Dante’s Divine Comedy Illustrated in a Remarkable Illuminated Medieval Manuscript (c. 1450)

YT 36

Few writers have inspired so many artists, so deeply and for so long, as Dante Alighieri. His epic poem the Divine Comedy (find in our collection of Free eBooks) has received striking illuminations at the hands of Gustave Doré, Sandro Botticelli, Alberto Martini, and Salvador Dalí — to name only those we’ve featured before here on Open Culture. The names Priamo della Quercia and Giovanni di Paolo may mean relatively little to you right now, but they’ll mean much more once you’ve taken a look at the illustrations featured here and at The World of Dante, which come from an illuminated manuscript of the Divine Comedy at the British Library known as Yates Thompson 36. Produced in Siena around 1450 for an unknown original patron, “the codex belonged to Alfonso V, king of Aragon, Naples, and Sicily,” and includes “110 large miniatures and three historiated initials.” (See all here.) Della Quercia illustrated the Inferno and Purgatorio and all three historiated initials; di Paolo illustrated Paradiso.


“This makes for two distinctly different styles,” continues The World of Dante’s page. “Priamo’s work reflects the more realistic style of late fifteenth-century Florentine painting, an influence which is particularly noticeable in his use of contours and outlines in the depiction of nudes. Giovanni di Paolo’s style is closer to that of late fourteenth-century Sienese artists,” producing results “greatly admired for their visual interpretation of the poem: the artist doesn’t just transcribe Dante’s words but seeks to render their meaning.” The British Library’s medieval manuscripts blog describes it as “certainly a lavish production” that “must have been an expensive undertaking,” given the status of the men doing the illuminating as “two of the preeminent artists of the day.” But when it came to visualizing Dante’s journey, quite literally, to hell and back in 15th-century Italy, no artist ranked too highly. Even today, I can’t imagine any artist reading the Divine Comedy, illuminated or no, without getting a few vivid ideas of their own.

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More images can be found on the British Library web site (scroll down the page). A Yale course entirely dedicated to Dante appears in our collection, 1000 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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The Night When Miles Davis Opened for the Grateful Dead in 1970: Hear the Complete Recordings


What’s that, you ask? Did Miles Davis open for the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore West? In what world could such a thing happen? In the world of the late sixties/early seventies, when jazz fused with acid rock, acid rock with country, and pop culture took a long strange trip. The “inspired pairing” of the Dead with Davis’ electric band on April 12, 1970, “represented one of [promoter] Bill Graham’s most legendary bookings,” writes the blog Cryptical Developments. I’ll say. Davis had just released the groundbreaking double-LP Bitches Brew and was “at somewhat of an artistic and commercial crossroads,” experimenting with new, more fluid compositions.

Aggressive and dominated by rock rhythms and electric instruments, the album became Davis’ best seller and brought him before young, white audiences in a way his earlier work had not.  The band that Davis brought into the Fillmore West, comprising [Chick] Corea, [Dave] Holland, soprano sax player Steve Grossman, drummer Jack Dejohnette, and percussionist Airto Moreira, was fully versed in this new music, and stood the Fillmore West audiences on their ears.

I can only imagine what it would have been like to see that performance live. But we don’t have to imagine what it sounded like. You can hear all of Davis’s set below. In his autobiography, Davis described it as “an eye-opening concert for me.” “The place was packed with these real spacy, high white people,” he wrote, “and when we first started playing, people were walking around and talking.” Once the band got into the Bitches Brew material, though, “that really blew them out. After that concert, every time I would play out there in San Francisco, a lot of young white people showed up at the gigs.”

