Heaven's gateway

Roberto Benigni marvelling over artist Monika Beisner's (right)illustrations at the Italian Cultural Institute. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli.

Roberto Benigni marvelling over artist Monika Beisner's (right)illustrations at the Italian Cultural Institute. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli.

Some of the intricate illustrations of the Divina Commedia's purgatory by German artist Monika Beisner, being exhibited at the Italian Cultural Institute in Valletta, were created in and influenced by Gozo.

The detail was revealed by none other than Oscar-winning actor and director Roberto Benigni at its inauguration. "I'm not joking," he confessed - and for the first time that day, he really wasn't... Although he went on to say that Dante's paradise was probably inspired by Filfla, and looked up at the frescoed ceiling, asking if it was painted by Ms Beisner too.

The illustrations embellish a unique, luxurious and limited-edition translation into English of the Divina Commedia by eminent Dante scholars Robert and Jean Hollander.

An avid Dante scholar himself, Mro Benigni, who has prefaced the three-volume publication, had drawn parallels between Gozo and purgatory, which is purported to be a conical rock, jutting out of the sea.

And Ms Beisner, who happens to have a house near Ta' Pinu and returns to Gozo twice a year, could not agree more: Mount Purgatory is an island as the 14th-century poet envisaged it, "and it also has no trees, just like Gozo, but no paradise at its summit". Its rock faces, and particularly its golden light, inspired her, and she points out the similarity between a specific spot at Dwejra, looking out at Fungus Rock and the cliff ledges, and an illustration from purgatory.

It took Ms Beisner seven years to complete the 100 illustrations - one for every canto. And it is not surprising when considering that she used fine, sable brushes and the Egg Tempera technique of mediaeval manuscripts. It involved minute brushstrokes - almost dots - and her other tools were a magnifying glass and the smoothest of paper.

As a result of her endeavour, she has hit two firsts: She is probably one of the first women to have illustrated Dante's masterpiece 700 years later and the first person to illustrate all 100 cantos. Not even Botticelli did!

"Most illustrators do inferno (hell) because it is more dramatic, but I found paradiso (heaven) to be especially beautiful; it is less concrete, more abstract and, therefore, more challenging - a mental exercise."

Although they fire the imagination, the paradise and purgatory illustrations were not based on fantasy, she said. "Dante described everything so precisely, down to each colour, position and gesture, and that is what intrigued me to illustrate the masterpiece. He creates the complete imagery of the entire universe."

Based in London, Ms Beisner illustrates children's books, using imagination as her main ingredient and aiming to stimulate the reader's fantasy world. Highlighting the power of the image, she admits that she, however, grew up without children's books in post-war Germany.

In the case of the Divina Commedia, which many feel is out of their reach and an effort to read, she maintains that the images can serve to arouse interest and appreciate the work.

"When Benigni does his incredible recitations, it is yet another way to make the epic poem more accessible," she says.

"The book is a journey from darkness to light - to God. I am not a practising Christian, but after getting into it, I am convinced that that is how the universe is built and that it is possible to reach that white light."

The Italian Cultural Institute, in collaboration with the University's Faculty of Arts, is launching the translation, published by Edizioni Valdonega in 2007, at 6.30 p.m. tomorrow.

Ms Beisner, Prof. Hollander and his wife, as well as Livio Ambrogio, a major entrepreneur, bibliophile and passionate Dante collector, who commissioned and financed the special edition, will be present at the event, which is being coordinated by the University's Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Gloria Lauri-Lucente.

The exhibition is on until May 8 and features prints of the illustrations in their original size.

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