In my last semester as an undergraduate, I finished my Italian minor with a seminar on Dante’s The Divine Comedy. I must’ve been feeling pretty confident in my language skills when I signed up, because the core of the class involved reading the entire Commedia in its original Italian. It was difficult, to say the least. Entirely worth it, but difficult.
To balance out the 14th century Italian overload, I chose to focus my thesis on artistic representations of Dante’s L’inferno (any way I can work art into a project is a win for me). What’s great about looking at these works of art from the last 700 years is that they mirror the way values have changed in art alongside similar changes in the human race.
The earliest visual representations of the Inferno in existence date from the latter half of the 14th century, and make up what are called the Holkham Manuscript. This is a copied version of all three cantos of the Commedia and so the illustrations serve as the visual text for the illiterate. Sandro Botticelli’s illustrations from the 15th century served much the same purpose. For the large part of the world’s population who could not read, illustrations were the only way in which to spread Dante’s work. Thus the artists had to be faithful to the text.
Illustrations from the 18th and 19th centuries are markedly different. These are what we think of today as illustrations – additions to the text that serve to clarify or add a visual picture to the words. Printing presses were wildly available and more people could read, so the demand for faithful illustrations lessened. Artists such as John Henry Flaxman, William Blake, and Gustave Doré exemplify the text without reproducing it. I find Doré’s woodcuts particularly beautiful and fascinating. They’re an eye into a dark and frightening Inferno that follows the text without being controlled or constrained by it.
As art became more abstract and emotional moving into the 20th century, so too did illustrations of the Inferno. In fact, it’d be safe to say that these works by Salvador Dalí, Renato Guttuso, and Robert Rauschenberg are not so much illustrations of Dante’s text, but visual artworks inspired by the words.
So I’ll just let them speak for themselves.
Click on any of the pictures for a link to more illustrations by that artist.