Celebrated around the world, The Divine Comedy, completed in 1321 and written by Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) is widely considered the greatest work ever written in the Italian language. The epic poem describes Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, representing, on a deeper level, the soul’s path towards salvation. This post explores illustrators and artists who have depicted Dante’s masterpiece in the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries.
John Flaxman (1793)
In 1793 Flaxman created 110 line drawings of Dante’s Commedia for Thomas Hope, an English aristocrat who had commissioned him to produce the illustrations. This collection of works was reissued in 1807 under the title, Compositions from the Divine Poem of Dante. Upon seeing the drawings, the talented Fuseli, who had charge of the Royal Academy collections, declared himself outdone, and Canova extolled them. Lord Byron, speaking of the Dante drawings, said that Flaxman’s designs constituted the best translation of the Italian poet’s work, and the ponderous philosopher Schlegel, chief among German critics of the time, also lauded the drawings in his most vehement Teutonic manner. In after years, when he was the artistic oracle of fashionable London, Flaxman as sured his auditors that the most successful of his figures displayed in his illustrations of Homer, AEschylus and Dante were procured from innocent street vagrants and similarly natural and unsophisticated sources. The drawings are, in deed, instinct with inspiration and animation which only nature can give, but he carefully studied classic sources as well. The designs have the inexhaustible gift of suggestion that the old vase drawings can boast of, but although he made their beauties his own, and his designs are archaeologically correct, they are never mere pastiches of Greek originals. He , handles this antique world in a wonderfully penetrative way, as though he enjoyed some subtle affinity with Hellenism, and all the works are characterized by a serene vigor and placid elegance which easily justify their universal celebrity.
William Blake (1824)
In 1826, at age 65, Blake received a commission to illustrate Dante’s Divine Comedy thanks to John Linnell — a young artist he had befriended, who shared with Blake a defiance of modern trends and a belief in a spiritualism as an artistic foundation for the New Age.
The Dante series occupied Romantic poet and artist William Blake’s last years of life; even when too weak to get out of bed he worked on, propped up with the great drawing book before him. He sketched a hundred designs, but left all incomplete, some very greatly so, and partly engraved seven plates, of which the Francesca and Paolo is the most finished. All in this great series are in some measure powerful and moving, and not, as it is customary to say of the work of Blake, because a flaming imagination pierces through a cloudy and indecisive technique, but because they have the only excellence possible in any art, a mastery over artistic expression. The technique of Blake was imperfect, incomplete, as is the technique of well nigh all artists who have striven to bring fires from remote summits ; but where his imagination is perfect and complete, his technique has a like perfection, a like completeness. He strove to embody more subtle raptures, more elaborate intuitions than any before him ; his imagination and technique are more broken and strained under a great burden than the imagination and technique of any other master. “I am,” wrote Blake, ” like others, just equal in invention and execution.” And again, ” No man can improve an original invention ; nor can an original invention exist without execution, organized, delineated, and articulated either by God or man. . . . I have heard people say, ‘ Give me the ideas ; it is no matter what words you put them into ; ‘ and others say, ‘ Give me the design ; it is no matter for the execution.’ Ideas cannot be given but in their minutely appropriate words, nor can a design be made without its minutely appropriate execution.”
William Bouguereau (1850)
Having failed on two occasions to win the Prix de Rome (1848 and 1849), Bouguereau was hungry for revenge. His early submissions to the Salon reveal this fierce desire to succeed. After his ambitious Equality before Death (1849), the young man aimed to create an impression once again. He put forward an even larger painting inspired by Dante whose work was much loved by the Romantics and who captured all its dramatic beauty. This painting was inspired by Canto VII. Dante and Virgil encounter falsifiers, which include alchemists, counterfeiters, perjurers, and imposters. Capocchio, a heretic and alchemist, is attacked and bitten on the neck by Gianni Schicchi, who had usurped the identity of a dead man to fraudulently claim his inheritance.
