The Giant Antaeus Carries Virgil and Dante to the Ninth Circle of Hell, Bartolomeo Pinelli
Since the Commedia is such a visual book, it’s only natural many artists over the centuries have taken up the task of illustrating it. This post is about artists who illustrated the entire book (or an entire canticle), not artists who merely did one piece or a few pieces based on it.
1. Gustave Doré (né Paul Gustave Louis Christophe Doré) is probably the first artist most people think of, since his 136 woodcuts from the 1860s are so internationally famous. For this reason, the visuals in the 1911 Italian feature L’Inferno were based on Doré’s work. He also illustrated many other books and plays, as well as the Bible. My edition of Don Quixote has his 377 woodcuts.
Of all the artists who’ve illustrated the Commedia, Doré is one most commonly found in print. If you want illustrations by one of these other artists, you’ll probably have to spend a lot of money, and might not easily find such a volume.
2. Bartolomeo Pinelli did 145 prints during the first third of the 19th century. Though Doré’s art is more famous and evocative, I really like Pinelli’s illustrations, since they’re so cute and charming. It’s a shame they’re not better-known and more widely available. Sometimes simpler art speaks more powerfully or personally than detailed, sophisticated art.
3. William Blake received a commission for illustrating the Commedia in 1826, and produced 102 watercolours “during a fortnight’s illness in bed.” They were intended to be turned into engravings, but only seven made it to the proof state, and only a few watercolours were completed before Blake’s August 1827 death. He was said to have spent one of his last shillings on a pencil to continue working on this ambitious project.
I’d venture to say Blake is probably the next-best-known illustrator after Doré.
4. Stradanus (also known as Giovanni Stradano, Jan van der Straet, and Johannes Stradanus) created his series of sepia-toned prints between 1587–88, probably inspired by his friendship with exiled Florentine poet and politican Luigi Alamanni (1495–1556). Many members of the Alamanni family are mentioned in commissions for and dedications to prints. Stradanus’s work combines Italian Mannerism with Flemish style.
Unfortunately, Stradanus never completed this project, and only illustrated Inferno.
5. Sandro Botticelli was perhaps one of the earliest artists to do illustrations for a printed edition (as opposed to the illuminated manuscripts produced prior to the invention of the printing press). Goldsmith Baccio Baldini did the engravings of Botticelli’s artwork for a 1481 printing, but the results weren’t successful, as noted by art historian and artist Giorgio Vasari.
Since good artists learn from their mistakes and never let one flop get them down, Botticelli returned to the drawing board and created new illustrations between about 1485 and 1495, possibly until 1505 at the latest estimate. These 92 full-page drawings are considered among his very finest work, though only four are fully-coloured, and most are silverpoint, many worked over in ink.
For many years, this priceless book was lost. It finally resurfaced in the late 19th century, in the Duke of Hamilton’s Library and Vatican Library, thanks to art historian Gustav Friedrich Waagen.
Map of Hell
6. Master of the Pico della Mirandola Pliny, or Master Pico (whose real name I can’t find), illustrated the 1491 Venice edition with 101 woodcuts. While they have an undeniable folksy charm and sweet simplicity, they do appear kind of crude and unrefined next to the other artwork profiled here.
Contrary to every other artist I’ve come across, and historical evidence of Roman grooming habits, Master Pico depicts Virgil with a beard. He also depicts people in Purgatory as naked, something which also contradicts all other artists and what Dante himself writes. And as though readers can’t figure it out by themselves, he puts the first initial of each main character above their heads.
7. Giovanni di Paolo created 75 images for an illuminated manuscript of Paradiso, an honour he was chosen for on account of his 1441 appointment as rector of the painter’s guild. Two other artists, who are still unidentified, did the artwork for the other two canticles.