Tag Archives: Dante

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


A vertical reading of Dante’s Purgatorio 4

One way of reading Dante’s Divine Comedy is ‘vertically’, which means analyzing same-numbered cantos from two or three parts of the poem (canticles), Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso, for symmetrical meanings which become enriched by this clever juxtaposition. This is based on the presupposition that Dante built this symmetry into the poem as a whole, and expected a close reading of his work to reveal ‘hidden’ meanings. The vertical approach is already well-established, thanks to the work of George Corbett and Heather Webb. Although some cantos lend themselves better to this kind of reading than others (think of Inferno 1, Purgatorio 1, Paradiso 1 (‘the ones’) and their common theme of orientation, for instance), the verticality of Dante’s cantos, at least as a compositional and exegetical principle, is undeniable.

Cantos 4 of Purgatorio and Inferno are a good example of how this works. Inferno 4 is devoted to the first circle of Hell, the Limbo, where the pilgrim and his guide meet the unbaptised virtuous souls. Purgatorio 4 is about Mount Purgatory, its geo-spatial location and the meeting with Belacqua, Dante’s lazy friend. Despite their differences, the two cantos are, I think, linked by a common theme, and they may, for that reason, be read ‘vertically’. The theme is, well, verticality.

The two cantos have something to say about the topographies of Hell and Purgatory. Hell is a cone-like pit, while Purgatory a cone-like mountain. In Purgatorio 4, Dante notes with vivid detail how steep the mountain is:

Lo sommo er’ alto che vincea la vista,
e la costa superba più assai
che da mezzo quadrante a centro lista.

The summit was so high, my sight fell short;
the slope was far more steep than the line drawn
from middle—quadrant to the center point. (Purgatorio 4.40-42)


Many commentators have explained that the ‘quadrant’ refers to the quadrant circle, meaning one-fourth of a circle, so the gradient of a middle quadrant is 45%. No wonder Dante thought that he needed wings to scale the mountain (‘I had to fly: I mean with rapid wings and pinions of immense desire’, Purg 4.28-29).

In Inferno 4, Dante makes the same kind of observation about the appearance of Hell:

Oscura e profonda era e nebulosa
tanto che, per ficcar lo viso a fondo,
io non vi discernea alcuna cosa.

That valley, dark and deep and filled with mist,
is such that, though I gazed into its pit,
I was unable to discern a thing. (Inferno 4.10-12)

This time, the gradient is not important, because the pit is dark and appears to be bottomless. Both landscapes, however, strike the pilgrim, and us, as readers, through their verticality. One goes up, the other goes down. One is 45% steep, the other undiscernibly deep. It is against this backdrop – the radical ascent of purification and the equally radical descent of sin and death, that Dante foregrounds the lethargic but penitent Belacqua in Purgatorio 4 and the unbaptised virtuous pagans in Inferno 4.


A petition for a public reading of Dante

Image result for dante commedia 14th century manuscript

Dante’s Commedia. Manuscript on paper, in Italian. Tuscany (Florence?), late fourteenth century.  On sale for $2,000,000 

When’s the last time a group of local residents petitioned the government to arrange for a public reading of Dante’s Commedia? The answer to that question is: the summer of 1373. In the summer of that year, a petition was presented to the Signoria of Florence, on behalf of a number of Florentine citizens, asking that a salaried lecturer might be appointed to expound publicly, in Florence, on the Commedia, so that the unlearned may profit from its ethics and beauty. The unlearned were not necessarily illiterate, but rather those who didn’t read Latin. According to John Ahern, these would have been the dyers, the drapers, the grain merchants, shopkeepers, blacksmiths, ass drivers. In the 1330s, one Florentine in eight who attended elementary school went on to Latin school, of which there were four in Florence.

The petition is remarkable. It refers to Dante’s Divine Comedy as ‘liber Dantis‘ (the book of Dante) and ‘el Dante‘ (The Dante). It also clearly explains what a Dantista or Dante scholar is: ‘a worthy and learned man, well versed in the knowledge of the poem’ (valens et sapiens vir in [Dantis] poesie scientia bene doctus). He is to be paid from the government budget in two instalments. This was the start of a long tradition of public reading of the Commedia that goes on to this day – the Lectura Dantis. The most recent one I know of (and went to) was at the Warburg Institute in London from January to June 2018.

