Rarely-Seen Illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy Are Now Free Online, Courtesy of the Uffizi Gallery

We know Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy—espe­cial­ly its famous first third, Infer­no—as an extend­ed the­o­log­i­cal trea­tise, epic love poem, and vicious satire of church hypocrisy and the Flo­ren­tine polit­i­cal fac­tion that exiled Dante from the city of his birth in 1302. Most of us don’t know it the way its first read­ers did (and as Dante schol­ars do): a com­pendi­um in which “a num­ber of medieval lit­er­ary gen­res are digest­ed and com­bined,” as Robert M. Durl­ing writes in his trans­la­tion of the Infer­no.

These lit­er­ary gen­res include ver­nac­u­lar tra­di­tions of romance poet­ry from Provence, pop­u­lar long before Dante turned his Tus­can dialect into a lit­er­ary lan­guage to rival Latin. They include “the dream-vision (exem­pli­fied by the Old French Romance of the Rose)”; “accounts of jour­neys to the Oth­er­world (such as the Visio Pauli, Saint Patrick’s Pur­ga­to­ry, the Nav­i­ga­tio Sanc­ti Bren­dani)”; and Scholas­tic philo­soph­i­cal alle­go­ry, among oth­er well-known forms of writ­ing at the time.

By the time the Divine Com­e­dy cap­tured imag­i­na­tions in the peri­od of incunab­u­la, or the infan­cy of the print­ed book, many of these asso­ci­a­tions and influ­ences had reced­ed. And by the time of the Counter-Ref­or­ma­tion, the poem most impressed read­ers and illus­tra­tors of the text as a divine plan for a tor­ture cham­ber and an ency­clo­pe­dia of the tor­tures there­in. What­ev­er oth­er asso­ci­a­tions we have with Dante’s poem, we all know the nine cir­cles of hell and have an omi­nous sense of what goes on there.

No doubt we also have in our mind’s eye some of the hun­dreds of illus­tra­tions made of the text’s grue­some depic­tions of hell, from San­dro Bot­ti­cel­li to Robert Rauschen­berg. Illus­trat­ed edi­tions of Dante’s poem began appear­ing in 1472, and the first ful­ly illus­trat­ed edi­tion in 1491. By the late 16th cen­tu­ry, the poem had become a lit­er­ary clas­sic (the word Divine joined Com­e­dy in the title in 1555). By this time, the tra­di­tion of depict­ing a lit­er­al, rather than a lit­er­ary, hell was firm­ly estab­lished.

It was in this peri­od that Fred­eri­co Zuc­cari made the beau­ti­ful illus­tra­tions you see here, com­plet­ed, Angela Giuf­fri­da writes at The Guardian, “dur­ing a stay in Spain between 1586 and 1588. Of the 88 illus­tra­tions, 28 are depic­tions of hell, 49 of pur­ga­to­ry and 11 of heav­en. After Zuccari’s death in 1609, the draw­ings were held by the noble Orsi­ni fam­i­ly, for whom the artist had worked, and lat­er by the Medici fam­i­ly before becom­ing part of the Uffizi col­lec­tion in 1738.”

The pen­cil-and-ink draw­ings have rarely been seen before because of their frag­ile con­di­tion. They were only exhib­it­ed pub­licly for the first time in 1865 for the 600th anniver­sary of Dante’s birth and of Ital­ian uni­fi­ca­tion. Now, they are on dis­play, vir­tu­al­ly, for free, as part of a “year-long cal­en­dar of events to mark the 700th anniver­sary of the poet’s death.” This is an extra­or­di­nary oppor­tu­ni­ty to see these illus­tra­tions, which have until now “only been seen by a few schol­ars and dis­played to the pub­lic only twice, and only in part,” says Uffizi direc­tor Eike Schmidt.

Much of the promised “didac­tic-sci­en­tif­ic com­ment” to accom­pa­ny each draw­ing is marked as “upcom­ing” on the Eng­lish ver­sion of the Uffizi site, but you can see high res­o­lu­tion scans of each draw­ing and zoom in to exam­ine the many tor­tures of the damned and the grotesque demons who tor­ment them. Learn much more at Khan Acad­e­my about how Dante’s lit­er­ary epic in terza rima left “a last­ing impres­sion on the West­ern imag­i­na­tion for more than half a mil­len­ni­um,” solid­i­fy­ing and reshap­ing images of hell “into new guis­es that would become famil­iar to count­less gen­er­a­tions that fol­lowed.” If you like, you can also take a free course on Dan­te’s Divine Com­e­dy from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty.

via MyMod­ern­Met/The Guardian

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Why Should We Read Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy? An Ani­mat­ed Video Makes the Case

A Dig­i­tal Archive of the Ear­li­est Illus­trat­ed Edi­tions of Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy (1487–1568)

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

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

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