A 21st-Century Illuminated Manuscript and the Artistic Tradition of Dante’s Inferno

A 21st-Century Illuminated Manuscript and the Artistic Tradition of Dante’s Inferno

George Cochrane (2018)

In considering the creation of a new illuminated manuscript of Dante’s Inferno for Thornwillow Press, some central questions emerged: What would a contemporary version look like? What font and how many lines per page? What Italian version of the poem? Which English translation? How could I, as an artist, acknowledge the vast history of the publication of Dante’s poem, and find some way to add to that legacy?

The publisher’s wish to present a facing-page, contemporary translation by one who has completed all three canticles, Anthony Esolen, informed the basic layout and translation choices. From there, I settled on 42 lines per page as often appears in early manuscripts (and the Gutenberg Bible). Giorgio Petrocchi’s 1967 version of the Italian poem remains the most commonly accepted modern text, despite recent criticism and new editions intended to supplant or refine it (Federico Sanguineti, Giorgio Inglese).  In order to make the connection between illuminated manuscripts and comic books, which both function through words and sequential art, I decided to use the “comic font” I have developed over the past ten years in working on graphic novels (looking to the work of Frank Engli on Terry and the Pirates and Ben Oda’s work in E.C. Comics’ Mad). Taking the comic book connection further, tropes and drawing styles found in the genre are intermixed with artistic sources from the long history of artworks inspired by the Commedia.

The Gates of Hell (Inferno III)

Copyright/Courtesy of George Cochrane, 2018

This page finds Dante following Virgil out of the dark, savage wood and descending to the Gates of Hell. The third canto opens with the nine lines inscribed above the gate, including the famous warning, “Abandon all hope you who enter here.” Dante’s scant description of the form itself has allowed artists and commentators to imagine the Gates of Hell in a variety of ways over the centuries: as a discrete opening in a rock wall, an entrance in a city wall, or a triumphal arch. I selected the latter for heightened poetic resonance.

The gate’s inscription has a different spelling and typography than the modern text as it is drawn from the Codice Trivulziano 1080 (one of the earliest datable manuscripts from 1337), which is likely closer to Dante’s original version and underscores the ongoing debates about the elusiveness of a “correct” textual form of the poem.

Individual elements on the gate derive from a range of sources. Federico Zuccari’s black and red chalk drawing (1585-88) includes the horned skull at the keystone. The Codex Altonensis 2 Aa 5/7 (1350-1400), an early illuminated manuscript, provides the bat and owl (in Dante’s time these animals were ascribed different, more ominous qualities – the “wise” owl was then considered a sinister, supernaturally silent killer). The woodcut that opens the Landino edition (Venice, 1491) features a griffin with a curling tail and a stick motif also found on the gate. Jack Kirby’s 1972 comic character, the Demon, sits among the heads that ring the arch and foreshadows the creatures that Dante will encounter later in the narrative. Gustave Doré’s popular engraving of the entry at the foot of a descending grade provides the landscape’s profile in the distance.

In the 1334 Commento by L’Ottimo, a contemporary of Dante and one of his earliest commentators, the gates of Hell exemplify the philosophy that narrow is the way that leads to life, wide is the way that leads to death (derived from St. Anthony in reference to Matthew 7:13-14). This conceit is inverted in my illustration: a “narrow” (though triumphal) way leads into the vast infernal landscape. I underscored the abstract, conceptual nature of Dante’s gate by placing it alone in a deserted, somewhat surrealistic landscape, thereby removing its function of separating two spaces. Importantly, all still pass through, thereby offering a subtle pun on the “triumph” of death.

Limbo (Inferno IV)

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Virgil and Dante arrive in Limbo in canto IV, where Dante learns that the souls of great pagan men and women are compelled to remain eternally. For the first view of Limbo, I borrowed compositional motifs from the second printed and illustrated Commedia, the so-called Brescia edition (1478).  As with many early print editions, the single woodcut collapses moments from the beginning, middle, and end of the canto into a single image.

Canto IV begins with Dante startled from his deep sleep by a thunderclap. Seen at the top right, leaning on the brink of an abyss, the poet awakens to hear faint sighs but is unable to see from whom they emanate through the “dark…deep…bleared with mist.”  While the Brescia edition depicts the unseen souls below Dante, I removed them entirely, suggesting instead the experience of Dante’s “blindness” to the reader.