The petition reads:

‘Whereas divers citizens of Florence, being minded, as well for themselves and others their fellow-citizens, as for their posterity, to follow after virtue, are desirous of being instructed in the book of Dante, wherefrom, both to the shunning of vice, and to the acquisition of virtue, no less than in the ornaments of eloquence, even the unlearned may receive instruction; the said citizens humbly pray you, the worshipful Government of the People and Commonwealth of Florence, that you be pleased, at a fitting time, to provide and formally to determine, that a worthy and learned man, well versed in the knowledge of the poem aforesaid, shall be by you elected, for such term as you may appoint, being not longer than one year, to read the book which is commonly called el Dante, in the city of Florence, to all such as shall be desirous,of hearing him, on consecutive days, not being holidays, and in consecutive lectures, as is customary in like cases; and with such salary as you may determine, not exceeding the sum of one hundred gold florins for the said year, and in such manner, and under such conditions, as may seem proper to you; and, further, that the said salary be paid to the said lecturer from the funds of the Commonwealth, in two terminal payments, to wit, one moiety about the end of the month of December, and the other moiety about the end of the month of April, such sum to be free of all deduction for taxes whatsoever…’ (translated by Paget Toynbee in Boccaccio’s Commentary on the “Divina Commedia”, The Modern Language Review 2 (1907), pp. 97-120 (7-8)

‘Pro parte quamplurium civium civitatis Florentie desiderantium tam pro se ipsis, quam pro aliis civibus aspirare desiderantibus ad virtutes, quam etiam pro eorum posteris et descendentibus, instrui in libro Dantis, ex quo tam in fuga vitiorum, quam in acquisitione virtutum, quam in ornatu eloquentie possunt etiam non grammatici informari; reverenter supplicatur vobis dominis Prioribus artium et Vexillifero Justitie populi et comunis Florentie, quatenus dignemini opportune providere et facere solempniter reformari, quod vos possitis eligere unum valentem et sapientem virum in huiusmodi poesie scientia bene doctum, pro eo tempore quo velitis, non maiore unius anni, ad legendum librum qui vulgariter appellatur el Dante in civitate Florentie, omnibus audire volentibus, continuatis diebus non feriatis, et per continuatas lectiones, ut in similibus fieri solet; et cum eo salario quo voletis, non maiore centum florenorum auri pro anno predicto, et cum modis, formis, articulis et tenoribus, de quibus vobis videbitur convenire’. (a copy is preserved in Florence’s Libro delle Provvisioni)




Dante on the beach (and the migrants)

One of the most beautiful expressions of mankind’s common condition and destiny is in the second canto of Dante’s Purgatorio. It also represents Dante’s criticism of xenophobia and nativism, themes which resonate, most loudly, with us today.

Canto 2 of Purgatorio is set on the beach between the funneled Hell and the conical Purgatory. It is the only level, 0% gradient position in the entire topography of Dante’s Commedia, as may be seen in an illustrated Dante manuscript from Oxford (below). On the beach, the poet and his guide Virgil encounter a boatful of travelers recently arrived at the foot of Purgatory Mount. The angel-manned boat brought the migrants from their exile on Earth to the promised land and the longed-for ascent towards their bliss.

E Virgilio rispuose: Voi credete
forse che siamo esperti d’esto loco;
ma noi siam peregrin come voi siete.

And Virgil answered: You may think
that we are quite familiar with this place;
but we are strangers here, just as you are.

(Purgatorio 2.61-63)

Virgil is essentially saying that they are all in this together, that no one has claim to the place; that the two poets and the newly arrived are fellow travellers, sharing in the same pilgrimage of life. For me, the key words here are come voi, just like you. I read this passage as an existential statement about humankind’s shared condition. Dante makes the same point elsewhere in the Comedy, but perhaps never more poignantly or more radically than here.

