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Visions of Dante

Dante from Classical to Romantic

For artists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Europe, the long stranglehold of the classical antiquity began to give way to a renewed interest in medieval and nonwestern art and literature, opening up artists to influences outside the Greek and Roman canon.

The works of art in this section move between Neoclassical images that clothe Dante’s characters in heroic anatomy and static gestures and a wilder, more individualistic interpretation of the Divine Comedy. The truth, as it often does, lies somewhere in the middle.

As Metropolitan Art Museum curator Katryn Galitz points out, even though early Romantic artists were trained in the studio of their more classical and conservative masters, they ultimately subverted their teachers’ rigid aesthetics, asserting their originality and individuality—notions central to Romanticism.

John Flaxman
British, 1755–1826
Inferno, canto 23: The Circle of the Hypocrites,
in Compositions From The Hell, Purgatory, And Paradise, Of Dante Alighieri, By John Flaxman, Sculptor. Engraved By Thomas Piroli, from the Drawings in Possession of Thomas Hope Esqr. 1793.
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(1 image)

John Flaxman was the most significant artist employed by the English porcelain manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood. His flat, linear style strengthened the connection between archeological accuracy and the “contour style.”

In 1787, Flaxman went to Rome, partly sponsored by Wedgwood. He stayed seven years, but after producing only a couple of designs for ewers and vases, he changed his focus and produced illustrations for the works of Homer, Aeschylus, and Dante—in this case, at the request of Thomas Hope, a Dutch banker, art collector, and interior decorator resident in Rome during his Grand Tour.

The British Institute of Florence holds the three volumes of Flaxman’s own copy of the Divine Comedy, annotated lightly in pencil to help him locate potential passages to draw. His compositions are not mere illustrations, but present “an extended narrative solely through a series of images, and since they were published in book form, this format encouraged the viewer to read them [and] reconstruct the source text.” (Joshua D. Hainy.)

Sophie Giacomelli
French, 1779–1819
Inferno, canto 19 : The Circle of the Simonists, in Figures pour orner la Divine Comédie (sic), Paris: chez Salmon, marchand d’estampes, 1813
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(1 image)

The daughter of an artist, Sophie Janinet became Madame Giacomelli by marrying an Italian musician. She herself was both an accomplished graphic artist and a singer.

While her meticulous figures—officially presented as “ornaments” of Dante’s text—are clearly influenced by Flaxman’s line drawings, Giacomelli shows more tenderness and humor than her predecessor; for example when illustrating Dante’s reaction at seeing the projecting feet of those who have corrupted the church, “The good master clasped me to his side/ to the pit of one lamenting with his shanks.” The poor poet leaps into Virgil’s arms like a frightened little boy.

Luigi Sabatelli
Italian, 1772-1850
Inferno, Canto 3: Dante and Virgil Watching Charon Ferrying Souls to Hell, 1795
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(1 image)

Active in Milan, Rome, and his native city of Florence, Sabatelli’s finest achievement was a series of frescoes based on Homer’s Iliad, in Florence’s Palazzo Pitti.

The intensity and cruelty of the scene and the very emotional reaction of both Dante and Virgil, are well rendered by the artist. The exaggerated musculature of Charon conjures up the memory of Michelangelo and emphasizes his cruelty towards the sinners entering the boat. It is interesting to see a different treatment of the same scene by German artist Joseph Anton Koch (see Joseph Anton Koch, Dante crosses back the stream of the tyrants).

Joseph Anton Koch
Austrian, 1768–1839
Charon's Bark with Souls Crossing the Styx: Plate 2 from Scenes Illustrating Dante’s Hell, 1807-8
12 x 16 inches (30.5 x 40.6 cm)
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(1 image)

Joseph Anton Koch
Austrian, 1768-1839
Dante crosses back the stream of the tyrants and murderers on Nessus's: Plate 3 from Scenes Illustrating Dante’s Hell, 1807-8
16 x 12 inches (40.6 x 30.5 cm)
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(1 image)

Itinerant in his early years, Koch was in Rome by 1795 where he joined northern neoclassical artists Berthel Thorvaldsen and Asmus Carstens. In Rome, Koch became familiar with Dante initially in German translation and then read the entire Divine Comedy in Italian, his passion for Dante reflecting his interest in the medieval revival that was at the heart of Romanticism.

