Mapping Dante’s Inferno, One Circle of Hell at a Time

“I found myself, in truth, on the brink of the valley of the sad abyss that gathers the thunder of an infinite howling. It was so dark, and deep, and clouded, that I could see nothing by staring into its depths.”

“This is the vision that greets the author and narrator upon entry the first circle of Hell—Limbo, home to honorable pagans—in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the first part of his 14th-century epic poem, Divine Comedy. Before Dante and his guide, the classical poet Virgil, encounter Purgatorio and Paradiso, they must first journey through a multilayered hellscape of sinners—from the lustful and gluttonous of the early circles to the heretics and traitors that dwell below. This first leg of their journey culminates, at Earth’s very core, with Satan, encased in ice up to his waist, eternally gnawing on Judas, Brutus, and Cassius (traitors to God) in his three mouths. In addition to being among the greatest Italian literary works, Divine Comedy also heralded a craze for “infernal cartography,” or mapping the Hell that Dante had created.

“This desire to chart the landscape of Hell began with Antonio Manetti, a 15th-century Florentine (like Dante himself) architect and mathematician. He diligently worked on the “site, form and measurements” of Hell, assessing, for example, the width of Limbo—87.5 miles across, he calculated. There are several theories for why it was so important then to delineate Dante’s Hell, including the general popularity of cartography at the time and the Renaissance obsession with proportions and measurements.” […]    –Anika Burgess, Atlas Obscura, July 13, 2017

Robert Rauschenberg, 34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno (1958-1960)

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Canto II: The Descent (1958)
Solvent transfer drawing, pencil, gouache, and colored pencil on cut-and-pasted paper on paper.
© Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

Leah Dickerman: In the middle of 1958, Rauschenberg took on a project that would occupy him across the course of the next two and a half years. He wanted to create illustrations for Dante’s Inferno, a work that was written over 600 years before. And to work on these drawings, he set a series of rules for himself. He would only read one canto at a time, and then he’d make a drawing. He wouldn’t read ahead and so he could respond to it with a kind of freshness.

“Robert Rauschenberg: When I started the Dante illustrations, I had been working purely abstractly for so long, it was important for me to see whether I was working abstractly because I couldn’t work any other way, or, or whether I was doing it out of choice. So I really welcomed, insisted, on it—on the challenge of being restricted by a particular subject, which meant that I would have to be involved in symbolism. Well, I spent two and a half years deciding that yes, I could do that.

“Leah Dickerman: He developed an innovative technique for the drawings. It was a solvent transfer technique, choosing photo-based images from popular illustrated magazines, like Sports Illustrated, or Life and Time. He would soak the images with lighter fluid, flip them over, and rub on their back with an empty ballpoint pen. And that would transfer the image to a sheet of drawing paper. Then, he added touches of wash, and gouache, and crayon, and pencil. In this way, he was mixing images that were snipped from the flow of the contemporary media world with traditional fine art media. And he called them ‘Combine’ drawings.” — “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends” @moma.org

View the full series of 34 drawings online at MoMA or the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

Contributed by Daria Bernard-Balatti (University of Kansas, 2020)

Dante Illustrations by Robert Brinkerhoff

Robert Brinkerhoff, Professor of Illustration and Dean of Fine Arts at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), has embarked on what he calls “an ambitious undertaking, to say the least“: he proposes to illustrate the Comedy in 100 canto-by-canto drawings. The Inferno illustrations will be completed in December 2017, with Purgatorio and Paradiso projected for a future date. In January 2017, he began blogging the Inferno illustrations on his personal blog Brinkerhoff Brimmeth Over.

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Of the project, he writes, “Most of us read L’Inferno in high school or freshman lit classes in college, and its pulpy, phantasmal imagery appeals universally to youthful sensibilities. I last encountered L’Inferno (sans the rest of the poem) at age 19, my mind mired in newfound pleasures of freely available sex and beer and (finally, after 12 years of public school in which art class was shoved to the periphery) full-time dedication to art making. But in middle age I suspect the poem resonates more profoundly as it mirrors the preoccupations of people (like myself) whose paths in life are pondered with affection, regret, lost love, resentment and a desire to clarify, once and for all, the rest of the journey. Pick up Dante at age 50 and it will be a different literary experience. Spend many hours translating and drawing its tercets of terza rima and you’ll realize how much you have in common with a 14th century poet, despite the hundreds of years and linguistic traditions that separate you.” — Robert Brinkerhoff, “Introduction to Inferno: Una Selva Oscura,” Brinkerhoff Brimmeth Over, January 18, 2017

See his Divine Comedy images and follow the updates on his blog.

Al Dante

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Seen in The New Yorker, Dec. 5, 2012

Contributed by Jess Esch

Peter Kattenberg’s Progress on the Divine Comedy

peter-kattenberg-divine-comedy-drawingsSunday, Sept. 12th, 2010 an exposition of Peter Kattenberg’s work in progress on Dante’s Divina Commedia will open at Arminius, Rotterdam (NL). The guerilla exhibition is part of Festival Witte de With that celebrates the opening of the new Arts Season. Kattenberg’s Dante exposition runs up to Dante’s Day of Death (Sept. 14th) to commemorate the poet and opens during a remonstrant church service to give Dante a new lease on life, both visually and spiritually.

See mores images on YouTube and Vimeo.

Also, at Leiden University Library, there is an exhibition called “Dante, Darling of the People” that opens Sept 14th, 2010.

Dante’s Inferno – A Natural History

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Dante’s Inferno has been extensively illustrated, with accompanying notes, by Fabrica, a brand new book published by Mondadori, appearing in bookstores from May 25, 2010. More than 300 illustrations, all hand-made using different techniques and all accompanied by in-depth notation: a meticulous work, which gives the reader a fresh and original interpretation of one of the greatest masterpieces of everlasting literature. Fabrica assigned this project to two young English artists, Patrick Waterhouse and Walter Hutton.

Watch the making of the book on Vimeo.

Contributed by Patrick Molloy

Agnolo Bronzino at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2010)

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Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572), “Head of Dante in Profile Facing Right and Wearing a Cap,” 1532

“This exhibition is the first ever dedicated to Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572), and presents nearly all the known drawings by or attributed to this leading Italian Mannerist artist, who was active primarily in Florence.” [. . .]    —The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“. . .A leading intellectual of the time testified that the painter had memorized all of Dante and much of Petrarch.” [. . .]   –Peter Schejeldahl, The New Yorker, March 3, 2010

Contributed by Patrick Molloy

Anna Booth, “Inf. XXVI” (2006)

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Photo by Anna Booth

Jennifer Strange, “Inspired by Dante: An Artist’s Journey Through The Divine Comedy”

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Learn more at Inspired by Dante.

Contributed by Jennifer Strange