The critic and poet Théophile Gautier was very complimentary: “Gianni Schicchi throws himself at Capocchio, his rival, with a strange fury, and 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!”
Gustave Dore (1860)
One of the lesser known facts about Doré is that he crafted his first illustrations of Dante’s masterpiece at the tender age of ten. After seeing the opera “Robert le Diable, Dore’s love for the supernatural and demoniac began to develop. For a while he drew nothing but scenes in the infernal regions, fallen angels, demons, spectres, goblins, and fiends, in every imaginable shape and form.
During the autumn of 1855 Dore began his study of Dante; for, contrary to his custom, he did not attempt this great enterprise without careful and elaborate preparation. He was a fairly good Latin scholar, but could neither read nor speak Italian ; so he was obliged to read Dante in translation. The rendering he illustrated is probably the one he studied. Working thus, Dore had to work very hard to garner Dante’s actual meaning. Remarkably, Dore finished his illustrations in one year at the age of 23, but they were not published until several years later. Upon completion, no publisher would accept his ” Inferno.” After waiting until patience ceased to be a virtue, he brought it out at his own expense as documented in his notes. The cost of the blocks alone ran over three guineas apiece, and there were seventy-three illustrations, not including a head of Dante facing the frontispiece. This sum, added to the engraver’s fees, and expense of paper, printing, binding, etc, made up a formidable sum for any young artist to risk upon the production of an initiative work.
Upon first glimpsing the work, M. Gautier of the Paris Moniteur Universel wrote on August, 1861:
No artist could be better qualified than M. Gustave Dore to illustrate Dante. Besides his talent for composition and drawing, he possesses that visionary eye of which poets speak, which knows how to detect the secret and curious aspects of Nature. He sees things by their quaintest, most fantastic, and mysterious angle. His vertiginous pencil, as if in sport, creates those imperceptible deviations which impart a spectral appearance to man and a human aspect to a tree, make the latter’s roots resemble the hideous writhings of snakes, and plants assume the alarming contortions of the mandrake; whilst clouds take ambiguous forms and changing colors, in which Polonius, bent upon pleasing Hamlet, complacently discovers a camel, a weasel, or a whale; waters glitter with the gloomy sheen of steel, or are fretted with frothy wrinkles, and mountains display those face irregularities which imagination sculptures in bold relief. That which strikes us on the first glance at the Dantesque illustrations of Gustave Dore is the locality of the scenes he depicts, which have nothing in common with the aspect of our sublunary world. The artist has invented the climate of hell, subterranean mountains and landscapes; a murky atmosphere upon which no sun has ever shone, lighted up by the reflection of a central fire; thick streams resembling torrents of lava, and, in the cold circle, an infernal Spitzberg more utterly frozen than congealed quicksilver, the ice of which burns one’s fingers like red-hot iron. This supernatural climate he keeps up with incredibly logical rigor and verisimilitude of detail.
Jean-Édouard Dargent (1870)
John Edward said Yan Dargent ‘Dargent (Saint-Servais, October 15, 1824 – Paris, November 19, 1899) is a French painter and illustrator whose most of the pictorial work is dedicated to his native Brittany. Dargent’s interpretation of Dante’s masterpiece (Garnier editions) came on the heels of Doré’s famed etchings. Self taught, Dargent’s artistic style feels more crude in comparison to Doré’s but also more savage. The details of this lesser known artist’s illustrations are magnificent. On an unrelated note, when Dargent’s remains were exhumed in 1907, his body had not decomposed.
Auguste Rodin (1880)
Rodin claimed that he never went anywhere without a copy the Divine Comedy in his pocket. This French sculptor was fascinated by Dante’s ability to “sculpt” his characters through language. The work that bound Rodin to Dante is the Gates of Hell. It was commissioned in 1880 and remains unfinished.The ‘Gate of Hell’ was intended originally to be a door in high relief, with frieze, tympanum and wide lateral capitals, after the manner of the gates of the Baptistery at Florence; and on the door and the uprights were groups of small figures, mainly taken, at first, from Dante. The three tragic Shades crowned the highest plane, while below the fateful three sat the ‘ Penseur,’ meditating on the endless confused drama of love, sorrow, passion, and distress of human life.
