The Divine Comedy Illustration by Sandro Botticelli

The Influence of Literature on Modern Art

Dante, The Divine Comedy,

Dante Alighieri’s manuscript The Divine Comedy is largely regarded as one of the greatest masterworks of literature, and most especially epic poetry. The narrative, centering around a protagonist of the same name, is largely autobiographical when excluding the supernatural elements that surround the undertakings. The epic, like those of Homer, Sophocles (playwright), Ovid, and Virgil, who largely influenced this thirteenth/fourteenth century Italian, does a tremendous job of intermingling religious and political ideologies, and the most importantly: love, or what the author considers divine love. Dante’s descriptions provide piercing imagery that open the imagination and inspire men and women to the many wonders of the hyper-realistic. Alighieri’s work is the height of human emotion and explores the deepest depths of that which is human connection, and with that Dante brings expressionism into poetry and the arts, a function which will not only influence artists globally over a multi-centuric timeframe and in multitude of media formats but also creates an unprecedented shift in the arts to self.

Dante’s first segment of this poem, and probably the most popular [among artists as well] is Inferno, a tale telling of his travels, through nine circles of hell, in order to rejoin/rescue his love Beatrice. This idea of going through hell for a woman of interest, whether materialized or mental, is a notion carried throughout all of human-male history: something fellow Italian author, Castiglione, later referred to as the “covetness of beauty” in his work The Courtier. This seeking of such beauty and love is central to the human complex; a notion philosophically explored in Plato’s Symposium. In Symposium, Plato, presents the “Ladder of Love — The Ascent to Beauty Itself,” a monologue in which the goddess/prophetess Diotima [of Mantinea] provides Socrates with divine knowledge in accordance to the ascent of love and beauty, the actions that accompany it, and the fruitfulness of feeling in one’s soul once achieved. Upon receiving this grace, it will draw one closer to revelations of the mind; this is subsequently reflected throughout the pilgrim’s journey through Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Paired in, is also the sentiment that love of another’s soul is a doorway to loving all the souls of the world and eventually ourselves, which rids humans of that inevitable self-loathing which in some contexts is construed to be the bi-product or burden of original sin. Dante’s travels are to reverse this process, and to remove the obstacles which keep him from God which could only be accomplished through the giving of himself to Beatrice’s soul and its capacities. So then amongst learning to love an individual, we learn to love all of humanity, and we learn to love the likeness of which this derived, which lies in divinity, which humanistic religious beliefs cross-culturally deemed as being created in the image of. Love, from a physiological standpoint, can drive human hormones into hyper-activism, and influence the mind, leading to spiraling of that which can either be upwards or downwards in the psyche, represented by Dante’s circles of his respective super-natural spaces. The journey of this protagonist works to represent that going mad in the name of love is worth the immortality it can bring.

Dante, himself, went from infamous to famous all through his toiling and misgivings with and about the Catholic Church. The exile, and the solitude that followed, were amongst the forefront of catalysts when it came to The Divine Comedy. This also worked as a great connector between Dante and artists who succeeded him, who very often underwent some of the same types of scrutiny from Europe’s most powerful and profound institution at the time. Also through this exile Dante came into a more frequent contact with contemporary artists of his time. The most significant of these relationships was with one considered to be the father of Western Art [painting], Giotto. While Dante was in Padua, he found himself close-by Giotto while he was working on a masterwork of his own, the Scrovegni Chapel.

Scrovegni Chapel, Giotto

Giotto, one of the leaders of the Renaissance, was changing the landscape of painting forever as Dante was doing in his literature. Giotto introduced the theory of perspective to painting; he was enamored with how light functioned in accordance with the space occupied by the viewer. In the same way, Dante establishes the theory of perspective in literature. This factor makes both men stand at the pinnacle of their artistic movements to this day (Yale Courses: Ital 310–9).

Though The Divine Comedy was originally illustrated by Dante, himself; artists felt compelled to depict their own images from the striking text. One of the first significant artists to take up this task was Luca Signorelli, a 15th-16th century Renaissance painter, known for his ability of foreshortening the human form. Signorelli, though their is no exigent copy of a painted scene of Dante’s, did leave us a draft by the name of Inferno XVI. The scene depicts the sodomites, both men and women, but majoritively men, with a focus on the three Guelphs, that are all hand in hand, mentioned by Dante in Canto XVI of Inferno; Dante, and his guide, Virgil, stand above, looking down at the decimation. Signorelli also served as an antecedent to Michelangelo, with in his depictions of the Virgin Mary with child, and mixed in mythological-like nude youths that litter the mid-ground of these round framed works that can be interpreted as the indifferent, unbaptized souls: Madonna Medeci or Madonna with child (Signorelli), Doni Tondo (Michelangelo) (Franceschini 163–168). In 2002, Penguin Publishing editors made the connection of Dante with Signorelli again, in due to writings of his work, and used three images from Signorelli’s fresco cycles at Capella di San Brizio of Orvieto Cathedral (1499–1504) for Mark Musa’s translation of The Divine Comedy (Herzman 1). The frescoes at the Orvieto Cathedral place emphasis on end times, such as that spelled out in the Bible’s Book of Revelations. Revelations had to have been poignant in Dante’s mind when formulating his message, as it was with many people of the time who were dealing with the treacheries of the Dark Ages, and later in dealing with the Bubonic Plague, making Judgement Day something that seemed very near and struck fear and awe into artists and commoners alike.

