POETRY IMAGE IMAGINATION – Gilberto Rolla’s Casket Books and a Journey through Artists’ Books



Gilberto Rolla’s website     https://gilbertorolla.wordpress.com/


I delivered this talk on the 29th of September at the 2018 International Poetry on the Lake Festival at Orta, Italy.

 “All arts aim to the word, but the word to silence.”

Carlo Diano


The idea for this talk was inspired by Gilberto Rolla’s Casket Books (Libri Scrigno in Italian), objects d’art where the different techniques employed contribute to create unique works of very fine craftsmanship and suggestions. While I was  exploring them, trying to decode the artist’s intentions and aims, I began reflecting on how often writing, sacred texts, literature, especially poetry, and visual arts, have walked side by side, enhancing each other or, better still, reciprocally highlighting some hidden sides and meanings. And, since their origin, books offered a perfect ground for this beautiful love dance.

We can go very far back in history and retrace illustrated books, as soon as something like what we now consider to be a book made its appearance in Western cultures. Before that, as far as we know, papyrus scrolls bore also images, usually of gods or connected to the divine, like the Egyptian Book of Dead. But, when books with vellum pages began to appear, their rarity, their preciousness and their extreme value, not just as fine objects, but for their holy content, required an adequate decoration to celebrate God’s glory.  Let’s just think of the illuminated manuscripts, making their first appearance during the early Middle Ages: Gospels, Bibles, Psalters, Books of Hours and especially the Book of Kells.

But, before talking about that, let’s see what Rolla’s Casket Books are and how they originated. Gilberto Rolla is a renowned architect with a love for painting and drawing. In his lifelong activity, while restoring old or ancient buildings, he often happened to find a number of old books that had been left behind, perhaps because they were judged of little or no value after they had been read, or because they had been forgotten or discarded. But he has also rescued from the garbage plastic bags full of books that had been thrown away, whose sad final destiny was to be sent for pulping.

Loving everything connected to culture and knowledge – he had founded the International Book Centre in Pontremoli – he couldn’t help sparing them a sad, inglorious end and he started bringing them home. All book lovers feel that a book is a living thing, an entity, so they cringe at the idea of destroying a book, even an old and battered one.  As the artist Brian Dettmer, who creates beautiful, amazing sculptures out of old books, says: “Books have the potential to continue to grow and to become new things, so they really are alive.”

At first Rolla didn’t actually know what to do with them, because they were often in poor conditions and of not great literary value. So, he just kept them.  Then, one day in 1981, he got the idea of using one of those volumes as a protection for one recent and still wet China ink drawing, one of the very many small-sized drawings, watercolours, gouaches and sketches he had been made since the Seventies. These works represent landscapes, buildings, human figures, shadows, characters from classical mythology, or sometimes just suggestions, and actually they give the impression of a poet giving a visible form to his dreams and his visions.

So, what he did was to carve the text block in order to create a sort of niche, which would safely accommodate and protect his drawing. Now the book had changed its function and, from a support for and vehicle of words, had turned into the ideal housing for his works on paper. But the poor overall condition of the old books and their fragility were inadequate to last and to match the quality of their content, therefore he devised a way to transform the cover and indeed the whole body of the book, into a sturdy but very precious case.

Working with different kinds of glues he builds a solid case, which can still be opened like a book, but is not a book anymore, not in a traditional sense anyway. All its outer parts – front and back cover, spine, edges and text block – are then coated and sealed either with tar or gold paint and then varnished, while the inside is lined with paper and then one of his works is inserted and framed inside the niche thus obtained.

L'immagine può contenere: spazio al chiuso

The patterned textures of the book covers are usually decorated by working the material as to create a sort of bas-relief, and by inserting some images coated with  layers of resin, so as to obtain a glazed finish.

The idea of the tar finish, which creates a very shiny, thick, deep black surface, came to him by observing the practice of caulking fishing boats, as he has always lived near the sea and had been always fascinated by caulk’s texture and colour. The result is a kind of sculptured case, inside which his works are preserved.

The heavy, compact objects obtained through this long and meticulous work, which change in size and shape according to the original old book, has indeed all the characteristics of an ancient casket, apt to preserve and protect something precious. They actually remind me of foldable icons. And it is interesting to note that, in orthodox icons, a hollow space is carved into the wooden plate, in order to house and frame the actual painted icon, and this hollow space is actually called ‘casket’.

Written words though are not exiled from his Casket Books. Their original  function as books is not betrayed. On the endpaper, along with some other smaller drawings or paintings he usually applies, Rolla writes in his elegant handwriting, some lines, or phrases or quotations inherent to the images, or some petite poème en prose, and the title he has devised for each Casket Book, thus actually baptizing it for the second time, giving it a new life. And everything – the surface’s texture and pattern, the front cover image, the handwritten texts, the title – is not only in harmony, but intimately interconnected with the work preserved inside. Indeed everything rotates around that image, building a whole story and an atmosphere around it. Everything is consistent. All the parts are dialoguing with each other.

