Josef Kalleya & Dante 
by Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci 
published by Società Dante Alighieri - Comitato di Malta, 2021

On the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri, the author of one of the greatest literary achievements of all time, La Divina Commedia, the Comitato di Malta of the Società Dante Alighieri, embarked on a series of cultural activities among which was an initiative to publish a book that investigates Maltese 20th-century artist Josef Kalleya’s preoccupation with Dante’s masterpiece. Kalleya’s concepts of Apokatastasis referred continuously to the Italian masterpiece, as demonstrated by his numerous drawings, the majority of which were produced between the 1960s and the 1980s. These are reproduced and feature eloquently in this publication. 

Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci analyses this dialogue and structures his essays in three parts, Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, following the dynamics of the epic poem itself. Inferno is the first volume published and he masterfully relates it to Kalleya’s perspective.

Years of study of Kalleya’s concepts and imagery acts as the foundation for this enterprise

Schembri Bonaci’s quest was not the easiest as he had to go through Kalleya’s huge body of work and, at times, decipher the imagery and attribute new titles to works that are bereft of Kalleya’s usual idiosyncratic calligraphic references to protagonists and circumstances.  

Schembri Bonaci’s years of study of Kalleya’s concepts and imagery acts as the foundation for this enterprise. In the words of the author himself: “What is more fascinating is that, for both, all this spiritual angoscia is manifested in line and in visual dialogue, a multi-dialogue, which like the cosmic musical spheres, chanted by Dante and visualised by Kalleya, encapsulate a whole symphonic unending fugue of faith and struggle.”

According to the author, Kalleya’s work do not reflect the artist’s empirical visual interpretation of Dante’s verses: “Josef Kalleya’s works are, thus, not reflecting Dante’s, but exploiting and appropriating Dante, his alter ego. Kalleya makes us see this whole process of salvation not through the distanced eyes of a divinely protected pilgrim, but through the tormented soul of a soul in torment, a tormented saint with a soul full of doubt.”

Joseph Kalleya & Dante also includes a study by Nikki Petroni, who situates Kalleya’s and other Maltese modern artists’ works within the wider sociopolitical context of late 19th- and 20th-century Malta, and further engages with the history of the Società’s Comitato di Malta.

This publication’s crossover appeal is intriguing to readers fascinated by the world of the Italian genius and to others interested in art, especially in Maltese 20th-century modernism, and the controversial, unorthodox viewpoint that was the cornerstone of the oeuvre of one of the fathers of Maltese modernism.

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