Dante lists the numerous individuals encountered in Limbo in the middle of the canto. Both Dante’s text and the Brescia edition illustration depict Saladin standing alone but I took the liberty of inserting him into the group along the lower edge, seeking to underscore the poet’s remarkably inclusive presentation (for the early 14th century) of a Muslim figure, coequal among noted Western individuals. At the close of the canto, Virgil and Dante stand grouped in the middle of the composition, slightly obscured, with Homer (holding a sword), Horace, Ovid, and Lucan. Unlike most of my illustrations which depict only what is happening on the page of text, my drawing here (like the Brescia) presents moments that lie outside the first page’s narrative, providing visual highlights of moments that follow.

Minos Judges Sinners (Inferno IV)

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On this page I illustrate a number of discrete moments that bridge the fourth and fifth canti. The seven city towers, visible in the distance at the upper left, hint at Virgil and Dante’s departure from Limbo at the end of canto IV (the towers, prominently featured on the previous page, visually connect the sequential action). Virgil and Dante are shown descending in the lower left corner, as described at the beginning of the action in canto V. The towers’ forms are fashioned after the 1588 drawing by Jan van der Straet (Giovanni Stradano).

Between these two moments I visually enumerate the figures named by Dante. For the identities of the twenty-two individuals, I looked to the work of Antonio Grifo (Venice, 1430- c.1510), whose hand-illuminated copy of the Landino edition (Venice, 1491), created shortly after its printing as a probable wedding gift, features detailed portraits of the named characters. In my drawing, Brutus appears directly above his name, with Marcia on his right and Lucretia on his left, stabbing herself with a knife. Moving clockwise are Julia with Cornelia, and Saladin standing alone, adhering to Dante’s text. Beneath him stands another cluster: in the back row, Euclid brandishes a banner with geometric shapes and Ptolemy raises aloft a sphere, while below Averroes clutches his book of Aristotelian commentary, Galen delicately holds a pill, Avicenna sniffs a fruit, and Hippocrates holds a beaker of liquid. Like Saladin, the Muslim philosophers Averroes and Avicenna represent a remarkable gesture of inclusion on Dante’s part. In the left margin, we find three rows of figures: at the top are Democritus (with sphere) with Anaxagoras and Diogenes, in the middle Plato and Socrates flank Aristotle, and in the bottom row are Homer (with sword), Horace, Ovid, and Lucan.

The figure of Minos references Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco of the Last Judgment (1533-41), with some notable differences. Vasari relates that the fresco depicts Minos as the papal master of ceremonies, who had ridiculed the artist for painting naked flesh. Fittingly, Michelangelo gives him ears of an ass (which I retain in a rare departure from Dante’s text, while removing the biting snake and humorously revealing circumcised genitalia). Adding a crown for the King of the Underworld, and a beard, I generalize Michelangelo’s very personal portrait.

Dante and Virgil Traverse the River Styx and the Wrathful (Inferno VIII)

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This drawing depicts different moments in canto VIII: the two-flame signal light, Virgil and Dante crossing the river Styx in Phlegyas’ skiff, and Virgil’s failed attempt to gain access to the City of Dis.

The signal tower on the left, which appears larger on the previous page, seems to disappear into the distance as the action moves to the center. Here Dante looks on in delight as Virgil repulses Filippo Argenti’s attempt to board the boat while exclaiming, “Get out of here! Run with the other dogs!” The Venetian traghetto, a gondola-like boat that ferries passengers across the Grand Canal, is the model for my version of Phlegyas’ skiff. Here, one oarsman replaces the usual two, while retaining the shape of the vessel and oarlock form. The figure in the river with the clenched fist gives a nod to the exclamation, “Get Filippo Argenti!” yelled by the damned souls nearby.

The City of Dis takes a larger, more articulated form on this page, as Dante stands with folded arms at the river’s edge watching Virgil walk back from the gate. The city’s architecture references Flaxman’s depiction, with its mouth-like gate and rampart’s profile. The second signal-tower maintains the form, with the single flaming torch added. Dante writes of seeing mosque turrets so I have added one to the cityscape.

The Tomb of Pope Anastasius II in the Sixth Circle of Hell (Inferno XI)

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The drawing begins at the left margin with the descent of Dante and Virgil into plumes of foul air which fill the center of the composition. To the right stands Pope Anastasius’ tomb with Dante and Virgil holding their noses below.

Canto X ends with a description of Virgil and Dante’s leftward path descending into a noxious stench emanating from below. The vertiginous drop is reminiscent of Manfredo Manfredini’s 1907 evocations of the vast infernal landscape, as Virgil’s identity is conveyed in spare marks suggesting his laurel and garment; scribbled hatch-marks hint at Dante’s form. The contrast in scale between the tiny, distant figures and the long pathway and large plumes of repellent air underscores the sensation inspired by the terrain’s unbounded immensity.

