Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

The Galvanoplastic Replica of a Peter Cornelius Sketch for His Dante Ceiling Fresco in the Budapest Liszt Estate*

Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

The Galvanoplastic Replica of a Peter Cornelius Sketch for His Dante Ceiling Fresco in the Budapest Liszt Estate*

Article excerpt

1.

In the permanent exhibition of the Budapest Liszt Ferenc Memorial Museum there is preserved an oval-shaped patinated metal relief which depicts scenes from the Paradise of Dante's Divina Commedia (Figure 1).1 This piece of smith's work is fixed to a wooden base covered with dark red velvet, to which is attached a brass plate bearing the inscription "Liszt Ferencz hagyatéka" [Franz Liszt's Estate] and a piece of paper bearing the stamp of the Liszt Estate, on which can be read in handwriting "Hohenlohe kardinális ajándéka." [A gift from Cardinal Hohenlohe]. According to the museum catalogue the date of the gift (1867) figures on the paper, but this may have worn off, since I could find no trace of it. In spite of this, we can regard the date as reliable.2

This object not only arouses interest as an artistic document of primary importance regarding the connections between Liszt and Dante, but from the standpoint of art history contains some surprises. For according to the catalogue, we are dealing with the design for a decorated ceiling which Peter Cornelius prepared for the Villa Massima in Rome, but the object is not mentioned anywhere in the literature on Cornelius.3 This is enough to justify an independent examination of the work, the aims being twofold: to clarify its connection firstly with Cornelius, and secondly with Liszt.

As no detailed iconographic description of the scenes portrayed on this object has yet been written, it makes sense to begin with it. The figures are identified by inscriptions, some of which are now barely legible. We have at our disposal a source which provides not only a reliable basis for identifying the inscriptions, but also an aid to their interpretation. Namely that in August 1817 Cornelius prepared a sketched drawing for his planned Villa Massima Dante ceiling fresco which - for reasons to be surmised later -was not carried out (Figure 2).4 In a letter he later wrote to his publisher and art dealer friend Wenner he gave a detailed description of his plan based on this drawing.5 As the metal relief is a replica of this sketched drawing, Cornelius's description matches the scenes portrayed in both.

The composition depicts Dante's Paradise as a mystical rose. In the central oval domain we see the highest Heaven, with on the left and right the kneeling figures of St Bernard and Dante, who via the mediation of Mary, also kneeling, arrive at the BeatificVision. The Divinity is represented by theTrinity instead of Dante's three circles. This central domain is bordered by cherubic heads, and from it radiate four large rays filled with angelic figures, referring to the choruses of angels that sustain and mobilise Heaven. The sections thus produced are further divided by chains of fruit, flowers and birds, making eight sections all told. As an outer border there is a complete rim decorated with stars, plus various heavenly bodies, above which encircling clouds appear, on which are groups of participants who figure in the Paradise of Dante's Divina Commedia, arranged according to the constellations defined by Dante. Thus in the first section beneath the right half of the central domain, Dante and Beatrice appear ascending under the sign of the Moon to the first circle of Heaven, as they encounter Piccarda and his lady companion. Continuing anti-clockwise Cornelius depicts the following groups: Justinian, Folko the troubadour of Marseilles and Cunizza under the sign of Mercury and Venus, then Saint Bonaventura, Albertus Magnus and Saint Thomas Aquinas under the sign of the Sun. Above the planets Jupiter and Mars appear the heroes of Christianity with other commanders: Charlemagne, Constantine the Great, Gottfried Bouillon, Joshua and Judas Maccabaeus. Saturn is the planet of the contemplatives with Saint Benedict, Saint Romuald, Saint Francis and Saint Dominic. The next section depicts the sign of Gemini. Here Dante and Beatrice are examined by Saint Peter, Saint James and Saint John the Evangelist on questions concerning faith, hope and charity. …

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