Artwork of The Divine Comedy

In July, I spotlighted seven artists who illustrated The Divine Comedy, either in full or for one canticle. Now let’s look at some standalone art. Many of these pieces have been used in my Dantean posts.

Joseph Anton Koch, an Austrian-born painter of the Neoclassical and German Romantic schools, did four frescoes in Rome’s Casino di Villa Massimo, in what is now called the Dante Room, from 1827–29. The first fresco is entitled Dante nella Selva con le Fiere e Virgilio (Dante in the Forest with the Beasts and Virgil). Though the word fiere means “fairs” in Modern Italian, Dante used it to mean “beasts.”

The next fresco depicts Inferno as a whole, with illustrations of a few major episodes (e.g., the neutrals in Ante-Inferno, Charon with his ferry across Acheron, Minòs, Dante and Virgil on Geryon, Agnèl being turned into a snake, Francesca and Paolo, Cerberus, Count Ugolino).

All frescoes of Inferno copyright Sailko.

Koch’s third fresco, La Nave del Purgatorio, depicts Canto IX, one of my all-time favouritest in the book, at the top. There’s so much power, beauty, emotion, and tension jam-packed into its 145 lines. At the bottom is a boat of souls arriving in Purgatory. The right tells the story of Buonconte da Montefeltro, who died in battle and was fought over by the Devil and an angel. On the left are two angels vanquishing sin in the form of a snake.

Copyright Sailko.

Koch’s final fresco depicts souls from all seven terraces of Purgatory. The poem’s dramatic midway point, Canto XVI, is also shown, as Dante clings to Virgil in a thick, blinding cloud of smoke. Among the historical figures are Pope Adrian V and King Hugh Capet of France (my 34-greats-grandpap).

The ceiling, I Cieli dei Beati e l’Empireo (The Heavens of the Blessed and the Empyrean), was done by German Romantic painter Philipp Veit, and depicts Paradiso as a whole. People who appear here include Piccarda Donati, Empress Constance of Altavilla, Byzantine Emperor Justinian, Rahab of the Bible, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante’s great-great-grandpap Cacciaguida, Roman Emperor Trajan, King David, St. Benedict of Nursia, St. Peter, St. John the Evangelist, Adam, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and Mary.

All closeups copyright Sailko.

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Jumping back to Canto I of Inferno, here we have French landscape and portrait painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s 1859 work Dante et Virgile. Monsieur Corot (who was creepily, unhealthily co-dependent on and joined at the hip with his parents until his fifties) presented this shortly after he did it, but then forgot about it for years. When he ran across it in his studio, he told a friend, “Why, it’s superb; I can hardly imagine that I myself did that!” Today it’s in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which means I probably saw it at least once.

Dutch–French Romantic painter Ary Scheffer did at least six versions of this artwork, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta Appraised by Dante and Virgil, from 1822–55. The oil painting is known by various titles—Les ombres de Francesca da Rimini et de Paolo Malatesta apparaissent à Dante et à Virgile (The Louvre); De gedaantes van Paolo en Francesca aanschouwd door Dante en VergiliusThe Ghosts/Shades/Shadows of Francesca de Rimini and Paolo Malatesta Appear to Dante and VirgilDante and Virgil Encountering the Shades of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta in the Underworld (Pittsburgh); Dante and Virgil Meeting the Shades of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo (Cleveland).

Here’s one I haven’t shown yet, La Barque de Dante, aka Dante et Virgile aux enfers (1855), the first major work by French artist Eugène Delacroix. It depicts Canto VIII of Inferno, as Phlegyas ferries Dante and Virgil across the River Styx, the City of Dis in the background. Today it hangs in the Louvre.

Between 1853–58, Édoard Manet did two copies of this painting, now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.

Italian painter Domenico Morelli (1823–1901) did this artwork, Dante e Virgilio nel Purgatorio, possibly around 1855. It depicts Canto II, as a light-enshrouded boat of newly-deceased souls draws close to the Mount of Purgatory, guided by an angel. In 1845, he did another piece drawn from the Commedia, L’angelo che Porta le Anime al Purgatorio Dantesco, which won an award. For the life of me, I’ve been unable to locate this other painting!

Here we see French painter Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin’s Le Dante, conduit par Virgile, offre des consolations aux âmes des envieux (Dante, led by Virgil, offers consolations to the souls of the envious) (1835). It depicts the Second Terrace of Purgatory in Canto XIII. I particularly like the look of compassion on Virgil’s face.

This painting is now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon.

Pre-Raphaelite Greek–British painter Marie Spartali Stillman did many Dantean subjects, such as this 1887 work, Dante’s Vision of Leah and Rachel, depicting Dante’s third and final dream in Purgatorio. In the Earthly Paradise (i.e., the Garden of Eden) on top of the mountain, in Canto XXVII, he dreams of Leah gathering flowers by the river while Rachel gazes into the water.

And finally we have German painter Carl Wilhelm Friedrich Oesterley’s 1845 work Dante and Beatrice, depicting their contentious reunion in Canto XXX of Purgatorio. Dante is so overcome with shame and remorse, he’s unable to look her in the face.

And what do you know! By hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence), nine artists were featured, representing Dante’s lucky number!

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.