Illustrations to The Divine Comedy

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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

Writing about Victorian postmortem photos

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Until fairly recently, I believed, as many people do, that the Victorians constantly posed corpses as though they were alive, and used lots of fancy tricks to achieve this. In fact, thousands upon thousands of historical photos feature dead people whom you’d never guess on first glance are really dead! If someone in a Victorian photo has a creepy look, odds are, it’s a postmortem photo!

Except that’s a total myth, perpetuated by people who uncritically believe everything they hear or read.

Though it’s another total myth that the average person dropped dead at all of 35 until the modern era, there’s no denying that life on average was much harder and shorter. Even the upper classes weren’t immune to deadly diseases and the dangers of childbirth. Thus, our historical counterparts were much more used to death than we are, and didn’t fear it.

It was most common for people to die at home, surrounded by loved ones, instead of hidden away in hospitals. Death was seen as a natural, normal, inevitable event. Wakes were likewise held in houses instead of funeral parlors.

Victorians had very elaborate, detailed, structured rules about mourning, and many people wore mourning jewelry containing locks of the deceased’s hair, made from black materials like onyx and jet, and carved into symbols like skulls, coffins, oak sprays with an empty acorn cup, and lilies-of-the-valley. Ivory was also used, particularly for young people, as a symbol of innocence.

This is one of countless photos constantly trotted out as postmortem, but in reality, it was most likely a pre-mortem photo. That is, this young woman was very ill, and her parents wanted one final living photo with her. She may have passed away not long after the photo was taken. Pre-mortem photography was quite common.

Unless you know someone had a really dark, twisted sense of humor, it’s safe to say all photos of people in coffins are legit postmortem. People lying on beds, their eyes closed, also tend to be postmortem.

This is NOT a postmortem photo for one pretty obvious reason: Dead people can’t stand! Corpses aren’t Gumbies. You can’t mold and shape them any which way you want. Once rigor mortis sets in, that’s it. They’re locked in that position.

Dead weight means something. Even if you were able to prop up a corpse with metal rods and stands, they wouldn’t stay like that more than a few seconds unless you also tightly tied them in place. That may have been done for some forensic photos, but not for the vast majority of deceased Victorians.

Metal stands were absolutely used in many Victorian photos (some visible, some not), but not to prop up literal dead weight. The Victorians treated their dead with dignity, and had zero issue showing them as deceased. With death so common in that era, particularly among the non-elderly, there was no reason to go through elaborate staging to pretend they were really alive.

Those stands were used to help subjects with holding still during exposures which could last up to a minute in the early Victorian era. How many people are capable of holding completely still, in the same exact pose, for so long?

Though exposure time had shrunk to as little as three seconds by the late 1850s, even one second of inadvertent motion can create a blurry image. It happens in modern photos as well.

A blurry picture means the same thing it does today—someone moved at the wrong time. Thus, not dead! This woman is also only holding twins, not triplets. (Can three babies even fit on a normal-sized person’s lap?)

It’s the same story with serious expressions. You try holding a natural-looking, non-creepy smile for up to a minute and see how it goes. The Victorians loved having fun, but before instant exposure, smiling in a photo was impossible.

Many postmortem photos featuring babies and very young children show them on a mother’s lap, but this ain’t one of them. Living people, particularly very young ones, are known to close their eyes in photos, you know. The caption on the back also says nothing about death.

Additionally, a truly deceased child would be dressed more formally, and be lying flat, not sitting nearly upright.

Nothing to see here but Lewis Carroll alive and well. Just as in the modern era, Victorians also took many photos of themselves lounging across couches and reclining in chairs.

Maybe a photo looks creepy because of the limitations of older photographic technology; e.g., blue eyes appear white because of chemical processes, and exposure makes the rest of the body seem darker so as to highlight the face. Other culprits are poor lighting, overly stiff posture, shadows, or eyes that just creep some people out.

None of these alleged postmortem photos show things like drooping skin, rigor mortis, or darkened skin resembling bruising. They all look alive and well, only much more formally-posed than we’re used to.

The little girl on the far left is NOT dead! Hardly unheard-of for small children to zone out during photos and act bored with the entire proceedings.

Some people did paint pupils over closed eyelids, but for LIVING people, not the deceased. Hidden mother photography was also a real (and very creepy) thing, but more often than not done with living babies who needed to be kept still. Again, Victorians treated their dead with great respect and didn’t use them as creepy props.

