La Quercia di Dante

Initiatives leading up to the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death in 2021

Patrick Waterhouse e Walter Hutton, Inferno canto IX

Visions of Hell

In his epic poem, Dante gave us the first great work of Italian literature, whose verses continue to fascinate and enthral us. An important anniversary awaits us in 2021: 700 years since the author's death.

At Palazzo Roncale we are preparing for this anniversary with a celebratory event which gathers together – in a journey from the 19th century to the present day – the works of great artists such as Dorè, Rauschenberg and Brand who were inspired by the richest and most evocative Cantica – Dante’s Inferno.

But this is not all: precious old editions, original interpretations, cultural initiatives and a voyage of discovery through the places in which, as tradition would have it, the great poet lost his way before finding it again thanks to a special tree: Dante’s mighty oak.

In the footsteps of Dante: visions, tales, itineraries.

Brigitte Brand, Inferno canto VI
Opening times

The exhibition runs until February 14th, 2021.

Open every day:
Monday - Friday, 9.00 a.m. to 7.00 p.m.
Saturday, Sunday and holidays, 9.00 a.m. to 8.00 p.m.

La Quercia di Dante

In 1321, for the second time in his life, Dante Alighieri got lost in a dark forest. This time, however, it was not an allegory for sin, as he wrote in the first Canto of the Divine Comedy, but a real wood densely forested with oak trees, tangled branches and marshland. This was, indeed, what the Po Delta looked like at the time. Popular tradition has it that Dante managed to get out of his predicament not thanks to Virgil this time, but with the help of an enormous oak which he climbed up to get his bearings and see a way out of the forest.

We cannot be sure how true this story is, but tradition identifies the providential tree as the centuries-old Quercus Robur specimen which towered over the banks of the Po of Goro near San Basilio, known as the “Gran Rovra di San Basilio” in local dialect.

Whether or not getting lost in this dark woodland really was Dante's inspiration for writing the incipit of one of the undisputed masterpieces of world literature, losing one's way in the Po Delta is the basis for a structured cultural project nearly 700 years since his death, entitled La Quercia di Dante, or Dante’s Oak.
Gustave Doré, Divina Commedia, Canto I, Dante si smarrisce nella selva

Visions of Hell

The cornerstone of the project is an exhibition entitled Visioni dell’Inferno (Visions of Hell), starring the first of the three Canticas of the Divine Comedy.

Three different artists, whose work is responsible for evoking the 33 Cantos (plus the Prologue) narrating the adventurous descent into the bowels of the earth which brings the Tuscan poet and his guide into the presence of Lucifer. But also three different nationalities and epochs: the visions of Dante's inferno are, indeed, those of French artist Gustave Doré (Strasbourg, 6 January 1832 – Paris, 23 January 1883), American Robert Rauschenberg (Port Arthur, 22 October 1925 – Captiva Island, 12 May 2008), and contemporary German artist Brigitte Brand.

One artist for each of the last three centuries, each with very different sensibilities, interpretations and techniques.
Brigitte Brand, Divina Commedia, Inferno, Canto VIII
Robert Rauschenberg, Divina Commedia, Inferno, Canto XVII

Gustave Doré

The journey into the Inferno begins with that imagined in 1861 by Gustave Doré, in the most famous of the visual representations of the Divine Comedy. Still today, when we think of Dante’s Paradise, Purgatory and Inferno, we visualise them in the same way that the great French artist imagined them.

The greatness, or rather grandiosity, of his illustrations lies in the fact that in order to create them, the artist did not draw on memory or his cultural baggage so much as his unbridled inventiveness and his imaginative genius. Doré’s inferno is a dark, magical and majestic place, immersed in a supernatural atmosphere in which men, beasts and monstrous creatures move amongst the shadows, one that only an artist capable of “seeing things from their bizarre, fantastic and mysterious point of view”, as art critic Théophile Gaultier wrote, could create.

On display will be all 75 plates illustrating the first Cantica, unanimously considered by critics as his true masterpiece within the corpus of engravings created for the Divine Comedy.
Gustave Doré, Divina Commedia, Canto XXX, Minosse il giudice delle anime

Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg’s eye, on the other hand, is radically different, giving us his deliberately different and 20th-century vision of the Inferno, full of references to contemporary political figures and post-war American society.