L'immagine può contenere: spazio al chiuso

For each book, another story, another time. And time is indeed the underlying leitmotiv of his works. Not only because he gives new life to something which belongs to the past, but because he is deliberately creating something which will and must reach into the future. His Casket Books are witnessing his love story with Time.

In fact, what is a book if not a bridge connecting different times and spaces and cultures and different minds, distant and far apart from each other? And doesn’t art do the same? Doesn’t art – be it literature, poetry, music or fine arts – always renew itself and become present – even if the work has been made thousands or hundreds of years ago – the very moment you are there in front of it and become an active and indeed necessary part of the artistic process, because you are the one who is reading, or listening or contemplating it hic et nunc,  here and now? And, in doing so, at each instant a communication is established between you and the work, and art becomes the language which indeed is. That is the magic, the mystery of art: its living in the realm of an eternal present. And so is knowledge, which is art itself.

Bearing this in mind, Rolla has recently started to add to his Casket Books what he has defined a ‘time capsule’, that is a second but hidden niche, carved inside the very core of the book, which contains one or more smaller works or poems, but which can’t be reached and disclosed unless the book is destroyed. So, you know that something else is there, a hidden treasure nobody will ever see, a mysterious message to be handed down to future generations, yet never to be discovered.

And actually, the Casket Book which he will donate to the winner of the Silver Wyvern Award will be the very first of this kind, thus increasing its value.

Rolla says that he can be even commissioned some personal message to insert into the time capsule, and when the person who will acquire his work will leave it to his or her heirs, that person will know that he can entrust the Casket Book with some meaningful, secret message to his descendants. And yet, nobody will ever know. They might only imagine. Suppose. This way, not only the client will personally contribute to the work in an unique, personal way, but he or she will survive inside the heart of the book. It will be the heirs’ personal choice to tear or not the book apart in order to discover what is hidden inside.

But why must a work within a work, or a personal message remain a secret? Why should the work be destroyed in order to disclose that secret? Well, if we think of art, of any work of art, there will always be some code message which nobody but the artist will ever be able to decipher..

Art is a code language, whose  key only the artist knows; and sometimes not even the artist. So powerful is the symbolic essence of that code. I’m of course referring to its ultimate meaning and raison d’etre.

But, for all the others, for us, beyond the critical studies, analysis, exegesis, imagination can compensate for that lack. Because imagination is the source, the fountain of all arts. And, as James Harpur says, the artist drinks at that fountain. And so do we whenever we become that active part of the artistic process. We don’t need to know everything which is involved, we must rather feel, perceive, experience. We must merge into that uninterrupted flow of knowledge and creation and transcendence which art has been since its appearance in human history and become part of it. Then we know. And it is not just a process of our senses – that would be just a superficial perception. It’s something deeper, which involves our entire being, mind, personality, experience. Our soul, that is. Our, in Blake’s terms, innocence and experience. And yet, there will always be some elusive part, something we feel but are unable to grasp, if not in flashes. We will then be able to grasp some tiny sparks of the original Silence beyond the Word. Beyond what Heraclitus calls Logos.

So, if “all arts aim to the word, but the word to silence”, the ultimate goal of poetry, literature, music, visual arts is the holy realm of Silence, is the return to the original source of that fountain from which every inspiration and imagination proceeds.

That is, I think, the meaning of Rolla’s secret, hidden time capsule.

But, what is an Artist’s Book? The following description, offered by the  “Poetry Beyond Text Project”  could provide a perfect answer to the question:

“Artists’ books are artworks that use the material form of the book as a medium of creative expression. In contrast to fine press printing or illustrated editions, the visual, tactile and aesthetic features of artist’s books are not secondary to their textual content. Indeed, many artists’ books do not contain words but rather work with images, papers, shapes, and folds, to foreground the experience of interacting with the book as an object.”

Johanna Drucker, scholar and renown author of The Century of Artist’s Books, states that Artists’ Books are “the quintessential 20th century art form.” Indeed, the way modern art movements and modern art approach this genre, we could very well say that this is an entirely new form of art, though its roots reach very far back.

According to this perspective, the definition of “book” has become quite nebulous, as Martin Antonetti, president of the Bibliographical Society of America has said. Artists’ Books also offer to artists the unique opportunity of making available and more affordable art to a wider public.

Artists’ Books are not the same as illustrated books. Images are not just inserted into or added to the text in order to illustrate or enrich it, they are not just ornaments, rather they are a true collaboration, an intimate conversation between art and text. An artist’s book is not merely a text where pictures or photos have been added, but it is a creature where text and images and paper and binding and structure  form a whole, an inseparable unity.

They are conceived as a whole, they breath together, they are intertwined, they cannot live without each other. In an artist’s book text, images, binding are lovers. We could well say that artists’ books are an aristocratic response to the publishing industry, to mass production extended to what should be culture, to the lack of attention and respect towards knowledge and beauty, reflected in the past by the art of book making. And, in artists’ books, authors, artists and publishers (which are very often one and the same person) can still establish a direct contact with the reader, as their work conveys their love, their passion for their craft, which they share directly – without intermediaries – with the reader.