The people who keep perpetuating this myth aren’t deliberately ignorant, but it becomes so much harder to debunk when people keep passing it along as truth.

An unnecessary 21st century makeover

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As I’ve said many a time, if you’re uncomfortable with historically-accurate terminology and attitudes, hist-fic isn’t the genre for you. It’s important to separate your own views from ones which might unsettle you but were widespread. E.g., it took me years to feel comfortable using the word Negro in narrative text (beyond just dialogue), but it finally got through to me that the term African–American was really anachronistic.

That commitment to historical accuracy applies perhaps a hundredfold when adapting someone else’s story to the screen. Knock yourself out being anachronistic if you must, but show basic respect to your source material!

That’s exactly the problem with Anne with an E, adopted from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic Anne of Green Gables. The screenwriter has openly declared her intention was to “update” it with 21st century Woke values. Laughably, she truly believes the lines between the scant original material she retained and the stuff she invented are seamless. Nope, anyone familiar with the book knows exactly what’s out of place.

By all means, put your own spin on a story that’s already been adapted multiple times. You can draw out things which were unsaid in the original but quite painfully brewing in the background during that era, or emphasise certain themes with parallels to current worries. Fill in gaps with stories of your own creation.

However, you need to stay true to the voice, style, and spirit of the source material instead of taking it in an entirely new direction to correct what you see as unenlightened omissions or embarrassing attitudes. I’ve zero problem with hist-fic including things like racism, bullying, gay and lesbian characters, child abuse, or menarche, but none of that was in the original!

Here’s an idea: If you feel so strongly about checking every single SJW box, create your own story instead of hijacking someone else’s and giving 19th century characters 21st century Woke Stasi values.

The first book in the series was published in 1908 but set in the 1870s. It’s beyond laughable to believe anyone in that era, particularly in a small rural town, would’ve done or tolerated any of this! There are so many outright inventions, distortions, and anachronisms, such as:

1. Anne never adds Marilla and Matthew’s surname to hers with a hyphen!

2. Diana’s maiden aunt Josephine is a lesbian?

3. And hosting a freaking “queer soirée” at her mansion?

4. Teacher Mr. Phillips is a closeted gay man?

5. Rev. Allan is now a raging, heartless misogynist instead of a kindred spirit?

6. Anne never ran back to the orphanage after the misunderstanding re: the missing brooch, and thus Matthew never rode like a madman to bring her back.

7. Gilbert’s dad never dies!

8. Anne never told sex stories to her classmates!

9. The relationship between Anne and Gilbert is twisted into soap opera-esque garbage, almost nothing in common with the source material.

10. Anne was never brutally bullied, despite some early difficulties fitting in.

11. Cole is an invented character, and it goes without saying any gay character would’ve been deep in the closet instead of coming out to anyone he didn’t already know was a friend of Dorothy. Even the most radical, open-minded person wouldn’t have been so nonchalant and accepting.

12. Sebastian is a wonderful character, but he’s also invented. There aren’t any significant Black characters in the books, though The Bog is a real neighborhood in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

13. There’s no menarche storyline either. People just didn’t openly talk about menstruation in that era!

14. Also no storylines about lost loves Matthew and Marilla had.

15. Anne never investigates her family history at the orphanage or local church.

16. Ka’kwet is also an invented character.

17. Josie not only is engaged to Mr. Phillips, but leaves him at the altar?

18. Anne was brutally abused by her prior caretakers?

I hate this SJW mindset of depicting historical characters as the worst racists, sexists, homophobes, ignoramuses, and bigots who ever lived, while making sure to give the sympathetic characters anachronistic 21st century values. Even the most radical, against the grain people operated within certain parameters.

And if you can’t accept that, do us all a favor and stick to contemporary settings.

GWTW at 80, Part VI (Historical accuracy)

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Margaret Mitchell did a great deal of historical research for her novel, which didn’t stop after she found a publisher. She spent six months checking her facts during the editing process. Much of her research was conducted at Atlanta’s Carnegie Library, since razed to build the Atlanta–Fulton Public Library. Its replacement, in the same spot, has a permanent Margaret Mitchell exhibit on the third floor.

But just as with all hist-fic, there are some elements which were uncommon for the era. Unlike many historical novels and films today, though, they’re within the realm of plausibility, and other characters react to them as the anomalies they are, with the obvious notable exception of the romanticised Old South.

