Pharmakeia – front cover: ‘Dante and Virgil in Hell,’ by William-Adolphe Bouguereau


The image for the front cover of Pharmakeia comes from the oil on canvass painting,’Dante and Virgil in Hell,’ by the French painter, William-Adolphe Bouguereau. It was painted in 1850 and can currently be viewed at Musee d’ Orsay in Paris. The scene depicted in this painting was inspired from a short scene from the Dante’s fourteenth century epic poem, ‘Inferno’, set in the eighth circle of Hell, where Dante, accompanied by Virgil, watches a fight between two damned souls. The critic and poet, Theophile Gautier was very complimentary about the painting, stating, ‘Monsieur Bouguereau depicts magnificently through muscles, nerves, tendons and teeth, the struggle between the two combatants. There is bitterness and strength in this canvas – strength, a rare quality!’

My good friend, Sina Shamsavari, who I dedicate Pharmakeia to, first suggested using this image for the front cover of the book. I submitted the idea to Curved House publishing company who looked into it and got back to me with the news that the image was in the public domain so we could use it! I thought it related well to some of the themes in the book – namely temptation and transgression – which in the Christian grand narrative presupposes damnation! (Although in Pharmakeia, Mahvand is not damned – but you could argue that by the end of the narrative he is suitably punished for his transgressions/crimes!) I also thought there was a certain homoeroticism in the image, albeit somewhat ‘devilish’, which would reflect the transgressive sexual relationship between Jean-Baptiste and Mahvand.

Moreover, in Chapter One, ‘Forked Tongue’, set at the Literary salon in Bethnal Green, when ‘Belial’ ,aka Jean-Baptiste, performs his epic poem on stage, he makes reference to Dante’s ‘Inferno’:

‘Finding myself (I won’t say how)

In that dark wood,

Not quite halfway on life’s journey,

I must confess, dear Dante

No leopard, she-wolf, nor lion saw I,

Nor virtuous pagan poet, nor philosopher of old,

Virgil, Socrates, Ovid

Wandering in limbo

As you self-righteously fortold..’



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