Depictions of the tombs have varied over time. Some lie flat below the ground while others stand above ground. I was attracted to the instability suggested in Doré’s engraving, with the tomb almost sliding out of the composition. I reverse the placement with Pope Anastasius’ tomb leaning right, inclined against a stone embankment, pulling the eye back into the page. This is an often-utilized comic trope: at the first left panel the figure(s) should face inward to the right, pulling the viewer into the strip, while the last panel at the right edge should do the opposite and face left to redirect the gaze back into the drawing. The cross, placed on the front of the tomb, suggests that more than one individual could be entombed within. Carved on the side to indicate the tomb’s inhabitants is the famous inscription, “I guard Pope Anastasius. Photinus drew him from the straight and true.”  With frowns, furrowed brows, and pinched noses, Dante and Virgil respond to the overwhelming stench of sin surrounding them with an economy of mark derived from the comic drawings of artists like Alex Toth.

Centaurs and the Souls of the Violent (Inferno XII)

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Canto XII continues with the jagged boulders encountered by Dante and Virgil drawn in heavy line in the left margin. Virgil appears in extreme close-up in the bottom left corner with Dante just beyond. The Violent swim in the Phlegethon, the river of blood, in the lower margin, while filling the right side are the three centaurs Chiron, Nessus, and Pholus.

The uppermost centaurs, Nessus and Pholus, reference Ernesto Bellandi’s painting Canto XII, I Centauri used in Alinari’s publications. In 1902 Alinari organized a series of exhibitions throughout Florence of contemporary artworks inspired by the Commedia, after which they produced a series of books. For inspiration I frequently looked to the Alinari collection as it consists largely of artists previously unknown to me. Chiron refers to Francesco Scaramuzza’s drawing for canto XII, in which the centaur parts his beard with the notch of his arrow, highlighting a point of naturalism in Dante’s text.

Virgil’s extreme close-up profile at the edge of the page employs an oft-used visual comic trope, codified by Wallace Wood in his “Wally Wood’s 22 Panels That Always Work!!” as a way to imply an expanding of the frame, even suggesting the reader’s inclusion in the scene.

Dante and Virgil Enter the Wood of the Suicides (Inferno XIII)

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These pages find Dante and Virgil in the Wood of the Suicides where they hear Pier della Vigna relate how a soul becomes part of the wood. The images illustrate moments in his story. Dante’s cropped profile appears at the bottom left edge, rising above a bush, while Virgil remains behind, visible in the middle distance.

In the middle of the page, I look to Scaramuzza’s ca. 1865 drawing for the moment when the soul claims his cast-off “flesh” in the form of a thorny tree, which is then dragged into the wood to be hung on a thorn bush. As is often the case, an open contour line replaces the tonal richness of Scaramuzza’s pen and ink drawings.

The right edge of the tree derives from Doré’s engraving and emphasizes the anthropomorphic aspect of the tree/soul. In contrast to the more elegant contour lines of the central figures, here the rough brushwork suggests the texture of the tree bark. A dog’s head appears just behind the tree, anticipating the following page on which “Lano” (Ercolano Maconi) and Jacopo da Sant’Andrea are pursued by ravening hounds.

Geryon (Inferno XVI-XVII)

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Inspired by the engravings of Manfredo Manfredini, I suggest the overwhelming vastness of the infernal vista at the alto burrato where we encounter Geryon. For the patterns on the tail and the overall form of the winged creature, I borrowed from Botticelli. However, I took some risks and liberties with my depiction, that could very well be the result of my misunderstanding Dante’s text, “Nel vano tutta sua coda guizzava/ torcendo in sù la venenosa forca/ ch’ a guisa di scorpion la punta armava.” [“Out into empty space he flicked his tail,/ coiling the venomous fork to keep it high,/ which armed his bone point like a scorpion’s tail.”]  Most illustrators depict the tail with a forked pincer end, as fits Dante’s “venenosa forca;” however, while doing research, I noted that the typical form of the scorpion’s tail is not forked, but rather curls in on itself with a single stinger, as Dante writes – “la punta.”

So what’s the story here? Did Dante get the anatomy wrong? How could the tail be both forked and come to a “punta” (not the plural punte)? Was my research faulty? As is often the case with Dante, no clear answer emerges and a paradox remains. So I chose to approach the problem from a metaphorical, not literal, point of view about the “venomous fork.” The tail of a scorpion serves two or forked purposes: one is to protect the insect by wielding deadly power, and the other is to carry its young in paternal care. Geryon is like a scorpion in Dante’s world: he is both a threatening creature whom initially only Virgil can directly address, and a caretaker to Dante and Virgil as they safely ride on his back to the lower levels of the Inferno. I chose to diverge from Botticelli (and most other representations) by giving Geryon a scorpion’s tail, one with a single stinger.