It is not by chance that artists’ books began to appear in a greater number during the Arts and Crafts movement (just think at the Kelmscott Press founded by William Morris and at the care he took in printing and lavishly decorating his books, like in his Chaucer) when the excellence of technique and the very high quality of materials were on focus.  And  then with the avant-garde movements, that is during the first and second Industrial Revolution. They reveal a desire of going back to the origin of the book as an art product, when books were expensive, time-consuming, handmade, handwritten and later hand-printed treasures.

The first true artist’s book in this sense and which set the rules for all the others to come was William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience a book he wrote, illustrated, etched, hand-painted, printed, bound and published all by himself with the invaluable help of his devoted wife. He was actually inspired by medieval illuminated manuscripts. Here, the poems are embedded into the pictures and the pictures intertwine and blend with the text. Blake’s illustrations echo back the sounds and the meaning of the verses, at the same time expanding them, emphasizing what, according to Indian aesthetics, is called rasa, a Sanskrit word meaning literally “sap, juice or taste”.  It connotes a concept in Indian arts about the aesthetic flavour of any visual, literary or musical work that evokes an emotion or feeling in the reader or audience but cannot be easily described. It refers to the emotional flavors/essence crafted into the work by the author or performer and relished by a ‘sensitive spectator’ or sahṛdaya or one with positive taste and mind. It could be more clearly defined as .a sublimated state of mind, of the poem. In Indian art theory, there are nine main human feelings, or bhavas which generate nine rasas. The rasa theory was first expressed in the Natya Shastra, the main Sanskrit  treaty on dramatic art, therefore it was first applied to theatre, poetry, music,  dance and then spread to figurative arts. It is a terribly complex system which recalls and widely anticipates the modern depth psychology. I would therefore say that artists’ books are books where texts and images cooperate in generating in the reader those specific rasas the artist intends to evoke. They consider the whole of the book as an art form, or rather as a form in the platonic sense. The platonic idea of the book.

Risultati immagini per blake songs of innocence

Yet, we can find an earlier example of what can be defined as an artist’s book, in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, in English Poliphilus’ Strife of Love in a Dream or The Dream of Poliphilus. It is a romance said to be by Francesco Colonna. It is possibly the most famous example of an incunabulum. The work was first printed in Venice in 1499 by that genius whose name was Aldo Manuzio and the few original surviving copies are among the rarest and most expensive antique books in the world. This first edition has an elegant page layout, with refined woodcut  illustrations in an Early Renaissance style. The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili presents a mysterious arcane allegory in which the main character, Poliphilus pursues his love, Polia, through a dreamlike landscape. In the end, he is reconciled with her by the “Fountain of Venus”. The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is illustrated with 168 exquisite woodcuts showing the scenery, architectural settings, and some of the characters Poliphilus encounters in his dreams. They depict scenes from Poliphilus’ adventures and the architectural features over which the author rhapsodizes, in a stark and at the same time ornate line art style. And all this integrates perfectly with the type, one of the highest examples of typographic art.

Immagine correlata

The illustrations are interesting because they shed light on Renaissance man’s taste in the aesthetic qualities of Greek and Roman antiquities. The psychologist Carl Jung admired the book, believing that the dream images anticipated his theory of archetypes and we’ll later see how this book may have inspired Jung’s Red Book. The style of the woodcut illustrations had a great influence on late nineteenth century English illustrators, such as Aubrey Beardsley, Walter Crane, and Robert Anning Bell.

In recent times, artists’ books’ golden age was between the end of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th century. By the end of the 19th century, when the audience for posters and prints by painters began to grow, entrepreneurial publishers began to commission artists to illustrate small editions of books. Some of the first publishers of artists’ books were art dealers who felt that producing books embellished by their artists would increase the audience for their paintings. The French Livers d’artiste were usually books where famous artists contributed to texts of famous poets or writers on invitation of the publishers. Foremost among these visionary publishers was Ambroise Vollard, whose publication of Odilon Redon’s haunting lithographs illustrate Gustave Flaubert’s La Tentation de Saint Antoine (begun in 1896, published in 1938). Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler was known for collaborating with avant-garde artists and writers, and his first publication, L’Enchanteur pourrissant (The Rotting Magician, 1909), paired André Derain with the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Albert Skira published Matisse’s first artist’s book, Poésies (1932) by Stéphane Mallarmé, a harmonious matching of seductive linear drawings with Mallarmé’s poetry. Max Ernst and Paul Eluard, collaborated for Eluard’s love poems for Gala illustrated by Ernst. For Klänge Kandinsky wrote the poems and illustrated the book. Picasso illustrated some poems by Eluard  La Barre d’Appui, Sonia Delaunay did some gouaches for a book by Blaise Cendrars.

Risultati immagini per matisse mallarmé

Futurism, Dada, Cubism, Expressionism, Symbolism, Russian avant-garde movements – they all explored and experimented new forms, ideas, techniques and technologies  in creating an amazing number of artists’ books of ravishing beauty and artistry. Books, often published in a limited edition or as unique, were now a free space, a new free canvass, to engage upon new possibility of expression.

