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Dante and Beatrice Come to Life in Paint

`AN artist of exceptional visionary quality'' is the way the authority on Italian Renaissance art John Pope-Hennessy describes Giovanni di Paolo. In the middle of the 15th century, this Sienese artist illustrated, with a blend of devoutness and naivete, the third and final part of the ``Divine Comedy,'' Dante's great poem.

Now, with an essay and commentary by Pope-Hennessy, the brilliantly colored illuminations for the ``Paradiso'' are published in facsimiles of fine quality and hue for the first time.

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For devotees of the refreshing directness that characterizes such early Renaissance art, and Giovanni di Paolo in particular, this new volume presents an opportunity to enjoy at leisure one of the great treasures of the British Library in London.

Readers can follow Dante and Beatrice, who appear in the blue sky above delightful landscapes page after page, flying figures moving through the spheres. The images are a ``record'' of a ``journey through space and time,'' an account of Dante's spiritual and imaginative migrations.

``A revolution in Dante illustration'' according to Pope-Hennessy, these vivid, entrancing little pictures are fanciful and literal by turns, picturing symbols and events chosen by the artist out of a poem that was difficult for artists to illustrate.

The author concludes that Giovanni di Paolo's illustrations ``induce those who look on them to follow Dante's journey and embark on a reading of the poem of which they are the visual counterpart.''

Obligingly, the text of the ``Paradiso,'' in the elucidating and moving English version by Charles Singleton, completes this irresistible book.

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