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Italian poet Dante Alighieri wrote The Divine Comedy (La Commedia) more than 700 years ago. It describes one man’s journey through the afterlife, telling a timeless story about love, faith, and justice. 

Dante has inspired everyone from French sculptor Auguste Rodin to British draftsman William Blake. You can see how different artists have imagined the story below and in our exhibition, Going through Hell: The Divine Dante, on view from April 9 to July 16.

Dante’s epic poem may be called The Divine Comedy, but don’t expect to laugh—commedia used to mean something that begins in sadness but ends well. This is a dark story with a happy ending.

The narrator and main character is Dante himself. Virgil, the ancient Roman poet, guides this journey, which is split into three parts: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.

Jean-Jacques Feuchère, Dante Meditating on the "Divine Comedy", 1843, pen and brown ink with brown wash and watercolor over graphite, heightened with white gouache, on 3 joined sheets of laid paper, Gift of the Christian Humann Foundation, 1996.128.14


Dante first describes traveling through the nine circles of Hell (Inferno). Sinners are assigned to the circles according to their sins: the least offensive are in the First, limbo, and the worst are in in the Ninth, treachery. 

The Second Circle of Hell is lust. In the fifth chapter, or canto, Dante meets Paolo and Francesca. Both were married to other people, but they fell in love with each other and kissed while reading a book together. Francesca’s husband murdered the couple, and they landed in the Second Circle together. 

French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s bronze work shows that romantic, but damning, kiss. Rodin designed this sculpture for his Gates of Hell, two bronze doors inspired by Dante’s Inferno. His iconic sculpture, The Thinker, also came from this work. The man resting his chin on his hand represents Dante.

A man and woman embrace and kiss while sitting on a rocky formation in this free-standing bronze sculpture. Both people are nude, and they turn toward each other. In this photograph, to our right, the slender woman reaches her left arm, closer to us, up to wrap around the man’s neck. Her left breast is silhouetted against the man’s muscular chest. The woman’s raised arm covers most of their faces but the man turns his head down to meet hers. The man rests his right hand, closer to us, on her hip and she hooks one leg over his. His knees are angled to our left and he turns his torso toward her. The woman’s left toes brush his foot, just below hers. They sit on a textured, rock-like form. The surface of sculpture has a golden-brown patina, which darkens where the bodies fold and crease. The artist’s name is stamped into the seat, just below the woman’s hip: “RODIN.”

Auguste Rodin, The Kiss (Le Baiser), model 1880-1887, cast c. 1898/1902, bronze, Gift of Mrs. John W. Simpson, 1942.5.15

This free-standing bronze sculpture shows a nude, muscular man sitting on a rock and resting his chin on the back of his right hand, with that elbow propped on his left knee. In this photograph, the man’s body is angled slightly to our left. He hunches a bit as his body twists so his right elbow, on our left, reaches the opposite knee. His other rests along his leg so the hand dangles beyond the knee. The man has short-cropped hair, a furrowed brow, an angular nose, and lines around his mouth and eyes. The foot on our right rests higher on the rock so that knee juts up a little higher than the other. The bronze has a greenish patina, especially noticeable along the top of the man’s head and shoulders and the front of his lower legs.

Auguste Rodin, The Thinker (Le Penseur), model 1880, cast 1901, bronze, Gift of Mrs. John W. Simpson, 1942.5.12

In this engraving, British poet and artist William Blake shows Paolo and Francesca being swept away in a whirlwind of irresistible desire. Blake made 100 drawings of the story while he was sick in bed.

William Blake, The Circle of the Lustful: Paolo and Francesca, 1827, engraving, Rosenwald Collection, 1943.3.5395

With a wood engraving by Romanian artist Gy Szabó Béla, we skip ahead to the Eighth Circle of Hell. Reserved for those who have committed fraud, the Eighth Circle is said to be “marvelously dark.” 

Szabó’s print shows Virgil from behind, but we can recognize him from the laurel wreath on his head. He is overlooking a pitch-black pit as hairy demons holding pitchforks rise toward him. In the Comedy, these demons are supposed to keep corrupt politicians under the boiling lake of pitch (or tar) that we can see bubbling behind them.