Not long after 1800, Koch began to draw on the subject of Dante. In 1805, he embarked on a series of engravings after these drawings, of which only five were realized. Koch’s neoclassical roots for his groups of figures in the Dante prints are revealed in his statement that the series would be made “in the taste of Etruscan vases”[1] but they are also seen in his many figural and compositional borrowings from monuments of both ancient and Renaissance Roman. In Koch’s envisioning of Canto 3, the ferryman Charon—who drives damned souls into his boat with an oar—is an obvious quotation from Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. Numerous other figures also reveal direct Michelangelesque models, while an ancient Roman river god’s urn gives the source for the river Styx. In the plate depicting scenes from Canto 11 and 12, Koch likewise revels in his ability to depict personages from mythology and to create a tumult of heroic musculature. Dante and Virgil pass the threatening Minotaur at the top and encounter the centaurs Nessus and Chiron—the latter assigns the former as Dante’s mount to cross Phlegethon, a river of boiling blood where the souls of those violent to others (mostly kings and military leaders) are tortured.

Felice Giani
Italian, 1758–1823
Virgil and Dante in the Bark of Charon, Inferno 3, ca. 1805?
Pen and ink and wash
15 x 20 inches (38.1 x 50.8 cm)
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(1 image)

With bravura energy, the prolific draftsman, designer, and muralist Felice Giani imagines a scene of Dante’s entry into Hell. This previously unknown drawing came to light among Willard Fiske’s large format scrapbooks. Giani began to produce various drawings of Dante subjects around 1800, impelled in part by the success of Flaxman’s drawings engraved by Tommaso Piroli, which were published in 1793 (see John Flaxman, Inferno, canto 23). Unlike most other such drawings, however (see Giani, Dante Faints), it is notable for its elicitation of Dante’s vision without strict fidelity to the narrative.

Inferno Canto 3 begins with Virgil and Dante passing through a gate inscribed with the text that begins “Through Me the Way into the Suffering City…” After this, the pilgrims encounter the homeless souls of those who occupy this threshold area of hell due to their failure to commit to any moral stance, either good or evil. Finally, Charon the boatman arrives across the river Acheron, compelling the damned into his boat with blows of his oar. Pilgrim Dante, overcome by this spectacle, faints; narrator Dante offers no more description of the journey across the river to the City of Dis.

That Giani knew this canto intimately and explored it in highly personal terms is attested by a large-scale drawing of the 1780s in which the young artist casts himself, his teachers, and his multi-national Roman artistic peers among the ranks of those sinners thronging to Charon’s boat.[2] The Cornell drawing is completely different, however, and springs largely from the artist’s imagination. Giani chooses to depict none of the canto’s actual “action,” instead collapsing and simplifying much of Inferno Canto 3 to its essence. Immediately to the right of the gate’s entry text—which is written on a rock—Charon is already backing his boat away from the shore at center, Virgil pointing out what is to come while Dante reclines pensively on his guide. The emphasis is on the pilgrims’ embarkation on the journey to come. Charon’s billowing drapery, the imposing shapes of the rocks that hem in the small craft, and the stones and waves personified with howling faces, all offer a more romantic interpretation, demonstrating the penetration of Dante’s epic into the consciousness of artists and collectors.

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[1] Koch in a letter to Johann Friedrich Frauenholz, January 30, 1802, as quoted in Antony Griffiths and Frances Carey, “German Printmaking in the Age of Goethe,” British Museum, 1994, no. 102.

[2] Ottani Cavina, Anna, Attilia Scarlini, Felice Giani: 1758-1823 : e la cultura di fine secolo. Milano: Electa, 1999, vol. 2, 926.