‘The Delightful Mount.’
We are in Hell.
That’s how it begins.
We are in Hell and have to find our way out.
That’s the “tagline” for Dante’s epic allegorical poem the Divine Comedy.
The Divine Comedy tells of the poet Dante “midway upon the journey” of his life when suddenly he finds himself lost “within a forest dark” having strayed from his “straightforward path.” It’s like the opening of some grim horror story or even a disturbing pulp detective tale—where the hero awakes lost and menaced in a dark and foreboding place.
It was another great poet T. S. Eliot who once wrote “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them. There is no third.”
In terms of Europe, he was right—though some may now add Goethe.
Shakespeare with his poetry and plays changed the English language and offered an unrivaled insight into the human condition.
Dante certainly added to our language and literature and gave some insight into human understanding—but his greatest literary feat was creating our vision of Hell.
Hell with its gates and abandon all hope ye who enter here. Hell with its nine circles—its brutal, horrific punishments, fire and ice, mythical creatures and monstrous demons.
The Divine Comedy is an allegory about sin and redemption. Dante is led by yet another poet Virgil—chosen because he described Hell in his poem the Aeneid—through the Inferno (Hell) on towards Purgatory and Paradise.
Understandable therefore that Dante’s epic tale would appeal as a subject matter to an old superstitious Catholic like Salvador Dali. The fact that this poem had already been illustrated by William Blake and Gustave Dore only added to its attraction
In 1957, the Italian government approached Salvador Dali to produce a series of 101 watercolor illustrations intended to accompany a new edition of the Divine Comedy intended to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Dante’s birth in 1965. Dali set to work. But when the first of Dali’s paintings were exhibited at the Palazzo Pallavicini in Rome, a section of the Italian public were disgusted that a Spaniard had been hired to celebrate their country’s greatest poet rather than some Italian. The project was quickly dropped.
However, Dali seemed unperturbed. He finished the project.
In 1964, Dali approached his French publisher, Joseph Foret, who was then producing a volume of Dali’s illustrations to accompany a new edition of Don Quixote. Dali suggested the idea of publishing his illustrations in a new edition of Dante’s epic poem. Foret took a selection of Dali’s watercolors to the publishers Les Heures Claires—who were equally enthusiastic about the project.
Two engravers—Raymond Jacquet with his assistant, Mr. Taricco—were hired to hand carve the 3,500 wood blocks necessary to reproduce Dali’s watercolors. A limited edition of the book was published in Italian. Sets of Dali’s prints are still available to buy online for plenty of lucre.
Dali’s illustrations feature many of his trademark images—elongated limbs, melting faces, and disturbing unquiet. Though his paintings do not attempt to compete with the illustrations of Dore and Blake—Dali’s images do create a surreal interpretation of Hell and all its punishments. Below is the complete set of Dali’s illustrations for the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy—the Inferno—as recounts the poet’s journey from dark wood through the gates of the underworld onto the nine circles of Hell. The full poem can be read here.
I was among those, in Limbo, in suspense, and a lady called to me, she so beautiful, so blessed, that I begged her to command me.
Charon, the demon, with eyes of burning coal, beckoning, gathers them all: and strikes with his oar whoever lingers.
‘News of the Limbos.’
I found myself, in truth, on the brink of the valley of the sad abyss that gathers the thunder of an infinite howling. It was so dark, and deep, and clouded, that I could see nothing by staring into its depths.
There Minos stands, grinning horribly, examines the crimes on entrance, judges, and sends the guilty down as far as is signified by his coils: I mean that when the evil-born spirit comes before him, it confesses everything, and that knower of sins decides the proper place in hell for it, and makes as many coils with his tail, as the circles he will force it to descend. A multitude always stand before him, and go in turn to be judged, speak and hear, and then are whirled downwards.
Cerberus, the fierce and strange monster, triple-throated, barks dog-like over the people submerged in it. His eyes are crimson, his beard is foul and black, his belly vast, and his limbs are clawed: he snatches the spirits, flays, and quarters them.
‘The Avaricious and the Prodigal.’
These were priests, that are without hair on their heads, and Popes and Cardinals, in whom avarice does its worst.
Phlegyas in his growing anger, was like someone who listens to some great wrong done him, and then fills with resentment.
n an instant, three hellish Furies, stained with blood, had risen, that had the limbs and aspects of women, covered with a tangle of green hydras, their hideous foreheads bound with little adders, and horned vipers.
When I was at the base of the tomb, Farinata looked at me for a while, and then almost contemptuously, he demanded of me: ‘Who were your ancestors?’
‘In the Dark Limbo.’
On the edge of a high bank, made of great broken rocks in a circle, we came above a still more cruel crowd.
Like a bull, breaking loose, at the moment when it receives the fatal blow, that cannot go forward, but plunges here and there, so I saw the Minotaur, and my cautious guide cried: ‘Run to the passage: while he is in a fury, it is time for you to descend.’
‘The Wood and the Suicide.’
They have broad wings, and human necks and faces, clawed feet, and large feathered bellies, and they make mournful cries in that strange wood.
The dance of their tortured hands was never still, now here, now there, shaking off the fresh burning.
Already we were so far from the wood, that I was unable to see where it was, unless I turned back, when we met a group of spirits, coming along the bank, and each of them looked at us, as, at twilight, men look at one another, under a crescent moon, and peered towards us, as an old tailor does at the eye of his needle.
