The Divine Comedy, a German classic: on Dante's German debut

After Schlegel, Dante was loosed from the Romantic moorings and entered the mainstream of German letters


Now unquestionably a classic of European literature, outside Italy Dante’s Divine Comedy only gradually achieved this status in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as part of the Romantic recovery of the Middle Ages. In England, for example, the Divine Comedy only achieved general recognition as a masterpiece following H.F. Cary’s 1814 translation and Coleridge’s vigorous advocacy. The Comedy made even slower progress in France no doubt because Classicism was long the dominant aesthetic and the Enlightenment inoculated the philosophe-inclined against l’infâme: Medieval “superstition” and “obscurantism”, of which crimes Dante was ipso facto guilty. Later writers such as Stendhal, Hugo and Balzac admired and were inspired by Dante, but common knowledge of Dante’s works grew slowly and partially, the first (prose) translation of the Comedy appearing as late as 1840.

Dante, ein offenes Buch, the catalogue of the exhibition of the same title (until 26 June) in the beautifully restored Rococo library in the Duchess Anna Amalia Library, Weimar, explains and illustrates Dante’s early reception in Germany with examples of books and works on paper in the various Dantean disciplines (translation, commentary, philology, painting, drawing and printed illustration) that appeared between 1750 and 1850.   

Before 1750 knowledge of Dante’s works was, as elsewhere, slight, although some attention was paid to De Monarchia. In the second half of the century, the prevailing Classical orthodoxy of Schiller, Herder, Wieland and, above all, Goethe, would have presented a formidable prophylactic against any seed of interest in Dante. Although Goethe appears to have read (some of) the Divine Comedy (his copy of the Streckfuss translations is displayed, cat. 45), he had little enthusiasm for it; there are but passing comments and allusions to Dante in his writings, and these largely critical. But Goethe was no ideologue; Anbildung, the constant widening of intellectual horizons, was an article of his creed. According to his Boswell, J.P. Eckermann, he spoke appreciatively of a Dante bust (cat. 43) in his possession as correctly capturing the poet’s mental and creative powers. Goethe also had both a medallion (cat. 4) and a wax seal (cat. 42) of Dante in his collection.

Nevertheless, Goethe once remarked that the poet was so obscure that a non-Italian could never “penetrate such darkness” (which an Italian fop took as a compliment). Ironically it was Goethe’s great collaborator, Schiller, who was indirectly responsible for Dante’s flourishing in Germany. In 1798 he invited Wilhelm Schlegel to take an extraordinary professorship at Jena University.

Schlegel with his brother, Friedrich, their wives, Ludwig Tieck and Friedrich Schelling (the first critic to draw the parallel between the Divine Comedy and Faust) broke with Weimar Classicism and established themselves as leaders of the Jena Romantic movement with the Schlegel house as its headquarters. From 1791 to his death in 1829, Wilhelm Schlegel published extensively on Dante to the extent that his brother called him the “Altmeister aller Dantesken Wissenschaften” (the doyen of all Dante knowledge). Like many pioneers, Schlegel’s knowledge of Dante was selective and fragmentary, but his enthusiasm unbounded and many were converted.

After Schlegel, Dante was loosed from the Romantic moorings and entered the mainstream of German letters. No fewer than three successive librarians of the Duchess Anna Amalia Library were dedicated Dantists: Christian Joseph Hagemann (served 1775-1804); Karl Ludwig Fernow (1804-08) and Clemens Wenzeslaus Coudray (1816-45). Their stewardship of the library accounts for its rich holdings, celebrated in the many books by and about Dante in this catalogue

