What is to be visually represented?
First take a look at Por que Comedia? Specially in the meanings. Wrapping up:
Dante’s idea on his subject comes to us in a letter he sent to his most revered benefactor, Cangrande della Scala, when he was in exile. There is an English version of this letter that can be seen at:
As Dr. Johansen Quijano explains, this letter boils down to the frames:
Literal – “This is that sense which does not go beyond the strict limits of the letter” (What it is)
Allegorical – “This is disguised under the cloak of such stories, and is truth hidden under a beautiful fiction.” (What the text means, cultural context)
Moral – “This sense is that for which teachers ought as they go through writings intently to watch for their own profit and that of their hearers.” (What we can get out of it)
Anagogical – “This occurs when a writing is spiritually expounded which even in the literal sense by the things signified likewise gives intimation of higher matters belonging to the eternal glory.” (What we can get in a spiritual sense)
From it’s inception, there were at least two main circumstances which an artist would represent visually Dante’s works: Either he was commissioned to do so, or his art would be inspired or recall visually Dante’s masterpiece.
Commissioned Artists (on a tentative time line)
The British Library’s Yates Thompson 36 is one of the finest Italian illuminated manuscripts of the Comedy The codex was produced in Siena during the middle of the 15th century ( 1444 – 1450). While there are no details concerning who commissioned this work, the codex belonged to Alfonso V, king of Aragon, Naples, and Sicily. The codex includes 110 large miniatures and three historiated initials. Consisting of rectangular miniatures, each illumination is surrounded by an ornamental border which varies in design. Priamo della Quercia executed the illuminations for the Inferno and Purgatorio and all three historiated initials, Giovanni di Paolo those for Paradiso. This makes for two distinctly different styles: Priamo’s work reflects the more realistic style of late fifteenth-century Florentine painting, an influence which is particularly noticeable in his use of contours and outlines in the depiction of nudes. Giovanni di Paolo’s style is closer to that of late fourteenth-century Sienese artists. His illustrations of the Paradiso are greatly admired for their visual interpretation of the poem: the artist doesn’t just transcribe Dante’s words but seeks to render their meaning. Reproduced below are 66 of the codex’s 115 illuminations.
Suggested reading: A Sienese Codex of the Divine Comedy, ed. John Pope-Hennessy (Oxford and London: Phaidon, 1947.)
Alessandro Vellutello was a Lucchese intellectual active in Venice from about 1515. In 1544 he published his commentary, La Comedia di Dante Alighieri con la nova esposizione with the printer Francesco Marcolini. Antonfrancesco Doni notes in his 1550 Libraria, Vellutello “strained his mind, expenses and expended considerable time” in having the 87 illustrations engraved. Possibly executed by Giovanni Britto, who worked as an engraver for Marcolini, these illustrations are the most distinctive Renaissance renditions of the poem after Botticelli’s. Each scene records one or more scenes from the cantos illustrated. For the Inferno, the illustrator uses a striking a circular design and aerial-like perspective. Unlike the majority of illustrations which accompany sixteenth-century printed editions of the Commedia, these depictions are closely related to Vellutello’s glosses. The illustrations seek to render the narrative accurately, much as Vellutello’s exposition seeks to do.
Botticelli’s Chart of Hell (c.1485–c.1500) has long been lauded as one of the most compelling visual representations of Dante’s Inferno.
The chart is one of ninety illustrations which the artist (1445–1510) executed for a lavish codex of the Commedia commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, the cousin and ward of Lorenzo de’ Medici. Botticelli likely began work on the Dante illustrations in the mid-1480s and finished them in the mid-1490s. Executed during a period of considerable interest in infernal cartography, Botticelli’s Chart of Hell furnishes a panoptic display of the descent made by Dante and Virgil through the “abysmal valley of pain”
It can be seen at Botticelli’s Chart of Hell
- you have to enable your flash player, it is useless to upgrade as it says. You should paste the above adress allowing it to run, which you can copy from here http://www.worldofdante.org/dantemap_interactive.html
Though Botticelli now enjoys a world-wide reputation as perhaps the most famous early Renaissance artist, his paintings were highly esteemed for only about a quarter century during his lifetime, from the early 1470s through the mid 1490s, and primarily in one city, his native Florence. By the time of his death Botticelli had fallen out of fashion and remained largely forgotten until his rediscovery in the late nineteenth century. From that time on, he has been appreciated primarily for the delicacy, gracefulness, and linear beauty of his mythological works from the 1480s, the Primavera and the Birth of Venus. Both of these works reveal not only Botticelli’s poetic sensibilities, but his contact with Florentine poets
Giorgio Vasari, our most important early source on Botticelli, wrote in 1550 that “Since Botticelli was a learned man, he wrote a commentary on part of Dante’s poem, and after illustrating the Inferno, he printed the work.” Vasari refers Botticelli’s drawings for some of the engravings by Baccio Baldini that adorned the first edition of the Divine Comedypublished in Florence, in 1481, with commentary by Cristoforo Landino. Botticelli also painted a portrait of the poet, probably to adorn the library of a scholar. These two projects reflect the revival of interest in Dante in late fifteenth-century Florence.
