What Dante Can Teach Us about Hell

Andrew Durbin reflects on the efforts of seven centuries to monumentally exalt – and incidentally profane – the poet Dante

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BY Andrew Durbin in Frieze Masters | 06 OCT 21

I have had many bad jobs: night-shift dishwasher in a pizza restaurant in rural South Carolina; waiter at a restaurant owned by a crypto-fascist in New Orleans; intern at a university press. The last of these was a job I held down after I moved to New York, one of a few gigs I balanced at the time, and the only one that didn’t pay, of course.

The offices of the university press were on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, around Lincoln Center. It was one of the most prominent publishers in the US, and I was shocked to have been accepted as an intern for the philosophy list. This laureled position was sure to land me a gig as an editor of books by the same brilliant people the press published, I thought, not lead me into one of the lower rings of academe’s hell. Così è la vita. No compensation, except for the cost of my subway ride, lots of emails from frustrated academics about the slow state of production and fact-checking, depressed colleagues who were underpaid, bored, craving only the deep-end of the martini glass at the Russian Samovar near Times Square, far from the gloomy pits of peer review.

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Ettore Ximenes, Dante Alighieri, 1921, installation view, Meridian Hill Park/Malcolm X Park, Washington, D.C., 2017. Courtesy: Rubens Alarcon/Alamy Stock Photo

Near the office, the Italian American business­man and newspaper editor Carlo Barsotti once raised funds to erect a statue of Dante Alighieri, intended for the 50th anniversary of Italian unification in 1912. The statue – by the Italian sculptor Ettore Ximenes – was only completed in 1921, the 600th anniversary of the poet’s death. It exalts Dante from the heights of a plinth on a traffic island on Broadway. No one tends to notice it; the little park surrounding the poet, with its untended turf cluttered with dog turds, is almost always empty, even on summer days. Perhaps parkgoers are intimidated by Dante’s gloomy, hooded countenance, or annoyed by the traffic honking north and the Starbucks-laden businessmen looping Columbus Circle, indifferent to the heavily reconstructed faces of the housewives of  Trump Tower, who sip glasses of cold white wine in the nearby cafes.

Ximenes’s Dante stands with the Divine Comedy (1308–20) in his hands, a laurel wreath around his traditional skullcap. According to NYC Parks, he is slightly bigger than ‘life-size’, though I wonder if anyone knows the height of the real poet, when he rambled the streets of Florence, a city that would later exile him. In the New York statue, Dante grimly epitomizes the seriousness of great poetry, of literary history itself, as with most representations of him, from Domenico di Michelino’s 1465 fresco of the Divine Comedy to Gustave Doré’s 1857 illustrations of the poem to Enrico Pazzi’s furiously handsome statue of 1865 in Florence.

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Domenico di Michelino, La Divina Commedia di Dante (Dante’s Divine Comedy), 1465, fresco, Duomo of Florence. Courtesy- World History Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

In those days, I took comfort in seeing Dante. As I scraped by at the press, hoping to do something with myself eventually, to write something great (if not a Comedy, then at least a decent email), he reminded me that the overlords at the press who were ferrying me to financial ruin were promised a seat in hell. You might debate which circle. A few suited the editor who told me that, if I did not work longer hours, I couldn’t expect a recommendation by the end of my tenure. In the fourth, for example, where avarice is punished, occupants (spendthrift publishers, say) are doomed to insult one another for eternity. The eighth punishes fraud, false prophets – qualities characteristic of every university system, and certainly the press where I drudged alongside full-time employees who were as miserable as me. (Every night, the Russian Samovar – with its flavoured vodkas, handsome blonde bartender and textured portrait of Vladimir Putin in the toilets – sang our names.) Ximenes’s Dante was the first picture I posted on Instagram, back when the app was new. I cloaked him in the hazy-blue ‘Nashville’ filter, adding the caption: ‘Patron saint of interns’. Two likes, maybe three.

Dante toiled against the supreme – essentially cosmic – indifference of Beatrice, the Florentine woman whom he glimpsed one day on the street and to whom he later devoted his poetry, from the sonnets of The New Life (1294) to the Divine Comedy, where she guides him through Heaven. In The New Life, Dante writes that poetry alone could not do her justice, so he must fold his ‘trifles in rhyme’ into prose explication. Everything is insufficient when compared to her, he thinks – even the greatest of all art forms;
hence, he hobbles it in paragraphs. Later, he transformed her into something like a doctor of the Church in Paradiso, where she ravishes him with testimonies of God’s power. Meanwhile, I fielded the rageful emails of university professors, sometimes breaking for lunch in Dante Park.

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Enrico Pazzi, Monumento a Dante Alighieri (Monument to Dante Aligheri), 1865, installation view, Piazza di Santa Croce, Florence, 2008. Courtesy: Jörg Bittner Unna

‘Midway upon the journey of our life’, Dante begins Inferno, ‘I found myself within a forest dark, / For the straightforward pathway had been lost.’ I fretted while rereading these lines; I was at the start of mine, yet already I had hiked into the selva oscura of the philosophy list. How could I escape? I gazed at the solemn face in the sculpture, which peered down without seeing me. ‘What would you do?’ I wanted to ask. ‘Quit hell and fall in love,’ he might have replied, however obscure the path. ‘Go down. Someday you’ll come up again.’

This article first appeared in Frieze Masters, October 2021 under the headline ‘Intern Goes to Hell’

Main image and thumb: Gustave Doré, Phlegyas Ferries Dante Across the Styx, 1885, engraving. Courtesy: Pantheon Books and Karl Hahn

Andrew Durbin is the editor of frieze. He lives in London, UK.

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