Inferno XVI, Luca Signorelli
Madonna Medeci or Madonna with Child, Luca Signorelli
Doni Tondo, Michaelangelo
Capella di San Brizio of Orvieto Cathedral, Luca Signorelli
The Damned, Luca Signorelli

With time, The Divine Comedy became ever more popular and standard to the world of the privileged and educated. Something that became popular fairly early on in this process was the interest in the topography of Dante’s poetic world in the epic. Many attempted illustrations of maps that coincided with what was laid out in the story but that fashion would later be alleviated by a more psychological look at the characters in the text. This began in the 18th century with prominent painter and founder of the Royal Art Academy of England, Joshua Reynolds. Reynolds painted a group portrait entitled Ugolino and His Children, a scene that has been of especial interest to visual artists due to its grotesque nature. The story of Ugolino is that of a political traitor, those for which the ninth circle of Hell is reserved for. The actual Ugolino, some of which may be myth or exasperation, is that of being one of the last survivors during the wars, where he is captured and jailed. While imprisoned Ugolino gnaws away his hands and his children thinking he is starving offer their bodies to him for consumption. Reynolds depicts the beginning moments of this taking place, but the understanding of the narrative gives insight to figures and their expressions. Ugolino is upright and indifferent, cold as marble, as his children are in the frantic frenzy of their impending demise. The youngest of the children clasps his father’s hand, with a look of desperation, an inference of wanting to be spared after now realizing the actuality of the situation; his brother already bleeding out beside him, in the arms of another brother who looks directly at the villain with disgust and disdain. The remaining brother can not bare to watch as his face falls into his hand, either for his own fright or the sadness surrounding his fallen brother. Ugolino and the dying son are accentuated by Reynolds using the Caravaggian techniques: Tenebrism and Chiaroscuro. Sir Reynolds also uses reds in a similar fashion to direct the eye across the canvas, from Ugolino’s red coat, to the bloody spilling from the abdomen of one, to the sleeves of the un-watching. This work is a standout in bringing a new rhetoric to a story that was now hundreds of years old and showcases his Neoclassic style with upmost dignity even with the despicable acts be displayed.

Ugolino and His Children, Joshua Reynolds

Another English Royal Academy artist, Henry Fuseli, leaves a stark contrast to Reynolds just a few decades later in his rendering of Ugolino, Ugolino and his Sons Starving to Death in the Tower (1806). The print shows the antagonist, as more a wretched being, with more anger on his brow and face. Unlike Reynolds’ Ugolino who looks as if he is deliberately trying to place the events out of mind, Fuseli’s has a consciousness and deliberateness that makes him seem fully aware of evil but once again unsympathetic and this time carrying the realism of knowing his fate. Fuseli would go on to influence the multi-talented William Blake, who also took on Ugolino as a subject in his painting Ugolino and his sons in their cell. Blake, who’s dark imagery can be seen in other works, brings a new light-heartedness to this theme. Two angels float above the characters bringing a shining brilliance to the cold cell they are held in. This depiction is starkly different and there is somewhat of a serenity before the main event of cannibalism is to take place. Blake more than likely uses this to put the focus on the sacrifice the children are about to make in an act of filial piety, and works to capture their innocence and salvation through the angels. Blake brings about the notion that these children will not be forced to atone for the sins of their father and their deaths, in this scenario, are honorable and the best thing that could happen to them.

Ugolino and his Sons Starving to Death in the Tower (1806), Henry Fuseli
Ugolino and his sons in their cell, William Blake

Meanwhile during this same period of the 19th century, French artists were inspired the same by Dante’s liturgical manuscripts. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres looked to the imagery of unfaithfulness and adultery through his painting Giancotto discovers Paolo and Francesca. The context revolving around the triangulated lovers is that Francesca seduces her lover’s, Giancotto, brother Paolo. Dante sees this in his travels through the Inferno and Ingres captures the very climax of the moment where Giancotto learns of his wife’s treacherous ways. Giancotto comes in, sword in hand, to find his brother planting his lips on his brightly clothed bride. Ingres uses great perspective with the swordsman emerging from behind a tapestry while the lovers are unsuspecting and in delighted bliss as the viewer looks at the painting.

