The use of great visual art in service to telling his action adventure stories has been a Dan Brown trademark: Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa in his Angels & Demons, Leonardo’s Last Supper in The Da Vinci Code, and, to a lesser degree, Brumidi’s The Apotheosis of Washington in The Lost Symbol. In Brown’s most recent novel, Inferno, which we critique in our book Secrets of Inferno, Botticelli’s famous La Mappa dell’Inferno plays a central role. But he also refers to the long history of Dante’s Divine Comedy inspiring visual artists throughout the centuries after Botticelli. Brown reminds us that Dante has inspired “foreboding pieces of art since 1330.” He singles out “…William Blake’s lustful sinners swirling through an eternal tempest … Salvador Dalí’s eccentric series of watercolors and woodcuts … and Doré’s huge collection of black-and-white etchings.”
We thought readers might enjoy a brief tour of these artistic connections to Dante.
Robert Langdon describes La Mappa dell’Inferno as “‘a subterranean funnel of suffering — a wretched underground landscape of fire, brimstone, sewage, monsters, and Satan himself waiting at its core.'” Langdon, ever the Harris tweed-jacketed Harvard professor, further instructs us that, “‘Unlike some artists, Botticelli was extremely faithful in his interpretation of Dante’s text. In fact, he spent so much time reading Dante that the great art historian Giorgio Vasari said Botticelli’s obsession with Dante – he created more than two dozen other works relating to the poet — led to ‘serious disorders in his living.’” Modern commentators have interpreted Vasari’s remark to mean that trying to depict Dante’s moral and philosophical vision in visual images basically drove Botticelli crazy.
Botticelli died before he was able to complete the drawings, of which 92 have survived. Only four of the sheets are colored, although that was presumably his original intention for all of them. In Inferno Langdon is limited to showing La Mappa via a laser projection on a wall, as the drawing itself is in the Vatican Library in Rome – the place that is perhaps not-so-coincidentally important to the plot of Angels & Demons.
Here is that famous image as well as a detail of it:
The next artist on Langdon’s list is the poet and painter William Blake (1757-1827) who received a commission for interpreting The Divine Comedy in 1826. According to a recent “Web show” on Brainpickings.com, Blake was drawn to the project because, “despite the five centuries that separated them, he resonated with Dante’s contempt for materialism and the way power warps morality.”
Blake, like Botticelli, died leaving the project uncompleted. But the project was so important to him that “he had worked feverishly through his excruciating gallbladder attacks to produce 102 drawings, ranging from basic sketches to fully developed watercolors, literally working on the project on his dying day.” Blake’s patron John Linnell, who had paid £130 for the Dante drawings, had to lend Blake’s wife money for the artist’s funeral. You can see some of William Blake’s visions of Dante below:
Frenchman Gustave Doré (1832-1883) was 23 years old when he was inspired to create a series of engravings for a deluxe edition of The Divine Comedy. As the website openculture.com points out, Doré was already the highest-paid illustrator in France, with popular editions of Rabelais and Balzac under his belt. Yet Doré was unable to convince his publisher, Louis Hachette, to finance such an ambitious and expensive project, so the artist decided to pay the publishing costs for the first book himself. When his illustrated edition of Inferno was finally published in 1861, it quickly sold out. Hachette summoned Doré back to his office with a telegram: “Success! Come quickly! I am an ass!”
Hachette then published the next two Doré-illustrated sections of Dante’s Inferno —Purgatorio and Paradiso — as a single volume with all three parts of The Divine Comedy in 1868. Since then, Doré’s illustrations have appeared in hundreds of editions. (Incidentally, the name “Hachette” is still well-known in the publishing industry, the result, originally, of Louis Hachette’s 1826 acquisition of a book store that eventually morphed into what is now one of the world’s largest publishing groups. Hachette now owns several famous American publishing companies and is itself owned by the Lagardère Group.)
Here, from the collection of illustrations held at Columbia University, is the image drawn for the opening scene in Dante’s Inferno, the famed opening passage where Dante finds himself “astray in the dusky wood,” as Doré puts it. The second image depicts the scene where, as Dante and Virgil prepare to leave Circle Seven, they are met by the fearsome figure of Geryon, Monster of Fraud.
Interestingly enough, Salvador Dali, like Doré, found he had to publish his watercolors himself before he could find a publisher. As the story goes, the saga began in 1957, when the Italian Government commissioned Dali to illustrate The Divine Comedy. Dali’s 100 watercolors were to be reproduced as wood engravings and released as a limited edition print suite in honor of the 700th anniversary of Dante’s birth. When the project was announced to the public, Italians were outraged that a Spaniard had been chosen to honor the anniversary of Dante’s birth, and the commission was rescinded. Dali, confident that a publisher could be found, continued to work on the project. In order to translate his watercolors into printed plates two artists hand-carved 3,500 blocks, a process that lasted five years. Dali also proved right: After their completion, French Publishers Editions les Heures Claires and Editions Joseph Horet jointly produced the “Divine Comedy” collection.
In 2011 a group of them were shown in the U.S. as part of a ten-city national tour developed and managed by Smith Kramer Fine Art Services.
Dante’s works have inspired many other visual artists over the last seven centuries. The French sculptor Rodin, for example, designed his famous sculpture, “The Thinker,” as part of a Dantesque tableau. The Thinker himself is supposed to be Dante contemplating the Gates of Hell. Modern, post-modern, and pop cultural visual visions of Dante abound.
Just recently we came across a slide show of the work of a Romanian artist, Mihai Marius Mihu, who has recreated key scenes from The Divine Comedy in lego blocks (over 40,000 of them). You can see this here.