It is not a coincidence that Dante puts these words in Virgil’s mouth precisely at this point. The beach is not a random feature, however innovative it may be in Dante’s vision of the otherworlds. As I said, it is the only perfectly horizontal place in the Commedia. In Inferno, everything is going down, even the dark woods at the start and Hell’s icy bottom are declivities where balance, physical or metaphysical, is impossible. In Purgatorio, everything is an acclivity, and so is in Paradiso. The ante-purgatorial beach is the only place where the traveller can find momentary relief from an upward or downward movement. The beach is also located between darkness and light, decline and ascent. It is, I think, the most existentially human location in Dante’s topography. Set between Hell and Purgatory/Heaven, it is a space of human consciousness, where the pilgrim can look back (to death) or forwards (to life). The beach is human life itself. So Dante is perfectly right to emphasize not only the common human condition but also the foolishness of taking possession of something one does not own. On the beach as in life, there are no experts, no natives, no insiders and outsiders, no born-here and coming-from-elsewhere. All are joined in a common walk, all have claim, because no one has claim. Virgil knows well our (as readers and humans-in-the-world) common (and fallen) assumption that the resident has a claim to the place in opposition to the unknown outsider (who come, then as now, by boat) – and blows the assumption up. You may think you as an outsider and us as insiders, you as a migrant and us as natives, but you’re wrong. We are the same, let’s walk together. And then they walk, and, most importantly, they sing together.

Screenshot 2018-09-29 at 1.26.57.png

Oxford, Bodley, Holkham misc 48


Dante’s windmills

The final canto of Inferno opens, ex abrupto, with one of the most powerful images in the whole of the canticle: a mockery of the 6th-century hymn ‘Vexilla regis’:

‘Vexilla regis prodeunt inferni
verso di noi; però dinanzi mira»,
disse ’l maestro mio, «se tu ’l discerni».

“Vexilla regis prodeunt inferni
toward us; and therefore keep your eyes ahead,”
my master said, “to see if you can spy him.”

The hymn’s first line given by Dante translates as: ‘The Banners of the King [of Heaven] go forth’, but the addition of the word ‘inferni’ in canto 34 makes a mockery of the hymn: the banners are those of the infernal king, Lucifer, whose terrifying yet motionless presence at the bottom of Hell is described in the canto. This is just one of the many inversions Dante uses in Inferno to give us a world upside down, the twisted, photo-negative copy of God’s creation. Yet, I think there’s more to the Vexilla Regis caricature than a diabolic inversion.

The first glimpse Dante has of Lucifer is one of a windmill:

Come quando una grossa nebbia spira,
quando l’emisperio nostro annotta,
par di lungi un molin che ’l vento gira,
veder mi parve un tal dificio allotta;

Just as, when night falls on our hemisphere
or when a heavy fog is blowing thick,
a windmill seems to wheel when seen far off,
so then I seemed to see that sort of structure.

The commentators agree that the image is radical because windmills were very recent inventions in Western Europe. It has often been said that the first windmills appeared in Northern Europe in the last quarter of the twelfth century. Dante may not have seen one, but he certainly heard or read about them. The image he goes for is that of Lucifer’s featherless, bat-like wings appearing as the blades of a windmill. As the poet later explains, Lucifer doesn’t have just two wings (as usually depicted), but six, two for each head, an inverted image of the six-winged seraph. The perfect correspondence between a windmill and the winged body of Lucifer is made explicit in the text and has been noted by commentators and modern scholars.Divina Commedia Dante and Virgil climb down on Lucifer,
Dante Alighieri

c 1380 to 1385

A point which has not been noticed, and which I wish to make here, is the correspondence between Lucifer-qua-windmill and the opening line from Vexilla Regis. A vexillum, literally ‘a little sail’ (from velum for sail) is a banner, whose shape was usually rectangular, the cloth hanging off a horizontal crossbar suspended from the staff. Used as a military standard in Roman times, it was repurposed by the early-medieval church as a processional banner. The deeper meaning of vexillum as a little sail is alluded to in the canto when Dante says that the Lucifer’s six wings were so broad that he’d ‘never seen a ship with sails so wide’ (vele di mar non vid’ io mai cotali, 34:48). The language is there: vexillum, vele, grand’ali (great wings), molin che ’l vento gira (windmill). On this reading, the infernal banners in the opening line of the canto are the wings preceding Lucifer’s body, whose great span makes them visible from afar before the eye can make out the ‘fuselage’ of Lucifer’s body. The vexilla regis inferni (the banners of the infernal king) are the sails of the windmill, the remarkable metaphor of Lucifer’s six wings whose motion keeps the river Cocytus frozen. The diabolic rewriting of the hymn functions, therefore, as a theological but also as an optical image: the banners go forth visually as Lucifer’s wings are the first thing the poet sees.

