(Wikicommons)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — In preparation for the 700 anniversary of the death of medieval poet Dante Alighieri, a Canadian artist is creating a sculptural tribute to his “Divine Comedy” that would be the first sculptural rendition of the entire poem.

“In our culture Dante is becoming lost,” said sculptor Timothy Schmalz in an interview with Religion News Service on Monday (July 20).

Not only is Dante less and less required reading, Schmalz said, but his “Divine Comedy” is often misrepresented by putting the focus only on the first part — the descriptions of hell and its fiery punishments.

The Italian poet captivated generations by telling his imaginary journey through hell, purgatory and heaven. His use of popular Italian dialect in his writing, instead of the more high-brow Latin, earned him a title as the “Father of the Italian Language.”

“Dante is often presented in a very secular way,” Schmalz said, noting the obsession that universities, artists and writers have had with the Inferno, ignoring the rest of poem.

According to Schmalz, limiting the poem’s scope to the Inferno means “not giving the proper representation of Dante and also the Christian ideas that are in the ‘Divine Comedy.’

“As a Catholic sculptor I have been very angry about this for many years,” he said.

An example of the fascination Dante’s Inferno has had on artists throughout history is the famous “Thinker” by the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. The popular image was originally meant to portray Dante as the “Poet,” and a miniature version of it can be found atop Rodin’s massive representation of “The Gates of Hell.”

“Because I am a Christian sculptor I will right this wrong,” Schmalz said. “I will do what has never been done before in the history of sculpture, which is to create a sculpture for each canto of the ‘Divine Comedy.’”

There are 100 cantos in the poem, which have previously been represented in etchings and drawings by the likes of Sandro Botticelli, Gustave Doré and William Blake, but Schmalz would be the first to represent the full poem through sculpture.

“I realized why it hasn’t been done before,” he said. “It’s so much work.”

The “Divine Comedy” sculptures are not the first time the Canadian artist has undertaken a project of intimidating scope.

In September 2019, Pope Francis commissioned Schmalz to create a bronze sculpture for St. Peter’s Square called “Angels Unawares.” The art piece represents more than 170 unique figures and highlights the plight of immigrants and refugees.

“That gave me courage to work on 100 cantos,” he said, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic has given him the time to create the artwork while “locked away” in his studio.

Schmalz notes the similarity to Dante, who wrote the “Divine Comedy” while in exile from his native city of Florence.

“I am sculpting it while all the world is in social isolations, in a sense, in exile,” Schmalz said. “I often wonder that if Dante never was in exile, the ‘Divine Comedy’ — one of the greatest works of Christian literature – would never have existed.”

The work is expected to be completed by March 2021 and there is no fixed venue for the exhibit, though it will likely be in Italy.

Shmalz has a vision for the project that he describes as an “open air book” — a garden where the bronze sculptures, styled to look like pages, will lead the viewer through Dante’s masterpiece, as they “read the poem with their eyes and turn the pages with their feet,” from the burning torments of hell to the celestial imagery of heaven.

The artist said he believes such an artwork could serve as a “visual ambassador” that will rekindle interest in the Italian poet 700 years after his death.

“It was an epic poem and it demands an epic representation,” Schmalz said, adding that he hopes the statues will keep the artist alive and relevant 300 years into the future.  

“Dante, he can draw you into this garden. He can draw you in with hell and then he can take you to heaven.”

More: Art

We don’t have comments turned on everywhere anymore. We have recently relaunched the commenting experience at America and are aiming for a more focused commenting experience with better moderation by opening comments on a select number of articles each day.

But we still want your feedback. You can join the conversation about this article with us in social media on Twitter or Facebook, or in one of our Facebook discussion groups for various topics.

Or send us feedback on this article with one of the options below:

We welcome and read all letters to the editor but, due to the volume received, cannot guarantee a response.

In order to be considered for publication, letters should be brief (around 200 words or less) and include the author’s name and geographic location. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.

We open comments only on select articles so that we can provide a focused and well-moderated discussion on interesting topics. If you think this article provides the opportunity for such a discussion, please let us know what you'd like to talk about, or what interesting question you think readers might want to respond to.

If we decide to open comments on this article, we will email you to let you know.

If you have a message for the author, we will do our best to pass it along. Note that if the article is from a wire service such as Catholic News Service, Religion News Service, or the Associated Press, we will not have direct contact information for the author. We cannot guarantee a response from any author.

We welcome any information that will help us improve the factual accuracy of this piece. Thank you.

Please consult our Contact Us page for other options to reach us.

City and state/province, or if outside Canada or the U.S., city and country. 
When you click submit, this article page will reload. You should see a message at the top of the reloaded page confirming that your feedback has been received.

The latest from america

Social justice scandals play out in Netflix's newest hit "The Chair", echoing college campuses across the country. The show's empathy is remarkable, but as a recent graduate, some scenes hit too close to home.
Sarah VincentSeptember 17, 2021
Photo: Searchlight Pictures
America spoke with Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield about the nature of faith and the singular courage of Tammy Faye.
Ryan Di CorpoSeptember 17, 2021
I live with chronic pain, and often it seems like no one really understands what this means. Having chronic pain, especially as a young person, can often feel lonely and isolating.
Keara HanlonSeptember 17, 2021
The man who could oust Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from power became Conservative Party leader with a pledge to “take back Canada”—and almost immediately started working to modernize the party by pushing it toward the political center.