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Non per foco ma per divin’arte

  • Non per foco ma per divin’arte

    Dantean echoes from the Uffizi Galleries

    Non per foco ma per divin’arte
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    Dante and art/1


    Paolo Procaccioli

    The world of art, in Dante’s time, considered the poet in both a personal capacity and with regard to his work. Whereas from Giotto onwards, in Florence, the Dante in the spotlight was not only the poet but the man, the citizen and the protagonist of political life, in the rest of Italy, it was the author of the Divine Comedy. He owed this attention to a poetic style immediately seen to be charged with an unrivalled figurative tension. A tension that could only be released - and also, in practical terms, explained - if the reader made an effort that could not be reduced to the conventional forms of interpretation. A story and a reasoning like those used in the poem, substantiated by very striking images, surprising, spectacular settings, portraits with a rare expressive and evocative power, were a stimulus interpreted at the time by a reader who - as shown by the long tradition of the illuminated codices, from the Dante of the Musée Condé of Chantilly to the Holkham 48 of the Bodleian Library and manuscript Yates Thompson 36 - never shied away from the challenge posed by the poem, constantly taking up the gauntlet and attributing body and shape to the subjects evoked by its tercets.

    Moreover, a story based on the basic metaphor of the journey was inevitably destined to become a series of worlds and landscapes, before it focused on its characters. Grand or real landscapes and their miniatures, apocalyptic or idyllic scenes, animated by wandering or static crowds, one minute groaning, the next purging or pleasure-seeking, and characters sculpted in full relief alongside others destined to remain imprinted forever, thanks to the power of a detail or of even merely a single gesture. Scenes, moods, faces that found, first in the miniaturists and then in the engravers, interpreters capable of capturing and translating into images the enàrgheia of their representation and, therefore, their realism, just as much as their ideal and moral value. The letter and its allegory

    In this context, it is no wonder that the Divine Comedy not only intercepted essential themes of the figurative tradition, starting with that of the Novissimi, but that it also directed and influenced their interpretation. By no coincidence, Vasari suggests that Giotto’s Apocalypse of the Santa Chiara monastery in Naples was the product of a collaboration with Dante:

    the stories of the Apocalypse […] were, or so it is said, the invention of Dante, as, perhaps, were the highly praised ones of Ascesi too[…]. And even if Dante was dead in this period, he may have discussed it at length when alive, as often happens among friends.

    And with Giotto, and in his wake, Orcagna, Signorelli, Michelangelo, all artists who- should their images not speak for themselves- Vasari claims were influenced by Dante. And likewise, it is no surprise that for a period of time, between the 15th and 16th centuries, the theme of the representation and the measurement of the netherworld was the main focus of a series of singular exegetes, starting with Brunelleschi and ending with Galileo.

    The result of all this is that no other modern or ancient literary work has ever inspired such a figurative commitment. And not only in terms of quantity: in the papers of the poem- whether illuminated, drawn or engraved - the images have never had a purely ornamental purpose, but have instead always been an integral part of the impact with which the work penetrates, a strenuous, continuous exercise that entails translating the argumentative power and evocative ability of words into images.

    Image: Federico Zuccari (copy after), Portrait of Dante, Department of Prints and Drawings, Uffizi

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    The facts show that the ‘Dante’ - exactly so, as author and work rolled into one - was a recurring figurative theme. Dante as a historical figure was a popular theme from the early 14th century. First in the unmistakeable brush strokes on the walls of the Bargello chapel (it being of little importance whether they were painted personally by his peer and friend Giotto, or someone from his school), then repeated from season to season, from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, by the various Nardo di Cione works in the Strozzi Chapel of Santa Maria Novella, by Niccolò Gerini in the Palace of Art of the Guild of Judges and Notaries, by Andrea del Castagno for Villa Carducci in Legnaia, by Benozzo Gozzoli in the San Francesco Museum in Montefalco, by Domenico di Michelino in the world-famous panel of Santa Maria del Fiore, and then again by Justus van Gent, by Giuliano da Maiano in intarsia, by Pietro Lombardo in the marble bas-relief of Ravenna, by Botticelli, Signorelli, and Raphael in his Rooms. The same Raphael who decides to adopt the most significant approaches of both the figurative and critical traditions and who, in the Room of the Segnatura does not hesitate in duplicating Dante’s portrait: in the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament that of Dante the theologian, in the Parnassus that of Dante the poet. A double acknowledgement that remains unique, and that prefigures the future destinies of the character, the same ones that will go on to boost the legend, regardless of the eclipses resulting from the highs and lows of the arguments about language and poetics.

