The least-known of the three books which make up Dante’s Divine Comedy, to his contemporary readers Paradise was its most important. Having given gruesome detail of what would await them in Inferno, and the penance they would have to pay in Purgatory, Paradise must be everyone’s ultimate aspiration. Here, Dante invokes classical cosmology rather than the simple physical structures of the two previous realms, which for many readers is more nebulous.
This is reflected well in two contrasting pictorial summaries of Paradise: the fresco above, painted by the German Romantic painter Philipp Veit (1793–1877) in the ceiling of the Casa Massimo in Rome between 1817-27, and below the modern account in Indian ink by Philip Firsov, who was born in 1985.
Dante sets off with Beatrice from the Garden of Eden at the summit of Purgatory soon after noon on the Spring Equinox, to ascend to the first of the nine concentric shells which form the Celestial Paradise.
They first pass through the layer of fire above the earth’s atmosphere, and then enter the shell in which lies the moon. As they rise, Beatrice’s beauty intensifies, and she explains to Dante how the dark spots on the moon come about.
At the time, popular belief was that God had covered Cain with thorns after he murdered his brother Abel, then exiled him to the moon, where those thorns formed the dark patches. Beatrice tells Dante that understanding the heavens needs more than just physical observation and reason, and requires deeper spiritual insight. Her metaphysical explanation is that the moon’s luminosity varies over its surface in the same way that the brightness of the stars vary.
In the shell containing the moon are the spirits of those who broke their (religious) vows. This doesn’t mean that there are different levels in Celestial Paradise, but that its souls are presented to Dante according to features and virtues of their earthly lives.
Among these spirits is that of Piccarda Donati, a friend of Dante’s (and related to his wife) whose sister Forese remains in Purgatory for her gluttony, while her brother Corso is condemned to eternal Hell. Piccarda was a member of the order of ‘Poor Clares’, founded by a follower of Saint Francis of Assisi. Her brother Corso forced her to leave her convent near Florence in order to marry one of his colleagues in crime. Piccarda died shortly after that marriage.
In turn, Piccarda introduces Dante to the Empress Constance (1152-1198), who was the wife of King Henry VI, mother of Frederick II, and grandmother of Manfred, whom Dante met in ante-Purgatory. Constance had also been forced to leave a convent for a political marriage.
Beatrice explains that Piccarda and Constance had been forced to break their vows, but their absolute will remained intact, in that they stayed true to their heart.
Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia (c 1403-1482) was a prolific Italian painter who worked primarily in Siena, and was one of the more important members of the early Sienese School. He started work painting miniatures, later making some important altarpieces as well. He created sixty-one images of Paradise for the “Yates Thompson” Dante commissioned by King Alfonso V, and now in the British Museum in London.
Gustave Doré (1832–1883) was the leading French illustrator of the nineteenth century, whose paintings are still relatively unknown. Early in his career, he produced a complete set of seventy illustrations for translations of the Inferno, which were first published in 1857 and continue to be used. These were followed in 1867 by more illustrations for Purgatorio and Paradiso. This article looks at his paintings.
Philip Firsov (b 1985) is a British painter and sculptor who was born in Russia and trained in London, at the Slade School of Fine Art and Prince’s Drawing School. Further details of him and his works are here.
Francesco Scaramuzza (1803–1886) was an Italian painter who specialised in mythological and historical narratives. He became quite obsessed with Dante’s Divine Comedy, and for much of his career worked on producing paintings and drawings of its scenes. He worked mainly in Parma, in Italy.
Raffaello Sorbi (1844–1931) was an Italian narrative painter who was born and trained in Florence. He painted at least two works based on Dante’s Divine Comedy early in his career, both telling stories of the Donati family. From 1870, his paintings were mostly sold by the Goupil Gallery, and were popular in Britain. He retained an academic style throughout his career, and became professor in Florence and Urbino.
William Cave Thomas (1820–1896) was a British painter who was born in London. He started his training at the Royal Academy Schools, then spent two years in Munich. He painted narrative and genre works during the mid-nineteenth century. Among his works is a pair of watercolours, one showing Dante on Earth, the other Dante in Heaven, seen above.
Lorenzo Toncini (1802–1884) was an Italian narrative and portrait painter who was born in Piacenza. He started his training there before moving to Rome. He returned to Piacenza by 1840, where he remained painting for the rest of his career.
Philipp Veit (1793–1877) was a German Romantic painter who was partly responsible for the revival of fresco techniques in the early nineteenth century. He was a pupil of Caspar David Friedrich in Dresden, and later trained in Vienna. A prodigious draftsman, he preferred watercolours to oils. He went to Rome where he joined the Nazarenes, later returning to Frankfurt, where he became professor.
John Riley Wilmer (1883-1941) was a British painter mainly in watercolours who was born in the Cornish port of Falmouth, and remained there much of his life. He seems to have painted mainly figurative and religious works, and has been described as being Impressionist and ‘Modern’, but little is now known about him. His painting shown here is also something of a puzzle, as to how it might relate to the story of Piccarda.
Robin Kirkpatrick (trans) (2012) Dante, The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso, Penguin Classics. ISBN 978 0 141 19749 4.
Richard Lansing (ed) (2000) The Dante Encyclopedia, Routledge. ISBN 978 0 415 87611 7.
Guy P Raffa (2009) The Complete Danteworlds, A Reader’s Guide to the Divine Comedy, Chicago UP. ISBN 978 0 2267 0270 4.
Prue Shaw (2014) Reading Dante, From Here to Eternity, Liveright. ISBN 978 1 63149 006 4.