This month of March, the Carmelite Library exhibits a series of works by Susan Southall based on lines from Dante’s early work, La Vita Nuova. She writes:
The idea of a new life is both tempting and appealing. The chain of our accumulated actions weighs and restrains us. That moment of illumination emblemizing meaning strikes across life suddenly, leaving us with the considered process of understanding.
The images in Vita Nuova are meditation pieces. The work consists of a number of small paintings inscribed with Dante’s text. The figure is in a state of meditation, or preparation: the viewer is invited to approach this meditating figure in various circumstances recalled by the text. This text evokes transitoriness, fragility, the impermanence of human life. Mortality. The text is also a meditation on the idea of undying love.
My art is concerned with the tension between these two. Impermanence. Eternity. The intention is to achieve a state of harmony, balance, resolution of discord. Mortality. Love. What is mortal, what immortal?
To invoke these reflections these pictures are best seen in a place of awareness, a space to consider the serious nature of existence. They offer a moment of silence, to touch both heart and intellect, without rigidity or pressure.
Vita Nuova was first exhibited in 2001 at St. Francis Pastoral Centre. It is dedicated to the memory of Rachel Barber, who departed this life in 1999 at the age of 15.
Here follow the Italian lines used by the artist in the works, with English versions by Mark Musa:
‘Ballad, I wish for you to seek out Love, and go with him into my Lady’s presence.’
‘Ballata, i’voi che tu retrovi Amore, e con lui vade a madonna davante.’
Now it is most evident that in her salutation lay my blessed happiness.
Sì che appare manifestamente che ne le sue salute abitava la mia beatitudine.
From out her eyes, wherever they may move, come spirits that are all aflame with love.
De li occhi suoi, come ch’ella li mova,
escono spirit d’amore inflammati.
And whoever might have wished to know what Love is, could have done so by looking at my trembling eyes.
E chi avesse volute conoscere Amore, fare lo potea mirando lo tremare de li occhi miei.
‘My son, it is time to do away with our pretenses.’
‘Fili mi, tempus es tut pretermictantur simulacra nostra.’
I will begin by saying that if one counts in the Arabian fashion, her most worthy soul departed during the first hour of the ninth day…
In dico che, secondo l’isanza d’Arabia, l’anime sua nobilissime si partio ne la prima ora del nono giorno del mese…
Love and the gracious heart are but one thing.’
Amor e ‘l cor gentil sono una cosa.
Now all is spent of that first wealth of joy
that sprang to birth from Love’s bright treasury.
Or ho perduta tutta mia baldanza
che si movea d’amoroso Tesoro.
Who does not earn salvation
let him not hope to share her company.
chi non merta salute
non speri mai d’aver sua compagnia.
Lost is the city’s source of blessedness, and words that one can say concerning her have power to bring any man to tears.’
Ell’ha perduta la sua Beatrice;
e le parole ch’om di lei pò dire
hanno vertù di far piangere altrui.
‘I am like the centre of a circle, equidistant from all points on the circumference, but you are not’.
Ego tamquam centrum circuli, cui simili modo se habent circumferntie partes, tu autem non sic.’
‘What is this, my Lord, that you should speak so obscurely?’
‘Che è ciò signore, che mi parli con tanta oscuritade?’
‘Go and pay homage to your mistress’.
‘Andate a onorare la donna vostra’.
‘Lord of all virtues, why do you weep?’
‘Segnore de la nobiltade e perché piangi tu?
‘ Sweet death, come to me and do not be unkind, for you have been in a place that should have made you gracious.’
‘Dolcissima Morte, viemi à me, e non m’esssere villana, parò che tu dei essere gentile, in tal parte se’stata!’
You do not know then that your miraculous lady has departed this life?’
Or non sai? La tua mirabile donna è partita di questo secolo.
‘True it is that our lady lies dead.’
‘Vero è che morte giace la nostra donne.’
‘Some day the most gracious Beatrice will surely have to die.’
‘De necessitede convene cha la gentilissima Beatrice alcuna voltaisi muoia.’
Brute death, the enemy of tenderness
timeless mother of grief,
judgement incontestable, severe —
Morte villana, di pietà nemica,
di dolor madre antica,
giudicio incontastabile gravoso
You have bereft the world of gentlest grace
Of all that in sweet ladies merits praise.
Dal secolo hai partita cortesia
E ciò ch’è in donna da pregiar vertute.
If Love himself weep, shall not lovers weep
hearing for what sad cause he pours his tears.
piangete, amanti, poi che piange Amore,
Udendo qual cazion ui fa plorar.