phillips-Robins was the inaugural CRASSH–BSR Isaac Newton Fund Fellow in 2017–18 and is Teaching Associate in Medieval Italian Literature and Culture and Research Fellow at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge.

Helena Phillips-Robins speaking at the BSR in 2018. Photograph by Antonio Palmieri

BSR: 2021 is the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. What does Dante have to say to us today?

HP-R: So much! About hope, human society, desire, how we engage – or fail to engage – with those who are different to us, the possibility of change…

What are some ways of exploring Dante in 2021?

Here are a few, among many others:

‘A riveder le stelle’: the Uffizi’s online exhibition of Federico Zuccari’s drawings for the Commedia

In 1586-88, while away from Italy and working for Philip II at the Escorial, Federico Zuccari – one of the leading Mannerist painters – produced his Dante historiato, a cycle of 88 drawings to illustrate the Commedia. The drawings move from the horror and confusion of the ‘dark wood’ of Inferno to the final vision of God in Paradiso, which, in Zuccari’s rendition, is like looking up into a vast, light-filled cupola (Zuccari, in fact, painted the frescoes in the cupola in the Duomo in Florence). The drawings are fragile and have been exhibited only twice before.

Online exhibition: La Commedia Divina: 100 lithographs by Liam Ó Broin

Liam Ó Broin’s suite of lithographs explores Dante’s treatment of love, human community, and the search for a just society. Dante presents the Commedia as a text that seeks to transform its readers, and Ó Broin’s lithographs cast Dante’s journey as one deeply relevant to the viewer-reader, a journey that, in Ó Broin’s words, ‘can be created by ourselves and for others in the here and now’. The exhibition is curated by the Centre for Dante Studies in Ireland.

Canto per Canto: Conversations with Dante in Our Time

Academics and students of Dante, from all career stages, discuss how Dante speaks to us in our time, now. One aspect I’ve particularly enjoyed is that this is a collaborative – intergenerational, international – undertaking, and so it has put in dialogue many very different perspectives on Dante. Each episode in the series (run by the Dante Society of America) focuses on one of the 100 cantos of the Commedia.

Conversations on Dante (Leeds Dante Podcast)

Researchers discuss ongoing work on Dante, the cultural frameworks in which he lived, and his place in cultures across the world today. The series aspires to conversations about more diverse, and therefore richer, research on Dante; see, for example, the episodes on translating Dante, and Dante and Caribbean poetry.

Cambridge Vertical Readings in Dante’s Comedy

In this public lecture series, a group of researchers set out to explore what would happen if we read the Commedia not only in narrative sequence, from beginning to end (reading ‘horizontally’, as it were), but also ‘vertically’. What new perspectives might emerge if we read same-numbered cantos together (Inferno 1, Purgatorio 1 and Paradiso 1; Inferno 2, Purgatorio 2 and Paradiso 2, etc)? This was the first time this way of reading was systematically applied to the whole Commedia. Versions of the lectures have now been published in three open access volumes.

And finally: how did your time in Rome impact your work on Dante?

While in Rome I finished the manuscript for my book, Liturgical Song and Practice in Dante’s Commedia, which came out this year. The fellowship also gave me the chance to work on manuscripts in the Vatican Library and the Biblioteca Angelica, for a new project on medieval weeping. Conversations with other BSR award-holders and many wanderings around Rome opened up new lines of thought; I started working, for example, on relationships between texts and images. But what I valued most, and what underpinned all the rest, was the kindness and generosity – personal and professional – of the other award-holders and Research Fellows.

Thank you to Helena Phillips-Robins for taking part in this blog post. Liturgical Song and Practice in Dante’s Commedia was published in April 2021 by the University of Notre Dame Press.