As in Blake’s masterpiece, often artists have contributed more than images by serving as authors of their own texts. Unlike books in which the artists embellish the words of a writer, these books constitute entire artistic creations, from cover to cover. As for Rolla’s casket books. One early example is Gauguin’s Noa Noa, consisting of writings and woodcuts related to his impressions of Tahiti and the paintings he made there. Of the same year, 1894, is Toulouse-Lautrec’s Yvette Guilbert, first examples of modern books where text and images were conceived as a single object. Where text and image are deeply connected together, like in De Saussure’s notion of the  linguistic sign, which is composed of the signifier and the signified.

It is here, at the very core of the intimate interconnection between poetry (intending poetry as any text, which becomes a poem as soon as it becomes part of an artist’s book) and image, that imagination, that is the origin of the creative process, takes place. If we take an artist’s book as a glorious example of the linguistic sign in art, then we will see that image, poetry and imagination are one.

Later, Matisse’s famous Jazz (1947), combines his writings and twenty brilliantly coloured and boldly stencilled compositions, while years later Georg Baselitz’s Malelade (1990) presents archaic folk language and images of animals in forty-one prints.

Immagine correlata


In the decades since the end of World War II, when American art came to the forefront, there was a similar flourishing of publications, both on art and as art. In the early 1960s, artists’ books—inexpensive booklets and object books usually entirely composed by artists—became major vehicles of artistic creation. With Ruscha’s very famous Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963), in which all but one photograph faces a blank page, a new artistic attitude was established. Later, Tatyana Grosman worked with American artists to produce books with unusual formats, like Rauschenberg’s Shades (1964), a book without words printed on sheets of plexiglass. But then there are books shaped as concertinas, with interchangeable pages, books the reader has to assemble in order to read the text,  books conceived as sculptures and new technologies employed in visual arts borrowed by the artists’ books genre,  etc.

But, what is certain, is that Artists’ Books today are one of the most exciting  laboratories in the contemporary art world, where literary texts and visual arts confront each other in an entirely new way, stimulating a new response from the reader, as Martin Antonetti has stated.

This is but a very short survey of the amazing number of wonderful artists’ books produced since the 19th century and I don’t want to annoy you with a longer list. But, before ending my speech, I’d like to mention two immortal masterpieces of the human creative genius and imagination at its highest which may be seen as artists’ books, although they were never intended as such by their creators: the Book of Kells and Carl G. Jung’s Liber Novus or Red Book

Starting from the latter, as perhaps many of you know, in 1913, after his acrimonious break  with Freud, Carl Jung fell into a crisis and began to retreat from many of his professional activities, but also many of his energies were withdrawn from the outer world and redirected inwardly.

One day, while he was on a train, he had the vision of a horrible catastrophe with rivers of blood and dead bodies floating all over. A week later, while on that same train, the vision repeated and he also heard a voice saying that all that would become real. At that point, he thought that he was losing his mind and he decided to investigate what was really going on. So he started to provoke waking fantasies and visions and to engage in a dialogue with the characters which emerged. He also wrote down in little black books everything that emerged and painted his powerful visions. He called this activity “active imagination”. Indeed, what he experienced during those years was a journey to hell and back. A diving into his own unconscious to get in touch with his soul. Often he felt he was going to be overwhelmed by a scaring life crisis and that he was in great danger. He even contemplated suicide.

It took him four years to complete this journey into the depths of his Self and then he spent the following years, until 1930, in writing and drawing and painting everything he had seen and discovered in his visions and inner dialogues.

Immagine correlata

To engage in a very difficult description of the complexities of its content or of the intuitions and revelations Jung had about himself, his soul, his future psychotherapeutic techniques, of the concepts he would develop in his future analytical psychology writings, the role and power of symbols etc. it would be here totally off-topic. What is instead interesting for us now is its form. In fact the huge, heavy, 205 large pages codex, or illuminated manuscript (as this is what indeed is) handwritten on parchment, hand-painted and bound in red leather, was inspired not only by the numinous images which had burst forth from his unconscious, but, for the form he chose to organize them, also by similar medieval works, like the Book of Kells he kept in mind, and Blake’s Songs of Innocence, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphyli, while he perceived his inner journey to be similar to Dante’s Comedy and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.

Immagine correlata

In The Red Book he wrote: “I speak through images … In fact I could not express in any other way the words emerging from the depth.”

 The absolute, total interdependence of text and painted images, of decorations, illuminated initials, symbolic use of colours, page structure and conception recalls medieval illuminated manuscripts, which Jung knew and had thoroughly explored. You can’t separate the text from the illustrations, as the one clarifies and comments the others and vice versa. The Red Book, as he had called it, is a book of visions, as it all started from that first terrible, scary vision in 1913 and then many others followed. But then, from those significant, numinous visions words poured out, which explained them and integrated them into his consciousness.