‘The Hands of Antaeus.’
‘You will see Antaeus, nearby, who speaks and is unchained, and will set us down in the deepest abyss of guilt.’
‘On Geryon’s Back.’
‘See the savage beast, with the pointed tail, that crosses mountains, and pierces walls and armour: see him, who pollutes the whole world.’
Human beings may practise deceit, which gnaws at every conscience, on one who trusts them, or on one who places no trust. This latter form of fraud only severs the bond of love that Nature created, and so, in the eighth circle, are nested hypocrisy; sorcery; flattery; cheating; theft and selling of holy orders; pimps; corrupters of public office; and similar filth.
Violence may be done, against the Deity, denying him and blaspheming in the heart, and scorning Nature and her gifts, and so the smallest ring stamps with its seal both Sodom and Cahors, and those who speak scornfully of God, in their hearts.
‘The Black Cherub.’
Afterwards, when I was dead, Saint Francis came for me: but one of the Black Cherubim said to him: ‘Do not take him: do not wrong me. He must descend among my servants, because he gave a counsel of deceit, since when I have kept him fast by the hair: he who does not repent, cannot be absolved: nor can one repent a thing, and at the same time will it, since the contradiction is not allowed.’ O miserable self! How I started, when he seized me, saying to me: ‘Perhaps you did not think I was a logician.’
From the mouth of each hole, a sinner’s feet and legs emerged, up to the calf, and the rest remained inside. The soles were all on fire, so that the joints quivered so strongly, that they would have snapped grass ropes and willow branches. As the flame of burning oily liquids moves only on the surface, so it was in their case, from the heels to the legs.
Then they struck at him with more than a hundred prongs, and said: ‘Here you must dance, concealed, so that you steal in private, if you can.’ No different is it, when the cooks make their underlings push the meat down into the depths of the cauldrons with their hooks, to stop it floating.
‘Ugolino and Ruggieri.’
‘You must know that I am Count Ugolino, and this is the Archbishop Ruggieri. Now I will tell you why I am a neighbour such as this to him. It is not necessary to say that, confiding in him, I was taken, through the effects of his evil schemes, and afterwards killed. But what you cannot have learnt, how cruel my death was, you will hear: and know if he has injured me.’
‘The Punishment of Vanni Fucci.’
And see, a serpent struck at one who was near our bank, and transfixed him, there, where the neck is joined to the shoulders. Neither ‘o’ nor ‘i’ was ever written as swiftly as he took fire, and burned, and dropped down, transformed to ashes: and after he was heaped on the ground, the powder gathered itself together, and immediately returned to its previous shape.
Centaurs were racing, one behind another, between it and the foot of the bank, armed with weapons, as they were accustomed to hunt on earth.
You have made a god for yourselves of gold and silver, and how do you differ from the idolaters, except that he worships one image and you a hundred?
‘The Logician Devil.’
‘Bertram dal Bornio.’
‘I am Bertrand de Born, he who gave evil counsel to the Young King. I made the father and the son rebel against each other: Ahithophel did no more for Absalom and David, by his malicious stirrings.
‘Because I parted those who were once joined, I carry my intellect, alas, split from its origin in this body. So, in me, is seen just retribution.’
While I stood looking wholly at him, he gazed at me, and opened his chest with his hands, saying: ‘See how I tear myself: see how Mahomet is ripped! In front of me, Ali goes, weeping, his face split from chin to scalp, and all the others you see here, were sowers of scandal and schism in their lifetimes: so they are cleft like this. There is a devil behind who tears us cruelly like this, reapplying his sword blade to each of this crowd, when they have wandered round the sad road, since the wounds heal before any reach him again.’
Gianni Schicchi’s Bite.
‘That goblin is Gianni Schicci, and he goes, rabidly, mangling others like that.’ I replied: ‘Oh, be pleased to tell us who the other is, before it snatches itself away, and may it not plant its teeth in you.’
‘The Prophecy of Vanni Fucci.’
Then he said: ‘It hurts me more for you to catch me, trapped, in the misery you see me in, than the moment of my being snatched from the other life. I cannot deny you what you ask. I am placed so deep down because I robbed the sacristy of its fine treasures, and it was once wrongly attributed to others. But, so that you might not take joy from this sight if you ever escape the gloomy regions, open your ears, and hear what I declare:
Pistoia first is thinned of Blacks: then Florence changes her people and her laws. Mars brings a vapour, from Valdimagra cloaked in turbid cloud, and a battle will be fought on the field of Piceno, in an angry and eager tempest, that will suddenly tear the mist open, so that every White is wounded by it. And I have said this to give you pain.’
‘The Traitor of Monaperti.’
Afterwards I saw a thousand faces, made doglike by the cold, at which a trembling overcomes me, and always will, when I think of the frozen fords. And, whether it was will, or fate or chance, I do not know: but walking, among the heads, I struck my foot violently against one face. Weeping it cried out to me: ‘Why do you trample on me? If you do not come to increase the revenge for Montaperti, why do you trouble me?’
On the right I saw new pain and torment, and new tormentors, with which the first chasm was filled. In its depths the sinners were naked: on our inner side of its central round they came towards us, on the outer side, with us, but with larger steps.
‘The Waterfall of the Phlegethon.’
‘[W]e near the river of blood, in which those who injure others by violence are boiled.’
Via Book Graphics.