Alberto Martini’s Haunting Illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy (1901–1944)


In 1901, Vit­to­rio Ali­nari, head of Fratel­li Ali­nari, the world’s old­est pho­to­graph­ic firm, decid­ed to pub­lish a new illus­trat­ed edi­tion of Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy. To do so, Ali­nari announced a com­pe­ti­tion for Ital­ian artists: each com­peti­tor had to send illus­tra­tions of at least two can­tos of the epic poem, which would result in one win­ner and a pub­lic exhi­bi­tion of the draw­ings. Among the com­peti­tors were Alber­to Zar­do, Arman­do Spa­di­ni, Ernesto Bel­lan­di, and Alber­to Mar­ti­ni.


While Mar­ti­ni did not win the com­pe­ti­tion, he, as Vit­to­rio Sgar­bi wrote in his fore­word to Martini’s La Div­ina Com­me­dia, “seemed born to illus­trate the Divine Com­e­dy.” The 1901 con­test was fol­lowed by two more sets of illus­tra­tions between 1922 and 1944, which pro­duced alto­geth­er almost 300 works in a wide range of styles, includ­ing pen­cil and ink to the water­col­or tables paint­ed between 1943 and 1944. While repeat­ed­ly reject­ed pub­li­ca­tion dur­ing his life­time, a com­pre­hen­sive edi­tion of Martini’s La Divinia Com­me­dia is avail­able today.


With his feel­ing for the grotesque and the macabre, Martini’s work was much more influ­enced by the North­ern Man­ner­ism move­ment than Ital­ian art and is often seen as a pre­cur­sor to Sur­re­al­ism, as Mar­ti­ni was a favorite of André Bre­ton. How­ev­er, while steeped in the sur­re­al­ism of Odilon Redon and Aubrey Beard­s­ley black and white coun­ter­points, Martini’s Divine Com­e­dy is filled with an orig­i­nal sense of fan­ta­sy and beau­ti­ful­ly con­veys Dante’s more abstract imagery. Need­less to say, Martini’s inter­pre­ta­tion was very much in a world apart from the Ital­ian Futur­ist and Meta­phys­i­cal move­ments of the day.


Ignored by Ital­ian crit­ics most his life, Mar­ti­ni con­tin­ued to pro­duce a large num­ber of illus­tra­tions and paint­ing until his death in 1954. As he wrote in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, “Only the true great artists do not age, because they are able to inno­vate and invent new forms, new col­ors, gen­uine inven­tions.” Martini’s Divine Com­e­dy is as shock­ing and beau­ti­ful today as it was in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, and is the best exam­ple of Martini’s pro­gres­sion as an artist through­out his career.

For a very dif­fer­ent artis­tic inter­pre­ta­tion of the Divine Com­e­dy, see our posts on edi­tions by Sal­vador Dalí and Gus­tave Doré.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Physics from Hell: How Dante’s Infer­no Inspired Galileo’s Physics

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

Sal­vador Dalí’s 100 Illus­tra­tions of Dante’s The Divine Com­e­dy

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