As the Austrian art theorist Konrad Fiedler stated, art is a process from chaos to clarity, from confusion to order. It took to Jung more than 15 years to see and write and paint his Red Book, although he left it unfinished. To give an order to all that overwhelming material that was surfacing and threatening him. And then it took him the rest of his life to integrate and elaborate all that material. The blindingly magnetic, archaic and mysterious beauty of its pages, of its colours, of its mesmerizing illustrations triggers powerful feelings and stirs our imagination.  To Jung, they were that very process so clearly described by Fiedler. In the Red Book art becomes a means and instrument of knowledge and inspiration.

The Red Book is a map not only of Jung’s unconscious and a journey into it, but of the collective unconscious as well, a concept he actually formulated and developed during the composition of this book. Jung’s artistic and calligraphic skills played a great role in rendering his visions and in writing down his prophetic texts. May we consider it as an artist’s book?   “All my works, all my creative activity,” he would recall later, “has come from those initial fantasies and dreams.” Yes, he drank at the source of imagination, at that aforementioned fountain, in search of what he called the “Spirit of the depth”, as opposed to the spirit of the time, which had so deluded and betrayed him before this devastating yet renewing crisis hit him.

And now, at the end, let’s go back to the beginning. The Book of Kells. James Joyce wrote to a friend: “It is the most purely Irish thing we have, and some of the big initial letters which swing right across a page have the essential quality of a chapter of Ulysses. Indeed, you can compare much of my work to the intricate illuminations.”

James Harpur, who has just released his last collection of poems, The White Silhouette, whose central section features his final version of his long, four parts poem Kells, (he has worked at it for more than fifteen years) on a RTÉ radio interview said that the first time he saw the Chi Rho page, it was like someone had dropped a match in a box of fireworks and frozen the resulting explosion. Well, doesn’t this image recall the original Big Bang? For Harpur the Book of Kells is the materialization of the soul of Ireland, its pages holding the cultural and spiritual DNA of the country.

Immagine correlata

Indeed, the impression one immediately gets is that words are totally merged into images and images become words. The intricacies, the snakelike convolutions of the lines, the tremendous complexity of the patterns, remind of a brain as much as of  clusters of galaxies, endlessly rotating around themselves and around each other. Each line affects all the others, each colour operates a transformation over the other colours, as if everything were alive, and this alchemic transformation forms a continuum in time and space, it is a non-stop process, taking place right under your eyes. Even figures, architectural structures become abstract elements, become parts of this flowing current of forms and colours. Everything is speaking with the power of symbols. There are no boundaries, no distinctions to separate thought and vision, words and images. Thus, mirroring and reproducing through images the sacred Word embedded into the illuminations, which breaths through them.

Risultati immagini per book of kells

The Book of Kells’ illuminations remind me of quantum physics. Although, alas, I’m terribly ignorant about this subject, I think one could recognize, in the overall conception of the Book, some of its fundamental principles, like the fact that everything is made of waves, also particles, and that quantum physics is about the very small.

Although some of the Book of Kells illustrations are rigorous architectural structures, like the Eusebian Canons tables, and there are full page images of the Evangelists, of the Virgin with Child and of Christ, a good part of the decoration is carried out in the intricate insular style, invading frames, empty spaces, and almost self-generating. The impression is that of a space brimming and pulsating with a wavelike  energy. The sacred Word emanating from God is not only written on the vellum, but can be visualized as the image of the created universe.

As Carl Nordenfalk says: “the initials … are conceived as elastic forms expanding and contracting with a pulsating rhythm. The kinetic energy of their contours escapes into freely drawn appendices, a spiral line which in turn generates new curvilinear motifs…”.

Also, the intricate paths of the lines, separating themselves and constantly bifurcating, abruptly taking different directions leading to different aspect of reality, remind of Hugh Everett’s Many-Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, according to which every event is a branch point; so, in Everett’s reading, the Schroedinger cat  theorem gives that the cat is both alive and dead, even before the box is opened, but the “alive” and “dead” cats are in different branches of the universe, both of which are equally real, but which do not interact with each other.

Risultati immagini per book of kells

Quantum physics is about the very small. Well, if we analyze the amazing details of the illuminations, we will soon realize that many of the largest images, or their frames and decorations are composed of millions of lines, motifs, knots, tangles, sometimes so tiny – and yet so amazingly perfect – that they can be seen only through a magnifying glass. There weren’t magnifying glasses at the time, so it still remains a mystery how they did it. And this was perhaps the reason why Gerald of Wales reports that the Book of Kells had been written by the angels.

Risultati immagini per book of kells

The anonymous illuminators and scribes who created the Book of Kells had this in mind: to make visible the invisible, to infuse spirit into matter, to make eternal what was transient, to express the ineffable through forms and colours, so that the divine energy could be transformed into matter and matter into divine energy. A spiritual version of the Relativity theory made visible.



Copyright© by Francesca Diano ALL RIGHTS RESERVED










James Harpur – The Ascetic of Light


 By Francesca Diano

Poetry on the Lake Festival. October 2015

Isola San Giulio on the Lake of Orta

Isola San Giulio on the Lake of Orta



This talk was delivered during the Poetry On the Lake International Festival 2015. It was a privilege for me to be there, among great poets and to talk about James Harpur, a poet who means a lot to me.