The Malebranche (Inferno XXI)

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These two pages serve as a rogue’s gallery of demons presented as a decorative and decontextualized motif (as opposed to a pictorial illustration of the text) with the heads circling the poem. I have once more looked to the long history of imaginative depictions of fantastical creatures, both in the Commedia and beyond. As with the city of Dis, I borrow from comic book artists for demonic sources. Here, Jack Kirby’s monsters from Tales To Astonish (1959-62) and other Timely (now Marvel) Comics appear at the top left corner and bottom middle edge. Franz Stassen provides inspiration for the creature at the bottom left corner, while Bartolomeo Pinelli’s creations are seen in the middle at the top, and lower right corner. Lastly, the demon who “made a bugle of his ass,” provides a humorous counterpoint to the rest of the images.

The Malebranche continued (Inferno XXII)

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This drawing illustrates the moment when Dante sees a sinner as the demon Dogscratcher “hooked him and dragged him by the tar-clogged locks,/ and pulled him like an otter from a pond.” Dante then recounts how he came to know the names of the demons that ring the pool.

My composition places Dante and Virgil in the middle-distance and employs the tight cropping of figures in the extreme foreground, a device often found in comics. This serves to place the viewer amid the demons grouped by the water’s edge, creating a certain ambiguity as to whether the reader is a demon or sinner. The arcing pole/hook that lifts the damned souls from the water (also seen in Doré’s depiction of the scene) underscores the weight of the muck-covered sinner and heightens the dramatic moment. The drawing of the sinner is reminiscent of Scaramuzza’s on the same subject.

Fraudulent Thieves and their Serpentine Metamorphoses (Inferno XXIV)

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This two-page composition splits into distinct moments. Across the top we see Dante and Virgil in the distance on the left edge, then again in the middle (with Dante’s hand to his brow to better see below him), and at the right edge, where the two appear closer to the reader as well as to the dramatic scene below. Stretching across the bottom of the pages are images of a range of moments described in Dante’s text.

He writes, “For there I saw a terrifying mass/ of serpents, of such different shapes and sorts…venomous pests…Through this the most wretched and malignant throng/ ran people, naked, frightened, without hope/ to finding a hiding hole or antidote.” Dante then offers additional details, “Their wrists were strapped behind their backs by snakes/ which round the kidneys squeezed the head and tail…” Scaramuzza’s drawing provided inspiration for the figure running away in the center, while the engraving from Antonio Zatta’s 1757-58 edition of the Commedia inspired the figure lying down on the right.

Dante also describes a transformation in which “… he [the sinner] ignited and went up in flames/ and disappeared in a collapse of ash.” The puff of smoke seen under the text to the left adds another moment in the visual collapsing of Dante’s expansive narrative.

Obscenities and Perversions in the Thieves’ Bolgia (Inferno XXV)

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This sequence, which focuses on transformation, poses a particular challenge to the illustrator. Dante describes in detail the process by which a sinner changes into a serpent-like creature in a puff of smoke, and then back again to human form. This process repeats itself, condemning the thieves to an endless torment.

Select moments in Dante’s descriptions are drawn: the man pressing his feet together in anticipation of merging into a serpent’s tail, a leg turning into “…the member that a man must hide,” and a cloud of veiling smoke.

A figure with a snake binding his body also appears, an image that carries over from the canto’s previous pages, connecting the transmogrification scene to earlier passages in which “…a second [snake] slithered through his arms/ And noosed them with so tight a knot in front/ He couldn’t give those arms a jerk or jolt.” Dante makes note of how the transformation includes losing hair, only to have it grow back again, alluded to here by a bald figure and one with a full head of hair. These figures are Francesco and Buoso, and an aspect of rising and falling is suggested when “The one got up, the other fell to earth,” is seen at the right edge.

The Sowers of Scandal and of Schism (Inferno XXVIII)

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This full two-page image includes some of the goriest scenes in Inferno and much of my inspiration derives from the famous Entertaining Comics (E.C.) horror comics of the 1950s.  The extremely gruesome depictions found in titles such as Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear earned the comics company congressional scrutiny for peddling “dangerous materials” to America’s children.

Johnny Craig’s artwork on the cover of The Vault of Horror #30, depicts a severed forearm with its hand still clutching a subway strap to the horror of the other riders. In the right margin, a version of this arm hangs from the rock wall underneath Virgil, who commands Dante to look at the scene below. The Vault of Horror #32 features another cover by Craig, this time with a figure standing in a doorway with a meat cleaver splitting his head open. Uncertain if such a knife existed in Dante’s time, I nonetheless depart from my usual rule of visual “accuracy” in favor of the reference, and draw the modern blade in the figure at the left margin.

