Dante in his Study
By Tom Phillips

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Year
1982
Media
Printmaking
Subject Matter
People
Reg. Number
L266
Size
81 x 61 cm

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This piece depicts the fourteenth century Italian poet, Dante Alighieri, the author of 'The Divine Comedy'. Dante is shown amongst his books in his study, hard at work sifting through texts, contemplating “Love” and “Rome.” The book in front of Dante consists of text on one side - he is pointing to the word "DUX" ("Leader")- and a recursive representation of the whole screenprint on the opposite side. The muted colours in the work lend the scene a cool tranquillity, atmosphere of silent contemplation one associates with a study or a library. Outside Dante's window stands a hill or pyramid whose structure recalls Dante's interpretation of Purgatory: a series of terraces ascending out of the earth towards the Earthly Paradise. The work is monumental: rather than glorifying the stature of Dante as a poet, it celebrates him as a man of learning and ideas.

The piece is a screenprint, which utilises different colours of ink were printed over different stencilled areas. As a result, the image is made of distinct sections of colour. Because the ink is applied evenly, there are no shadows and little sense of depth: the wall behind Dante appears to be pressed up against his back. The clearly defined borders between colours contributes to the stillness of the scene: the pages do not seem to be moving, and his sharp profile appears as hard a statue. Even the landscape seen through the window is solid and unmoving

This image is based off of a sixteenth century fresco by Luca Signorelli for Orvieto Cathedral in Italy. Phillips’ print served as the frontispiece for his own illustrated translation of Dante’s 'Inferno'. While in Signorelli’s fresco Dante points to a page covered in writing, Phillips has him point to a book containing the same image as the print, echoing the process of creation and copying involved in printing for both books and images.

Tom Phillips was born in 1937 in South London, where he lives and works today. He studied English Literature at St Catherine’s College, Oxford (1958-60) and Camberwell College of Arts (1961-64). He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1989, and made a CBE in 2002 for his services to the Arts. In addition to painting, Phillips has also composed an opera, translated Dante’s Inferno, curated exhibitions for the National Portrait Gallery, and has designed a fifty pence coin. His most famous work, 'A Humument', is a Victorian novel that he edited with illustrations, deletions, and collage.