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The Divine Comedy through artists' eyes — Botticelli, Blake, Dalí, Doré and more

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Arthive introduces to you the best illustrators for one of the most epic literary works in the world.

The pioneers

Among the earliest illustrated manuscripts of the Dante’s poem is Yates Thompson’s famous Divine Comedy (named after the publisher). It is kept in the British Library. The name of the author of the Siena drawings created in the mid-15th century was unknown for a long time. Only in 1964, art critic Millard Meiss suggested that there were two of them: Giovanni di Paolo and Priamo della Quercia.
In 1977, Italian Giulietta Chelazzi found multiple parallels between Nicola di Ulisse’s signed works and the images of Hell and Purgatory from Yates Thompson’s Divine Comedy and hypothesized that the author of the illustrations was di Ulisse. However, most researchers have chosen to adhere to the old point of view.

Sandro Botticelli

The dates of the creation of the Divine Comedy illustrations by the Italian are not known for certain, but the researchers believe that the artist worked on them for several years: presumably between 1480 and 1495. According to one version, he performed an order for his patron Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco Medici, and according to another, he painted illustrations for his own pleasure. Considering that they were never finished, this version has its right to life.
The painter approached the problem so thoroughly that he created one drawing for each of the hundred songs of the Comedy. Since the scene did not change for several songs, in some of his illustrations, Botticelli only changed the pose of the characters or added some new details. He only left unfinished drawings for several songs from Paradise.
Most of the 92 illustrations that survived till present days were made on parchment sheets 32.5×47.5 cm using the silver needle technique, popular with Renaissance
The Renaissance is the period that began around the 14th century and ended at the late 16th century, traditionally associated primarily with the Italian region. The ideas and images of the Renaissance largely determined the aesthetic ideals of modern man, his sense of harmony, measure and beauty. Read more
artists. The image, applied with a silver or metal pin on a specially prepared paper, parchment or canvas, was very elegant and airy. Many illustrations have been completed in ink, and only four of them have been fully completed in colour. Moreover, some researchers tend to believe that someone else painted them with tempera, because the graceful Botticelli’s lines turned out to be smoothed, and the drawings lost the recognizable painter’s touch.
The Vatican Library contains several Botticelli’s illustrations for the Divine Comedy, as well as a related painting, Map of Hell, made on goatskin parchment (with an illustration for the first song of the Comedy on its back). German director Ralph Loop was so much impressed by the picture when he saw it at the exhibition, that in 2016, he shot a 96-minute documentary "Botticelli. Inferno", dedicated to the study
A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
of the Map of Hell alone.

William Blake

The English poet and artist began illustrating the Dante’s poem about a year before his death. He also approached the issue thoroughly enough, and, according to rumours, he even began to study Italian in order to read the Divine Comedy in its original language. He managed to create 102 illustrations: mostly watercolours plus a few pencil drawings. Blake tried to follow the text as close as possible, but his author’s touch is unmistakably recognizable at first sight. 69 illustrations are devoted to the Hell songs, 20 to Purgatory, 10 to Paradise, and 3 are made without any indication of the song.
In 2014, on the occasion of the 750th birthday of Dante Alighieri, the German Taschen publishing house released a catalogue with all Blake’s illustrations. The original drawings are currently kept in seven different collections, and admirers of the artist’s talent can have them at home by ordering the anniversary edition from the Taschen website for £ 100.

Paul Gustave Doré

The most famous and multiply reprinted were illustrations by the French painter and graphic artist, who is called "the greatest illustrator of the 19th century". By the time he started working on the Divine Comedy, Doré had already reached certain level in this area: his portfolio included successful cases of creating illustrations for the works by François Rabelais, George Byron, as well as the Bible.
Doré was only 23 years old when he embarked on an ambitious project to create prints for the Dante’s immortal poem. Despite his reputation as highest paid illustrator in France, he still failed to convince his publisher to provide funding for this concept. Then the artist decided to release the first volume at his own expense. When in 1861 Hell with his illustrations was released, the entire edition was instantly sold out. Funding for the other volumes was no longer an issue, and by 1868, the rest of the Divine Comedy came out with drawings by Doré, which became an instant classic. In total, he created about one hundred and fifty prints for the Dante’s work.
Doré's personal style perfectly matched the sound of the poem. Exact elaboration of images, impressive anatomical accuracy, boundless imagination in the creation of otherworldly landscapes endowed his work with magnetism that attracted the eye for a long time. The French writer Théophile Gaultier, a friend of Doré's, believed: "There is no other artist who could illustrate Dante better than Doré. He possesses the visionary look that is inherent in the Poet. The artist creates an atmosphere of hell: underground mountains and abysses, a gloomy sky without sun. He conveys this unearthly climate with amazing persuasiveness."
Others believed that the secret of the stunning effect of Dore’s prints lay in slightly different phenomena: "We tend to believe that the concept and the interpretation come from the same source," wrote one of the critics after the publication of the first edition. "That Dante and Gustave Doré convey the secret of this hell, plowed by their own souls, traversed and explored by them in every sense, through occult and solemn conversations. Be that as it may, the artist managed to create such realistic and convincing visions of other worlds that you cannot but believe in his visionary gift.

