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Visions of Dante

Selected Themes from the Divine Comedy

The Giants

When describing giants in the Divine Comedy, Dante was inspired not only by the Bible but also by Claudian, the 4th century Latin author of a Gigantomachia (a mythical battle between Gods and Giants), rediscovered by Italian humanists in the twelfth century. In Inferno canto 31, as the author-narrator prepares to descend into the Ninth Circle of Hell, he spots what appears to be a tower but is in fact a giant buried from the waist down.  This is Nimrod, architect of the tower of Babel, a presumptuous and disastrous attempt by the Babylonians to build a tower up to heaven as described in the Book of Genesis. Dante’s passage shows the association of medieval giants with foundational moments in human history. At the same time, and not surprisingly, giants fascinate us because of their destructive power, a duality that has been exploited by artists illustrating the Divine Comedy.

Robert Rauschenberg
American, 1925-2008
Inferno Canto 12, in
Thirty Four Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno [1958-60], reprint, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2017
14 1/4 x 11 1/2 inches (36.5 x 29.3 cm)
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(1 image)

Between 1958 and 1960, Rauschenberg worked exclusively on a series of drawings illustrating Dante’s Inferno. It was a self-imposed challenge to be restricted by a particular subject, especially one with which he was not familiar. Indeed, Alfred Barr, the chief curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, gave him a copy of the Divine Comedy because Rauschenberg did not own one.

Combining his own drawings and watercolors with images transferred with a chemical solvent from glossy magazine reproductions, Rauschenberg provided a contemporary context for Dante’s poem by including the “giants” of American politics and sports. For Inferno canto 12, which is about tyrants and those “who shed the blood of their fellow men”, he portrayed Dante as John F. Kennedy and Virgil as Adlai Stevenson, the elder conscience of the Democratic Party. Here, Rauschenberg represents the giant guardians of Hell as Olympic weightlifters standing on a podium. The oversized chain link at upper right is an allegory of economic and social exploitation and alienation.

The first display of this work at Leo Castelli’s gallery was a big sensation because avant-garde painters in New York had embraced abstraction since the 1940s.

Tom Philipps
British, born 1937
Dante’s Inferno, translated and illustrated by Tom Philipps, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1985
Image: 9 5/6 x 6 5/8 inches (24.45 x 16.83 cm)
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(1 image)

In 1985, the London-based painter, printmaker, and opera composer Tom Philipps produced 138 color illustrations for this new edition of Inferno. He thought that the allegorical and phantasmagoric nature of Dante’s visions led naturally to cinema. For example, in the same way in which Dante imagined his “monsters” in proportion to the tallest buildings of his time (in Inferno Canto 31, Dante mistakes giants for the fourteen fortified towers of Monterrigioni), so the creators of King Kong set the gigantic ape off against the skyscrapers of New York. King Kong gently carries Ann Darrow in the way the giant Antaeus lifts Dante and Virgil and deposits them in the final pit of Hell: “His hands extended and took up my Guide, who made a bundle of himself and me.”

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