My special thanks to Gabriel Griffin, wonderful hostess and patron of Poetry, the mind and soul behind this unique festival, for her generous invitation and affection. The spiritual energy of the place and the universal language of poetry make this one of the most perfect poetry festivals in the world, as Carol Ann Duffy said.


At first you are dazzled, then stunned, then you fall into darkness, then you feel comforted. Finally, that darkness where he let you penetrate, is suddenly brightened, sometimes by a dim, sometimes by a flashing, but always unexpected light. This is at least how I felt when, exactly ten years ago, I came across James Harpur’s Voices of the Book of Kells and his coruscating language.

Harpur certainly needs no introduction to an English speaking public, as you will all be familiar with his name and works. I must confess I was utterly ignorant of this poet. So, to me, he was an epiphany. A sudden revelation.

At that time I was doing some research on the Book of Kells for a novel I was then writing. And, while surfing the net, I discovered Harpur’s long poem. I had seen the illuminated Gospel of Kells in Dublin and that experience had left a very deep mark on me.

So I read this poem and, the more I read, the more I couldn’t believe my feelings. There, under my eyes, a great poet that I didn’t know before had voiced with an almost overwhelming intensity and art all those feelings and emotions I had experienced in Trinity.  And much, much more. That was the work not only of a great and substantial poet. It was the work of a mystic.

In the verses I was reading, the words were conveying every possible secret meaning, the Word itself   was emerging as Lògos and, at the same time, as  the regulating power of the universe. A power that separates, differentiates, names and orders.

What I immediately did then, was exactly what I always do when I find something that captures my mind and heart: I translated the text. Translation, to me, is the most perfect and precise way to understanding and learning. Not even the most attentive  and accurate reading can show you  the very deep and inner structure of a text. Because you need to understand before you translate. And, to understand, you need to analyze. And, in doing so, you see and learn. Not only words and ideas, but the structure itself. To me, translation is the golden path to comprehension.

I have chosen to speak today about Voices of the Book of Kells, because I think that  this masterly poem is – I believe – the sum of Harpur’s poetics and philosophical views about poetry, life, himself and the world. The alchemical quintessence of everything that can be found further developed in his other works.

Today there are not many to whom poetry is a direct connection to the divine, as it was at its origin. Harpur is certainly one of them. In fact Harpur is a poet deeply connected to the original root of poetry. An Urdichter, one may say, for his poetry draws from that indistinct original magma that was at the beginning of the universe and of creation.

The role that poetry has to Harpur emerges in the four parts of  Voices of the Book of Kells, where he explores not only the genesis of this prodigious illuminated manuscript, the feelings of its anonymous illuminators and admirers, but he plunges also into the deep mechanism of creation and art.

The four parts of the poem are linked to four places and characters:  two of them creators of the manuscript, namely an illuminator and a scribe; while the other two are witnesses of the work: Iona is linked with the illuminator, known to scholars as Goldworker –  Kells with a scribe known as Scribe B – Kildare with the Anglo-Norman churchman, Gerald of Wales or Giraldus Cambrensis, and Dublin with a modern witness, whom one might suspect is Harpur himself (Scribbler). The four parts are also linked to four different historical times and to four different illuminated pages of the Book. In this perfect interconnection between places and times, men and things, nature and spirit, heart and mind, lies a perfect  symbolical architecture of what should be seen as One, as a whole:  the created universe.

That is the aim of the Book of Kells. That is the aim of James Harpur’s poetry.

The number 4, as you know, has a strong symbolic meaning  not only in the Judaic Christian tradition, but in almost all religions and esoteric traditions. On the fourth day of his “creation week” God completed the material universe. In numerology the number 4 resonates with the vibrations and energies of practicality, organization and exactitude, service, patience, devotion, application, pragmatism, dignity, trust, worthiness, endurance, loyalty, mastery, building solid foundations, determination, production and hard work. And are not all these virtues and qualities required of a scribe and illuminator? And, of course, of an artist?Four is also the number of the Gospels and of the Living Creatures in the vision of Ezekiel.The number 4 is not something to play around easily with!

So, what Harpur actually explores in all his works, but most of all in Voices, is that mysterious sphere of creation – a constant struggle between matter and spirit – a struggle that can only find its resolution by annihilating the opposition (and the Self) through the visionary power of the creative Word.

Thus, it is not by chance that the invisible, whispering voice that is heard by the protagonist in Goldworker belongs to Johannes Scotus Eriugena, or John of Ireland, the great Irish Neoplatonic philosopher and theologian, a key figure in early Middle Ages thought, in which I think we can recognize Harpur’s own voice, as well as, perhaps, the contemplations of the illuminator, Goldworker, himself.

Recently Harpur sent me a new version of the first two parts of Voices. In his previous version, the Goldworker is described as recalling his abbot’s advice in order to attain perfection in his creative process. All Goldworker’s doubts and  his fear of not succeeding, find their answer in the sage abbott’s out-of-frame voice. But in this later version, Harpur decided to introduce the voice of Johannes Scotus, who was born in AD 810, that is to say just after the Book of Kells was probably written, the Irish philosopher, a man yet to be born.

