The Doré Illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy
by Gustave Dore (Dover Art Library, £12.99)
Gustave Doré (1832-1883): Master of Imagination Hardcover
by Erika Dolphin and others (Flammarion, £31.96)
William Blake: Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’, the Complete Drawings
edited by Sebastian Schutze (Taschen, £29.00)
Four centuries ago Italy, indeed the whole of Christian Europe, was absorbing the news that the eminent Florentine poet Dante Alighieri had died on September 14, 1321.
This year Italy has been celebrating – as well as it can in a time of plague, in itself a very medieval experience – the life and achievement of one of the world’s greatest poets.
In the 14th Century Italy was a network of minor states, including the territories of the Papacy. The greatest of these states was Florence, Dante played a part in public life, but was driven into exile, and it was in exile that he wrote the Divine Comedy.
It has been said that Dante gave some shape to the idea of Italian literature, which was finally resolved through the work of Manzoni and others after the unification of all the territories south of the Alps as the Kingdom of Italy.
The Christian vision which he created of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise have over the centuries inspired many poets and writers. But they also posed a challenge to artists of many kinds to give graphic realisation to Dante’s verse which is itself highly visual.
Two of the most notable achievements in illustrating the Divine Comedy were by the Frenchman Gustave Doré and the Englishman William Blake. Their visions have enabled many readers of Dante to realise for themselves in very different mediums something of the extraordinary vision of the poet.
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Gustave Doré (born Strasbourg, 1832-Paris, 1883) was a very singular artist.
Some years ago my wife and I went to see the exhibition of the immense canvases on religious themes that Doré exhibited in Europe and America in the years before his death.
These had once had a museum gallery of their own but were dispersed in 1947. Many students of 19th Century art still flocked to see those now in the Grand Palais in Paris. But for myself I felt immense as the achievement was, they were almost too large. In no way did they displace the central importance of Dore’s work as a graphic artist to be seen still in the more portable London (1872), and in the albums which he devoted to Dante’s epic. A canvas such as Vallée des larmes (1883) was, we found, just too big to take in.
But the vision of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven (three volumes, 1866-1867) are still powerful, especially the first two – the illustrations of the Paradiso, are I think, less effective.
Doré had a strong graphic line which gave to the verse a solidity and a menace which is still powerful, still fearful indeed, as fearful as Dante hoped it would be. For heaven perhaps something different was needed, and this William Blake had already supplied.
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William Blake (London, 1757-London, 1827) lived and died a Christian, a Dissenter but one with unorthodox views, a man who strenuously disliked the Church of England. He was working still on his Danté illustrations on his very death bed, tiring at last he laid down his tools and composed himself to death, singing hymns.
As a child Blake had seen an angel descending in glory on a tree. All his life in his own poetry and some of his graphic work he expressed the vision that filled his soul. But he had been trained as an engraver of illustrations in a realistic manner, working for instance in Westminster Abbey. But it was his visionary creations which are most admired today and which are alive in a way mere illustrations never are. What he drew was everywhere informed by his religious ideas, which made him ideal to give graphic life to Dante.
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The images selected on these pages give only a very partial view of what Blake and Dore attempted. I can only urge readers to obtain the listed books in which the complete range of their engravings and paintings are presented. Only in this way can the full majesty of Dante’s creativity be explored. There are many versions of Dante’s Divine Comedy available: that by Dorothy L. Sayers was once the most popular but more recent ones provide more academic information. But to engage with Dante would be the finest way of celebrating this anniversary.
The aim of Blake and Dore was to imagine for others the actually unimaginable. It may well be that if, in this day and age, Christianity is to survive it will have to depend more on its poets and artists rather than on its theologians and preachers, much less on dogmatic views and far more on inspired visions.