Giancotto discovers Paolo and Francesca, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

A French contemporary of Ingres, Eugene Delacroix, tackled the topic of the pilgrim’s water-bound travels with Virgil in Le Barque de Dante. The canvas, which would probably be considered one of the most impressive of all, instantly earned Delacroix a spot in The Salon, the premier painting institution in France, while still in his early twenties. The narrative he presents is that of Dante and Virgil being navigated by Phlegyas, on a lake similar to that of Greek river Styx, on their way to the infernal city of Dis. Souls of sinners swim amongst them, attempting to use the poet’s passage as their own (Louvre). The Romanticist, Delacroix, while continuing in the format of pyramidal composition, uses the palette just as much to steer the eye and create the melodrama. The psychological portraiture of The Divine Comedy reaches in extension with this piece. The deceased portray a fascinating realism but still keep in tune with the grotesque nature they carry. The pair of poets look extremely nervous sailing through those who spent their lives as superfluous, and now painted so fluid, Delacroix captures life and death in the same figures.

Le Barque de Dante, Eugene Delacroix

Another Dante, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, a Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painter, as well as writer, and translator, also took up the fictitious epic for its symbolism. Rosetti became quite familiar with the work of his namesake, and translated the poem into English. The narrative struck especially close to home in 1862 when Rosetti’s wife died, and he like the pilgrim of the passages, was deeply enamored by her essence even in her absence. Rosetti went to work a couple years later on a portrait symbolizing his own lover entitled Beata Beatrix (Tate). This piece is elegantly framed as a diptych and shows Dante beneath Beatrice, who is on a much grander scale; Dante is also shown in the background looking back his lover in the larger painting as well. Beatrice, shown in an exuberant state, seemed satisfied, or reconciled in her death, while the lover left is ever-so anxious.

Beata Beatrix, Dante Gabriel Rosetti

Lastly, we look at sculpture Dante Alighieri inspired by none other than Auguste Rodin. The French master craftsmen took foot in what we know as Impressionism, and found himself drawing on Dante’s text for several projects of his. The three pieces are respectively called: The Kiss, Gates of Hell, and Ugolino. The Kiss is a theme that shows up over again in the course of art history, but this particular one is attributed to our adulterous lovers Paolo and Francesca. The brilliance of Rodin in working this marble is the capturing of the entrancement, and foreshadowed fatal quality in the entwined couple. Unknowingly being watched, they give to each other completely, with a reckless abandon, almost spelling out there fate.

The Kiss, Auguste Rodin

The Gates of Hell was a master project that took many years and was still put on hold indefinitely, eventually. Rodin sculpted hundreds of figure that rose from the set of doors. Extremely intricate and ornate, Rodin was only able to showcase it fragmentarily, and never got to see the doors cast in bronze by his honorary museum’s first curator (Musee Rodin). The figurines depict different characters from Dante’s journey through Inferno which culminates into a breathtaking spectacle.

The Gates of Hell, Auguste Rodin

Ugolino makes his return once again by way of stone sculpture this time and Rodin creates a pyramidal composition, reminiscent of Laocoon and His Sons, a sculpture by Agesander, Polydoros, and Athenodoros, all of Rhodes, which was excavated in Rome near the turn of the sixteenth century. Rodin portrays Ugolino in a creepy arched position that lends thought to the actual action of devouring his children unlike what had been seen in paintings before. The master captures Ugolino in a glance upward from his meal, as he looks to showcase the true characteristics of his starvation, one which may not be only physical, but spiritual as well.

Ugolino (1906), Auguste Rodin

These examples are just a few of many gathering artistic inspiration from the great narrator Dante, and more new works surface from artists globally every year. The Divine Comedy portrays human emotion in such a way that the visual arts can only try to grasp one frame at a time, but in doing so bring more vivid interpretations to our imaginations. These artists show the complexities brought forth through a timeless text that shapes our understanding of the arts as a whole in so many different multitudes — and in creating his own worlds, Dante has helped shape ours.


Works Cited

Castiglione, Baldassare. The Courtier. 1528.


Franceschini, Chiara. “THE NUDES IN LIMBO: MICHELANGELO’S “DONI TONDO” RECONSIDERED”. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 73 (2010): 137–180. Web…

Herzman, Ronald B.. “”VISIBILE PARLARE”: DANTE’S “PURGATORIO” 10 AND LUCA SIGNORELLI’S SAN BRIZIO FRESCOES”. Studies in Iconography 20 (1999): 155–183. Web…

Marmor, Max C.. “From Purgatory to the “primavera”: Some Observations on Botticelli and Dante”. Artibus et Historiae 24.48 (2003): 199–212. Web…

Plato. Symposium. c. 385–370 BCE

Watts, Barbara J.. “Sandro Botticelli’s Drawings for Dante’s “inferno”: Narrative Structure, Topography, and Manuscript Design”. Artibus et Historiae 16.32 (1995): 163–201. Web…

“Work The Barque of Dante.” The Barque of Dante. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2015. (

“Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Beata Beatrix’ C.1864–70.” Tate. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2015.

Yale Courses. Italian 310. Dante in Translation. N.p., n.d. Web.

“The Gates of Hell.” The Gates of Hell. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2015

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