Scotus’s great work, On Nature, or De Divisione Naturae, has a four-part structure and this, again, is another mirror of the number four in the poem In this four-parted structure, in fact, Harpur recalls, in many ways, the same quadruple structure of Scotus Eriugena’s magnum opus, Περί φύσεων was its original title, later  translated in the 17th century with the title De divisione naturae (The division of Nature), a dialogue between Master and Pupil. As peculiar as the presence/non presence of Scotus may appear, yet it is crucial to understanding what Harpur’s view of art and creation is. A neoplatonic view, one should say. To him, the process of art and creativity is the same as the process of the soul seeking its way to illumination and understanding. Meditation and vision are the tools. But this process is not an easy one. The same exhausting  path, the same convoluted journey, the same search strewn with doubts and uncertainties. The same quest.  As in the following lines, addressed by Scotus to Goldworker, during a sort of trance – what Ted Hughes called, the ‘sacred trance’, a sort of guided daydream, akin to Jung’s ‘active imagination’ –  in which the illuminator appears to have fallen:

True images arrive from meditation:

As the interfering self falls away

Things surface like stars in a lake

Then fix what you see unflinchingly

And pour it molten into temporal moulds. 

 So, it is through meditation, that is through ascesis, discarding the encùmbrances of the self, that it is possible to see with crystalline clearness the truth of hidden reality, to contemplate it and then, and only then, to represent it in a visible, actual, material form. So the process can not happen through intellectual comprehension, but by attaining the void, emptying the mind, annihilating the self. An emptiness to be filled with the contemplation of the truth. A vision then, a truth that has to be fixed unflinchingly.

Be a void – the voice will in fact whisper this injunction further on. And also Let the spirit surge into the emptiness. The spirit, not the mind. But, for many, be they artists or not,  total emptiness is scary. Fear is thus the only real enemy of art and creation. But of ascesis as well. The menace of the unknown, of that void, of that non-being to be transformed into being,  which is there in front of the artist and of the ascetic, is the same. The challenge is the same.

To Johannes Scotus, true philosophy is true religion and vice versa. In reading  Harpur’s Goldworker, we could paraphrase this assertion with true religion  is true art  and vice versa.

 As the scholar Dermot Moran writes in an article on Scotus Eriugena: “Overall, Eriugena develops a Neoplatonic cosmology according to which the infinite, transcendent and ‘unknown’ God, who is beyond being and non-being, through a process of self-articulation, procession, or ‘self-creation’, proceeds from his divine ‘darkness’ or ‘non-being’ into the light of being, speaking the Word who is understood as Christ, and at the same timeless moment bringing forth the Primary Causes of all creation”

So, light is being and darkness is non-being. And, while reading Voices of the Book of Kells, we will see much of Eriugena’s  Neoplatonic cosmology, as Moran defines it, transformed into poetry and superlative beauty.

It is very interesting to observe at this point, that the  word illumination, meaning in English both a painted image on a parchment and the experience of spiritual enlightenment, has its origin in the Latin lumen, light; and the Latin noun illuminatio, comes from the verb illuminare“to throw into light, make bright, light up”. Visible, that is. In Italian instead an illuminated image is called miniatura, from minium, the red pigment used in manuscripts for the first capital letter of a chapter. What I would like to stress, is that illumination, vision, light and ascesis  are constant elements in Harpur’s poetry. There are, for example, the golden comets in the night sky in the poem, A Vision of Comets; the vision of angels moving through a wheat field in the title poem of his latest book, Angels and Harvesters.

But let’s analyze more closely the object of this talk.

The four characters of Voices of the Book of Kells, namely – Goldworker, Scribe B, Gerald of Wales, and Scribbler –  could be related to the four stages, or phases, both of the creative process and of spiritual evolution. To the eventful struggle of the artist and of the mystic. As Harpur points out, in the lecture he gave at the Loyola Institute  in Dublin, called “The way up and the way down – Two paths to poetry, art and divinity”, (and available on Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8PiZY7m-1g) there are two ways through which man can approach the divine, himself and the world: the negative way and the positive way Via negativa and via positiva. And no doubt that Harpur’s way is the positive way. In Voices, Goldworker and the Scribbler follow the via positiva, while Scribe B and Giraldus the via negativa.

If we consider the four parts, we can detect in each of them the fundamental stages that the soul needs to face along its journey to salvation.



