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Visions of Dante

The Fame of Dante in Italy and Worldwide

Dante and the Cult of the “Romantic Genius”

In the 18th century, a new sensibility emerged around Dante. Voltaire endorsed his poetry as “bizarre, but gleaming with natural beauties” (1756) and the educational rite of passage known as the Grand Tour began to include Dante. In 1778, Philip Yorke, nephew of an English earl, wrote from Rome that his Italian chaperone had assigned to him the reading of a very strange, still untranslated poem called “L’Inferno”.

The Romantics were fascinated with the Middle Ages. In the fictional Last letters of Jacopo Ortis (1798–1802), the Italian poet Ugo Foscolo complained about the “irreligious” disrespect towards Petrarch’s tomb Arquà, contrasting with the new monument built over Dante’s tomb in Ravenna, in 1780. Dante was now seen as the ultimate Romantic genius:  an artist on the one hand, absolutely original and uncompromising and, on the other hand, receptive to both the sublimity of nature and the soul of the nation. Lord Byron celebrated his pilgrimage to the tomb of Dante’s beloved Beatrice in Santa Croce church (Childe Harrow, 1817.)

The development of literary tourism and the production of memorabilia boosted the cult of Dante. Visiting Italy in 1852, Sara Jane Lippincott, a member of the New York literary society, wrote: “We drove to Dante’s stone, a slab of marble by the side of the way, on which he used to sit in the long summer evenings, rapt in mournful meditations, and dreaming his immortal dreams.

John Dixon
Irish, ca. 1740–1811
after Sir Joshua Reynolds
British, 1723–1792
Count Ugolino and His Children, 1774
21 ½ x 24 ¾ inches (55 x 63 cm)
Private Collection
(1 image)

This impressive print reproduces a famous painting by the painter, academician, theorist, and collector Sir Joshua Reynolds. Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1773, the painting was engraved at the behest of influential publisher John Boydell using mezzotint, a printmaking technique that captures much of the dramatic chiaroscuro of Reynolds’s painting.

In Inferno Canto 32 and 33, in the icy second ring of hell’s lowest circle, dedicated to traitors against their family or homeland, Dante and Virgil encounter Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, who is condemned to gnaw forever at the head of his betrayer, archbishop Ruggieri degli Ubaldini. For his treachery toward various family members as he sought the lordship of Pisa, Ugolino was condemned in life to spend his last days in a locked tower, accompanied by his children, slowly starving to death. Reynolds sets the moment when Ugolino realizes amid the pleading of his sons that he will have to watch them perish one by one.

The Royal Academy prized history painting that set works drawn from mythological, biblical, or literary sources, above other forms such as landscapes or portraits. As such, in Reynolds’s Discourses on Painting (1778), we find ample rationale for the painter’s choice of Ugolino. According to Reynolds, a good painting subject “ought to be either some eminent instance of heroic action or heroic suffering…which powerfully strikes upon the public sympathy.” Despite this, reviews in the press of Reynolds’s Ugolino were mixed, denouncing the subject matter as terrifying and questioning Reynolds’ deviation from the polite realm of portraiture. These objections highlight a discomfort with the brutality of some of Dante’s scenes that caused Theodore Wesley Koch, the first cataloguer of the Fiske Dante Collection, to limit a display of reproductions after famous artists’ interpretations of Dante to “such pictures as appeal to the feeling for the poetical in art, excluding … the sufferings in the Inferno which, as Hazlitt said of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ ‘Ugolino,’ ought never to have been painted.”[1]

Still, it must be observed above all that, even prior to a full translation of Dante’s Inferno, English critics and amateurs were fascinated by Ugolino’s story, such that, as Frances Yates observed, “Dante seems to make his entry into eighteenth-century England in the form of Ugolino.”[2]

Charles Louis d’Henriet
French, born 1829, death date unknown
after Eugène Delacroix
French, 1798–1863
Dante and Virgil in Hell, also known as The Barque of Dante, 1865
Soft-ground etching
Plate: 8 7/16 x 11 inches (21.5 x 28 cm)
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(1 image)

This print reproducing one of the seminal paintings of the French Romantic movement demonstrates the impact of Dante in French nineteenth-century consciousness. For poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire, Eugène Delacroix represented the summit of artistic achievement, praising his universality as a painter and his creativity in interpreting literary sources: “Delacroix loves Dante and Shakespeare, two other great painters of human suffering; he knows them deeply, and he knows how to translate them freely.”[3]

First displayed at the Paris Salon of 1822, Delacroix’s powerful Barque of Dante depicts the moment from Inferno canto 10 in which the boatman Phlegyas, his boat beset by wrathful souls, ferries Dante and Virgil across the marsh of Styx to the City of Dis. So influential was the painting that it was purchased immediately for the French national collection. Two years after Delacroix’s death, as the art world engaged in retrospective exhibitions and assessment of the artist’s career, the painting clearly still stood as one of his great masterpieces. Le Journal Illustré, in its review of the exhibition mounted in 1865, reproduced the painting, referring to it as “Dante and Virgil in Hell, that frightening painting that summarizes the frightening book”.

