The Disorderly Notions of Gustave Dore: Dante’s Inferno

Continuing with my research on Dore I am now looking at a selection of engravings from ‘Inferno’, part one of Dante Alighieri’s ‘Divine Comedy’. For all three parts of the poem Dore produced an astounding 136 illustrations which became one of the illustrator’s personal favourites. In fact, Dore would apparently use those engravings as source material for his subsequent work. When Dore began work on ‘Inferno’ in 1857 the publishers he contacted were reluctant to get behind it, because the project seemed too ambitious and potentially expensive, so he financed the whole task himself. When it was published in 1861 Dore’s edition won unanimous acclaim some proclaiming that it had replaced Botticelli’s paintings as the definitive work (according to the publisher’s note in ‘The Dore Illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy’ 1976).

The first plate I have chosen is ‘Charon and the River Acheron’ which depicts the ferryman of Hell rowing to collect the souls of the dead on the opposite shore. The figure of Charon is posed in the manner of classical Greek sculpture to show off his rugged physique; the angle of his oar indicating a powerful, forceful sweep through the raging water. The darkness surrounding the towering cliffs behind emphasises the central figure reflected in light, while the turbulent waves look as though they are threatening to engulf Charon’s wooden vessel. Dore probably increased the dramatic qualities of this image to reflect that Charon is the first named mythical being that Dante encounters in ‘Inferno’. It is also a turning point in the poem as this is the moment where Dante and Virgil’s descent into Hell truly begins.

This engraving shows Dante and Virgil in the Second Circle of Hell, ‘The Lustful’, looking down into an abyss where from a stream of countless souls whirl endlessly. The silhouettes of the protagonists are insignificant against the razor-sharp rocks but the presence of the damned souls seems miniscule. They are almost like a shoal of fish coiling aimlessly in the air and fading into the background. Dore probably gave this image limitless space to increase the intended feeling of horror and astonishment.

‘The Styx- The Irascible’ finds the two poets in the Fifth Circle, Anger. Dante clutches to Virgil in fear as the heavily muscled forms of the Irascible reach out to tear him to pieces. In contrast, Virgil’s stern expression and outstretched hand show calm in the face of adversity. The teeming bodies blend into the violent currents of the River Styx to show their inability to escape their murky prison. Likewise, the tormented forms on the shore in the background are almost indistinguishable from the blackened peaks behind. Up in the ominous sky the winged forms of devils can be faintly seen patrolling the air. Here, Dore shows an actual conflict between the two living souls and the hoards of the dead.

Next is ‘The Harpies’ Wood’ where Dante and Virgil wander into the Seventh Circle, Violence. Specifically, there are in Violence’s middle circle, the Suicides (violence against self). The fate of the suicides is to be transformed into gnarly trees while the hideous harpies feast on their internal organs. The forms of the suicides are convulsed more in the manner of tree roots and branches rather than conventional human pose. Extra outgrowing twigs give them the appearance of mythical woodland spirits rather than the ordinary people they once were. The harpies themselves are gaunt faced with expressions of animalistic hatred, all their eyes cast on the living interlopers who stand in the shadowy background. The eerily still forest environment of the Suicides makes for a stark contrast with the rest of Dore’s engravings which depict the Circles of Hell as barren, rocky and full of raging motion.

Here, in the Eighth Circle, Fraud, (specifically Bolgia Five: Barrators) the poets are set upon by the Malebranche in ‘Devils and Virgil’. Once again, Virgil is protective of Dante stoically staring down the horde of ‘evil claws’. The devils are based on the conventional Medieval depiction complete with bat wings, horns and pitch forks. By contrast Virgil is shown as a figure of Roman grandeur and nobility, probably to indicate his Italian heritage. There is great use of motion in the swarm of attacking demons compared the immovability of the two men. It is a classic scene of mortal good versus immortal evil.

Finally, I will look at ‘Antaeus- Descent to the Final Circle’. Having passed through the whole Eighth Circle, Dante and Virgil are lowered into the Ninth and final Circle by the giant Antaeus. His immense build and stooped pose once again recall Greek sculpture; his long, flowing beard giving him the look of an ancient Greek deity. The way he holds the two men is gentle, which is incongruous to his apparently savage nature. There is a sense of calm before the storm, a brief respite before the inevitable final horror.

Overall, compared to his previous works of grotesque satire in ‘Rabelais’, ‘Inferno’ concentrated more on the epic, impossible landscape of a terrifying underworld. The bizarre nature of Hell meant that Dore had to conceive a world that was believable but not grounded in reality at all. As journalist Theophile Gautier wrote in ‘Montieur Universal’ (July 30th, 1861), “What strikes us at first glance in Gustave Dore’s illustrations for Dante are the surroundings in which the scenes that he draws take place and which have no relation to the appearance of the mundane world.”

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