The Atlanta Historical Society has hosted many exhibits related to GWTW, among them 1994’s “Disputed Territories: Gone with the Wind and Southern Myths.” Subjects explored included “How true to life were the slaves in Gone with the Wind?” and “Was Scarlett a Lady?”

In many ways, Scarlett perfectly fits the mold of a Southern belle. She dresses the part, understands the importance of marriage, isn’t an intellectual heavyweight, steps up as a volunteer nurse (much as she hates the job), comports herself with dominance over her house slaves.

In other ways, however, Scarlett violates several codes of her culture. It was extremely unusual in that era for white women of means to work outside the home, let alone run a business like Scarlett’s sawmill. She also flouts the dress code with her low-cut gowns, and tries to resist Mammy making her stuff herself before the barbecue near the beginning of the story. Scarlett doesn’t think a normal appetite is unladylike.

In contrast, Melanie fully embodies the archetype of the Southern belle, though her life is much less interesting in consequence. Melanie doesn’t seek work outside the home apart from wartime nursing; she’s utterly devoted to her husband and child; she’s self-sacrificing to a fault; she’s extremely loyal and trusting. She naturally fits the mold, whereas Scarlett chafes against much of it.

Though ages aren’t mentioned in the film, there are several age-gap relationships in the book, and it’s obvious Scarlett is much younger than her second husband Frank even without the film specifying their ages. Frank originally fancied Scarlett’s sister Suellen, who’s about thirty years his junior. Scarlett’s parents are also 28 years apart, and Scarlett and Rhett are 16 and 33 when they meet.

Both Scarlett and Melanie marry at all of sixteen, early in the story. As I mentioned previously, it wasn’t common for 19th century women to marry that young, nor to much-older husbands. On average, first-time brides after Antiquity, with certain specific, notable exceptions (e.g., Medieval Eastern Europe, the U.S. pioneer West), were 18–25, usually near the upper end of that range. Their grooms were typically 1–6 years older, not old enough to be their dads.

In upper-class society, however, there was more precedent of girls marrying in their late teens, and to much-older men. Though this was still unusual, it was somewhat less unusual than in the non-wealthy world.

Even with that caveat, the age gaps in GWTW still weren’t typical! Whereas it might be relatively common to find, e.g., an 18-year-old marrying a 32-year-old, or a 21-year-old marrying a 30-year-old, it was highly unusual to find the massive gaps of GWTW.

Mourning practices in the Victorian era were strict and highly regulated. Scarlett flouts custom by dancing and attending a charity function while wearing widow’s weeds. Widows were expected to wear black for four years, often the rest of their lives. Young, attractive widows transitioning to colours like grey, lilac, and lavender “too soon” were assumed to be sexually promiscuous.

Those mourning relatives, friends, employees, and acquaintances were subject to strict rules too, albeit not as severe as those for widow(er)s. Melanie only has to wear black for six months after her brother Charles dies.

As mentioned in Part V, GWTW takes a very rosy-coloured view of the Old South, one atypical for both races. Though Margaret Mitchell grew up hearing stories of this vanished world and did a lot to further popularise that image through her novel, even she admitted it wasn’t common.

In a 1936 letter to poet Stephen Vincent Benet, she wrote, “It’s hard to make people understand that north Georgia wasn’t all white columns and singing darkies and magnolias.”

Like many people of her generation, however, she believed the Dunning School of Reconstruction, which falsified history in a very damaging way and supported the KKK. It was a very wise decision for the screenwriters to significantly tone down that aspect of the book!

GWTW at 80, Part I (General overview)

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One of the greatest films of the greatest year of cinematic history premièred near the very end, 15 December 1939, at Loew’s Grand Theatre in Atlanta. This epic screen adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s classic sweeping saga of the Old South is one of those films like The Wizard of Oz, so well-known it feels almost pointless to bother giving a recap. Has anyone not seen GWTW at least once?!

On the eve of the Civil War, pretty, popular Southern belle Katie Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) lives the life of Riley on her family’s plantation Tara in Clayton County, Georgia. The talk of impending war bores Scarlett terribly, and she abandons her suitors to talk with her father in the fields.

