Illustrations to The Divine Comedy

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.

Inferno I

Inferno III

Inferno XXII

Purgatorio XVI

Purgatorio I

Purgatorio V

Purgatorio XXXII

Paradiso III

Paradiso XX

Paradiso XXXI

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.

Inferno III

Inferno XXXIII

Inferno frontispiece

Inferno XVII

Canto XIII, pl. 32 from L'Inferno di Dante (Dante's Inferno) - Bartolomeo Pinelli | FAMSF Search the Collections

Inferno XIII

Canto I, pl. 2 from L'Inferno di Dante (Dante's Inferno) - Bartolomeo Pinelli | FAMSF Search the Collections

Inferno I

La Commedia 'sublime' di Bartolomeo Pinelli | Istituto Centrale per la Grafica

Inferno III

Inferno XXXIV

Canto IX, pl. 26 from L'Inferno di Dante (Dante's Inferno) - Bartolomeo Pinelli | FAMSF Search the Collections

Inferno IX

Purgatorio II

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.

Inferno XXV

Inferno III

Inferno V

Inferno I

Inferno X

Paradiso XXV

Purgatorio XXXI

Purgatorio IX

Inferno XXXIII

Inferno XXIX

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.

Inferno I

Inferno II

Inferno III

Inferno VI

Inferno VII

Inferno XIII

Inferno XXVIII

Inferno XXXIII

Inferno XXXIII

Inferno VIII

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

Inferno XVIII

Inferno XV

Inferno X

Inferno XXXI

Paradiso XXX

Inferno XXXIV

Purgatorio X

Purgatorio XXXI

Inferno XXXIV

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.

Purgatorio XXX

Purgatorio XI

Purgatorio X

Purgatorio XXI

Inferno XXXIV

Inferno XXV

Inferno II

Paradiso

Paradiso

Inferno IX

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.

Paradiso VI

My favourite moments in The Divine Comedy

I can’t stress enough what a world of difference it made to finally read the Commedia in an updated translation. Because of the difficulty of reading the flowery Elizabethan English in Laurence Binyon’s version, I missed so many details and plot points, and only seemed to come away with a big picture and thematic impression. Mark Musa’s translation meanwhile lays everything out in plain, easy to understand language.

These are some of my fave moments and aspects:

1. The beautiful, memorable opening. Who can’t relate to the feeling of finding oneself in a dark forest, no idea how we got there or lost the way so badly? Some people believe this wasn’t mere metaphor or imaginative inciting event either, but that Dante truly was suicidal, even possibly attempted suicide, at that time in his life.

This theory is later borne out in Canto I of Purgatorio, when Virgil tells Cato:

“This man has not yet seen his final hour,
although so close to it his folly brought him
that little time was left to change his ways.”

2. The beautiful ending. I haven’t been outside to see the stars since lockdown started in March 2020, but when I used to look up at the night sky, I would silently recite those lines to myself.

3. The fact that each canticle ends with the sweet, hopeful word “stars.”

4. Every time Virgil is compared to a father or mother. Dante lost his mother at about five years old, and his father when he was a teenager, so one can only imagine his longing for surrogate parental figures. Even more moving, when Dante turns to Virgil but finds he’s gone in Canto XXX of Purgatorio, the word mamma is used.

5. The flipping of the trope of a man saving a damsel in distress. Beatrice is the one who saves Dante, after a conference with the Virgin Mary and St. Lucia.

6. When Dante throws shade at Virgil in Canto XIV of Inferno by reminding him of a previous failure:

“And I: ‘My master, you who overcame
all opposition (except for those tough demons
who came to meet us at the gate of Dis)….”

This made me laugh out loud!

7. When Dante listens to the Medieval version of a rap battle in Canto XXX of Inferno and is presently scolded by Virgil. He probably was reminded of the poems he and his buddy Forese Donati traded, in which they good-naturedly insult one another’s shortcomings.