Did the Dead become a crossover hit with jazz fans? Not exactly, but Davis really hit it off with them, especially with Jerry Garcia. “I think we all learned something,” Davis wrote: “Jerry Garcia loved jazz, and I found out that he loved my music and had been listening to it for a long time.” In his autobiography, the Dead’s Phil Lesh remembered having his mind blown by Davis and band: “As I listened, leaning over the amps with my jaw hanging agape, trying to comprehend the forces that Miles was unleashing onstage, I was thinking What’s the use. How can we possibly play after this? […] With this band, Miles literally invented fusion music. In some ways it was similar to what we were trying to do in our free jamming, but ever so much more dense with ideas – and seemingly controlled with an iron fist, even at its most alarmingly intense moments.” You can stream the Dead’s full performance from that night below. Think what must have been running through their minds as they took the stage after watching Miles Davis invent a new form of music right before their eyes.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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The First Animations of Mike Judge, Creator of Beavis and Butt-head & Office Space (1991)

Mike Judge first became famous for creating the crude and crudely drawn cartoon series Beavis and Butt-head (find complete episodes online here). The show was about two high school burnouts whose running commentary on the latest music videos was so boneheaded and baldly vulgar that you couldn’t help but laugh. Prissy culture warriors pointed to the show as yet another symptom of America’s decline while legions of stoned college students gleefully tuned in. In 1998, Judge made the jump to live action features with Office Space, a hilarious, if uneven, take on the banalities of American corporate culture. It’s one of those movies that no one saw in the theater but, thanks to cable, everyone of a certain age can quote. (“If you can come in on Saturday, that would be great.”) Currently, he is the creator for the hit HBO series Silicon Valley.

Judge started in animation after working for a spell as first a computer programmer and then a blues bassist. After seeing an animation cel on display in a local movie theater in 1989, he ran out and bought a Bolex 16mm camera and started making movies. Two years later, he was producing odd, thoroughly unpolished animated shorts that made the rounds in film festivals, eventually launching a career in Hollywood.

Above is a short about Milton, the nebbish stapler-obsessed cubicle dweller who was the genesis for Office Space. Stephen Root played him in the movie. His boss is the same passive-aggressive prick as in the movie though played with less unctuous zeal as Gary Cole’s performance. The short proved to be such a success that MTV’s Liquid Television ordered more.

Next is The Honky Problem, about an emotionally unbalanced country singer named ‘Inbred Jed.’ He wants you to know that he is really, really, really happy to be playing at a remote trailer parker populated by a bunch of characters out of a David Lynch movie. In fact, if it weren’t for the jokey voice over at the end, this short is creepy enough to almost pass for an episode of Lynch’s own animated series, Dumbland.

And there’s this short also from 1991 called simply Huh?, which pits the shrill against the oblivious.

You can find more Animations in our collection, 675 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow.

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T.S. Eliot Reads Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats & Other Classic Poems (75 Minutes, 1955)

eliot cats readNot only did T.S. Eliot draw the cover for the first edition of his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, featured yesterday, he even read it aloud for the audiobook edition. You may think the time of the audiobook, now a popular form on digital audio devices everywhere, must have begun long after the time of Eliot had already ended. (Eliot died in 1965.) But as we know from having previously featured their mid-1970s albums of Leonard Nimoy reading Ray Bradbury, the record label Caedmon positioned themselves well ahead of the audiobook game. Using recordings made from readings given in London in 1955, Caedmon managed to release albums of Eliot speaking his own work aloud. Today we offer you T.S. Eliot Reads T.S. Eliot, made available via Spotify. The 18 tracks, running some 75 minutes, mostly features Eliot reading from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. But he also recites a handful of other classic poems. (If you need Spotify, you can download the software here):

Other audio editions of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (some including a score) would come out later, but, for many Eliot enthusiasts, nothing else can quite match hearing the man himself introduce the likes of Rum Tum Tugger, Mr. Mistoffelees, and Bustopher Jones. Listeners in most geographies should be able to access the Spotify playlist. But if you live in Canada and South Africa (where some readers have reported problems) we can recommend that you listen (or re-listen) to Eliot’s readings of his modernist masterpieces “The Waste Land” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, plus his Four Quartets. And if, by chance, you feel like hearing Eliot’s verse but not Eliot’s voice, how about letting Bob Dylan take over reading duties?

