Visualizing Dante’s Hell: See Maps & Drawings of Dante’s Inferno from the Renaissance Through Today

The light was depart­ing. The brown air drew down
     all the earth’s crea­tures, call­ing them to rest
     from their day-rov­ing, as I, one man alone,

pre­pared myself to face the dou­ble war
     of the jour­ney and the pity, which mem­o­ry
     shall here set down, nor hes­i­tate, nor err.

Read­ing Dante’s Infer­no, and Divine Com­e­dy gen­er­al­ly, can seem a daunt­ing task, what with the book’s wealth of allu­sion to 14th cen­tu­ry Flo­ren­tine pol­i­tics and medieval Catholic the­ol­o­gy. Much depends upon a good trans­la­tion. Maybe it’s fit­ting that the proverb about trans­la­tors as trai­tors comes from Ital­ian. The first Dante that came my way—the unabridged Car­lyle-Okey-Wick­steed Eng­lish translation—renders the poet’s terza rima in lead­en prose, which may well be a lit­er­ary betray­al.

Gone is the rhyme scheme, self-con­tained stan­zas, and poet­ic com­pres­sion, replaced by wordi­ness, anti­quat­ed dic­tion, and need­less den­si­ty. I labored through the text and did not much enjoy it. I’m far from an expert by any stretch, but was much relieved to lat­er dis­cov­er John Ciardi’s more faith­ful Eng­lish ren­der­ing, which imme­di­ate­ly impress­es upon the sens­es and the mem­o­ry, as in the descrip­tion above in the first stan­zas of Can­to II.

The sole advan­tage, per­haps, of the trans­la­tion I first encoun­tered lies in its use of illus­tra­tions, maps, and dia­grams. While read­ers can fol­low the poem’s vivid action with­out visu­al aids, these lend to the text a kind of imag­i­na­tive mate­ri­al­i­ty: say­ing yes, of course, this is a real place—see, it’s right here! We can sus­pend our dis­be­lief, per­haps, in Catholic doc­trine and, dou­bly, in Dante’s weird­ly offi­cious, com­i­cal­ly bureau­crat­ic, scheme of hell.

Indeed, read­ers of Dante have been inspired to map his Infer­no for almost as long as they have been inspired to trans­late it into oth­er languages—and we might con­sid­er these maps more-or-less-faith­ful visu­al trans­la­tions of the Infer­no’s descrip­tions. One of the first maps of Dante’s hell (top) appeared in San­dro Botticelli’s series of nine­ty illus­tra­tions, which the Renais­sance great and fel­low Flo­ren­tine made on com­mis­sion for Loren­zo de’Medici in the 1480s and 90s.

Botticelli’s “Chart of Hell,” writes Deb­o­rah Park­er, “has long been laud­ed as one of the most com­pelling visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions… a panop­tic dis­play of the descent made by Dante and Vir­gil through the ‘abysmal val­ley of pain.’” Below it, we see one of Anto­nio Manetti’s 1506 wood­cut illus­tra­tions, a series of cross-sec­tions and detailed views. Maps con­tin­ued to pro­lif­er­ate: see print­mak­er Anto­nio Maretti’s 1529 dia­gram fur­ther up, Joannes Stradanus’ 1587 ver­sion, above, and, below, a 1612 illus­tra­tion below by Jacques Cal­lot.

Dante’s hell lends itself to any num­ber of visu­al treat­ments, from the pure­ly schemat­ic to the broad­ly imag­i­na­tive and inter­pre­tive. Michelan­ge­lo Caetani’s 1855 cross-sec­tion chart, below, lacks the illus­tra­tive detail of oth­er maps, but its use of col­or and high­ly orga­nized label­ing sys­tem makes it far more leg­i­ble that Callot’s beau­ti­ful but busy draw­ing above.

Though we are with­in our rights as read­ers to see Dante’s hell as pure­ly metaphor­i­cal, there are his­tor­i­cal rea­sons beyond reli­gious belief for why more lit­er­al maps became pop­u­lar in the 15th cen­tu­ry, “includ­ing,” writes Atlas Obscu­ra, “the gen­er­al pop­u­lar­i­ty of car­tog­ra­phy at the time and the Renais­sance obses­sion with pro­por­tions and mea­sure­ment.”

Even after hun­dreds of years of cul­tur­al shifts and upheavals, the Infer­no and its humor­ous and hor­rif­ic scenes of tor­ture still retain a fas­ci­na­tion for mod­ern read­ers and for illus­tra­tors like Daniel Heald, whose 1994 map, above, while lack­ing Botticelli’s gild­ed bril­liance, presents us with a clear visu­al guide through that per­plex­ing val­ley of pain, which remains—in the right trans­la­tion or, doubt­less, in its orig­i­nal language—a plea­sure for read­ers who are will­ing to descend into its cir­cu­lar depths. Or, short of that, we can take a dig­i­tal train and esca­la­tors into an 8‑bit video game ver­sion.

See more maps of Dante’s Infer­no here, here, and here.

via Atlas Obscu­ra

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Free Course on Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty

Artists Illus­trate Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy Through the Ages: Doré, Blake, Bot­ti­cel­li, Mœbius & More

Hear Dante’s Infer­no Read Aloud by Influ­en­tial Poet & Trans­la­tor John Cia­r­di (1954)

Robert Rauschenberg’s 34 Illus­tra­tions of Dante’s Infer­no (1958–60)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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Comments (7)
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  • Kristina Simms says:

    I promise to be a good girl! Eeeeeks!

  • Esteban says:

    Bah, I came here to point you to the last image only to find it already post­ed :(

  • Tom Howard says:

    Hell is real, and as Dante shows, there are degrees, lev­els. But, be assured, it was not made for man rather the dev­il and his fol­low­ers (Matthew 25:41), as apposed to heav­en, “pre­pared for them that love him.”1 Corinthi­ans 2:9. Hell was first pre­pared for “the dev­il and his angels,” not Adam and Eve and their pos­ter­i­ty. They mere­ly got caught in his snare and des­tined fate. But this is very rea­son Christ came to deliv­er us from that dark­ness, Colos­sians 1:13, show­ing mer­cy, John 3:16,17.

  • B. Nana says:

    Nice sto­ry… got any proof?

  • shagman says:

    I agree with tom HELL IS REAL

  • riley... says:

    No need to be dis­re­spect­ful. We should all respect eachother’s beliefs. That’s what equal­i­ty is for, right? So why did you come to this site if you don’t seem to beleive in God. That Jesus died for us? Please, tell me. You should­n’t pros­e­cute Chris­tians for being chris­tians. NOBODY says any­thing dis­re­spect­ful about peo­ple with dif­fer­ent beleifs. Don’t be a hyp­ocrite, Nana. #CHRISTIAN CLAPBACK

  • Jean says:

    Tom Howard’s Sep­tem­ber 25 2018 inter­pre­ta­tion is on the money…spot-on🌟🌟🌟

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