During his visit to Italy in 1875 Rodin may first have conceived the idea of paralleling in monumental sculpture the terrible Inferno of the great Italian poet Dante, with whom the sculptor may claim a spiritual kinship. Cer tainly in the design of the Gate of Hell, in the little groups or scenes separated one from the other by seething wisps of vapor, and in the figured richness of the framework, there is a reminiscence of the bronze doors of the Florentine Baptistry.
Amos Nattini (1921)
In 1921, on the occasion of the 600th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death, the Istituto Nazionale Dantesco in Milan commissioned a new, illustrated edition of the poet’s Divine Comedy. The artist chosen was self-taught artist Amos Nattini, who was charged with creating one plate for each canto. For the next twenty years, Nattini worked on his Dante, releasing each of the three volumes are they were completed in 1928, 1936, and finally 1941. Needless to say this edition of Dante is very valuable and very rare. One can be found in Princeton University.
Franz Von Bayros (1921)
Marquis Franz von Bayros (1866 – 1924), also known by his pseudonym Choisy Le Conin, was an Austrian artist and son of a Spanish nobleman. He is known for his erotic illustrations for the Decadence Movement, his early Art Nouveau style which follows in the footstep of Aubrey Beardsley, and was probably one of the earliest artists who could be described as including fetish themes in his art, essentially becoming the first “fetish artist.”
In 1886, at 17, he studied at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, where both Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele were to later study, and became close with Johann Strauss and his circle of friends. Not much else is known about his time at the Academy. In 1896 he married a step daughter of Johann Strauss and then moved to Munich in 1897.
His Dante illustrations are richly detailed with a pre-Raphaelite flare in which can be seen the influences of Gustav Klimt, Alphonse Mucha and Koloman Moser, which marked the birth of the new century.
Salvador Dali (1951)
During the 1950s, Salvador Dalí was commissioned by the Italian government to create a series of works commemorating the 700th anniversary of Dante’s birth. When word got out that a Spaniard, not an Italian was to take the commission the public was outraged. Unphazed, Dalí pushed forward on his own to complete the series, and found enthusiastic support from the French publisher Joseph Forét. The project was completed by the French publishing firm Les Heures Claires, which released Dalí’s work in 1965 as a set of limited edition prints to accompany a letter-pressed, six-volume set of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The prints consist of one hundred color woodcuts, which carefully recreate Dalí’s watercolors, capturing their subtle washes of color and delicate linear drawing. It took the woodcut artists over five years to hand-carve 3,500 wooden blocks. Throughout the printing process, anywhere from twenty to as many as thirty-seven separate blocks were needed to reproduce each individual watercolor.
Dalí’s metaphorical illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy are centered on the psychological and the surreal, focusing on dreams and symbols, consciousness and subconsciousness. Crutches, bones perforating skin, soft or crystallized bodies, scatological and cannibalistic metamorphoses abound in his interpretation of the medieval text.
Robert Rauschenberg (1960)
Robert Rauschenberg (October 22, 1925 – May 12, 2008) was an American painter and graphic artist whose early works anticipated the pop art movement. Rauschenberg is well known for his “Combines” of the 1950s, in which non-traditional materials and objects were employed in innovative combinations. Rauschenberg was both a painter and a sculptor and the Combines are a combination of both, but he also worked with photography, printmaking, papermaking, and performance.
Rauchenberg’s unique take on Dante’s Inferno was the series of thirty-four drawings illustrating each canto of Dante’s Inferno, the completion of which occupied him, at extended intervals, from mid 1958 well into 1960. It was through the Dante series that Rauschenberg fully exploited the process of photographic transfer, in this instance a direct and rather primitive use of solvent to dissolve the ink from a magazine or newspaper photograph to the paper underneath.