The other point I wish to make is more of a speculative interrogation. The Dantean image of Lucifer as a giant windmill, whose motion maintains Hell’s structural integrity (by freezing the Cocytus and keeping the infernal ecosystem in balance) has distant echoes of Cervantes’s famous image of Don Quixote tilting at windmills:

Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that rise from that plain. And no sooner did Don Quixote see them that he said to his squire, “Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished. Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. With their spoils we shall begin to be rich for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless.”

“What giants?” asked Sancho Panza.

“Those you see over there,” replied his master, “with their long arms. Some of them have arms well nigh two leagues in length.”

“Take care, sir,” cried Sancho. “Those over there are not giants but windmills. Those things that seem to be their arms are sails which, when they are whirled around by the wind, turn the millstone.” (Don Quixote, Part1, chapter 8).

Image result for dante lucifero windmill

The Knight of the sad Countenance seems to be a strange kind of figura Dantis, a figure of Dante, whose desirous imagination conjures up monsters of the same kind. The windmill-as-monster takes the Dantean metaphor (did Cervantes read Dante?) to the next level, where the image collapses in the protagonist’s/reader’s? imagination only to create a larger- and truer- than-life reality. The evil giant is not like a windmill, he is a windmill.

Giovanni de Serravalle’s Latin translation of the Divine Comedy

The reversal of Dante’s popularity at the end of the medieval period starts with an apparently popular move: translating the Divine Comedy into Latin. Meant to boost interest in the poet’s magnum opus, it signed its decline for at least 200 years. Humanism was about Latin, not the vernacular, about antiquity, not medieval science and theology. After Petrarch, Dante’s Comedy was seen as belonging to an inferior age. The only way to save it, many argued, was to lay it on the Procrustean bed of humanist Latin. It took it 250 years to get out of that bed, when interest in it was reawakened in the 18th century.

One Latin translation was made by the Franciscan humanist Giovanni Bertoldi de Serravalle (known in Latin as Johannis de Serravalle) and commissioned by two English bishops attending the Council of Constance (1414-1418). Giovanni also included a commentary, emphasizing Dante’s classical knowledge and the orthodoxy of his moral-theological outlook (not always the case). The translation took only 5 months and the commentary was finished within a year. The texts survive in only two manuscripts, one of which is in the British Library.


All this finished in 1.5 years. One of the two surviving copies. British Library, Egerton MS 2629

Photo 28-08-2018, 15 37 36.jpg

A neat writing worthy of an Italian humanist. British Library, Egerton MS 2629

The reception of Dante’s Comedy in the late-medieval period and the Renaissance shows that the Comedy was too radical for the medievals, and too medieval for the Renaissance humanists. Caught between two worlds, it failed to nourish the world around it for a long time. It is only recently that readers and scholars have begun to recover the full power of the poem.

Below is an example of Giovanni de Serravalle’s commentary taken from the first canto of Inferno:

Proemium. Ad expositionem libri accedendo, primo est sciendum, quod liber primaria divisione dividitur in prohemium et tractatum. Tractatus incipit in principio tertii capituli huius primi libri, scilicet Inferni, quod incipit vulgariter:

Per me si va ne la città dolente;

litteraliter vero incipit:

Per me itur in civitatem dolentium.

Adhuc, prima pars dividitur in duas. Quarum in prima ponuntur alique disposiciones ipsius auctoris. In secunda ponitur invocatio. Secunda pars incipit ibi, vulgariter:

Lo giorno se ne andava

in principio secundi capituli; litteraliter:

Dies iam declinabat.