Mr. O’Hara delivers a devastating piece of news—there’s a barbecue coming up at nearby Twelve Oaks to celebrate the engagement of cousins Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) and Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland). Though many men are competing for her hand, Scarlett only has eyes for the milquetoast Ashley, and is determined to stop this marriage from happening.

On the day of the barbecue, Scarlett insists on wearing a dress with a plunging neckline and refuses to eat the tray of food her Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) gives her. “Respectable” women weren’t allowed to demonstrate real appetites, esp. not in front of men. Thus, Scarlett isn’t supposed to eat anything at the barbecue and “ruin” her figure. (Little wonder so many girls and women have eating disorders!)

Scarlett wins the fight about the dress, but Mammy still makes her eat the food to ruin her appetite and remain unnaturally thin.

At the barbecue, Scarlett flirts with all the single gentlemen, hoping to make Ashley jealous. Then, during the ladies’ nap, Scarlett sneaks away to meet Ashley in the parlour. Her attempts to turn Ashley’s head and get him to jilt Melanie are all in vain.

There’s a long tradition of marriages between Ashley and Melanie’s families, since they’re so well-educated, intellectual, and serious-minded. While Scarlett lives for social life and superficial things, Ashley and Melanie both enjoy discussing ideas, debating politics, and reading great literature.

Though Ashley rebuffs Scarlett’s advances, this doesn’t deter her at all; on the contrary, it makes her even more determined to win his love. Ashley’s wishy-washiness doesn’t help matters, since he admits he’s attracted to Scarlett and kind of leaves the door open for future stolen moments. Scarlett declares she’ll hate him forever, but actions speak louder than words.

Also attending the barbecue is black sheep Charlestonian Captain Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), who’s immediately drawn to Scarlett. He witnessed the row between her and Ashley, and doesn’t understand what such a sassy, feisty woman sees in a guy like that.

The barbecue goes haywire when news of the declaration of war breaks, and all the young men rush off to enlist. Hoping to make Ashley jealous, Scarlett impulsively decides to marry Melanie’s brother Charles. Shortly before this, Charles and Rhett got into a heated argument when Rhett defied popular opinion to declare the North is better-equipped for victory.

Charles was gunning for a duel, but Rhett left the room to diffuse the situation. Though Charles thought Rhett a coward, Ashley told him Rhett is a much better shot and would’ve killed him.

Several months later, Scarlett becomes a widow when Charles dies of the measles (one of those lovely diseases anti-vaxxers giggle off as no big deal). Her mother suggests she move to Atlanta to break her melancholy (which of course isn’t caused by Charles’s death). Scarlett will live with Melanie and Melanie’s spinster aunt Pittypat.

Scarlett eagerly accepts this offer, hoping it’ll provide a chance to see Ashley again.

Scarlett attracts scandal when she attends a fundraiser in 1862 and dares to dance instead of demurely standing off to the side in her widow’s weeds. One of the few people at the charity event who doesn’t disapprove of her behaviour is Rhett, now making a fortune as an arms smuggler.

When Melanie donates her wedding ring to the war effort, Scarlett follows suit. Melanie, always seeing the best in people and unaware of untoward motivations, applauds this noble sacrifice. A dance auction is then held, and Rhett chooses Scarlett as his partner when he wins.

As they dance, Rhett tells Scarlett he wants her to someday say she loves him, and she says that’ll never happen.

By 1863, things aren’t going so well on the Atlanta homefront, and Scarlett and Melanie are forced into nursing work. Scarlett has to shoulder the burden of most of it, since Melanie, now pregnant after a furlough visit from Ashley, isn’t in the best of health.

Aunt Pittypat soon leaves to avoid the constant sound of artillery, compelling Scarlett into the role of mistress of the house. Her only help, slave Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), isn’t much help at all, esp. when Melanie goes into labour.

As Atlanta burns, the ladies escape back to Tara, with help from Rhett, the only person Scarlett knows who can get them to safety. Once they’re outside city limits, Rhett announces his plans to enlist and leaves them to journey the rest of the way alone.

Rhett professes his love before he leaves, which greatly angers Scarlett.

Their harrowing journey ends at a plundered, devastated Tara and a burnt Twelve Oaks. Even worse, Scarlett’s dad has gone half-mad since the recent death of his wife, and only two slaves are left, Mammy and Pork. All the other servants and slaves ran away or joined the Union Army.

Part I ends as Scarlett stands in the desolated fields, famously swearing, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”

To be continued.