An anonymous author, writing in about 1540, informs us that Botticelli “painted and illustrated a Dante on sheepskin for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici [who also owned the Primavera] which was held to be something marvelous.” He refers to an extraordinarily ambitious and original project. Whereas previous artists had decorated manuscripts of the Divine Comedy, usually with small images of a few key scenes that appeared on the same page as the text, Botticelli planned to illustrate every canto. Moreover, the drawings are very large, arranged horizontally (unlike most books) and full the entire smooth (flesh) side of the parchment. Originally, the images could be seen together with the text, written by Niccolò Mangona on the opposite (rough) side of the parchment. Of this project 92 parchment sheets survive, divided between Berlin and the Vatican. Botticelli completed the outline drawings for nearly all the cantos, but only added colors for a few. The artist shows his “learning” and artistic skill by representing each of the three realms each in a distinctive way. More than his contemporaries, Botticelli was extremely faithful to Dante’s text. Moreover, especially in the teaming, bewildering images of the Inferno, he included a large number of scenes for each canto. For the Purgatorio, Botticelli was somewhat more selective and made greater use of “rational” perspective: for the Paradiso, his simplified drawings capture the ethereal nature of the text. Botticelli also created a highly detailed cross section map of the underworld, and a frightening portrayal of Satan on a double sheet.
Jonathan K. Nelson Syracuse University in Florence
An English sculptor and illustrator, John Flaxman’s interest in the arts began at an early age. He learned modeling from his father, a plaster-case maker and began studying at the Royal Academy at the age of fifteen. In 1787-1794 Flaxman studied classical art in Rome.
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. These drawings are known for their spare simplicity of line and composition. Classical in spirit they have none of the moodier, tempestuous qualities of Henry Fuseli’s depictions of Dante. Flaxman’s Dante drawings are reminiscent of bas-reliefs, his outline contours reveal little sense of the bodies of figures, much less any effort to capture the vitality and emotional nuances of Dante’s descriptions. While not as compelling and captivating as Doré’s engravings, Flaxman’s illustrations influenced many later artists, among them Blake, Genelli, Pinelli, Girodet, David and Koch. David in particular admired the “sublime naivite” of Flaxman’s drawings. Along with other artists such as Joshua Reynolds, Henry Fuseli, and Jacques-Louis David, Flaxman forms part of a long line of eighteenth-century artists greatly inspired by Dante’s rich visual imagination.
Gustave Doré’s (1832-1883) illustrations and Dante’s Divine Comedy have become so intimately connected that even today, nearly 150 years after their initial publication, the artist’s rendering of the poet’s text still determines our vision of the Commedia. Planned by Doré as early as 1855, the Dante illustrations were the first in a series he referred to as the “chefs-d’oeuvre de la littérature.” In addition to Dante, Doré’s list of illustrated great works included Homer, Ossian, Byron, Goethe, Racine, and Corneille. The placement of Dante’s Commedia at the top of this list reflects the poet’s popularity within mainstream French culture by the 1850s. While France’s initial interest in Dante was confined to the episodes of Paolo and Francesca (Inf.5) and Ugolino (Inf.33), the 19th century saw an expansion of interest in Dante’s work which resulted in numerous translations of the Commedia into French, critical studies,newspapers, and specialized journals, and over 200 works of painting and sculpture between 1800-1930. Doré’s choice of Dante’sInferno as the first of his proposed series of illustrated masterpieces of literature reflects the extent to which Dante had attained popular appeal in France by the 1860s.
Finding it difficult to secure a publisher willing to take on the expense of producing the expensive folio edition the artist envisioned, Doré himself financed the publication of the first book of the series, Inferno, in 1861. The production was an immediate artistic and commercial success. Buoyed by the popularity of Doré’s edition of the Inferno, Hachette published Purgatorio and Paradiso in 1868 as a single volume. Subsequently, Doré’s Dante illustrations appeared in roughly 200 editions, with translations from the poet’s original Italian available in multiple languages.
Of Doré’s literary series, few enjoyed as great a success as his Commedia illustrations. Characterized by an eclectic mix of Michelangelesque nudes, northern traditions of sublime landscape, and elements of popular culture, Doré’s Dante illustrations were considered among his crowning achievements– a perfect match of the artist’s skill and the poet’s vivid visual imagination. As one critic wrote in 1861 upon publication of the illustrated Inferno: “we are inclined to believe that the conception and the interpretation come from the same source, that Dante and Gustave Doré are communicating by occult and solemn conversations the secret of this Hell plowed by their souls, traveled, explored by them in every sense.”
Aida Audeh Associate Professor of Art History, Hamline University
Inf.5 and Inf.33 are the two most illustrated episodes of the Comedy. Francesca’s and Ugolino’s dramatic stories have inspired the imagination of artists over the centuries. The gallery includes illustrations of these two episodes by a variety of artists and from printed editions of the poem from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century.
Notwithstanding recent attempts to reconstruct his physiognomy from remains of his skull, no one knows what Dante really looked like. A death mask exists but there is no trustworthy historic testimony concerning it. The two earliest portraits in the gallery, one in the Bargello and the other in the former Palazzo dei giudici e notai are distinctly different from on another. Neither can be definitively confirmed as a true likeness of Dante. Medieval and Renaissance portraits were loosely derived from Boccaccio’s and Villani’s descriptions of the poet, In his Life of Dante, Boccaccio reports that Dante’s face was “long, his nose aquiline, his eyes rather large than small, his jaws heavy, with the under lip projecting beyond the upper. His complexion was dark, and his hair and beard, black, and crisp; and his countenance always sad and thoughtful.” As this selection of portraits shows, the features which have been most frequently preserved are the poet’s aquiline nose, dark hair, and thoughtful countenance. Through the ages artists have portrayed Dante’s physiognomy in a fascinating variety of ways.