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Visions of Dante

Selected Themes from the Divine Comedy

An Eagle Painted with Fire in the Sky

In Paradiso canto 18, Dante refers to God as a painter, one who sends us cryptic messages in the form of symbols. In the sphere of Jupiter, a sentence appears in Heaven:  Diligite iustitiam qui iudicatis terram ("Cherish justice, you who judge the earth.”) The letters then dissolve save for the last one, “M” (the first letter of “monarchia”), which morphs to form the neck and head of an eagle. Angels made luminous by the light of the Sun (God), first weave the figure of a lily (the symbol of Dante’s Florence), and finally settle into the shape of a complete Imperial Eagle.

What does the whole passage mean? In his treatise De Monarchia (1311–12), Dante claims that universal peace would be possible only under a single temporal Monarch, the Holy Roman Emperor, to harmonize opposing factions, and to rule all with justice, with a higher degree of local government in city-states such as Florence. Meanwhile, the Papacy should focus on guiding “the universal community of the human race” to Eternal Life, instead of accumulating riches and seeking territorial expansion through war. In Florence, the rivalry between supporters of the Emperor (Ghibellines) and supporters of the Pope (Guelphs) was ferocious. In 1301, Dante opposed a vote giving one hundred soldiers to Pope Boniface VIII, to be used against Frederick II of Sicily, who dreamed of the imperial crown. Frederick’s French cousin and rival, Charles of Valois, was named papal vicar, but he soon lost himself in the imbroglio of Italian politics. In 1302, Dante left Florence to meet with the Pope over the latter’s desired annexation of Tuscan lands. During his absence, Charles of Valois helped to stage a papal-sanctioned coup in Florence. Dante was heavily fined for corruption, banished for two years, and barred from seeking office in the city for the rest of his life. He never returned to Florence, and never saw his dream of universal monarchy fulfilled.

Francesco Fontebasso
Italian, 1707-1769
The Imperial Eagle, Paradiso Canto 20
in Divina Commedia di Dante Alighieri Con varie annotazioni, e copiosi Rami adornata..., Venice: Antonio Zatta, 1757
Image: 8 1/4 x 5 1/4 inches (20.96 x 13.34 cm)
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(1 image)

This was the first illustrated Commedia published (in three volumes) since 1596. The first volume included an image of Dante offering his book to the Doge of Venice; the portrait of Empress Elizabeth II of Russia, who financed the publication; medals of the effigy of Dante from the collection of Count Mazzuchelli; and a fifteenth century map of Dante’s Hell. The set launched the fortunes of Dante in Russia.

The image of the Imperial Eagle in Paradiso 38 is one of the illustrations provided by the rococo painter and etcher Fontebasso, known for his elegant sensuality. With her sumptuous dress and delicate gesture, Beatrice could belong in a scene by Tiepolo!

Gustave Doré
French, 1832-1883
The Imperial Eagle, Paradiso Canto 20
La Divine Comédie, Paris : Lévy frères, 1865-70
Wood engraving
Image : 9 5/8 x 7 3/4 inches (24.45 x 19.69 cm)
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(1 image)

While Doré’s illustrations for Hell depend heavily on chiaroscuro and communicate a remarkable sense of drama, the engravings of Paradiso, a more luminous place, are sometimes a bit dull and lifeless. The black of the “dark forest” is replaced by shades of gray; the characters stand out with less sharpness; the imagery is often conventional or “Sulpician”— a term invented in 1890 for mass-produced religious items offered in the shops located in the area around the Saint Sulpice church in Paris.

One may however, admire Doré’s powerful representation of the Imperial Eagle. The closer the ethereal souls of the Blessed move towards the head of the Eagle, the more resplendent they become.

Leonard Baskin
American, 1922–2000
Souls Enwoven (Paradiso Canto 19, lines 1-2), ca. 1969
Pen and ink
26 13/16 x 40 inches (68.1 x 101.6 cm)
Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University
Gift of Janet Marqusee, Class of 1952, and John E. Marqusee, Class of 1951
(1 image)

For Leonard Baskin, birds were a persistent artistic muse and familiar, a guise for the expression of human emotion in all its range. He drew, printed, carved, and cast crows, owls, and eagles, with imposing glares and formidable talons, sometimes combining avian and human anatomy in compelling, brooding forms. It is therefore hardly surprising that in Baskin’s project of the late 1960s to produce an artist’s edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy through a series of austere, large-scale drawings in black ink, Dante’s birds figure heavily among his imagery.

In “Souls Enwoven,” Baskin sets the transitional moment from the end of Paradiso 18 in which Dante and Beatrice watch as a multitude of blessed souls shift and merge into a great eagle. Accordingly, the drawing shows Baskin’s mastery of avian form as the intelligent gaze of the noble bird—a Roman imperial symbol and a sign of justice—fixes us. At the same time, Baskin’s use of a painstaking dotting and stippling technique allows the eye to pick out the individual souls that collectively make up the great bird, giving life to the chosen passage:

With wings outspread before my eyes appeared
The fair image made by those souls enwoven,
As in their sweet fruition, they rejoiced.
And like unto a ruby seemed each one
Wherein a sunbeam burned so ardently
As to refract again upon my eyes.

(translation John Ciardi)

Monika Beisner
German, born in 1942
The Imperial Eagle, Paradiso Canto 20, 2007
in [Dante’s Divine] Comedy translated by Robert & Jean Hollander ; illustrated by Monika Beisner ; [introduction by Carlo Carena ; foreword by Roberto Benigni], Verona : Edizioni Valdonega, 2007
Image: 4 5/8 x 6 1/2 inches (11.75 x 16.51 cm)
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(1 image)

Mostly known for her children’s books, Heavenly Zoo (1979) and Fabulous Beasts (1981), Beisner is the first woman to have illustrated the whole Divine Comedy. The hundred miniatures took her seven years to complete. Says Marina Warner, “The achievement is dazzling. The present volume reproduces her work full-size, … with no strokes or drawing visible, but a pure glow of dense color, applied with brushes so small they consist of a half-dozen sable hairs.” For the Imperial Bird, Beisner drew from medieval heraldry, and opted for a golden eagle abaissé, a symbol often assumed by members of the Ghibelline faction.

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