Imag(in)ing Dante: an illustrated manuscript of the Divine Comedy (with complete set of drawings)

Of the several hundreds of manuscripts of Dante’s Divine Comedy, about a hundred have some illumination or decoration, drawn or painted. Of these, London British Library Harley MS 3460 is a remarkable specimen. The manuscript contains illustrations of the scenes covering cantos 1-20 of Inferno, drawn in plummet in the lower part of the page. The manuscript was copied, and possibly illustrated, by Martin de Bonsegnoribus in Milan in 1469. We know this from the colophon where Martin gives us his name and the year he completed the manuscript.

What is, I think, unique about these drawings is that the artist depicts most of the souls in Hell as sexless human beings without hair, closely resembling little children. The nondescript quality of these wretched multitudes is, of course, in line with Dante’s theological insight, that the self in Hell is diminished in its being, a bodily shadow of its former self. A kind of eternity in peius is therefore brought out through this simple drawing technique.

Harley MS 3460 hasn’t been digitized. A detailed description of its content and characteristics is now being being prepared at the British Library through a project in which I take part. As the manuscript won’t see the digital light of day any time soon, I thought it might be a good idea to include the complete set of drawings in this blogpost. The figurative scenes extend from the moment Beatrice sends Virgil to guide Dante through Hell in canto 1 of Inferno down to the sorcerers and astrologers in the 8th circle, canto 20:

As I inclined my head still more, I saw
that each, amazingly, appeared contorted
between the chin and where the chest begins;

they had their faces twisted toward their haunches
and found it necessary to walk backward,
because they could not see ahead of them.

Please scroll down for 26 images.

Radiant Beatrice entrusts Dante to Virgil to guide him through the Underworld
The two poets enter Hell through the famous door
Virgil arranges for Charon to ferry the two pilgrims across the river Acheron, the boundary separating the cowardly neutrals from the souls in the circles of Hell proper.
The pilgrims arrive in Limbo
They arrive before Minos the infernal judge
Sexless Paolo and Francesca detach from the ‘hellish hurricane’Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti
Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the circle of gluttony. Dante’s friend Ciacco takes the stage
The avaricious and prodigal are pointlessly pushing heavy boulders
The wrathful and the sullen are showing every act of aggression
The pilgrims try to enter the City of Dis, Hell’s inner fortress
The pilgrims are unable to enter Dis
Despite the opposition of the Furies, the poets enter Dis with the help of a heavenly messenger
The heretics lie in flaming tombs, while Farinata gets his 5 minutes of fame
Another damned soul, Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, engages with the pilgrims
Pope Anastasius lies here
The two travellers enter the seventh circle, that of the violent, and meet the Minataur and the centaurs
The blasphemers in the river of blood
Dante’s old master, Brunetto Latini, is a resident
The sodomites walking across a burning desert


Monster Geryon, the epitome of fraud, is lured into helping the pilgrims cross from one circle to another
The panderers and flatterers looking not so flattering
Immersed in a river of excrement representing their words, the panderers and flatterers are lashed by demons
Jason stands out among the flatterers
In the ring of the simoniacs of Malebolge, Pope Nicholas III is upside down in a large baptismal font
The diviners, astrologers and magicians have their heads twisted backwards and are forced to walk backwards


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