Gy Szabo Bela, Dante: L'enfer, Chant XXI, Ongles sales (Dante's Inferno, Canto XXI, Nasty Claws), 1963, hand printed wood engraving on Japanese paper, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Le Bovit, 1968.22.6

Thieves are also sent to the Eighth Circle, where they take turns becoming snakes to steal one another’s identities. Both William Blake and early 20th-century American artist Rico Lebrun show these sinners tormented by snakes. In Blake’s engraving, “a serpent with six feet” sits on the shoulders of a sinner. The creature has the man’s head in its mouth and its tail wrapped around his leg. Other snakes slither about—one is about to sink its fangs into the figure on the far right.

William Blake, The Circle of the Thieves; Agnolo Brunelleschi Attacked by a Six-Footed Serpent, 1827, engraving, Rosenwald Collection, 1943.3.5399

Eventually, Dante and Virgil meet Satan, who has bat-like wings and three faces. He feasts on a sinner in each mouth. This engraving was modeled after a fresco (a mural painted on wet plaster) by Buonamico Buffalmacco in the Campo Santo cemetery in Pisa, Italy. It brings to life the darkest level of Hell, complete with flames rising from the bottom. Take a closer look, but be warned . . . it’s gory!

Italian 15th Century, The Inferno, after the Fresco in the Camposanto of Pisa, c. 1480/1500, engraving, Rosenwald Collection, 1964.8.184


After Hell, Dante reaches Purgatory—a mountain where people prepare themselves for heaven, or paradise. This late 15th-century bronze coin and 16th-century Allegorical Portrait of Dante show the poet with that mountain. 

Both were made in Florence, where Dante was born. He was exiled from his hometown after being accused of corruption and financial wrongdoing. In the portrait, he looks back at Purgatory, holding a book open to a poem describing his longing to return to Florence. Here, the desires of Dante the poet overlap with those of Dante the character.

Florentine 15th Century, Dante before the Mountain of Purgatory [reverse], late 15th century, bronze//Molded frame, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1957.14.893.b

A pale-skinned man sits, holding an open book next to his lap so the pages face us in this square painting. His body is angled to our right, and he turns his head farther in that direction, so his face is in profile. He has heavy brows, high cheekbones, and a prominent, hooked nose. His lower lip projects beyond his thin upper lip, and his chin juts out. He is lit from our right, so the hollows of his cheeks are in shadow. A vivid red cap encircled by a wreath of laurel leaves covers his dark hair. His long, cranberry-red robe splits over the shoulders to show navy-blue sleeves. His left hand, farther from us, braces the top of the open book, which comes up to chest height. A poem written in verses of three lines each in Italian can be read on both pages. The man’s other hand is lifted and hovers, palm down, over a miniature skyline by his side. The buildings there include a dome with a pointed lantern and two towers. A lighter tan area in the lower left corner, beneath the skyline, is difficult to interpret. The man sits on a grassy outcropping, which is mostly lost in the shadows. A body of blue water stretches into the distance beyond the outcropping to meet a conical mountain layered like a cake with ten sections. Trees grow on the narrowest, topmost level, and flames line the second level. A boat, tiny in scale, sails across the water near a grassy, zigzagging shore in the distance. Light from the upper right creates a creamy yellow beam across the otherwise darkened sky.

Florentine 16th Century, Allegorical Portrait of Dante, late 16th century, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.57


Finally, Dante arrives in Paradise. There, he is guided by Beatrice, a character inspired by the real love of Dante’s life and the muse for many of his poems. This pen and ink drawing comes from a suite that British artist John Flaxman published in 1807 in a popular illustrated edition of the Comedy. With simple lines, Flaxman shows Beatrice guiding Dante through the nine spheres of Heaven. They float among the planets and stars.

John Flaxman, Album of Drawings for Dante's "Divine Comedy", c. 1793, bound volume with 78 drawings in pen and ink and graphite, Rosenwald Collection, 1943.3.3734

This print is based on a fresco by Italian Renaissance painter Domenico di Michelino in the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. It shows Dante with all three realms—Hell on the left, Purgatory behind him, and Paradise above with the curved lines and stars. On the right, we can recognize Florence by the iconic dome and tower of the cathedral. Dante stands in the center of the image, larger than life, holding his greatest work.

After Domenico di Michelino, Dante as the poet of the Divine Comedy, 1417-1491, heliogravure, Department of Image Collections, National Gallery of Art Library, Washington, DC

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March 31, 2023