Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Short History of Dante Alighieri and The Divine Comedy in Art

This is especially for buckeyegirl31 and ritzypuffles, who are currently reading The Divine Comedy on their blogring bookclub. I refuse to read The Divine Comedy; however, I did promise to contribute with art inspired by it.

Portrait of Dante by Giotto
Portrait of Dante painted by Giotto--Bargello Palace, Florence, Italy

It can easily be argued that Dante Alighieri is the most important Italian poet in modern history. He is known as "the Supreme Poet," and literally invented Italian by writing the Divine Comedy in a unique mix of Tuscan regional dialects and Latin (the French call Italian la langue de Dante).

Dante is indelibly connected to the city of Florence, in Italy. He came from a prominent family in the city, and even though he mainly devoted his time to studying philosophy, Latin literature, and religion, he was peripherally involved in politics. In 1301, the Black Guelphs took over Florence; Dante and his family were member of the opposing party, the White Guelphs. In 14th-century Florence, politics was serious business, and the two Guelph parties were literally battling for control of the city. Dante was fortunate in that he was in Rome at the time of the take-over, and the Pope, who had spies everywhere, stopped him from going home early. If he had been in Florence when the Black Guelphs took control, he probably would have been executed; as it was, Dante was exiled from the city on pain of being burned at the stake should he ever return. He never did.

Portrait of Dante by Botticelli
Portrait of Dante by Sandro Botticelli

It was while in exile that Dante began to write his most important work, The Divine Comedy, in which he travels through hell, purgatory, and heaven. It is a seminal work in European literature and has served as inspiration to countless artists. The earliest evidence of Dante's influence on art probably came even before the Commedia was published: he was friends with Giotto, a pivotal artist who flourished at the very beginnings of the Italian Renaissance. Giotto's most famous work are the frescoes in the Cappella Scrovegni (aka the Arena Chapel) in Padua. Dante visited the chapel while Giotto was working on it; and while no one knows exactly what the two discussed, the blue-skinned devil in Giotto's Last Judgement scene bears a striking resemblance to Dante's description of Lucifer in the Commedia. Did Giotto influence Dante's vision of hell or did Dante give Giotto his interpretation? No one knows for sure, but the two undoubtedly discussed their visions of the afterlife.

Giotto's The Last Judgment
Giotto di Bondone, The Last Judgment, Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua.

Giotto's devil
Giotto di Bondone, The Last Judgment (detail), Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua.
What is more certain is that Dante shared with Giotto his ideas about humanism, which influenced the artist in the overall theme of salvation found in the frescoes.

Almost immediately upon its publication, The Divine Comedy began to intrigue and inspire artists. One of these artists was Sandro Botticelli, another Florentine, who served as one of the earliest illustrators for the book. Botticelli's most powerful illustrations come from the Inferno part of the Comedy--the most popular of the three books, especially in the visual arts. Why do artists prefer depicting Dante's hell scenes? Well, aside from the fact that hell is (predictably) more interesting, it's also the book described in the most powerful visual terms. The heaven section is more mystical and theological, and Dante doesn't describe a lot of the things he sees there (i.e., when he see God, he says, "I can't describe Him.") The Hell section, on the other hand, is detailed almost minutely.

Botticelli's Inferno
Punishment of the Panderers and Seducers and the Flatterers, Sandro Botticelli, c.1480-c.1495.

In this colored illustration, Dante (as usual, depicted in red) and Virgil move around the pits, with Virgil pointing out the sites like any good tour guide, and Dante reacting in horror and fascination.

Botticelli's satan
Satan and traitors to benefactors, Sandro Botticelli, c.1480-c.1495.

Another Florentine who loved Dante was Domenico de Michelino, who learned painting from Fra Angelico (maybe, they think). Dante and His Poem can still be seen today on the wall of Florence's Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore. The fresco shows Dante in the middle, holding The Divine Comedy and gesturing towards the Gates of Hell and a procession of sinners being led to their eternal punishment on the right (his right, anyway). The tower behind him is a representation of Purgatory, with Adam and Eve at the very top. Heaven is represented by, duh, the heavens above. At Dante's left is... Florence! The painting shows several buildings that had only recently been completed, such as the Duomo itself. It's also interesting that the Gates of Hell look very similar to the gates of Florence--clearly the city isn't an earthly paradise.

Dante and his Poem, Domenico di Michelino
Domenico di Michelino, Dante and His Poem, 1465.

The Divine Comedy continued to resonate with artists into the Enlightenment and modern era. John Flaxman is mainly known for his sculptures, but during his lifetime he actually lost money on sculpture commissions. His main source of income were one-of-a-kind books he made and illustrated himself, much like illuminated manuscripts, only in a neoclassical style. These books were so highly prized, his patrons often immediately resold them for a profit (Flaxman really needed an agent).

John Flaxman, Charon ferrying souls
Charon ferries the damned across the Acheron, John Flaxman, 1793.

Flaxman's satan
Satan, John Flaxman, 1793.
Flaxman's Dante and Beatrice
Beatrice tells Dante to turn his mind to God, John Flaxman1793.

