Dante’s Divine Comedy Illustrated in a Remarkable Illuminated Medieval Manuscript (c. 1450)

YT 36

Few writ­ers have inspired so many artists, so deeply and for so long, as Dante Alighieri. His epic poem the Divine Com­e­dy (find in our col­lec­tion of Free eBooks) has received strik­ing illu­mi­na­tions at the hands of Gus­tave Doré, San­dro Bot­ti­cel­li, Alber­to Mar­ti­ni, and Sal­vador Dalí — to name only those we’ve fea­tured before here on Open Cul­ture. The names Pri­amo del­la Quer­cia and Gio­van­ni di Pao­lo may mean rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle to you right now, but they’ll mean much more once you’ve tak­en a look at the illus­tra­tions fea­tured here and at The World of Dante, which come from an illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­script of the Divine Com­e­dy at the British Library known as Yates Thomp­son 36. Pro­duced in Siena around 1450 for an unknown orig­i­nal patron, “the codex belonged to Alfon­so V, king of Aragon, Naples, and Sici­ly,” and includes “110 large minia­tures and three his­to­ri­at­ed ini­tials.” (See all here.) Del­la Quer­cia illus­trat­ed the Infer­no and Pur­ga­to­rio and all three his­to­ri­at­ed ini­tials; di Pao­lo illus­trat­ed Par­adiso.


“This makes for two dis­tinct­ly dif­fer­ent styles,” con­tin­ues The World of Dan­te’s page. “Pri­amo’s work reflects the more real­is­tic style of late fif­teenth-cen­tu­ry Flo­ren­tine paint­ing, an influ­ence which is par­tic­u­lar­ly notice­able in his use of con­tours and out­lines in the depic­tion of nudes. Gio­van­ni di Paolo’s style is clos­er to that of late four­teenth-cen­tu­ry Sienese artists,” pro­duc­ing results “great­ly admired for their visu­al inter­pre­ta­tion of the poem: the artist does­n’t just tran­scribe Dan­te’s words but seeks to ren­der their mean­ing.”

The British Library’s medieval man­u­scripts blog describes it as “cer­tain­ly a lav­ish pro­duc­tion” that “must have been an expen­sive under­tak­ing,” giv­en the sta­tus of the men doing the illu­mi­nat­ing as “two of the pre­em­i­nent artists of the day.” But when it came to visu­al­iz­ing Dan­te’s jour­ney, quite lit­er­al­ly, to hell and back in 15th-cen­tu­ry Italy, no artist ranked too high­ly. Even today, I can’t imag­ine any artist read­ing the Divine Com­e­dy, illu­mi­nat­ed or no, with­out get­ting a few vivid ideas of their own.

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More images can be found on the British Library web site (scroll down the page). A Yale course entire­ly ded­i­cat­ed to Dante appears in our col­lec­tion, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Botticelli’s 92 Illus­tra­tions of Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy

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

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

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

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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