Salvador Dalí

In the 1950s, the Italian government commissioned a series of illustrations from the Spanish artist for the anniversary edition of the Divine Comedy, which was scheduled to be released in 1965 to mark the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s birth. Dalí set to work with enthusiasm, but when the Italian public learned that this honourable mission was entrusted to a Spaniard, a scandal erupted and the order for illustrations was cancelled.
The artist did not want to give up what he had begun, and supported by the French publisher Joseph Fauré, he decided to finish the work on the cycle. In 1965, the French publishing house Les Heures Claires released a limited edition of Dalí's illustrations as a premium set of one hundred finely bound woodcuts. They were being printed for five years: the craftsmen carved a total of three and a half thousand wooden blocks for impressions. In order to convey all the colour nuances of Dalí's watercolour illustrations accurately when printing, they had to cut 20 to 37 boards for each individual drawing.
The authenticity of the prints created after Dalí's drawings is often questioned due to the fact that intending to make quick money he signed tens of thousands of blank pages, which could later be used for falsification. However, in the case of the illustrations for the Divine Comedy, the publishing house carefully controlled the entire printing process, and after its completion, all the impression boards were destroyed.
Dalí's watercolours are radically different from the work of his predecessors who took on the decoration of the Dante’s poem. However, this was quite expected: anyone would hardly be surprised to see familiar images and techniques. Dalí is not like that! Moreover the drawings by the genius of surrealism are connected with the text of the Italian classics rather indirectly. As usual, the artist preferred a metaphorical and symbolic rethinking of the medieval text, fetching inspiration from the depths of his subconscious.

Round about the Divine Comedy

Such a powerful literary expression naturally could not but leave a mark on the visual arts in general and illustrations in particular. An especially wide interest in the poem arose among the romantics of the 19th century, when many famous paintings on the characters of Dante’s Divine Comedy were painted.
In particular, the tragic love story of Paolo and Francesca, described in the Song 5 song of Hell, caused the greatest inspiration among the artists of that time. Paintings by Ingres, Rossetti, Cabanel, Scheffer and others are dedicated to it. The beautiful Francesca da Rimini, daughter of the ruler of Ravenna, was forcibly married to Gianciotto Malatesta. She fell in love with Paolo, her husband’s younger brother. When he caught them committing adultery, he stabbed both lovers.
Several sculptures by Auguste Rodin were also inspired by episodes from the Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Auguste Rodin. Paolo and Francesca
1886, 29.8×59.1×27 cm
Auguste Rodin. The gates of hell
1890, 635×400 cm
Auguste Rodin. Paolo and Francesca in the clouds
Auguste Rodin. Kiss
1882, 181.5×112.5 cm
Auguste Rodin. Count Ugolino and his children
Paintings by William Bouguereau and Eugène Delacroix are much less romantic. In the former, Dante and Virgil tensely watch the bloody struggle between the usurper Gianni Schicchi and the alchemist Capaccio. On the latter, they cross the Styx River, which is teeming with the souls of sinners, against the backdrop of the City of the Dead in flames.
  • Dante and Virgil in Hell. William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1850
  • Dante and Virgil in Hell (The Barque of Dante). Eugène Delacroix, 1822
In the 20th century, illustrations by the Austrian artist Franz von Bayros, known mainly for his erotic engravings, were published. In his drawings for the Dante’s poem, inspiration by the work of Gustav Klimt and Alphonse Mucha is clearly traced.
As for the portraits of Dante Alighieri himself, we don’t know what he really looked like, since none of the artists painted him during his lifetime. There is a death mask of the poet, but its authenticity has not been reliably established. Therefore, medieval and Renaissance
The Renaissance is the period that began around the 14th century and ended at the late 16th century, traditionally associated primarily with the Italian region. The ideas and images of the Renaissance largely determined the aesthetic ideals of modern man, his sense of harmony, measure and beauty. Read more
painters were guided mainly by descriptions of his appearance left by the writer Giovanni Boccaccio and the historian Giovanni Villani. Thus, in his Life of Dante, Boccaccio wrote: "Long face, 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."
Researchers had to calculate even the date of birth of Dante Alighieri, according to circumstantial evidence, i.e., a few lines from the Divine Comedy. Boccaccio claimed Dante was born in May 1265.
In Song 22 of Paradise, the poet himself reported that he was born under the sign of Gemini. In 1265, the Gemini zodiacal constellation ruled from 18 (22) May to 17 (21) June, hence the approximate dates.