Adhuc prima pars, que est primum capitulum, quod incipit vulgariter:

Nel mezo del camin de nostra vita;


In medio itineris vite nostre,

dividitur in quatuor partes principales. In prima ponit auctor suam visionem. In secunda ostendit, quomodo perveniens ad quemdam collem, super quem ascendere volebat, tres bestie contra ipsum venerunt ad impediendum iter suum, seu ascensum: ibi vulgariter:

Ed eccho quasi al comenzare;


Et ecce quasi in principio ascensus.

In tertia parte ostendit quomodo, dum erat in tali periculo, apparuit sibi unus incognitus, qui sibi auxilium prestitit: ibi vulgariter:

Mentre che io ruinava in basso loco;


Dum sic ruinarem in ymum locum.

In quarta parte ostenditur, quomodo Virgilius sibi consuluit, declarando sibi multa; ibi vulgariter:

A te convene tenere altro viagio;


Aliud iter te oportet tenere.

Ad intelligendum primam partem, notandum est, quod auctor consideravit tres species viatorum; scilicet peccantes et obstinatos in peccatis, et penitentes et virtuose operantes. De his fecit libros tres in hac Comedia: de primis fecit primum librum, scilicet Infernum: de secundis fecit secundum librum, scilicet Purgatorium: de tertiis fecit tertium, scilicet Paradisum.

A tale of two whores: Dante, Luther and the Pope

I am preparing an introductory talk on Dante’s radicalism and I thought I would seize on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation to offer a brief reflection on one of the hot issues in both Dante’s work and Luther’s ministry: the Papacy as the whore of Babylon, the prostitute enslaving the Church.

Screen Shot 2017-10-25 at 7.52.28

Luther’s vituperation against the papacy is well-known. His critique developed over time, in stages, as Scott Hendrix noted, and found its best expression in the pamphlet The Babylonian Captivity of the Church published in 1520. Luther wrote:

But after hearing and reading the super-subtle subtleties of those coxcombs [i.e. Eccius, Emser and their followers], by which they so ingeniously set up their idol—my mind being not entirely unteachable in such matters—I now know and am sure that the Papacy is the kingdom of Babylon and the power of Nimrod the mighty hunter.

(Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, trans. J. J. Schindel and C. M. Jacobs, intro. Albert T. W. Steinhaeuser, in vol. 2 of Works of Martin Luther with Introductions and Notes, 6 vols. (Philadelphia: A.J. Holman Company, 1915), p. 179.)

In the New Testament book of Revelation, the whore of Babylon is a figure associated with the Antichrist: “Come hither; I will shew unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters.” (Rev 17:1). A popular image in medieval apocalyptic writings as well as in the popular imagination, the Whore becomes, in Luther’s polemical works, synonymous with the papacy. Engravings in various early editions of the Luther Bible show the whore wearing the papal tiara, as in the above image.

More than 200 years earlier, the poet Dante Alighieri had expressed a similar, almost identical idea. Towards the end of Purgatorio of the Divine Comedy, after the pilgrim’s ascent to the top of the mountain and into the locus amoenus of the Earthly Paradise, Dante offers us a performance of God’s providential history and a mise-en-scène of ‘Apocalypse Now‘ as a cinematic procession: the Book of Revelation‘s whore of Babylon is sitting in a chariot surrounded by the beasts of the Apocalypse:

Just like a fortress set on a steep slope,
securely seated there, ungirt, a whore [puttana],
whose eyes were quick to rove, appeared to me;
and I saw at her side, erect, a giant,
who seemed to serve as her custodian;
and they—again, again—embraced each other.

(Purgatorio 32.148-50)

The strong allusion to the papacy was clear to most early readers of the Comedy. Earlier in Purgatorio, Rome was depicted as a widow, the papacy as a prostitute, and Italy as a whorehouse (6.76-90).

Nevertheless, the force of Dante’s condemnation was quickly weakened by a subsequent commentary tradition that emphasised the allegorical and biblical character of the imagery. It was not uncommon for the papal puttana to be scaled down to an embodiment of sin, as in the Holkham manuscript illustration above. In a sense, it was the early Lutherans who ‘recovered’ the radicalism of this idea and used as a weapon against their Catholic adversaries.