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March 22, 2023

Artistic Influence of Dante’s "The Divine Comedy" Explored in Exhibition at National Gallery of Art

Allegorical Portrait of Dante

Florentine 16th Century
Allegorical Portrait of Dante, late 16th century
oil on panel
overall: 126.9 x 120 cm (49 15/16 x 47 1/4 in.)
framed: 165.7 x 158.8 x 8.3 cm (65 1/4 x 62 1/2 x 3 1/4 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Samuel H. Kress Collection

Washington, DC—Since its completion, Dante Alighieri’s (1265–1321) The Divine Comedy has been translated into more than 50 languages. The enduring themes of love, faith, justice, and redemption have contributed to the work’s profound impact and continued relevance. Going through Hell: The Divine Dante explores the cultural influence of this pivotal 700-year-old epic in some 20 works of art, all from the National Gallery’s collection. Beginning with the 16th-century Allegorical Portrait of Dante, these include rare early printed editions of The Divine Comedy, sculptures Auguste Rodin conceived for his monumental project The Gates of Hell, and works on paper from the 15th to 20th century by artists such as William Blake and Robert Rauschenberg. The exhibition is on view from April 9 through July 16, 2023, in the West Building of the National Gallery.

“More than 700 years after its creation, Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy remains widely read and relevant to modern society,” said Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art. “Highlighting works from the National Gallery’s collection, this exhibition explores the enduring popularity and influence Dante’s poem as a touchstone for artists across different eras and cultures.”

Exhibition Tour

National Gallery of Art, Washington, April 9–July 16, 2023

About the Exhibition

An epic narrative poem, The Divine Comedy (La Divina Commedia or, simply, Commedia in Italian) describes one man’s harrowing and transformational journey through three realms of the afterlife: Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Paradise (Paradiso). Commedia, or comedy, is a term that once described something that begins in sadness but ends well. Told in 100 sections (or cantos), the narrator Dante is first guided through Hell and Purgatory by the ancient Roman poet Virgil; later, his beloved Beatrice ushers him from Purgatory to Paradise. Dante travels though domains of the dead where he witnesses sin and punishment, atonement and redemption, and finally union with God. In a radical move, Dante wrote The Divine Comedy in the vernacular, everyday Florentine language of 14th-century Tuscany. Rather than the Latin typically chosen for literary works, Dante’s use of the common language resulted in the poem attracting readers from diverse backgrounds.

Among the highlights featured in this exhibition is a 16th-century Florentine allegorical portrait of Dante that depicts the poet sitting on a rocky outcrop and holding a large manuscript copy of The Divine Comedy. It is open to canto XXV of Paradiso, where he writes of his unfulfilled desire to return to the Florence of his birth after a long exile. Bartolomeo Pinelli’s (1781–1835) drawing Dante Flees the Wild Beasts and Meets Virgil (1824) depicts an episode early in The Divine Comedy where the narrator meets the ancient Roman poet Virgil, his guide through Hell and Purgatory.

The Divine Comedy—and especially its first part, Inferno—has for centuries inspired artists to explore questions of morality and spirituality, create metaphors for social and political issues, and reflect the human condition. Joseph Anton Koch’s (1768–1839) drawing Dante and Virgil Riding on the Back of Geryon (c. 1821) depicts an episode from the Inferno where Dante and his guide Virgil descend to the Eighth Circle of Hell, known as Malebolge, a place with “new torments” and “horned demons.” They are carried by the monster Geryon, an imaginary creature with the face of a man and the body of a beast. Rico Lebrun’s (1900–1964) Figure and Serpent is part of Lebrun’s series Drawings for Dante’s “Inferno” (1963), which depict grisly subjects: beheadings, immolation, cannibalism. Created to mark Dante’s 700th birthday, Robert Rauschenberg’s (1925–2008) Drawings for Dante's 700 Birthday (1965) uses the ideas found in the Inferno as a powerful allegory for the tumultuous social and political climate of the 1960s.

One of the most iconic sculptures in European art, Auguste Rodin’s (1840–1917) The Thinker (model 1880, cast 1901) was one of the first figures Rodin envisioned for his monumental The Gates of Hell, two bronze doors inspired by Dante’s Inferno. Originally intended for a museum in Paris, the doors were never installed during the sculptor’s lifetime. Rodin’s The Kiss (model 1880–1887, cast c. 1898/1902) and William Blake’s (1757–1827) The Circle of the Lustful: Paolo and Francesca (1827) both depict the characters Paolo and Francesca, an adulterous couple whose story appears in canto V of Inferno. Blake’s engraving shows the couple swept away by an apparent whirlwind of irresistible desire, whereas Rodin’s sculpture depicts the lovers locked in an eternal embrace.

Exhibition Organization

The exhibition is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Exhibition Curator

The exhibition is curated by Gretchen Hirschauer, curator of Italian and Spanish paintings, National Gallery of Art.

Contact Information

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