    It is true that from then on, many men of letters engaged in those arguments, appeared to set aside any such celebration, paying heed to the reservations expressed by Bembo and his followers, just as it is true that this was followed by an obvious cooling down of the passion for the Divine Comedy and for its author, in favour of the language and sounds of Petrarca, the poet devoted to Laura . But this was not true for Florence, where regardless of the harsh line taken by Machiavelli in his A discourse or dialogue concerning our language, Dante was still seen as the crowning glory of the city’s tradition. A situation expressed most clearly in none other than the field of art, in Vasari’s Six Tuscan poets (now in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art Museum), where Dante occupies the same place that would have been assigned to Michelangelo in a hypothetical panel of artists.

    Image: Cristofano dell'Altissimo, Portrait of Dante, Uffizi

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    In fact, the theme, and in the terms in which it was imposed on one side by Raphael and on the other by Vasari, (but Bronzino, Zuccari and Giovanni Stradano are also included in the series), was only suspended. The effects of its suspension were still felt in the seventeenth century, when works regarding Dante like those by Filippo Napoletano, Livio Mehus or Giovanni da San Giovanni were relatively rare, whereas the theme and the subject would become popular again in the next century, with a different emphasis and above all, in a setting outside Italy. This would mark the beginning of a triumphal march that would lead to the romantic apotheosis, so much so that, in the middle of the nineteenth century, a historian like Cesare Balbo could open his Life of Dante Alighieri with no fear of being refuted, stating that “Dante is a large part of the history of Italy”. It was then completely natural for some of the most representative artists of the various cultures and traditions to devote themselves to the celebration of the Dantesque world, from Sir Joshua Reynolds to Füssli, Flaxman, from Blake to Koch, Delacroix, Cornelius and the Nazarenes, Rossetti, with Gustave Doré who would engrave the Dante of the new vulgate in his plates.

    The age of Romanticism would be the century that broke down the barriers which had confined Dante’s word to within the limits of literature in Italy and the rest of the world. The political pathos of the poet fanned the flame of patriotism and retaliation against a society and a moral code by then perceived as anachronistic. It is no wonder that figures such as Francesca, Pia or Piccarda, which the exegesis had deemed of relative interest until then, became increasingly more significant in the economy of the poem, to such an extent that they stood alone also in contexts beyond the Dantesque horizon, in art, theatre and popular music. In a climate that leaned towards the general recovery of historical subjects, painters and sculptors made the characters of the Divine Comedy and episodes based on the poet’s biography into the emblems of both the new political and civil and the new moral ideals. Examples of this kind of episode were the Buonconte di Montefeltro by Gabriele Smargiassi, La barca della vita by Domenico Morelli, and new versions of the tales of the heroines mentioned above: Francesca, Pia, Piccarda Donati.

    Image: Domenico Petarlini, Dante in exile, Gallery of Modern Art, Pitti Palace

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    And in the nineteenth century we also witnessed the birth of a new phenomenon, the celebration of the poet’s centenary. And while the centenary of the year 1865 stuck in our memories due to the many monuments erected in the most famous Italian squares, (Piazza Santa Croce in Florence and Piazza dei Signori in Verona), the years 1921 and 1965 were marked most of all by important editorial initiatives (the Works of Dante of the Italian Dante Society in 1921 and the Divine Comedy edited by Giorgio Petrocchi in 1965). It is easy to guess that the centenary we will soon be celebrating shall not be any less fruitful.

