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The Divine Comedy in Art

14th -16th Centuries

The Divine Comedy (La Divina Commedia) is an epic poem by Dante Alighieri that begun in 1308 and was completed one year before the poet’s death in 1320. The Commedia is a universal literary masterpiece that has enthralled readers (and artists) for almost 700 years. The poem, which is divided in three parts (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso), presents an imaginative vision of the afterlife that is representative of the ethics, religion and politics of the 14th Century.

In Dante’s time there were two major political factions; the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. The Ghibellines were a faction that supported the Medieval aristocracy, who wished to retain the power of the Holy Roman Emperor in Italy (and Europe), while the Guelphs, to whom Dante belonged, supported the middle class, merchants, bankers, new landowners and the papacy. The Ghibellines labored to keep feudal powers in place and fought against the powers of the church.

The rivalry between the two parties divided not just cities, but also entire families. Guelphs wanted a united Italy while Ghibellines sought to maintain the city-state status quo. In Dante’s time the fighting between the two groups reached a fever pitch. Though Dante admired Farinata, the Ghibelline leader of Florence, he was nonetheless placed in the circle of Hell reserved for Heretics. In the Divine Comedy Dante makes little differentiation between his philosophical views and political ones. The enemy was always three things: politically, philosophically and theologically WRONG – and thus, a Heretic.

The Divine Comedy presents the modern reader with enormous problems. The reader is faced with a different culture, different time period, different religion (Medieval Catholicism is not the same as modern Catholicism), a different political system dominated by the papacy and finally a slew of allegorical and symbolic passages that befuddle the modern reader. As if all this weren’t challenging enough, the poem boasts two Dantes. Dante the Poet is a moralistic individual who acts as the supreme judge and decides who belongs in Hell and in which circle. Dante the Pilgrim is a man who has been lost in a dark wood, and is sympathetic to others who have strayed from the right path.

The good news is that Dante’s hallucinatory journey through hell has captivated many an artistic mind. Through the centuries, talented artists from all walks of life have tackled the cantos with gusto. Presented here is a small sampling of the editions of the books that survive from the 14th Century through the 16th.

Early Manuscripts

According to the Italian Dante Society, none of the manuscripts written by Dante have survived, but they do have over 800 copies from the 14th and 15th Centuries in their archives. The first edition was published in Foligno, Italy by Johann Numeister and Evangelista Angelini da Trevi on April 11th, 1472. Of the 300 copies printed, fourteen still survive. The original printing press is on display in the Oratorio della Nunziatella in Foligno (add that to my travel bucket list)!

Giovanni Boccaccio

Another beautiful example of an early Commedia is located in the collection of the Biblioteca Riccardiana and was copied in the hand of Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–75). Boccaccio illustrated the manuscript with five pen drawings in the lower margin of a series of leaves in theInferno. These images were authenticated in 1992 by the noted Florentine scholar Maria Grazia Ciardi Duprè dal Poggetto. The most complete drawing depicts Dante in conversation with Virgil, set in a landscape of trees and mountains, populated by a lion, a leopard, and a wolf, suggesting the motif of the “peaceable kingdom.” According to Ciardi Duprè, the images are consistent with others known to be by Boccaccio.

16th Century Editions

Giunti Edition (1506)

One of the rarest and most significant editions of the Divine Comedy is the Giunti Edition (commonly referred to as the Giuntina Dante). Printed in 1506, the text was prepared by the greatest living Florentine poet of the time, Girolamo Benivieni (1453-1542) who possessed a deep knowledge of the poem and the religious sensibilities of Dante’s time.  The work’s publisher, Filippo Giunti (c. 1456-1517) was the head of the Florentine branch of a celebrated family of printers. His brother Lucantonio had been established as a bookseller in Venice since1477, while a nephew worked in Lyons. The Giunti house and shop in Florence was located near the chapel of S. Biagio at Badia. His production from 1497 to 1514 featured Latin and vernacular octavo editions printed in an italic close to that made popular by Aldus. In fact, around 1507, Aldus, who had obtained exclusive rights to the use of his italic type from both the Venetian senate and the papacy, sued Filippo Giunti for copyright infringement. While Giunti did not stop printing in italic, he does seem to have avoided Aldus’ titles after that date.

Sandro Botticelli (c. 1550)

Lorenzo de Medici was powerful, wealthy, and ruthless to his enemies, but he was also a poet and a patron of the arts. Through Lorenzo’s means, many an artist became known. He commissioned or sponsored 15th Century artistic geniuses such as Michelangelo Buonaroti and Leonardo da Vinci. Among Lorenzo’s friends was a painter whom history forgot until the late 19th Century: Sandro Botticelli.Botticelli, who was a scholar and a great fan of the Divine Comedy, promised his patron Lorenzo, an illustrated Divine Comedy on sheepskin with a separate image for each Canto–something no artist had yet attempted. 92 of those illustrations survive, in various stages of completion.

Edizioni del Gran Naso (1564)

The Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections Department at Brandeis has a few manuscripts on file that are absolutely stunning such as the 1564 edition of the Commedia from Arévalo, Spain. In this edition, the poem is accompanied by commentaries from Christoforo Landino, Allesandro Vellutello, and Francesco Sansovino, all of whom were well-known Dante critics. Even more surprising are the passages that were expurgated by a Spanish Inquisition cleric. This edition of the Divine Comedy is the first of three published by the Sessa family of Venetian printers. The title page bears a portrait of Dante by Giorgio Vasari which is known as Edizioni del Gran Naso, because of Dante’s enormous nose. The Sessas must have been cat people. On the last page of this magnificent edition is their printer’s mark: A cat sitting on a pillow with a cat in his mouth. The woodcuts are lovely.

Johannes Stradanus (1587)

One of the more frightening depictions of hell was accomplished by Flemish artist Johannes Stradanus in 1587. Rendered in watercolor, sepia, pen and ink, Stradanus paints a truly disturbing tableau of images. Click here to see more images.

Though I have listed only a few of the many artists that rendered scenes for Dante’s famous book, there are many notable others like Venetian scholar Alessandro Vellutello, Federico Zuccari who painted amazing scenes inside the Duomo of Florence,Lucas Signorelli whose work later influenced Michelangelo, and others.

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