A contemporary of Flaxman's, William Blake, was also a poet, artist, and great admirer of Dante's. He often had ecstatic and spiritual visions (he reportedly told his father when he was eight that he'd seen God), and these were used as inspiration in his illustrations of the Comedy.

The Lovers' Whirlwind, William Blake
The Lovers' Whirlwind, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta (Canto V, 37-138), William Blake, 1824-27.

Count Ugolino, William Blake
Count Ugolino and his sons in prison (Canto 33, 13-93), William Blake, c. 1826.

French Romanticists also used Dante as an inspiration for emotional and gut-wrenching (yet ironically non-narrative?) scenes. The Barque of Dante was the first major painting by the iconic Romantic painter, Eugène Delacroix. It shows Dante (red cap) crossing the River Styx with Virgil as the damned try to grab ahold of their boat. The City of Dead blazes in the distance.

The Barque of Dante, Delacroix
Eugène Delacroix, The Barque of Dante, 1822.

Another 19th-century artist who was obsessed with Dante was Auguste Rodin. The Gates of Hell was one of Rodin's most important commissions, and it is a complex reimagining of The Inferno. It's almost 20 feet high and has 180 figures. Rodin worked on it off and on from 1880 until his death in 1917.

the gates of hell by rodin
Auguste Rodin, The Gates of Hell, 1880-1917.

The Gates of Hell contains several figures which Rodin transformed into freestanding sculptures, including his most famous work (and one of the most recognizable sculptures in the world), The Thinker. The Thinker was originally titled The Poet, and some think the man is meant to be Dante, contemplating his visions of hell (other people think it's supposed to be Adam or Rodin himself, but were either Rodin or Adam a poet? NO).

The Thinker (or Dante?) by Rodin
Auguste Rodin, The Thinker, 1902.

Another famous sculpture of Rodin's that appears in The Gates of Hell is The Kiss. It depicts Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, who were actual historical figures and contemporaries of Dante, both of whom he subsequently immortalized in The Inferno. Paolo was Francesca's brother-in-law. They fell in love while reading the story of Guinevere and Lancelot, but were discovered by Francesca's husband (Paolo's brother), who murdered them both in a fit of rage. In Rodin's The Kiss, although the couple appears to be in an embrace, they're not actually kissing--for Francesca's husband killed them before their lips ever touched.

the kiss Rodin
Auguste Rodin, The Kiss, 1887

The Kiss and the story of Francesca and Paolo demonstrates an unexpected theme in Dante's work: that of unrequited, forbidden, and courtly love. Dante is one of the writers who helped popularize the concept of courtly love in the fourteenth century, and his other major work is a book of love poems dedicated to Dante's true love, Beatrice Portinari.

Dante met Beatrice when he was 8 years old, and fell in love with her at first sight (seriously). Unfortunately, when he was 12, his family arranged a marriage for him with Gemma di Manetto Donati, and the two were later wed. When he was 18, though, Dante met Beatrice again, and his love for her was rekindled. Not that he ever talked to her that much, mind--but he would see her often on the streets of Florence and love her from afar, even after she herself married another man. When Beatrice died in 1290, Dante fell into despair and began to devote himself to a monk-like study of Latin literature. It was to Beatrice that Dante dedicated his book of love poetry, La Vita Nuova.

dante meets beatrice by henry holiday
Dante meets Beatrice at Ponte Santa Trinita, Henry Holiday, 1883

The Pre-Raphaelites and other artists in the late 19th century became fascinated with the story of the tragic love non-affair of Dante and Beatrice. To Dante, Beatrice was everything pure and impossible to attain; therefor, she was the perfect person to escort him on his way through heaven. She also became the perfect metaphor for some of the relationships formed by the Pre-Raphaelites.

beata beatrix, rossetti
Dante Gabriel RossettiBeata Beatrix, 1863.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the penultimate Pre-Raphaelite, always felt connected to Dante (because he was named after him). After his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, died, he painted The Beata Beatrix, which presumes to be a portrait of Dante's Beatrice. The dark silhouette is Dante on her left; Beatrice is waiting to escort him to heaven over her right shoulder; and Florence is in the distance. But in reality, this is an old portrait of Siddal that Rossetti repainted. The dark figure could easily also be Rossetti, and the city beyond, London. The red bird carries a poppy, symbolizing Siddal's death by overdose of laudanum. The connection Rossetti was presuming between Siddal and Beatrice was no accident: like Beatrice, she served as Rossetti's muse, and died young. Of course, unlike Dante, Rossetti was anything but honorable or pure in his relationship with Siddal, but whatever. Details!

In 1951, Salvidor Dalí was commissioned to do illustrations for a new translation of The Divine Comedy. His works for the Commedia at first appear surprisingly conventional (for Dalí). However, Dalí became a born-again Christian in the 1940's, and many of his works from the 1950's are filled with complex, esoteric religious and mathematical references, which can be seen in his Divine Comedy illustrations.
Salvador Dalí, Dust of Souls

Salvador Dalí, Dust of Souls, 1951
salvador dali lucifer

Salvador Dalí, Lucifer, 1951

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