Sunday,16 December, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)
Sunday,16 December, 2018
Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The Divine Calligraphy

Nahed Nasr rediscovers Dante in countless scripts

The Divine Calligraphy

“Then was the fear a little quieted

That in my heart’s lake had endured throughout

The night, which I had passed so piteously

And even as he, who, with distressful breath,

Forth issued from the sea upon the shore,

Turns to the water perilous and gazes;

So did my soul, that still was fleeing onward,

Turn itself back to re-behold the pass

Which never yet a living person left.” 

The Divine Calligraphy

These lines are from the The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), who started composing it in the vernacular as opposed to Latin in 1308, completing it a year before his death in 1320. The first 21 verses, which summarise the whole poem although they belong in the Inferno, are the focus of an Italian Cultural Institute exhibition project, “Writing the Divine Comedy”. The exhibition, which is heading from Cairo, where it has been on display since March, to Luxor on 1 September, brought master calligraphers from China as well as Italy and Egypt together, inviting them to use their languages and styles to transcribe the lines in question.

According to the institute director Paolo Sabbatini, himself a calligrapher who helped formulate and launch the project last year and contributes four pieces to the exhibition, a total of 21 artists who work in video and graphics as well as calligraphy contributed 30 individual pieces and one collective “live canvas”. In Luxor, “the jewel of world culture”, Dante will also be inscribed in Coptic and Hieroglyphic, with both established and student calligraphers, both Egyptian and Italian, contributing additional work: “In this way the project receives and introduces new blood in every city it visits.” The choice of Dante reflects its availability in all major languages, including Arabic, which reflects the multilingual nature of the event. “I believe real friendship comes out of culture,” Sabbatini says. “When people write they are obliged to think and when they work on the same subject they have something in common. The Divine Comedy could be a cultural bridge.” Sabbatini goes on to say that 21 is a magic number, the number of the Tarot cards, which reflects Dante’s interest in the occult and brings in ancient Egyptian magic. Sabbatini wrote the text in the original Tuscan Italian, in Marchigiano dialect, in Esperanto and in an esoteric Numeric language. 

The Divine Calligraphy

Italian artist Guido Ballatori participated with a video piece reflecting his perspective on the first 21 verses as an introduction inviting readers to share the poet’s journey. He will participate in the Luxor exhibition with a painting containing calligraphic elements. “For the Luxor exhibition I decided to step out of my comfort zone which is video art to express my ideas in painting and calligraphy,” Ballatori says. “This is my challenge.” The first exhibition was an enriching opportunity, he says, since it brought him together with Egyptian artists and enabled him to wander around old Cairo, the spirit of which combines with his response to Dante in the piece.

The renowned Egyptian calligrapher Salah Abdel-Khalek, who won first prize at the third Cairo International Congress of Arabic Calligraphy (16-24 August), contributed two canvases and is working on the third for Luxor. Abdel-Khalek specialises in the Kufic style, “the oldest Arabic script, which is fading nowadays”, and he uses the verses that demonstrate its beauty most clearly. “I try to revive Kufic,” he says, “by reintroducing its various forms such as Kairouani Kufic. I love seeing Dante’s words in our beautiful Kufic script.” The project was an opportunity to find out more about Dante and explore the common grounds between Latin and Arabic calligraphic traditions. “I had not known that the Latin letters could be beautifully handwritten,” he confesses. “This is not a calligraphy exhibition as much as a shared journey of discovery.” The foreign artists’ admiration for Arabic calligraphy confirmed Abdel-Khaliq’s conviction in its importance not only in itself but also as “a beautiful messenger of our culture to the world”. 

The Divine Calligraphy

The head of the Arment calligraphy school in Luxor, calligrapher Abdel-Wahab Radwan is participating with a workshop on the Diwani style. “The ancient Egyptians were the first people to develop an art of calligraphy,” he says, “and that is why Luxor is a natural host for such an event in which calligraphers from different countries and languages gather to reintroduce an originally Italian text in their own way.” Radwan believes the event is important for promoting Arabic calligraphy and the role of Egyptian calligraphers who face increasingly difficult conditions with no more opportunities to teach the art in schools. “I hope events in which Egyptian calligraphy students as well as celebrated calligraphers take part will shed light on the importance of Arabic calligraphy as part of our educational system.” 

The Divine Calligraphy

“Writing the Divine Comedy” will be on display at the Cultural House of Luxor (31 August-3 September) with several parallel events including workshops and live calligraphy sessions. 

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