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The Infernal Art of Dante's Divine Comedy

In honor of the 700th anniversary of the Italian poet's death, we look at illustrations of his famous magnum opus, from medieval masterworks to contemporary renditions.

Domenico di Michelino, La commedia illumina Firenze (The Comedy Illuminating Florence), 1456, fresco, Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence

September 14, 2021, marks seven hundred years since Dante Alighieri laid down his pen and bid farewell to this mortal coil. The 14 th century Tuscan poet left behind an epic that would continue to fascinate and terrify readers to this very day. Sacred and profane, visceral and enlightening, The Divine Comedy, which consists of the three parts of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, has been an inexhaustible source of inspiration for a plethora of artists and writers since its inception. This especially being true of the first of its three volumes: the Inferno. Dante's bleak and doleful vision of Hell has had such a profound effect on artists, that according to legend, it holds some sort of preternatural power, that those who feel compelled to create illustrations from its pages, not unlike Dante himself in the opening pages of the Inferno, often find themselves in strange and surreal situations. Whether there is any truth to this particular legend is something that cannot be either proven or disproven, but Dante's poetic masterpiece has certainly been the reason for countless paintings, sculptures, and illustrations to be created the world over for centuries, by artists that often possess an almost obsessive fixation with the first volume. From Sandro Botticelli to Salvador Dalí, the infernal art of Dante's Divine Comedy is a stygian delight for the lover of literature and art alike.

Sandro Botticelli, Mappa dell'Inferno (Map of Hell), c. 1485, coloured drawing on goat-skin parchment, Vatican Library, Rome

Botticelli's Mappa dell'Inferno is one of the most well-known pieces of art to be created from The Divine Comedy and can still often be found rearing its head in modern times. Created as part of a commission for the famed Medici family of Renaissance Florence, Botticelli's depiction of Dante's nine circles of Hell is a profoundly intricate and beautifully rendered portrayal of the underworld. But its fame - or perhaps more accurately infamy - is not solely a product of the 15 th century drawing being attributed to a master, it's much more sinister than that. Mappa dell'Inferno turns Satan's realm into something almost tangible, it pulls inferno from some guilt-ridden and fearful recess of the mind, and sets it before our eyes in the realm of the everyday, giving it subsequent verisimilitude, a seemingly literal architectural blueprint for the myriad punishments which one may very well find themselves bestowed upon their dying day - a thought which would have absolutely terrified Renaissance Florentines and the countless other souls who would gaze upon it in the coming centuries.

William Blake, The Vestibule of Hell and the Souls Mustering to Cross the Acheron, c. 1824-27, watercolour on paper, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

William Blake died in 1827, while still in the throes of completing his watercolor illustrations for The Divine Comedy. He had been commissioned during the previous years to produce what was initially planned to become a series of engravings for patron John Linnell. Even though the project was cut short, with only several engravings making it to production, Blake's illustrations have been met with lavishly high praise. Blake's illustrations to The Divine Comedy may be less classical in sensibility than those created by other artists, but there is certainly an intensely unsettling energy found in his series of watercolors.

Salvador Dalí, The Logician Devil, 1951, colour woodcut, from the Divine Comedie, published by Les Heures Claires, Paris, 1960

The year 1950 marked the 700 th anniversary of Dante's birth. To celebrate this, the Italian government decided to commission Salvador Dalí with illustrating The Divine Comedy. This move to grant the commission of the illustration of one the nation's finest pieces of poetic literature to a Spanish surrealist came after Dalí's success the previous year with his painting The Madonna of Port Lligat, which was presented to Pope Pius XII during a private audience. This was a rather strange move on both parties' parts, considering that Dalí had professed himself "a Surrealist void of all moral values" and had paintings with such ti

tles as The Great Masturbator. It is not surprising that the decision to commission Dalí was met with criticism, with some inside government considering it a crime against the state. This led the Italian government to cancel the commission and the subsequent exhibition of Dalí's watercolors, which was planned to take place in Rome. Since the artist was already in the midst of completing the commission and had become somewhat enraptured with the work of Dante, he sought to have the project published elsewhere. In 1959, French publisher Joseph Forêt agreed to publish Dalí's watercolors accompanying The Divine Comedy, with release the following year. Dalí's visual interpretation of Dante's epic poem works exceedingly well, and presents a, not surprisingly, more abstract angle.

Auguste Rodin, The Gates of Hell, 1880-1917, bronze sculpture, Kunsthaus Zürich, photo by Roland Zh

French sculptor Auguste Rodin's connections to the Inferno run deep and are known to many by his piece The Three Shades, which depicts three morose figures posed in shared sorrow, who in Inferno stand at the entrance to Hell and point to the infamous inscription, which includes the line, " Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." What is less known is that a number of his highly revered sculptures also have ties to Dante's magnum opus. Although nothing in the sculpture's title gives away its inspiration, Rodin's The Kiss, was originally called Francesca da Rimini, after the female half of the unfortunate lovers found in Canto V of Inferno. Both The Three Shades and The Kiss, along with The Thinker, had their genesis in Rodin's unfinished monumental sculptural group work The Gates of Hell, which was commissioned in 1880, for the never-built Decorative Arts Museum in France.

Marc Burckhardt, Canto 13: A Harpie, 2016, acrylic and oil on wood panel, from Dante's Inferno published by Easton Press, image courtesy of the artist

Marc Burckhardt's illustrations to the Inferno are exquisitely rendered and hold up against the classical artistic interpretations of centuries past. They feel both modern and ancient, and plunge the viewer into the depths of Dante's abyss with style and grace. Meeting exceptionally high praise for his work on Inferno, Burckhardt is currently working on illustrating the following two parts of The Divine Comedy - Purgatory and Paradiso.

Gustave Doré, SCHISMATICS-MAHOMET, c. 1857-61, wood engraving illustration from The Divine Comedy

Illustrating The Divine Comedy was a project that Gustave Doré was extremely passionate about. He first conceived the idea to illustrate a large folio edition in 1855 and spent the next two years laboriously studying a French translation of the Italian, since the latter was a language completely foreign to him. He began work on the illustrating Inferno in 1857, but when he had completed the undertaking unfortunately found that no publisher was willing to take on the task of producing such a large folio, as the sale price would simply be too high to warrant it. Refusing to be deterred, Doré published the folio using funds from his own pocket in 1861. His illustrations were immediately met with the highest of praise, with many declaring that Doré had surpassed Botticelli as the ultimate illustrator of Dante. No small claim by any stretch, and one that Doré was well and truly worthy of. His depictions of Hell are masterfully executed and evoke the classical sensibilities of the epic poem perfectly. Dante was heavily influenced by the epics of ancient Greece and Rome, so much so that none other than Virgil himself guides Dante through Inferno and Purgatorio in order to safely deliver him to Paradiso. Many of Doré's illustrations are so precise in invoking these classical influences, that one gets a similar feeling studying the fine lines of his black and white plates as to looking upon the ancient Mediterranean statues that were created during the period that so inspired Dante.

Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of Dante, 1495, tempura, private collection

One of the most enduring aspects of Dante's Divine Comedy is its theme of the inevitability of descending into darkness in order to find oneself in light once again. It is a concept so pertinent to the human condition, and one that will ensure that the Inferno will continue to be an inexhaustible well of inspiration for artists as long as mankind still remains upon this already-dying earth.

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