8. In the opening of Canto XXII of Inferno, right after devil Malacoda, as Longfellow puts it, “made a trumpet of his rump,” Dante reflects on the various battle cries and jousting calls he’s heard,

“but I never saw cavalry or infantry
or ships that sail by landmarks or by stars
signaled to set off by such strange bugling!”

9. Canto XXXII of Inferno, when Dante goes psycho on Bocca degli Abati as Virgil just stands there without saying anything or even giving a disapproving look. He’s usually Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes on the spot!

10. The fact that Dante rightfully calls out Count Ugolino as a dirtbag while recording the names of his innocent sons and grandsons who were forced to die with him.

11. When Virgil washes Dante’s sooty face with dew at the end of Canto I of Purgatorio, then pulls up a reed to gird his waist. Immediately afterwards, a new reed springs up.

12. The radical rewriting of Limbo to include righteous non-Christian adults. Dante even builds a beautiful castle for these lights of Antiquity and the Golden Age of Islam he so admires.

13. Virgil’s character development. He goes from being the steady voice of reason and totally in charge (except that one time he failed!) in Inferno to making more and more mistakes and not knowing what to do in Purgatorio.

14. Canto IX of Purgatorio. It’s jam-packed with beauty, drama, and emotion. This is also the canto where we finally enter Purgatory proper.

15. The surprising inclusion of gay men in Purgatory. Dante’s views on homosexuality are a lot more nuanced and sympathetic than one would expect from that era.

16. Virgil’s final words to Dante, “I crown and mitre you lord of yourself!”

17. Canto XXV of Paradiso, where Dante poignantly imagines returning to Firenze in triumph after his poem wins over the thugs who exiled him, and being crowned with laurels by the font where he was baptised.

18. The end of Canto XIV of Paradiso, where Dante apologises for describing a hymn as the most beautiful thing he’s experienced, since he hasn’t looked at Beatrice yet in this sphere!

19. When Pope Nicholas III mistakes Dante for the evil Pope Boniface VIII in Canto XIX of Inferno, expressing surprise he’s there early.

20. The occasional breaking of the fourth wall to directly address both present and future readers. From the very first line, we’re made to feel like active participants in this journey, not passive observers. Dante doesn’t say “In the middle of the journey of my life” or of life in general, but our life.

21. Dante’s tender farewell prayer to Beatrice in Canto XXXI of ParadisoIt gives me goosebumps and moves me almost to tears.

22. The inclusion of a number of women who would otherwise be forgotten by history. Not only that, Dante gives them moral agency to tell their own stories, and shows sympathy for victims of domestic violence instead of taking their abusers’ side. While there are a couple of comments both in the Commedia and other of his works which are undeniably sexist, they pale in comparison to everything else.

23. When Virgil talks Dante through the wall of fire around the Earthly Paradise at the top of Mount Purgatory, encouraging him with visions of Beatrice waiting on the other side.

24. The dramatic midway point of Canto XVI of Purgatorio, when Dante clings to Virgil for protection as they go through a blinding cloud of smoke.

25. The constant blending of Classical Antiquity with Christian theology. Despite being a devout Catholic, Dante continually shows great respect and love for the world which came before, and struggles with the teaching that only baptised Christians can attain Paradise. Righteous people come in all creeds, no matter what the Medieval Church believed.

WeWriWa—Walking through the garden

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m now sharing from a brand-new project, an alternative history with the working title A Dream of Peacocks. It starts on May Day 1274, when Dante met his great love and muse Beatrice Portinari at a party held by her parents. They’re now walking in the garden.

Some of you may recognize “In his will is our peace” as a line from Paradiso, where it’s spoken by Dante’s friend Piccarda Donati. The line “midway our life’s journey” is also the famous first line of the CommediaNel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. (I recently finished memorizing all 136 lines of Canto I of Inferno in the original Medieval Florentine Tuscan, and am now working on Canto II.)

We walked on through the rest of the garden, and Beatrice named each flower, herb, and tree we encountered. I already knew some of them from botany lessons, but didn’t interrupt her to say this. Listening to the sweet voice of this youngest of God’s angels was like drinking the finest ambrosia.

