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Dante: Our Medieval Contemporary

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Want a sure bet this year? Here’s one. That a medieval Florentine poet called Dante Alighieri (born 1265) will be news that stays news throughout 2021. Thanks to the sheer staying power of a great poem in three parts called The Divine Comedy, which he wrote in exile in the last years of his life, we will be commemorating the 700th anniversary of his death. 

And this is in spite of the fact that so much about this work seems to work against him: a cosmology, a teleology, and an intricate belief system that, at first glance, seem as remote from us as the outer limits of our very own galaxy. 

And yet Dante the Florentine is still present with us, this poet who has been translated again and again and again. Why?

Consider the storyline. The poem is a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Each of its three books consists of 33 cantos. An introductory canto to the entire work brings the whole up to exactly 100. The poem abounds in intricate examples of such orderliness and symmetry.

Dante is at the fiery center of the work from first to last. It is he who tells its story; it is he who dramatizes and reflects, often quite obsessively, upon his own predicament as a lost pilgrim exactly halfway through his life, who, having gone astray in a dark wood, is seeking guidance. The poem’s time-frame is three days: from Good Friday to Easter Sunday of the year 1300.

Luckily, the ombra (“shade” in Italian, i.e., ghost or soul) of a second poet comes to his aid, the Imperial Roman maestro Virgil. Dante is in awe of Virgil, whose great work, The Aeneid, Dante has studied intimately. Virgil accompanies Dante on his journey down through the nine circles of Hell, where they witness the sufferings of different categories of sinner. He stiffens Dante’s resolve, chides him for his fears, gives him courage, backbone, hope. 

Sandro Botticelli, “Dante: Divina Commedia: Canto XVIII, part of the 8th circle of Hell” (1480s), Manuscript (MS. Hamilton 201), 320 x 470 mm; Staatliche Museen, Berlin

The lower the circle, the greater the suffering. The final circle, the ninth, is the miserable domain of the rebel angel, Lucifer, the most damned of the damned. But Virgil, being a pagan, can only go so far. He has to abandon Dante before they reach Paradise. He is not allowed through that sacred portal because he died 53 years before Christ redeemed the world by sacrificing himself on the cross. Beatrice takes over at that point. 

Dante had introduced readers to Beatrice when she was a mere child on the streets of Florence in an earlier work of quasi-autobiography called La Vita Nuova. Dante and Beatrice are both nine years of age when he sees her. He becomes utterly besotted. His yearnings are frustrated. She marries another, and dies young. By the time we meet her again, in The Divine Comedy, she has been apotheosized, and resides in Paradise. Observing Dante’s torments as he toils through Hell and Purgatory toward her, Beatrice comes to his aid, and guides him into the very presence of God. 

Recognition of the poem’s importance began very early. The first man to write a commentary on The Divine Comedy was Dante’s eldest son, Jacopo. A full exegesis of the work came several decades later. There are 800 early manuscripts of the poem in existence

It is in some of these that we begin to see the different ways in which artists responded to this often dense and difficult text, with its multiple layers of meaning. First we spot small illustrations of the poem’s principal characters at the beginning of each hand-scribed canto. A little later, scenes from the poem begin to appear in churches, on frescoes by Luca Signorelli in Orvieto Cathedral (c. 1500), for example. 

Gustave Doré, “Illustration to Dante’s Divine Comedy: Plate IX: Canto III: Arrival of Charon” (c. 1855)

The most important visual interpreters of the poem were three: Sandro Botticelli, who lived in the 16th century, William Blake, and Gustave Doré, both of whom lived in the 19th: a Florentine (like Dante himself), an Englishman, and a Frenchman. 

Of the three books or canticles — the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso — the first has been translated most frequently; at least a dozen translations of real merit were produced in the 20th century alone. 

The Inferno is the most approachable of the poem’s three parts; it is also the easiest to read and to understand. Thanks to Dante’s powers of description, we are enabled to see the Inferno most readily, as if in our mind’s eye. Even when the creatures that move through it are symbols, they are creatures first of all. As we descend, circle by circle, into Hell, Dante seems to be urging us to feel the torments of the damned, just as he himself is doing as he travels, troubled in heart and mind, in the company of Virgil.

William Blake’s uncompleted illustrations — his ambition had been to tackle The Divine Comedy in its entirety — was the great achievement of the last three years of his life (he died in 1827). His watercolors differentiate the atmospheres of the three realms through the use of brilliant wet washes. Blake learned Italian to prepare himself for the near-superhuman task of depicting the whole work. He also profited from the Reverend Henry Carey’s translation of 1814, which had been praised by Keats and became the 19th century’s most favored Dante in English. 

Most of Blake’s drawings, which range from the lightly sketched to the fully realized (he engraved only seven of the 102 drawings before his death), are images from the Inferno. Hell is alarmingly claustrophobic. Figures are strangely up-lit by the flames of hell. Inside Hell’s Gate (Canto 3), alternating bolts of fire and ice menace the pilgrims. A lightning bolt threatens Capaneus the blasphemer. Purgatory is given light and life by sun, moon, and stars. Paradise is a pure flood of sunlight. Beatrice, sheer bedazzlement, addresses Dante from a carriage drawn by a griffon, its wheel a spinning vortex of eyes … 

William Blake, “The Lovers’ Whirlwind, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta” (1824-27), pen and ink and watercolor, 374 x 530 mm; Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England (image via Web Gallery of Art)

Gustave Doré’s 135 monochromatic plates, set solidly within the Romantic tradition, were published in 1861 as accompaniment to the original Italian text, at his own expense. So much drama is played out in the terrible, sunless half-light of Doré’s Inferno, with its pitiless rocks and boulders, its macabre, yawning chasms, and its savagely sharp, soaring peaks. His magnificent Geryon — leathery, bat-winged, half-lion, half-snake, with the face of a grizzle-haired, mustachioed old man of venomous eye — swoops down on the souls of the deceitful with fully extended claws (Inferno XVII 7,8; 115,116) … 

And then, as Dante ascends through Purgatory toward Paradise, the poem seems to draw away from the eager scrutinizing eye that yearns to see exactly what is being described. The arguments become more abstruse, more theological, more philosophical. And the Paradiso — the emotional climax of the entire enterprise because it is here that Dante finally meets the woman who never reciprocated his earthly passion for her — is the most densely argument-choked and visually be-clouded part of all. 

Was Botticelli fazed by all this abstruse argument when he came to reimagine scenes from The Divine Comedy in the 16th century? Not at all. In his much-pared-back drawing of the encounter between Dante and Beatrice, this supreme idealizer of the feminine, by his deft use of brown ink and metal-point, conjured scenes of great tenderness and physical intimacy, such as never quite existed in the poem itself. And in his more tumultuous renderings from the Inferno and the Purgatorio, he evoked, as no one has ever quite done before or since, the extraordinary crowdedness of those places, how the damned and those in feverish hope of salvation — much like today’s skeptics of social distancing — swarmed and massed and clustered …

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