By the end of the first quarter of the 19th century, several Dante circles had blossomed in the German-speaking world—in Breslau, Bonn, Halle, Heidelberg, Berlin (where Karl Ludwig Kannegiesser and Karl Streckfuss published their popular verse translations of the Comedy) and, above all, Dresden. There Johann (1801-73), Crown Prince (1836-54) and then king (from 1854), produced a widely read translation of the first 10 Cantos of the Inferno (1828) under the pseudonym, “Philalethes” (truth lover), and then of the entire Comedy (1839-49). He drew around himself a coterie that included, among others, Caspar David Friedrich’s great friend, Carl Gustav Carus (who produced lithographic illustrations), Ludwig Tieck and, above all, Karl Witte, a Wunderkind (PhD at 13), polyglot, jurist, man of letters, and an outstanding Dante scholar and translator of the Divine Comedy (1862-65). With the king, he founded (1865) the Deutsche Dante-Gesellschaft. Philalethes’ and Witte’s translations remain in print and are widely read today. Dante, ein offenes Buch illustrates and is informed by this literary history.  

The book opens with a reflection by Edoardo Costadura and Karl Philipp Ellerbrock on the iconography of “the open book”. They draw attention to early illustrations (Chodowiecki and Gruener) of Werther’s despairing final visit to Charlotte, brought to its emotional climax by a reading of Ossian whose book lies open at their feet. A juxtaposition of a drawing (1809) by Joseph Anton Koch—the moment the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere slides from Francesca’s hands as she and Paolo succumb to lust: “the book and he who wrote it was a Galahad and that day we read no farther” (which Italo Calvino called “the first ever disorientating manoeuvre of metaliterature”)—and a pencil sketch (around 1830) by Friedrich Preller the Elder of Koch reading Dante in Rome reveals the “performative” or imperative mood of the open book: Koch’s study of Inferno V guides his hand to draw the scene; the Arthurian romance drives Paolo and Francesca to their lustful doom. Behind these Dantean speech-acts looms St Augustine’s “tolle, lege” moment of conversion, the fons et origo of text-act simultaneous causality—it is no accident that Dante himself, like an apostle or saint, is commonly portrayed with an open book: what he writes, what he reads, he is.

The oval Anna Amalia Library’s Rokokosaal is a Valhalla of busts and portraits. On the upper balustrade, facing the main door, is, appropriately, a large-than-life-size portrait bust of Goethe (plaster, by Robert Eberhard Schmidt von der Launitz). Ironically in view of his diffidence, Goethe's bust is symmetrically balanced by one of Dante (by the same artist, mentioned by Eckermann), a detail that introduces Stefan Matuschek’s essay on Dante as a German classic. He squares the oval by referring to Goethe’s idea of Weltliteratur, that is, world literary classics, irrespective of time or place. Although ambivalent in his mentions of Dante, Goethe nonetheless recognised his literary stature and the spatial pairing of the busts suggest the cultural pre-eminence of Italia and Germania, the mother and child of Weimar Classicism.

In the final essay of the book, Friederike Wille fills in background of the catalogue, surveying Dante portraits before the age of print. The poet’s likeness is, in fact, known only ekphrastically from a 1373 prose description by Boccaccio. From this—the long face, Roman nose, protruding underlip and the melancholy, thoughtful look—the icon was made, instantly recognisable (Johann Caspar Lavater’s drawings by Fuessli and Mengs are typical, cats. 25 and 26).

Wille cites representations in situ (in Florence Cathedral, Orvieto and Ravenna) in which the poet is differently inflected: as the perfect citizen, the ideal scholar, the orthodox Christian, the cultural hero, the national symbol. She concludes with an examination of 14th- and 15th-century illuminated manuscripts of the Divine Comedy — all Italian, of course.

As the critic, John Leigh, pointed out to me, the paradox of Dante’s emergence in the German-speaking lands is that enthusiasm was greatest in the Protestant, not the Catholic states. Perhaps it was a case of the narcissism of small differences as a later Austrian might describe the phenomenon.

• Donald Lee is the literary editor of The Art Newspaper

Dante, ein offenes Buch

Edoardo Costadura and Karl Philipp Ellerbrock, eds

Deutscher Kunstverlag,

216pp, €19.90 (hb); in German only


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