An eclectic artist considered to be one of the forerunners of the Pop Art movement, Rauschenberg concentrated on the first Cantica of the Divine Comedy, using it as an opportunity to take a swipe at contemporary society. The artist indeed incorporated his ideas and beliefs from the period between 1958 and 1960 when he was creating the 34 plates (one for each Canto), later gathered together and presented under the title of Dante’s Inferno.

Rauschenberg thus chose to use imagery from his time, associating post-war American politics and social identity with Dante’s epic narrative. The result is a dense and complex work, yet one which is accessible to all and represents a milestone in visual depictions of Dante’s poem, and definitively legitimised Rauschenberg in the eyes of the world’s art critics.
Robert Rauschenberg, Divina Commedia, Inferno, Canto XXXI
Robert Rauschenberg, Divina Commedia, Inferno, Canto XXI

Brigitte Brand

If it is true that Dante is “today's poet”, recounting our current “today” is Brigitte Brand, a German artist who, after studying at the The State Academy of Fine Arts Stuttgart and the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia, has used the River Sile Regional Natural Park as her buen retiro for some time. Her vision of Dante's circles of hell has been created specifically for this exhibition, where it will receive its vernissage.

It is a monumental work, in which the artist combines memories of her long travels and visual notes on the “human comedy”, observed from different latitudes of the planet, with the locations and characters of the first Cantica of Dante's poem.

Small signs roaming in swirling, sulphurous spaces seem to narrate the events and characters of the Inferno, at times lifted up by waves of colour, at times beside iconic quotes linked to day-to-day life.
Brigitte Brand, Divina Commedia, Inferno, Canto XXI

Another Inferno is possible

After crossing the three circles of Doré, Rauschenberg and Brand, the exhibition continues towards other circles of the exhibition housing particularly original and surprising visions of Dante's Inferno.

This is the case for the Inferno of Patrick Waterhouse and Walter Hutton, two young British artists from Fabrica, the creative workshop founded by Luciano Benetton and Oliviero Toscani.
The two young artists, who had never read the Divine Comedy, were asked to represent hell through the sensibilities and fresh, curious gaze of someone approaching Dante's masterpiece for the first time, without being influenced by scholastic readings. The result is L’Inferno di Dante. Una storia naturale (Dante's Inferno: a Natural History), a volume illustrated by and with comments from the two authors who concentrate on the details which most piqued their curiosity, and on the complex universal and metaphorical universe created by Dante.

Even more surprising is the next circle, L’Inferno di Topolino (Mickey's Inferno), which houses the first edition of this comic-book parody of the Divine Comedy, produced by Disney and published in Italy from October 1949 to March 1950. It is a genuine poem, written in tercets and hendecasyllables, like the original, but starring Mickey Mouse in the role of Dante, and Goofy as Virgil.
Patrick Waterhouse, Walter Hutton, Divina Commedia, Inferno, Canto XX
Patrick Waterhouse, Walter Hutton, Divina Commedia, Inferno, Canto XVI

Very Original Copies

After this entertaining excursion into a comic-book Inferno, the exhibition concludes with a final stop where some very precious editions of Dante's masterpiece published between the 16th and 20th century are on display, kindly loaned by the Accademia dei Concordi and the Biblioteca del Seminario Vescovile in Rovigo.

The oldest dates to 1512, printed in Venice by Stagnino with annotations by Cristoforo Landino.
Dettaglio tratto da Dante con l'espositione di Christoforo Landino, et di Alessandro Vellutello dettaglio di pagina

Losing your way in the footsteps of Dante

Once you are back outside, “a riveder le stelle”, as Dante put it, the journey in his universe does not end, however. The exhibition in Palazzo Roncale is merely the centrepoint of a series of cultural initiatives which will run throughout the exhibition period.

It is a choral project bringing multiple artistic disciplines together to create a multi-sensory homage to the great poet. Visitors will be able to choose whether to participate in one of the many events which delve deeper into the life of Dante and the first Cantica, or maybe listen to the Maratona Infernale, a public reading of the entire inferno.


But the events revolving around a project entitled La Quercia di Dante, could not simply be limited to the poet: the initiative indeed offers the unmissable chance to discover the rich history and landscape of the Polesine area through itineraries leading from Rovigo first to Adria, an ancient Etruscan port, and home to the National Archaeological Museum – and certainly worthy of a visit – before continuing on to San Basilio and some of the most evocative locations of the Po Delta.

A land where losing your way can end up being very enjoyable!
Veduta dall'alto di Ariano nel Polesine