3 – Gerald of Wales: THE OVERWHELMING SELF (a self-obsessed and ambitious ego that prevents  comprehension)


 If we extrapolate Scotus’ words scattered throughout Goldworker  and read them all  in a flow, we will understand what all this means:

Douse your senses, then images will stir (the awakening )

The Spirit must be clothed with line and colour

Haul up from the dark a vision of the whole (all is One. In the One is multiplicity)

Then details will cluster, like bees around clover (cfr Anaximene)

Your painting must shimmer with angels’ skin (sensual reality appears in a multiplicity

Or fish scales, but below the surface                of forms, but its real nature is unity)

Its waters must flow deeper than a well

Let it whirl with Ezekiel’s wheels

Yet be rooted as a reed in a river –        (the deep root is only one)

Let the image reveal its life

As a peacock’s tail staggers apart

And it should be an ark for all creatures

For eagle and lion, salmon and otter

And for the angels, who move unseen among us (See Angels and harvesters)

Nature flows from God, flows back to him – (these are Scotus’ own words)

The pattern will emerge of its own accord

As long as you surrender, let yourself go

You cannot see me because I’m unborn,

My name will be John of Ireland; know this

That creation flows from God, flows back;

Each stone and tree, seed and insect –

If we can see beyond their surface –

Are lanterns to help us find our way home

To where the many melts into one.


But ignore the different instances of nature

Shift beyond their various shapes

To the eternal patterns of the universe

And gaze on the original of every object

Then paint it live, in the splendour of its light.


Your drawings should be diagrams

That lead us upwards to annihilation

As they wipe out the separation of seer and seen

As iron on the anvil absorbs fire

Or sunlight permeates particles of air

True images arrive from meditation:

As the interfering self falls away

Things surface like stars in a lake

Then fix what you see unflinchingly

And pour it molten into temporal moulds

Be a void! Induct eternal life

Through spirals, twists, loops, entanglements

In which the alpha and omega are everywhere

For there’s no start or end, just seamlessness (the discretion of nature and matter is only

This is your chance to incarnate: Christi

autem generatio sic erat –

Loosen the brush and let it rove

Over the page, place trust in it

Don’t shirk from the suspended space

Just float yourself in and all will flow

First the Chi, followed by the Rho


That Voices is the description of a spiritual journey, is very clear when considering its first and last lines:

in Goldworker the poem starts with the voice of the illuminator:


I follow the path inland that fades

In rabbit light and leads to the smoke

Of home, past bracken, furze and boulders

A lurching sheep, its face lamp-black

The froth of its wool flamed by the sun.


And the concluding lines in Scribbler, at the end of the poem, read:

Then higher up I saw a cliff

Long grass spread-eagled by the wind

A beaten path that wound inland

A path that led me on and on.


At the beginning the path inland, in Iona, fades, in a light that is elusive, like the form of a fast running rabbit, leading to a place made hardly visible  by smoke. That is the beginning of a journey whose destination is uncertain.

At the end, that same path inland is clearly visible, beaten, although winding. A path that has to be followed. Thus, beginning and end coincide, the closing of a circle where the non being comes into being in an eternal rotation.

This path is flooded with light – even when light is absent, as its absence stresses its existence, like in Dante’s Divina Commedia. From darkness to light. Each of Harpur’s four characters is bound to follow this path. Each of them needs to overcome his resistance to change and evolution, but only Gerald of Wales fails. Because his fear to let go of the self is stronger than his wish to see. He desperately tries to fill the immense vastness of his inner emptiness – which it is not the void of the ascetic or of the mystic – with  worldly goods, pleasures and ambition. He’s a vain man, lacking courage and determination. Thus he cannot love. And, without love, there is neither art nor spiritual evolution. He refuses to let himself be captured and merged by the light that the Book, which he has been told, has been painted by the angels, irradiates.  He glimpses it, but is scared. To Gerald, sensation is more valuable than feeling.

What happens instead in the last section, Scribbler, is that the platonic archetype – the Word, or the Verbum of the Gospel of John – comes to life from a spontaneous bit of doodling that Scribbler is indulging in, and enters the  material world, in the form of a beautiful woman, who then begins to speak to him.

Here we are indeed in the realm of the platonic ὑπερουράνιον τόπον, the place of Forms, of Ideas. There every change, every motion is absent, as it was absent in the woman figure scribbled by the poet. But the Word starts moving when she descends into the world of matter. Contemplating and listening to her is what the artist does. But what is of fundamental importance is actually that this Form emerges from within him. It is something that wells up spontaneously in him; it does not come as an act of will, but from his subconscious, after he has seen the Book of Kells. And it is this grace-given vision that triggers the inspiration the poet had lost.

I think it’s important to observe that the apparent remoteness of the medieval world and culture that Harpur writes about, is not so remote and  has a lot to do with us. For, in writing about mystics and prophets, about saints and sinners, about oracles, diviners and philosophers from the past, Harpur is actually writing about us, about our troubled times, when great changes are taking place. And times of change are never painless. It’s like a delivery. They give birth to something new.

Harpur’s Voices, no less than the whole of his poetry, reveals in front of our spiritual eyes fearful abysses and inaccessible heights. Will we ever be able to follow him there?

But why then, don’t we take John of Ireland’s advise to the Goldworker?  Just make the start, the rest will flow….

(C)2015 by Francesca Diano RIPRODUZIONE RISERVATA

The Sacro Monte of Orta, where part of the Festival took place

The Sacro Monte of Orta, where part of the Festival took place