Gustave Doré’s Dramatic Illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy

Infer­no, Can­to X:

1:Gustave Dore Ferinata

Many artists have attempt­ed to illus­trate Dante Alighier­i’s epic poem the Divine Com­e­dy, but none have made such an indeli­ble stamp on our col­lec­tive imag­i­na­tion as the French­man Gus­tave Doré.

Doré was 23 years old in 1855, when he first decid­ed to cre­ate a series of engrav­ings for a deluxe edi­tion of Dan­te’s clas­sic.  He was already the high­est-paid illus­tra­tor in France, with pop­u­lar edi­tions of Rabelais and Balzac under his belt, but Doré was unable to con­vince his pub­lish­er, Louis Hachette, to finance such an ambi­tious and expen­sive project. The young artist decid­ed to pay the pub­lish­ing costs for the first book him­self. When the illus­trat­ed Infer­no came out in 1861, it sold out fast. Hachette sum­moned Doré back to his office with a telegram: “Suc­cess! Come quick­ly! I am an ass!”

Hachette pub­lished Pur­ga­to­rio and Par­adiso as a sin­gle vol­ume in 1868. Since then, Doré’s Divine Com­e­dy has appeared in hun­dreds of edi­tions. Although he went on to illus­trate a great many oth­er lit­er­ary works, from the Bible to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” Doré is per­haps best remem­bered for his depic­tions of Dante. At The World of Dante, art his­to­ri­an Aida Audeh writes:

Char­ac­ter­ized by an eclec­tic mix of Michelan­ge­lesque nudes, north­ern tra­di­tions of sub­lime land­scape, and ele­ments of pop­u­lar cul­ture, Doré’s Dante illus­tra­tions were con­sid­ered among his crown­ing achieve­ments — a per­fect match of the artist’s skill and the poet­’s vivid visu­al imag­i­na­tion. As one crit­ic wrote in 1861 upon pub­li­ca­tion of the illus­trat­ed Infer­no: “we are inclined to believe that the con­cep­tion and the inter­pre­ta­tion come from the same source, that Dante and Gus­tave Doré are com­mu­ni­cat­ing by occult and solemn con­ver­sa­tions the secret of this Hell plowed by their souls, trav­eled, explored by them in every sense.”

The scene above is from Can­to X of the Infer­no. Dante and his guide, Vir­gil, are pass­ing through the Sixth Cir­cle of Hell, in a place reserved for the souls of heretics, when they look down and see the impos­ing fig­ure of Far­i­na­ta degli Uber­ti, a Tus­can noble­man who had agreed with Epi­cu­rus that the soul dies with the body, ris­ing up from an open grave. In the trans­la­tion by John Cia­r­di, Dante writes:

My eyes were fixed on him already. Erect,
he rose above the flame, great chest, great brow;
he seemed to hold all Hell in dis­re­spect

Infer­no, Can­to XVI:

2:Gustave Dore Geryon

As Dante and Vir­gil pre­pare to leave Cir­cle Sev­en, they are met by the fear­some fig­ure of Gery­on, Mon­ster of Fraud. Vir­gil arranges for Gery­on to fly them down to Cir­cle Eight. He climbs onto the mon­ster’s back and instructs Dante to do the same.

Then he called out: “Now, Gery­on, we are ready:
bear well in mind that his is liv­ing weight
and make your cir­cles wide and your flight steady.”

As a small ship slides from a beach­ing or its pier,
back­ward, back­ward — so that mon­ster slipped
back from the rim. And when he had drawn clear

he swung about, and stretch­ing out his tail
he worked it like an eel, and with his paws
he gath­ered in the air, while I turned pale.

Infer­no, Can­to XXXIV:

3:Gustave Dore Satan

In the Ninth Cir­cle of Hell, at the very cen­ter of the Earth, Dante and Vir­gil encounter the gigan­tic fig­ure of Satan. As Cia­r­di writes in his com­men­tary:

He is fixed into the ice at the cen­ter to which flow all the rivers of guilt; and as he beats his great wings as if to escape, their icy wind only freezes him more sure­ly into the pol­lut­ed ice. In a grotesque par­o­dy of the Trin­i­ty, he has three faces, each a dif­fer­ent col­or, and in each mouth he clamps a sin­ner whom he rips eter­nal­ly with his teeth. Judas Iscar­i­ot is in the cen­tral mouth: Bru­tus and Cas­sius in the mouths on either side.

 Pur­ga­to­rio, Can­to II:

4:arrival of souls purgatory

At dawn on East­er Sun­day, Dante and Vir­gil have just emerged from Hell when they wit­ness The Angel Boat­man speed­ing a new group of souls to the shore of Pur­ga­to­ry.

Then as that bird of heav­en closed the dis­tance
between us, he grew brighter and yet brighter
until I could no longer bear the radi­ance,

and bowed my head. He steered straight for the shore,
his ship so light and swift it drew no water;
it did not seem to sail so much as soar.

Astern stood the great pilot of the Lord,
so fair his blessed­ness seemed writ­ten on him;
and more than a hun­dred souls were seat­ed for­ward,

singing as if they raised a sin­gle voice
in exi­tu Israel de Aegyp­to.
Verse after verse they made the air rejoice.

The angel made the sign of the cross, and they
cast them­selves, at his sig­nal, to the shore.
Then, swift­ly as he had come, he went away.

 Pur­ga­to­rio, Can­to IV:

5:Gustave Dore Mount of Purgatory

The poets begin their labo­ri­ous climb up the Mount of Pur­ga­to­ry. Part­way up the steep path, Dante cries out to Vir­gil that he needs to rest.