After we’d traversed the entire main section of the garden, Beatrice led me to a low, white stone wall with many columns. Just as she said, it provided a marvellous view of our city and the hill of Fiesole. All the houses laid out below appeared at a much smaller scale than they truly were, as though they were part of a miniature village populated by dolls.

Beatrice leaned against the wall and looked down as far as possible. “Sometimes when I’m here, it feels like a small preview of looking down upon all the spheres of the heavens from the top of Paradise. That must be the most indescribable experience possible.”

That image sent a chill up my spine.

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to complete the scene.

“Even if the greatest glories are to be found in Paradise, we shouldn’t be too eager to go there. Everyone should be blessed to live over a century like Saint Anthony the Great. Even if God only wants us to attain the ideal Biblical lifespan of seventy or eighty years, we’re nowhere close to being midway our life’s journey yet.”

“Oh, I’m not eager to trade my life on Earth for the eternal life for a long time yet either. God put us here first for a reason, however long he wants us to live in our physical bodies. In his will is our peace.”

Extratextual sources for studying The Divine Comedy

While you can read the Commedia without any extratextual study, as I did the first time around in 2003–04, it’s not really something that’s recommended if you want more complete understanding. Unless you’re coming to the poem with a pre-existing wealth of knowledge about Catholic theology, Classical Antiquity (history, myths, literature), Medieval Italian history, the Guelph vs. Ghibelline power struggle, and Dante’s own life, chances are you’ll miss out on a lot of things.

The most obvious place to start is a translation with lots of supplemental notes and essays. Many come with introductory summaries of each canto and footnotes, but don’t always have anything beyond that. Unfortunately, many editions only provide the basics when the entire Commedia is in one volume. You have to buy separate volumes of the three canticles for more in-depth notes.

Because I read the Commedia on my own instead of for a class, I was at the mercy of my translation, which provided only the aforementioned footnotes and canto summaries. Although I’m not sure I would’ve been emotionally and intellectually ready had I read it in my teens or early twenties. My lifelong advanced reading and love of classic world lit didn’t help me with epic poetry. That’s just not a literary form most modern people are used to, and teachers tend to throw students into the deep end with The Iliad and The Aeneid instead of starting off with something lighter and less dense.

Many English teachers also overanalyse everything and kill the joy of reading for pleasure. It’s hard to be genuinely moved by or fall in love with a book if you’re told what you’re supposed to think about it and how to react to it.

Though you don’t need to read and study all the books referenced or which influenced it (some more than others), it is helpful to at least have some familiarity with:

The Aeneid (Virgil)
The Metamorphoses (Ovid)
The works of Statius (Silvae, Thebaid, Achilleid)
The Confessions of St. Augustine
Summa Theologica (St. Thomas Aquinas)
The Bible
The works of Aristotle, esp. Metaphysics
Pharsalia (Lucan)
The works of Horace, esp. Ars Poetica and Odes
The works of Seneca

I’d also recommend reading La Vita Nuova before the Commedia, since it’s so much shorter and easier to understand, as well as providing a lot of useful background. It’s a shame it’s always put in the back in books which bundle Dante’s works together, instead of first. I understand why they do it, but it makes more sense to read La Vita Nuova first.

Other study sources you might find helpful:

Princeton Dante Project (full text of all works, plus lectures, maps, and more)
Digital Dante at Columbia (videos of lectures, commentaries, images, history, and more)
Canto per Canto (YouTube channel featuring conversations with Dante scholars, though they unfortunately don’t go in order)
Dante Notes (essays by students and scholars)
Dante Studies (free access available to members of the Dante Society)
Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man, Barbara Reynolds, 2006
Dante’s Bones: How a Poet Invented Italy, Guy Raffa, 2020
Mark Vernon (YouTube channel with discussions of each canto, and other Dantean content)
Tom LA Books (YouTube channel with discussions of each canto, including helpful background information on many details)

Feel free to suggest any other helpful scholarly websites, journals, books, and vloggers!