Eliot’s reading of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats will be added to our collection, 550 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

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T.S. Eliot Illustrates His Letters and Draws a Cover for Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats

Listen to T.S. Eliot Recite His Late Masterpiece, the Four Quartets

T.S. Eliot Reads His Modernist Masterpieces “The Waste Land” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Bob Dylan Reads From T.S. Eliot’s Great Modernist Poem The Waste Land

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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The New Yorker Web Site is Entirely Free This Summer (Until It Goes Behind a Paywall This Fall)


Yesterday, The New Yorker magazine published “A Note to Readers,” announcing the new strategy behind its web site. The site now has a different look and feel. It will also be governed by a new set of economics, which will include putting the entire site behind a paywall. The editors write, “in the fall, we [will] move to a second phase, implementing an easier-to-use, logical, metered paywall. Subscribers will continue to have access to everything; non-subscribers will be able to read a limited number of pieces—and then it’s up to them to subscribe. You’ve likely seen this system elsewhere—at the Times, for instance—and we will do all we can to make it work seamlessly.”

But, until then, the site won’t be half open (as it has been during recent years). It’ll be entirely open. Again, the editors write: “Beginning this week, absolutely everything new that we publish—the work in the print magazine and the work published online only—will be unlocked. All of it, for everyone. Call it a summer-long free-for-all. Non-subscribers will get a chance to explore The New Yorker fully and freely, just as subscribers always have.”

What should you read while The New Yorker is open? I’d focus on the old stuff, which will presumably get locked up too. Here are a few quick suggestions: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood serialized in the pages of the magazine in 1965; J.D. Salinger’s January 1948 publication of his enduring short story “A Perfect Day for a Banana Fish;” and, of course, Hannah Arendt’s original articles on “the Banality of Evil”?  If you have problems reading the text (in the latter two cases), be sure to click the pages to zoom in.

via GalleyCat


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Stephen Fry Explains the Rules of Cricket in 10 Animated Videos

Founded in London in 1787, The Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) began publishing The Laws of Cricket in 1788, and later became the governing body of the game. More than two centuries later, the MCC has passed governing responsibilities to The International Cricket Council. But it still publishes The Laws of Cricket and helps young players and casual fans learn more about the bat-and-ball game that dates back to early 16th-century England, if not before. And let’s face it, if you didn’t grow up in a country that figured into the British Empire, you can probably use a primer. Or maybe 10 animated ones narrated by actor, writer, cricket lover and occasional umpire Stephen Fry. Click the play button on the video above, and you can watch the collection of animations, covering everything from what happens when a “wicket is down” to when the “batsman is out his ground.” When you’re done, you can enjoy some other Fry narrations we’ve featured in blog posts past. See the “relateds” below.

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Sun Ra’s Full Lecture & Reading List From His 1971 UC Berkeley Course, “The Black Man in the Cosmos”



A pioneer of “Afrofuturism,” bandleader Sun Ra emerged from a traditional swing scene in Alabama, touring the country in his teens as a member of his high school biology teacher’s big band. While attending Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University, he had a out-of-body experience during which he was transported into outer space. As biographer John Szwed records him saying, “my whole body changed into something else. I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn.” While there, aliens with “little antenna on each ear. A little antenna on each eye” instructed him to drop out of college and speak through his music. And that’s just what he did, changing his name from Herman Blount and never looking back.

Whether you believe that story, whether Sun Ra believes it, or whether his entire persona is a theatrical put-on should make no difference. Because Sun Ra would be a visionary either way. Combining Afrocentric science fiction, esoteric and occult philosophy, Egyptology, and, with his “Arkestra,” his own brand of free jazz-futurism that has no equal on earth, the man is truly sui generis. In 1971, he served as artist-in-residence at UC Berkeley and offered a spring semester lecture, African-American Studies 198, also known as “Sun Ra 171,” “The Black Man in the Universe,” or “The Black man in the Cosmos.” The course featured readings from—to name just a few—theosophist Madame Blavatsky, French philosopher Constantin Francois de Chasseboeuf, black American writer and poet Henry Dumas, and “God,” whom the cosmic jazz theorist reportedly listed as the author of The Source Book of Man’s Life and Death (otherwise known as the King James Bible).

