The 700th anniversary of Dante’s death: 2 His writing

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Dante and Virgil Encountering the Shades of Francesca de Rimini and Paolo in the Underworld (1855), oil on canvas, 171 x 239 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

In the first article of these two remembering the seven-hundredth anniversary of the death of Dante, on 14 September 1321, I showed paintings of his life. Here I offer a very small selection of those made of two of his literary works, the Divine Comedy, and his Vita Nuova “The New Life”.

The framing story of The Divine Comedy describes Dante himself visiting the three realms of the afterlife in the company of the shade of the Classical Roman poet Virgil (in Hell and Purgatory), and Beatrice (in Paradise). Each visit travels through a series of circles or levels in that realm, and each of those circles contains figures drawn from classical literature, legend, and Dante’s own life, who have committed various sins and are now suffering its consequences.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Dante and Virgil in the ninth circle of hell (1861), oil on canvas, 311 x 428 cm, Musée de Brou, Bourg-en-Bresse, France. Wikimedia Commons.

The sinners in Hell are divided according to the type of sin; here, Gustave Doré shows Virgil (left) and Dante at the last of these circles, the ninth, for those who committed sins of malice, such as treachery. These sinners are shown partially frozen into an icy lake, with additional blocks of ice scattered around, just as described by Dante.

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), The Barque of Dante (Dante and Virgil in Hell) (1822), oil on canvas, 189 x 241 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1822, the young Eugène Delacroix painted one of his finest narrative works, The Barque of Dante, showing Dante and Virgil crossing a stormy river Acheron in Charon’s small boat.

Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), Map of Hell (1480-90), silverpoint, ink and distemper, 33 x 47.5 cm, Biblioteca Apostólica Vaticana, Vatican City. Wikimedia Commons.

Ever since Dante completed The Divine Comedy, enthusiasts have been drawing charts and maps of its realms. Botticelli’s Map of Hell from 1480-90 is perhaps one of the most famous, with its detailed depiction of each of the circles described in the poem.

The Punishment of the Thieves 1824-7 by William Blake 1757-1827
William Blake (1757–1827), The Punishment of the Thieves, from Illustrations to Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ (1824–7), chalk, ink and watercolour on paper, 37.2 x 52.7 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchased with the assistance of a special grant from the National Gallery and donations 1919), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

William Blake was a major artist who had a longstanding obsession with Dante’s Divine Comedy. At the end of Blake’s career, he was commissioned by the artist John Linnell to produce a set of illustrations, which remained incomplete at the time of his death in 1827. The Punishment of the Thieves (1824–7), anticipates figurative painting of a century or more later, and the darker psychological recesses of sex and snakes. Dante refers to the thieves being bitten by snakes, but Blake uses the creatures in other ways.

William Blake (1757–1827), The Circle of the Lustful: Francesca da Rimini (The Whirlwind of Lovers) (c 1824), pen and watercolour over pencil, 36.8 x 52.2 cm, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. The Athenaeum.

Blake’s most famous and wondrously imaginative of these illustrations shows The Circle of the Lustful: Francesca da Rimini, which he completed in about 1824, and had already been etched when the artist died.

This shows one of Dante’s best-known and probably largely original stories, of the adulterous couple of Francesca da Rimini and her lover Paolo, her husband’s brother, who were both murdered when caught in bed together by Francesca’s husband.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Dante and Virgil Encountering the Shades of Francesca de Rimini and Paolo in the Underworld (1855), oil on canvas, 171 x 239 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Ary Scheffer’s vision of Dante and Virgil Encountering the Shades of Francesca de Rimini and Paolo in the Underworld from 1855 is more conventional. This is one of Scheffer’s most brilliant narrative paintings.

Although less well-known today than his Divine Comedy, Dante’s Vita Nuova was completed before he was forced into exile, in 1294. It’s a collection of lyrical poetry with a prose commentary telling semi-reliable episodes from the author’s life. Much of it centres on Dante’s love for Beatrice, and its sonnets are about that love.