Charles Louis d’Henriet made this etched version to appear in L’Artiste, an artistic and literary journal featuring articles by many of the chief writers and critics of the day, occasioned, no doubt, by the twin observances of Delacroix’s retrospective and the six-hundredth anniversary of Dante’s birth.

Honoré Daumier
French, 1808–1879
Quiet! My daughter is entering into communication with the Spirit of Dante, from Les Spirites (The Spiritists), November 4, 1865
10 1/2 x 8 3/4 inches (26.7 x 22.2 cm)
Gift of Paul Ehrenfest, Class of 1932
Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell Univertsity
(1 image)

Spiritism in France was driven in large part by the writings of Allan Kardec, whose The Spirits Book (1857) and What is Spiritism? (1859) were influential in asserting the possibility and methodology for communications between the physical and spiritual realms by means of a medium. Such séances became popular evening entertainment. Daumier’s series of three satirical prints, Les Spirites, published in the Paris review Le Charivari was meant to ridicule Spiritist adherents in Parisian society who claimed to that the spirits spoke with  them or shifted their furniture around.

Here, the young medium’s head tilts back, her jaw slack in a trance. She holds a pen, apparently poised to receive a message written by the spirit in a practice known as automatic writing. In this sense, part of the humor in Daumier’s piece comes from the absurdity of the great poet Dante writing from the hereafter, in a perversion of the poetic record of his original spiritual pilgrimage through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.

Mary Hensman
English, active late 19th century
“Onorate l’Altissimo Poeta”: Maps of Sites Associated with Dante, 1892
Page: 21 1/2 x 34 1/8 inches (54.61 x 86.68 cm)
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(1 image)

The maps include all the places supposedly visited by Dante in his exile or named in his works. The first map shows the whole of Italy in the time of Dante, “Onorate L’Altissimo Poeta”, surrounded by an elaborate border made up of Guild emblems, originally created by John Williams. The other map highlights Tuscany.

C. Bovio
Italian, active late 19th century
Statuette of Dante
Height: 22 inches ( 55.88 cm)
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(3 images)

Unlike the famous violins of Cremona, the statue is carved in one piece of wood.

Henri Jean Guillaume Martin
French, 1860–1943
and Maximilienne Guyon
French, 1868–1903
Dante Meets Beatrice
Color transfer lithograph
for L’Estampe moderne in 1895.
Image: 10 1/4 x 12 1/4 inches (26.04 x 31.12 cm)
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(1 image)

Henri-Jean Martin was born just before the dawn of Impressionism. He learned his trade in the studio of one of the last great history painters, Jean-Paul Laurens. From 1881, he painted mainly classical subjects, and was most influenced by Dante’s Divine Comedy. Indeed, his first painting to be exhibited in the Salon de peinture in 1883 was “Dante et Virgile aux Enfers” (Musée départmental de l’Oise, Beauvais.) In 1893, “the Poets of Gay Knowledge” (Musée du Capitole, Toulouse) showed Dante and Virgil with the Muses in a barren forest at night.

Martin is sometimes referred to as a “Divisionist Symbolist. “ However, in this case, he used fine and long brushstrokes rather than the dots favored by Pissarro and other “Divisionist” to build forms and perspective. The contrast between the mostly brown dark palette and the white and golden elements, associated with values of purity and sanctity, is reminiscent of “Silence”, another painting of the 1890s that was published as a lithograph by Ambroise Vollard.

دانتي (Dante), Istanbul, 1927?
Page: 7 7/8 x 5 1/2 inches (20 x 13.97 cm)
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(2 images)

Turkey’s increasing openness to Western culture under Atatürk, the first president of the Republic of Turkey,  paved the way for the creation of a “Società Dante Alighieri” in Istanbul in 1895, to export Dante and Italian culture. This pamphlet recycles images by Gustave Doré as well as pictures from a theatrical performance of Victorien Sardou’s popular play, Dante (1902).

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[1] Koch, Theodore Wesley, Hand-List of Framed Reproductions of Pictures and Portraits Belonging to the Dante Collection, Ithaca: Cornell University Library, 1900, v.

[2] Frances A. Yates, “Transformations of Dante's Ugolino,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 1951, Vol. 14, No. 1/2 (1951), 94.

[3] Charles Baudelaire, Oeuvres Complètes, Ed. Calude Pichois. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris: Gallimard, 1975-1976, v. 2, 440, as cited in Zahi Zalloua, “Baudelaire and the Translation of Modernity,” Romance Notes, v. 48, no. 1 (Fall 2007), 68. Author’s translation.