Infernal Imagery

Nearly two hundred years after its original publication, Dante’s Divine Comedy was republished in 1502 with Italian Renaissance flair. The Renaissance brought about a greater desire for erudite texts; individuals who collected such works were seen as worldly and refined. To meet this growing demand, books became smaller and less cumbersome, which explains why this edition of Divine Comedy almost fits in the palm of your hand. (This particular version, printed by legendary Venetian printer Aldus Manutius, was actually given the relatively uninspiring title Le terze rime di Dante—a decision that did not catch on among publishers who released subsequent editions of Dante’s masterpiece.) Printed on vellum with carefully chosen illuminated borders and details, this version of Dante speaks to the detailed process involved in the publication of literature during the Renaissance.

Dante is often noted for his visually stimulating writing, which has inspired artists for centuries. Unlike many other editions of Divine Comedy, this one does not rely on a multitude of illustrations to depict the agonizing pain that Dante discovers during his travels through the different circles of hell. Instead, Dante’s rich language is allowed to provoke the reader’s imagination.

Only three full-page illustrations exist in the body of the narrative. The illustrations portray select scenes from each chapter of Dante’s travels; each illustration marks the beginning of Dante’s adventure into, respectively, hell, purgatory, and finally paradise. This edition of Divine Comedy was printed, but the illustrations were hand-drawn and painted. The vivid paintings are still brilliant after more than 500 years.

Dante’s Divine Comedy is still capable of enthralling readers. Much scholarship has focused on Inferno, which has proven to be the most captivating of the three realms Dante visits during his journey.

Whether through the use of abundant imagery or only a few select illustrations, such as the three appearing in this edition, Dante’s work has endured centuries of literary history. Adaptations and corresponding visualizations of Divine Comedy will undoubtedly continue to be produced as a result of Dante’s divine inspiration.

This essay was written by Newberry Communications Intern Nellie Barrett.