Now we have the rare opportunity to hear a full lecture from that class at the top of the post. Listen to Sun Ra spin his intricate, bizarrely otherworldly theories, drawn from his personal philosophy, peculiar etymologies, and idiosyncratic readings of religious texts. Hearing him speak is a little like hearing him play, so be prepared for a lot of free association and jarring, unexpected juxtapositions. Szwed describes a “typical lecture” below:

Sun Ra wrote biblical quotes on the board and then ‘permutated’ them—rewrote and transformed their letters and syntax into new equations of meaning, while members of the Arkestra passed through the room, preventing anyone from taping the class. His lecture subjects included Neoplatonic doctrines; the application of ancient history and religious texts to racial problems; pollution and war; and a radical reinterpretation of the Bible in light of Egyptology.

Luckily for us, some sly student captured one of those lectures on tape. For more of Professor Ra’s spaced out presentation, see the Helsinki interview above, also from 1971. And if you decide you need your own education in “Sun Ra 171,” see the full reading list from his Berkeley course below, courtesy of the blog New Day.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead


Alexander Hislop: Two Babylons

The Theosophical works of Madame Blavatsky

The Book of Oahspe

Henry Dumas: Ark of Bones

Henry Dumas: Poetry for My People eds. Hale Charfield & Eugene Redmond, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press 1971

Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, eds. Leroi Jones & Larry Neal, New York: William Morrow 1968

David Livingston: Missionary Travels

Theodore P. Ford: God Wills the Negro

Rutledge: God’s Children

Stylus, vol. 13, no. 1 (Spring 1971), Temple University

John S. Wilson: Jazz. Where It Came From, Where It’s At, United States Information Agency

Yosef A. A. Ben-Jochannan: Black Man of the Nile and His Family, Alkibu Ian Books 1972

Constantin Francois de Chasseboeuf, Comte de Volney: The Ruins, or, Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires, and the Law of Nature, London: Pioneer Press 1921

The Source Book of Man’s Life and Death (Ra’s description; = The King James Bible)

Pjotr Demianovitch Ouspensky: A New Model of the Universe. Principles of the Psychological Method in Its Application to Problems of Science, Religion and Art, New York: Knopf 1956

Frederick Bodmer: The Loom of Language. An Approach to the Mastery of Many Languages, ed. Lancelot Hogben, New York: Norton & Co. 1944

Blackie’s Etymology

Countless other free courses from UC Berkeley can be found in our collection, 1000 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

via Dangerous Minds

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Wearable Books: In Medieval Times, They Took Old Manuscripts & Turned Them into Clothes


I like old newspaper, smoothing it out to read about what was happening on the day an older relative packed away the good crystal or some other fragile tchotchke.

Traveling in India, I dug how the snacks I purchased to eat on the train came wrapped in old book pages. When my traveling companion realized he had lost his journal, there was comfort in knowing that it would be reincarnated as cones to hold delicious chana jor garam.

Taking a thrift store frame apart, I was thrilled to discover that behind the previous owners kittens in a basket print lurked a homemade Mother’s Day card from the 40′s and a calendar page that noted the date someone named David quit drinking. (I sent it along to Found Magazine.)

book hat

What I wouldn’t give to stumble upon a dress lined with a 13th-century manuscript. Or a bishop’s miter stiffened with racy 13th-century Norse love poetry!

Apparently, it’s a rich tradition, putting old pages to good use, once they start feeling like they’ve outlived their intended purpose. The bishop likely didn’t know the specifics on the material that made his hat stand up. I’ll bet the  sisters of the German Cistercian convent where the dress above originated were more concerned with the outward appearance of the garments they were stitching for their wooden statues than the not-for-display lining.

As Dutch art historian Erik Kwakkel explains on his medievalfragments blog, the invention of the Gutenberg press demoted scads of handwritten text to more proletarian purpose. Ultimately, it’s not as grim as it sounds:

the dismembered books were to have a second life: they became travelers in time, stowaways… with great and important stories to tell. Indeed, stories that may otherwise not have survived, given that classical and medieval texts frequently only come down to us in fragmentary form. The early history of the Bible as a book could not be written if we were to throw out fragment evidence.