Dante's First Meeting with Beatrice 1859-63 by Simeon Solomon 1840-1905
Simeon Solomon (1840–1905), Dante’s First Meeting with Beatrice (1859–63), ink, watercolour and gouache on paper, 19.4 x 22.9 cm, The Tate Gallery (Bequeathed by Robert Ross through the Art Fund 1919), London. Photographic Rights © Tate 2018, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Several of those involved with the Pre-Raphaelites adopted Beatrice as a theme. Simeon Solomon’s ink and watercolour painting of Dante’s First Meeting with Beatrice (1859–63) is taken from Vita Nuova, and its description of the two nine year-olds meeting in about 1274.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Beatrice Meeting Dante at a Marriage Feast, Denies Him Her Salutation (1852), watercolour and gouache on paper, 35.1 x 42.5 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Wikimedia Commons.

Rossetti painted a narrative watercolour of another meeting between the two, again based on the Vita Nuova, Beatrice Meeting Dante at a Marriage Feast, Denies Him Her Salutation (1852). Dante, dressed in his traditional red, is here being ignored by his beloved, after they bumped into one another at a wedding. This is thought to be Rossetti’s first painting in which Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Siddall is the model for Beatrice.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), “Certain ladies of her companionship gathered themselves unto Beatrice…” (1880), watercolour and gouache over traces of graphite on paper on backing, 85.1 x 63.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The full title of Marie Spartali Stillman’s “Certain ladies of her companionship gathered themselves unto Beatrice…” (1880) quotes directly from Vita Nuova:
Certain ladies of her companionship gathered themselves unto Beatrice where she kept alone in weeping. And as they passed in and out, I would hear them speak concerning her, how she wept.

This refers to the ladies of Florence who paid their respects to Beatrice as she kept vigil following her father’s death. Dante is shown sat outside the house, wearing his customary chaperon hat, his head bowed, and being comforted by two of the women who had visited Beatrice inside.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Dante’s Dream on the Day of the Death of Beatrice (1880), oil on canvas, 135.2 x 200.6 cm, Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection, Dundee, Scotland. Wikimedia Commons.

A decade after Lizzie Siddall’s death, Rossetti wove the more complex Dante’s Dream on the Day of the Death of Beatrice, of which this is the artist’s 1880 copy of his 1871 original. There are references to his Beata Beatrix, in the red birds at the left and right edges, and his model for Beatrice was Jane Morris, wife of William Morris, the designer and his close friend.

Rossetti casts the dream insert in red, for love, showing a red and winged angel of love kissing the dying Beatrice. He clutches not a flower – there are red roses strewn all over the floor – but an arrow of love.

The model for the woman on the right was Marie Spartali Stillman, and her husband William James Stillman modelled for Dante’s face.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), The Pilgrim Folk (1914), watercolor and gouache on paper, 56.8 × 70.3 cm, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE. Wikimedia Commons.

In the months before the outbreak of the First World War, Marie Spartali Stillman painted The Pilgrim Folk (1914), which may well have been a double valediction, as both her last major painting and her farewell to Italy. It again refers to Dante’s Vita Nuova via Rossetti, a quotation from which was shown with the painting. This passage contains Dante’s account of Beatrice’s death to a group of newly-arrived pilgrims.

Dante leans out from a window at the left, addressing three pilgrims below. At the lower left corner, the winged figure of Love crouches in grief, poppies scattered in front of him, a reference to Rossetti’s paintings. Pilgrims around the well are taking refreshment after their travels, and more are arriving through the alley beyond. Black crows fly in flocks above, symbolising death. The landscape behind is very Italian, and the whole has a fairy-tale unreality about its mediaeval details.

Dante himself died when still in exile. He’d returned from a diplomatic mission to Venice, then a powerful republic, in whose lagoon malarial mosquitoes were common. He contracted quartan malaria, which killed him in Ravenna on 14 September 1321. He was buried there in Ravenna, but the city of Florence repeatedly asked for his remains to be returned there to be buried in a tomb which they had built for him in the Basilica of Santa Croce. The remains of the most famous Florentine are still in Ravenna to this day.