Just as Dante needs Virgil to lead him out of the dark forest and start him on the journey of redemption, Beatrice to take him through the final leg, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux to lead him to the final goal, so too do we need teachers (whether professional Dante scholars or passionate laypeople with a wealth of knowledge) to increase our understanding. This isn’t a journey we should take alone.

How to read The Divine Comedy

It seems nothing short of a miracle that I emerged a passionate Dantephile from my first reading of the Commedia in 2004, since my translation, while very good on its own merits, wasn’t the most ideal for a newbie. Because of the speed at which I read, the lack of supplementary notes and essays, the fact that I didn’t read many of the footnotes after returning to the book following a frustrated hiatus of several months, and the fact that I had to mentally translate the flowery Elizabethan language into modern English, there were many things I never understood.

It was a big picture story for me, about a beautiful, poignant unrequited love and the very relatable theme of having to sink to the lowest, saddest, most hopeless point possible before starting to gradually rise up through happier, more hopeful, more beautiful places and ultimately emerge a better person, back on track with one’s life and faith.

And of course, being only 24 years old, my prefrontal cortex wasn’t quite finished developing yet. Thus, my inability to grasp a lot of nuances and exercise emotional control in my negative reactions to things which didn’t agree with my own personal beliefs.

The importance of a good translation cannot be stressed enough! There are over 100 to choose from, but not all are created equal. Unless you’re VERY familiar and comfortable with flowery Elizabethan language, faux-archaisms, and poetic diction and contractions (e.g., maketh, havest, wouldst, wast, wert, doth, dost, thee, thine, ye, thou, o’er, e’er, cometh, lovest), chances are you’ll find that style very distracting and annoying when stretched over 14,233 lines. Many people still regard Longfellow’s 1867 translation as one of the finest, but it’s not ideal for a newbie on account of the language.

Unless you’re doing a lot of outside study, it’s a good idea to choose an edition with copious notes and essays, not just footnotes explaining historical and theological references. Many editions also have illustrations showing the geography of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.

And speaking of footnotes, I wouldn’t recommend interrupting your reading by constantly looking down at them. That was a big problem for me when I began reading the Commedia in late 2003, and a reason I ridiculously originally only gave it 4.5 stars. But most people don’t have a wealth of knowledge about Medieval Italian history, Catholic theology, Classical Antiquity, and Dante’s personal life. So what is to be done?

1. Read through the footnotes before reading each canto.

2. Read the footnotes after each canto.

3. Glance down at the most important footnotes as you’re reading, but not in the middle of a sentence.

4. Read the footnotes afterwards, then go back through and read the canto again.

5. Reread the canto and this time read the footnotes as you go along.

Think of it as listening to a song referencing or inspired by actual events or people in the artist’s life. Sure, knowing about these personal details can enhance your enjoyment and understanding, but you shouldn’t need to know about them to like the song and grasp the bigger picture.

This isn’t the kind of book you can race through and understand everything. Many people have been reading the Commedia for decades and still find new details or insights every time. There are also some references and details we may never understand the true meaning of. Just take it one canto at a time instead of forcing yourself to power-read it within a week or month.

A lot of people (esp. ones who only read Inferno) come away with really shallow, superficial, silly interpretations. First and foremost is one I too once bought into, that Dante was getting revenge on his enemies by putting them in Hell. But how can you get revenge on people who are already dead, through their friends and families reading it?

I’ve also seen the ridiculous claims (always from the “Hurr, durr, I was forced to read this in school and hated it!” crowd) that it was the product of drugs, mental illness, or insanity. Are they projecting their own issues, or are they truly admitting they can’t understand complex, sophisticated literature?

I highly recommend doing some outside study as you’re reading. In my next post, I’ll share some of the sources I’ve used (YouTube channels, academic websites, books, etc.). They’ve made me aware of a lot of things I wouldn’t have otherwise picked up on or paid much attention to.

Above all, don’t think of it as a long revenge fantasy, a boring Medieval history lesson, or a stern theological lecture. Many books from the Middle Ages are intrinsically wedded to that era, but the Commedia transcends time and feels remarkably relevant and modern over 700 years later.