The climb had sapped my last strength when I cried:
“Sweet Father, turn to me: unless you pause
I shall be left here on the moun­tain­side!”

He point­ed to a ledge a lit­tle ahead
that wound around the whole face of the slope.
“Pull your­self that much high­er, my son,” he said.

His words so spurred me that I forced myself
to push on after him on hands and knees
until at last my feet were on that shelf.

Pur­ga­to­rio, Can­to XXXI:

6:Matilda in River Lethe

Hav­ing ascend­ed at last to the Gar­den of Eden, Dante is immersed in the waters of the Lethe, the riv­er of for­get­ful­ness, and helped across by the maid­en Matil­da. He drinks from the water, which wipes away all mem­o­ry of sin.

She had drawn me into the stream up to my throat,
and pulling me behind her, she sped on
over the water, light as any boat.

Near­ing the sacred bank, I heard her say
in tones so sweet I can­not call them back,
much less describe them here: “Asperges me.”

Then the sweet lady took my head between
her open arms, and embrac­ing me, she dipped me
and made me drink the waters that make clean.

Par­adiso, Can­to V:

7: Gustave Dore glowing souls

In the Sec­ond Heav­en, the Sphere of Mer­cury, Dante sees a mul­ti­tude of glow­ing souls. In the trans­la­tion by Allen Man­del­baum, he writes:

As in a fish pool that is calm and clear,
the fish draw close to any­thing that nears
from out­side, it seems to be their fare,
such were the far more than a thou­sand splen­dors
I saw approach­ing us, and each declared:
“Here now is one who will increase our loves.”
And even as each shade approached, one saw,
because of the bright radi­ance it set forth,
the joy­ous­ness with which that shade was filled.

Par­adiso, Can­to XXVIII:

8: Gustave Dore Heavenly host

Upon reach­ing the Ninth Heav­en, the Pri­mum Mobile, Dante and his guide Beat­rice look upon the sparkling cir­cles of the heav­en­ly host. (The Chris­t­ian Beat­rice, who per­son­i­fies Divine Love, took over for the pagan Vir­gil, who per­son­i­fies Rea­son, as Dan­te’s guide when he reached the sum­mit of Pur­ga­to­ry.)

And when I turned and my own eyes were met
By what appears with­in that sphere when­ev­er
one looks intent­ly at its rev­o­lu­tion,
I saw a point that sent forth so acute
a light, that any­one who faced the force
with which it blazed would have to shut his eyes,
and any star that, seen from the earth, would seem
to be the small­est, set beside that point,
as star con­joined with star, would seem a moon.
Around that point a ring of fire wheeled,
a ring per­haps as far from that point as
a halo from the star that col­ors it
when mist that forms the halo is most thick.
It wheeled so quick­ly that it would out­strip
the motion that most swift­ly girds the world.

Par­adiso, Can­to XXXI:

9: Gustave Dore Rose

In the Empyre­an, the high­est heav­en, Dante is shown the dwelling place of God. It appears in the form of an enor­mous rose, the petals of which house the souls of the faith­ful. Around the cen­ter, angels fly like bees car­ry­ing the nec­tar of divine love.

So, in the shape of that white Rose, the holy
legion has shown to me — the host that Christ,
with His own blood, had tak­en as His bride.
The oth­er host, which, fly­ing, sees and sings
the glo­ry of the One who draws its love,
and that good­ness which grant­ed it such glo­ry,
just like a swarm of bees that, at one moment,
enters the flow­ers and, at anoth­er, turns
back to that labor which yields such sweet savor,
descend­ed into that vast flower graced
with many petals, then again rose up
to the eter­nal dwelling of its love.

You can access a free edi­tion of The Divine Com­e­dy fea­tur­ing Doré’s illus­tra­tions at Project Guten­berg. And for a very dif­fer­ent artis­tic inter­pre­ta­tion of the same work, see our post, “Sal­vador Dal­i’s 100 Illus­tra­tions of Dan­te’s The Divine Com­e­dy.” A Yale course on read­ing Dante in trans­la­tion appears in the Lit­er­a­ture sec­tion of our col­lec­tion of 750 Free Online Cours­es.

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Comments (6)
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  • GivingLestelle says:

    Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, the best illus­tra­tions of the Com­me­dia. How­ev­er, it must be said that the Par­adiso ones are less con­vinc­ing: they are often too ‘clas­si­cal’ to con­vey Dan­te’s more abstract imagery here. See the illus­tra­tion below for Can­to 28 by way of con­trast.

  • Manofsteel11 says:

    Dan­te’s work was best illus­trat­ed by Bot­ti­cel­li in some 100 draw­ings — an amaz­ing col­lec­tion that was drawn dur­ing the same era and there­fore bet­ter cap­tures the con­cep­tu­al depth and moral-social ideas embed­ded in the divine structure/system.

    • Manofsteel11 says:

      I actu­al­ly did not read the book you refer to, but good for you.nI did, how­ev­er, see the draw­ings in Lon­don at the Roy­al Acad­e­my of Arts back in 2001 and study the era in a cou­ple of aca­d­e­m­ic cours­es.

  • Ben Davis says:

    I do love Doru00e9, although William Blake’s ver­sions are equal­ly good.

  • Janete dos Santos Borges says:

    Nos­sa e muito lin­do essas imagem muito belo

  • Kalypso Nicolaidis says:

    could you tell me where to get the copy­right for the Dore illus­tra­tions? thanks

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