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T.S. Eliot Illustrates His Letters and Draws a Cover for Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats


Like so many poets, Thomas Stearns Eliot could write a fine letter. Unlike quite so many poets, he could also illustrate those fine letters with an amusing picture or two. The T.S. Eliot Society’s web site has several examples of what the author of “The Waste Land” could do when he got thinking visually as well as textually. At the top of the post, we have a cover he drew for a book of his own, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a well-known work of Eliot’s in its own right but also indirectly known and loved by millions as the basis of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats. Well before this satirical feline material attained such grand embellishment for and far-reaching fame on the stage, it took its first, humble public form in 1939. Had you bought Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats then, you would have bought the one above, with Eliot’s hand-drawn cover. (It runs $37,000 now.) The very next year, a new edition came out fully illustrated by Nicholas Bentley. The inimitable Edward Gorey took his turn with the 1982 edition, and the latest, published in 2009, features the art of German illustrator Axel Scheffler.


Above and below, you can see a couple more surviving examples of what Eliot could do with pen and ink, albeit not in a context necessarily intended for publication. While Eliot’s actual handwriting may not make for easy reading, even if you can read the German in which he sometimes wrote, his drawings vividly display his impressions of the people presumably mentioned in the text. I’d have taken such pains, too, if I had the expectation some 20th-century men of letters seemed to that their collected correspondence would eventually see print. Yet Eliot himself went back and forth about it, “torn over whether to allow public access to his private letters after his death,” writes Salon’s Kera Bolonik. “‘I don’t like reading other people’s private correspondence in print, and I do not want other people to read mine,’ he said in 1927. But six years later, he admitted he had an ‘ineradicable’ desire for his letters to reach a wider audience. ‘We want to confess ourselves in writing to a few friends, and we do not always want to feel that no one but those friends will ever read what we have written’” — or see what we have drawn.


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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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Why Tattoos Are Permanent? New TED Ed Video Explains with Animation

For the last three decades my right ankle has been the site of a deeply botched tattoo. It was supposed to be a yin yang, but with every passing year, it looks more and more like a cancerous mole. The drunken Vietnam Vet who administered it barely glanced at the design taking shape on my once virgin skin as he chatted with a pal. I was too intimidated to say, “Um…is it just me or are you filling in the white circle?” (I convinced myself that he knew what he was doing, and the ink would recede as it healed. Needless to say…)

My pathetic, little yin-ya’ is an embarrassment in an era of intricate four-color sleeves and souped up rockabilly gorgeousness, but I confess, I’ve grown fond of it. The fact that I have an out-of-balance symbol for balance permanently engraved onto my body is far more appropriate than the poorly grasped  flash art could have been. It’ll be with me til the day I die.

Longer, actually, to judge by the decorative markings of an 8000 -year-old Peruvian mummy.

I feel fortunate to have developed tender feelings for my bush league modification. Claudia Aguirre’s TED-Ed lesson “What Makes Tattoos Permanent,” above, does not make an easy case for removal.

In the words of your grandma, don’t embellish your birthday suit with any old junk.

Your gang affiliation may feel like a forever-thing now, but what if you decide to switch gangs in a few years? Erasing those memories can be painful. Ask Johnny “Winona Forever” Depp.

Dolphins may strike you as peaceful, spiritual creatures, but I’ll bet there are ways to appreciate them that don’t involve having one punctured through your epidermis at 50-3000 micro-wounds per minute. 

Choose wisely! If you’re veering toward a Tasmanian devil or a rose, do yourself a favor and browse the Museum of Online Museums. Feel a kinship with anything there? Good! Once you’ve figured out how to best feature it on your hide, take Aguirre’s anatomy-based quiz. See if it’s true that you’ll be barred from burial in a Jewish cemetery. Your tattoo artist will likely be impressed that you cared enough to do some research. Watch a couple of episodes of the Smithsonian’s Tattoo Odyssey for good measure.

Then lay in a tube of Preparation H, and prepare to love whatever you wind up with. It’s a lot easier than the pain of regret.

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Ayun Halliday is up to her eyeballs in Bye Bye Birdie and so should you be. Follow her @AyunHalliday

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