A search for a just society, by Liam Ó Broin

the artist's statement

     In undertaking to bring a personal perspective to bear on Dante’s Divine Comedy while remaining faithful to the original text and its poetic setting, the imagery at times contemporises Dante’s passage through the realms of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise as one which can be created by ourselves and for others in the here and now. I am deeply conscious of the capacity of human beings to be cruel and selfish, on the one hand, which creates universal injustice, but on the other, the capacity to be utterly unselfish and truly magnificent. To thus reflect Dante’s exploration of the human struggle is the central objective of this body of work. These lithographs are a visual journey intended to deepen our appreciation of the richness of the poem’s epic journey – its universal themes of life, death, divine justice and punishment, which can and do resonate in the here and the now of our time.

Liam working in his studio with his assistant, his daughter Niamh, on the lithograph of Inferno X. 

     Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy is one of the, if not the most epic journeys in literature. A poem which takes place over a short period, but into which is packed the lifetime of one man and his time and many others besides. Composed of multifaceted layers of metaphor and allegory, it is a tapestry of the human condition. Its warp and weft, a deep connection with the very ordinary humanity. It is through this poem of one hundred cantos, that a political and deeply religious man has chosen to tell his story against the background of his time. And it is through poetry, when it is at its best – as it surely is in the Commedia – that we can see the world in which we live in a multi-dimensional way, where reality becomes interwoven with the world of the imagination –  this is the stuff of art. The humanity in Dante connects with the human condition as we know it. The Commedia is essentially the journey of life, the journey of us.

Beatrice unveils herself to Dante (Purgatorio XXXI).

     The human condition is about food, shelter, love, and by extension of that, community. It is the element of love which creates the template for the entire story and it begins with a love affair in its primary form – where a young boy at nine years of age falls head over heels with a young girl, never loses that infatuation, and the subsequent loss when she dies at twenty-four.

     And so, it is love which is one element which is at the core of the Commedia. But that love is not confined to the personal passions of one person for another. Dante goes much wider than that – it is also his search for a much deeper meaning in the wider social context. Possibly, perhaps probably, Dante himself did not exactly know the true nature of his search. What he ultimately discovered was a revelation to him. He set out to search for the meaning of love based on the imagined and real love of one individual – Beatrice – and in that process discovered universal love – the love that moves the sun and stars, as he writes in the poem’s final line – the wider love of humanity.

The poets enter the wall of flames on the Terrace of the Lustful (Purgatorio XXVII).

     Dante’s search on his journey was to go to the depths of the human imagination. In that journey he reveals himself as one who has a deep understanding of the nature, and importantly, the necessity of the human scheme of community. He also reveals, however flawed the mechanism from a political aspect was at the time, a very clear understanding of the way a city state, and by extension a nation, needs to be structured as an entity for good government – its core must be social justice. Here we have Dante the poet, Christian, philosopher and politician – fused into one.

     And when he delves into the concept of a just society, as the rock on which civilisation should – or more pointedly can be based – everything which he stands for, warts and all, comes from the human desire for global love and justice. Warts and all? Well, he was no republican or democrat – an imperialist to a fault, and especially in the context of Imperialist Rome. In all of this was the added mix of Dante’s personal political growth in the context of how he evolved from a family of Guelphs, then white Guelph and ultimately into his own party of one. It becomes very clear also in terms of Dante’s early political preferences, that he placed his trust in Princes – and yet it was a prince of the Roman Catholic Church – in the person of Pope Boniface XVIII who was central to Dante’s political downfall and thus became, amongst others, the focus of Dante’s hatred.

     Ironically, it is this new ingredient, hatred which also goes into the mix and makes the Commedia so intriguingly dramatic, entertaining – human. It begs the question, can there really be a Heaven without a Hell? In terms of personal animosity, Dante the man, certainly holds nothing back. His ire is not confined to Boniface XVIII: there are other popes and many individuals who fall foul to his pen. Also, at work here are the multilayers of legend and myth from classical writers – Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, The Bible – Old and New Testaments and the writings of Aquinas and many other contemporary philosophers. As one reads the poem there are mysteries to be solved as to their meaning and context before one can continue. But here again is the excitement, the drama of new discovery at every page turn. As this happens, the history, the myth, the story of humanity, all appear like a great spreadsheet for the reader. And if one makes the effort to delve, it does create a clearer understanding of why things appear to be as they are, and as to why they actually are in our conscious world of the here and now.

The blinding smoke of wrath (Purgatorio XVI).

     An element which must enter to our understanding of the Commedia, or rather Dante’s mindset, is the circumstances in which it was written, and here we have yet another crucial element – exile. The subsequent mental and physical trauma it had for any individual, then and now with its unbearable finality. The individuals were not just cast out, but their houses on the very street where they lived – were razed to rubble. In many cases, when sons came to fourteen years of age, Dante had three, they also were banished. Dante himself was no stranger to this practice and was himself, as a prior in Florence, in order to establish a fragile peace in the city, inevitably responsible for the exile of his one-time close friend and fellow poet Guido Cavalcanti.

Good and bad government: Dante's exile from Florence is foretold (Paradiso XV-XVII).

     Such was the internecine feuding especially in Florence of the time, that it amounted to ongoing civil war between opposing factions and families, where the tide turned again and again. It must be remembered that the Commedia was written against this background – and living as Dante was, as a  guest of others in one place then another, severed from community, family and home. Perhaps the most telling lines written about exile are those in Paradiso canto 17 – when Dante’s banishment from Florence is foretold by his great, great grandfather – Cacciaguida. It is based on the reality and the imaginary across four worlds – Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso, and Earth. It is against this backdrop of political, religious, and personal intrigue, with its very human winners and losers, we begin our journey.

You shall leave everything you love most dearly:

this is the arrow that the bow of exile

shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste

of others’ bread, how salt it is, and know

how hard a path it is for one who goes

descending and ascending others’ stairs.

Tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta
più caramente; e questo è quello strale
che l'arco de lo essilio pria saetta.

Tu proverai sì come sa di sale
lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle
lo scendere e 'l salir per l'altrui scale.

[Paradiso XVII, 55-60]

Inferno Exhibition at the Boole Library, UCC (2014).