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



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

The Wood of the Self-Murderers

English artist William Blake created the above artwork, The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides, between 1824–27, using ink, watercolour, and pencil. It’s part of a series which ended up as Blake’s final watercolour set before his August 1827 death.

In 1824, Blake’s painter friend John Linnell (1792–1882) commissioned him to create a series of paintings based on The Divine Comedy. According to legend, Blake, then in his late sixties, easily churned out 100 watercolour drafts “during a fortnight’s illness in bed.” Most had no colours, and only seven were gilded.

In March 1918, Linnell’s estate sold this artwork for £7,665 through Christie’s, to the British National Art Collections Fund. A year later, they gave it to London’s Tate Gallery, where it’s been on display ever since.

Dante and Virgil Penetrating the Forest, also by Blake

The scene depicted comes from Canto XIII of Inferno, in the Second Ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell. The Seventh Circle contains people guilty of various kinds of violence, including things most modern people wouldn’t consider violence at all, like suicide and gay relationships.

But in the Middle Ages, suicide was considered not only a sin, but an even greater act of violence than murder, since it involved a rejection of the gift of life. Even into the 20th century, many jurisdictions had laws against suicide, and people caught attempting suicide could be sent to jail and were treated like terrible, immoral criminals.

Thankfully, today we have a much more compassionate, scientific understanding of depression and mental health issues, and many help lines and organisations devoted to preventing suicide and providing counseling. The darkest night of the soul shouldn’t last forever.

Harpies in the Forest of Suicides, 1861 engraving by Gustave Doré

Anyway, this forest is haunted by Harpies, half-human, half-bird creatures. In Dante’s imagining, they eat the leaves of oak trees in which suicides are entombed. The poor souls are condemned to an eternity of being preyed on by Harpies and a zombie-like existence. They also can only speak and mourn when their trees are damaged or broken as punishment for expressing grief through suicide.

To rub even more salt into their wounds, the souls of these suicides are also not even allowed to return to their physical bodies after Judgment Day. Instead, they must hang their bodies on the trees, as an eternal reminder of what they denied themselves and how they denied their bodies in their final act of mortal life.

Another engraving by Doré, with the same subject

In Blake’s artwork, Dante and Virgil are walking through the forest when Dante rips a twig from a bleeding tree, and hears the words, “Why are you tearing me?” Just prior to this, Virgil warned him that if Dante breaks off any twigs, “what you are thinking now will break off too.” But Dante was intrigued by all the phantom wailing, and had to get to the bottom of it.

The blood then turns dark around the wound, and the voice continues, “Why do you rip me? Have you no sense of pity whatsoever? Men were we once, now we are changed to scrub; but even if we had been souls of serpents, your hand should have shown more pity than it did.”

Dante drops it in shock and horror upon hearing this, and Virgil placates the suicide by saying Dante wouldn’t have done it if he’d let himself believe what he (Virgil) once wrote, “but the truth itself was so incredible, I urged him on to do the thing that grieves me.” He then asks the suicide to identity himself so Dante might make amends.

Copyright Limonov44 at WikiCommons

The suicide is Pietro della Vigna (1190–1249), pictured above, a jurist, diplomat, scholar, legislative reformer, proponent of science and the arts, and chancellor, secretary, and close advisor to Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Other people at court, jealous of his success, falsely accused him of being an agent of the Pope and richer than the Emperor. Pietro was thrown in prison and had his eyes ripped out.

Pietro, who killed himself by banging his head against a wall, is presented as a heroic suicide. However, some historians believe he was truly tortured to death or died because of the blinding.

Der Hof Kaiser Friedrichs II. zu Palermo (The Court of Emperor Frederick II in Palermo), Arthur von Ramberg, 1865

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (U.S.), 1-800-273-8255
Samaritans (U.K.), 116 123
Canadian resources
Suicide Prevention Australia
European resources
International resources

Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss

Auguste Rodin’s famous 1882 marble sculpture Le Baiser (The Kiss) was originally entitled Francesca da Rimini, and depicts Francesca and her lover Paolo Malatesta. Paolo was Francesca’s brother-in-law. Their story is one of the most well-known in The Divine Comedy.

Francesca, born 1255, was the daughter of Guido da Polenta I, lord of Ravenna. Around 1275, she married Giovanni Malatesta, whose father Malatesta da Verucchio was lord of Rimini. Though Giovanni had been born with a physical deformity causing a limp, he nevertheless bravely fought in several battles.

Their marriage was a political alliance designed to end their family feud.

Paolo e Francesca, Giuseppe Poli, ca. 1827

Francesca fell in love with her brother-in-law Paolo, one year younger than Giovanni. Though Paolo was married too, they began an affair which lasted an entire decade. Tragedy struck when Giovanni caught them being amorous in Francesca’s bedroom sometime between 1283–86, and murdered both of them with his bare hands.

Instead of being arrested and sentenced to death himself for such a cruel crime, Giovanni went on to become a five-time podestà in Pesaro. He held that position till his 1304 death.

Dante and Virgil meet the lovers in the Second Circle of Hell, occupied by the lustful. The couple are trapped in a perpetual whirlwind, eternally swept through the air because they let themselves be swept away by their illicit passion.

Dante calls to them, and they come to a brief pause while Francesca vaguely provides a few details about herself. Since their affair was so well-known, and they were Dante’s contemporaries, he correctly states Francesca’s name. Dante asks why they’re being tortured like this, and their story so moves him, he faints.

Rodin’s sculpture was originally part of a group of reliefs decorating his massive bronze panel The Gates of Hell (La Porte de l’Infer), which was commissioned in 1880 by the Directorate of Fine Arts. Its delivery date was set for 1885, but the Decorative Arts Museum it was intended for was never built.

Not one to let a good idea go to waste, Rodin worked on this bronze panel on and off for 37 years, until his 1917 death. Prior to the commission, Rodin, a fellow Dantephile, had made some sketches of Divine Comedy characters for potential future artworks.

Late in life, Rodin donated his sculpture and drawings, along with reproduction rights, to the French government. Two years after his death, in 1919, the Hôtel Biron where he’d worked on the panel became the Musée Rodin.

Rodin made large sculptures with the help of assistants who copied smaller models made of materials easier to work with than marble. When they were done, Rodin made finishing touches to the full-size master sculpture. For this sculpture, he made small-scale models in plaster, bronze, and terracotta.

When people first saw the sculpture in 1887, they suggested the less specific name Le Baiser (The Kiss).

The French government ordered the first large-scale marble version go on display at the 1889 Exposition Universelle, but it didn’t come to pass. The sculpture’s first public display was delayed till 1898, in the Salon de la Société des Beaux-Arts. So popular was it, the Barbedienne company offered Rodin a contract to make a limited supply of smaller bronze versions.

In 1900, the sculpture went to the Musée de Luxembourg, and was taken to its current home, the Musée Rodin, in 1918.

Unusual for the era, Rodin sculpted his women as full, equal, receptive partners in romantic and erotic acts, not submissive, passive puppets with dominant men. Because of the sculpture’s overt eroticism, it was very controversial. A bronze version was refused public display at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and hidden in an inner chamber accessible only after personal application.

Paolo has an erection in the original life-sized sculpture, which made it even more controversial.

Copyright Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

Francesca and Paolo have been depicted in countless paintings, sculptures, operas, plays, songs, symphonic poems, and other works of art and music over the centuries.