Graham Ingles, who went by the pen name “Ghastly,” was a master of the horror genre for E.C. and excelled at depicting ghoulish, fleshy decomposition. The two figures seen directly below Dante and Virgil are an homage to his manner; the figure on the right is taken from the story “Picked Pints,” The Vault of Horror #29.

Pictured in the center margin is “…a devil who sets us right,/ For the cruel slicing of his sword/ He subjects every spirit in the file.”

Giants and Frozen Traitors (Inferno XXXII)

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This drawing opens canto XXXII with Dante and Virgil descending to the lowest level of Hell, the frozen waters of Cocytus. Giants previously enabled their final descent by lowering the travelers to the floor below. At the water’s edge, Dante and Virgil have their backs turned away as they look toward the Giants, catching their first glimpses of the fraudulent traitors frozen face-down in the ice.

This image presents challenges of scale: how to fit the Giants, Dante and Virgil, and frozen Cocytus on the page. In this continuous two-page drawing only the Giant’s legs and feet are visible against the cliff wall, with Dante and Virgil in the middle ground and the frozen sinners in the immediate foreground. A combination of heavy and light lines throughout the composition add to the full clash of scale apparent in this transitional scene.

Monstrous Lucifer (Inferno XXXIV)

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This expansive drawing captures Lucifer in all his fearful complexity. Dante and Virgil, seen at the bottom right corner, move closer to Lucifer as they are buffeted by the “three gales” that are whipped up by his six bat-like wings. The two flanking text blocks crop Lucifer’s three-faced head (completely visible on the previous page). This focuses the reader’s attention on the central face as it devours Judas Iscariot, crying tears mingled with dripping blood.

Lucifer’s furry chest, which will provide Virgil and Dante with a means of escape, runs up the center of the composition. In the foreground, two sinners are seen clutched in Lucifer’s hands.

In this drawing I attempt to present the Devil with as much nuance as Dante’s text suggests. To me it is significant that Lucifer cries, thus bringing us closer to identifying with his suffering. Also important is the moment Dante describes, for it is Judas whom Lucifer chews. What could be the significance? Is it Lucifer’s identification with Judas as Christ’s necessary foil (as he is God’s)? Could it be that through their evil deeds they each play pivotal roles in essential biblical narratives?

Riveder le Stelle (Inferno XXXIV)

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This final image from Inferno accompanies the only page in which the text does not run for the usual forty-two lines, and instead is only thirteen. This creates much more “empty,” wordless space, allowing me to consider a larger composition.

The scene involves Dante and Virgil, having previously climbed down Lucifer’s hairy legs, emerging from the pits of the Inferno to “see the stars again.” Curiously, they descend from the lowest level of Hell, only to emerge up, as they glimpse Purgatory for the first time.

There are deep symmetries and repeating forms that comprise the circular nature of the Commedia. I make a nod to that quality by drawing Dante and Virgil atop the same mountain’s profile seen on the first page, suggesting the repetitions in the Commedia as a whole.  Here I digress somewhat from the literal interpretation generally employed in favor of responding to a more abstract and poetic suggestion in the poem.

At the start of Inferno, Dante is drawn to the “hill that brings delight” but is repulsed by the leopard, lion, and she-wolf. Virgil suggests, “It is another journey you must take.” Dante’s downward expedition will ultimately end in his ascendance, both in Purgatorio and Paradiso. Thus I’m suggesting that, as Jerry says in Albert Albee’s Zoo Story, “Sometimes it’s necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly.”

The mountain too, carries a personal stamp. Some artists have their painterly identity connected to a mountain: Cezanne with Mont St. Victoire and Marsden Hartley with Mount Katahdin. I grew up in Dublin, New Hampshire, under the shadow of Mount Monadnock, and I have internalized its familiar profile. Here, in the distance, the tower of the Cathedral of Saint Romulus can be seen on the hill of Fiesole. Dante expressed some harsh sentiments toward the “beasts of Fiesole” (Inf. XV, 73) and I like to imagine that it would strike him as appropriate to see the city located in the purgatorial realm. As a student in Florence I lived at the foothills of Fiesole with this view so I have added this layer of personal connection to the final landscape scene.

-George Cochrane, 2019

(Recommended Citation: Cochrane, George. “A 21st-Century Illuminated Manuscript and the Artistic Tradition of Dante’s Inferno.Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2019. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/image/cochrane-illustrations/)

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