    Leaving aside commemorations, place names, statues and publications, the praesentia Dantis of the century that had commenced with the fervour of Auguste Rodin in the Porte de l’Enfer (Paris, Musée Rodin) was marked by the launching of figurative programmes that envisaged the systematic illustration of the Divine Comedy. A way of getting closer to the poem that Doré and his publishers had recuperated from ancient tradition (the last illustrated Dante had been that published by Marcolini in 1544) and which saw the participation of Alberto Martini first (who is said to have died however in 1954 without seeing it published, as this only occurred in 2008), and then, more successfully, the Amos Nattini of the Imagini (1923-1941), Salvador Dalì (1964), Renato Guttuso (1969) and Aligi Sassu (1991). This proved the urgency of not only taking up again but also relaunching a dialogue - the artists’ with Dante - which had failed to die out in the space of seven centuries, but instead had been confirmed as a vibrant, necessary interaction.

    Image: Emilio Demi, Dante, Piazzale degli Uffizi

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    1. Dante and the painting of his time



    1290-1300 c.

    tempera on wood, cm 384 x 223

    Uffizi Galleries, Gallery of Statues and Paintings

    inv. 1890 n. 8343




    1305 c.

    tempera on wood, cm 356 x 229

    Uffizi Galleries, Gallery of Statues and Paintings

    inv. 1890 n. 8344


    In painting, Cimabue thought he held the field,

    and now it’s Giotto’s they acclaim,

    the former only keeps a shadowed fame.

    Purgatory XI, 94-96

    This famous sentence is spoken by manuscript illuminator Oderisi da Gubbio, whom Dante meets in Purgatory in the terrace of those who are guilty of pride, having used their intellect to seek earthly, and therefore vain glory. It is a reflection on the temporary nature of success and fame, destined to fade in a short period of time only to be replaced by new protagonists and new languages.

    Virgin and Child Enthroned, and Prophets (Santa Trinita Maestà)
    Architettura | Gli Uffizi
    Artwork details
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    1. Dante and the painting of his time

    The comparison between Cimabue and Giotto underlines that Dante and his peers fully understood the innovation of Giotto’s painting, which was rational and oriented towards realism, and the natural respect for the style of Cimabue, and the painting of Byzantine ancestry in general, which leaned towards abstractism and was based on conventional modules. Dante also significantly introduces a parallel between painters and men of letters, by observing the similar devaluation of the poetry of Guido Guinizelli in favour of the new style of Guido Cavalcanti, in turn destined to be surpassed by the Dantesque idiom.

    Just as Dante knew of Giotto, at least by name, Giotto also knew of Dante. In fact, the most ancient surviving portrait of Dante was painted by him. It is set among the blessed souls in the scene of the Last Judgement that decorates the back wall of the chapel of the Palazzo del Podestà in Florence (today the National Bargello Museum). This painting was probably the reference model for many of the effigies of Dante Alighieri painted subsequently.

    Virgin and Child enthroned, surrounded by angels and saints (Ognissanti Maestà)
    Architettura | Gli Uffizi
    Artwork details
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    II. Dante’s face

    Andrea del Castagno


    1448-1449 c.

    detached fresco, cm 247 x 153

    Uffizi Galleries, Gallery of Statues and Paintings, San Pier Scheraggio

    inv. San Marco e Cenacoli n. 167


    Our poet, then, was of moderate stature, and after he came to a mature age walked somewhat bent, and his gait was grave and gentle; he was always dressed in good clothes of a fashion appropriate to his years. His face was long, his nose aquiline, his eyes rather large than small, his jaws large, and his lower lip protruded over the upper. His complexion was dark, his hair and beard thick, black and curling, and his expression was melancholy and thoughtful.

    Boccaccio, Life of Dante, 1362, XX

    One of the most ancient portraits of Dante Alighieri that has survived to the present day, this portrayal presents many of the attributes which have characterised the poet’s iconography over the centuries. Dante is wearing a long, loose red over-garment, the academic gown that distinguished the erudite, and men of a high social class. His head is covered by a cap over which he is wearing a fur-lined beret, closed at the back by a short cowl, in line with the fashion of the early fourteenth century. His mature face, marked by wrinkles, is characterised by his slightly aquiline nose and prominent chin. These facial features are confirmed in the description of Dante provided by Giovanni Boccaccio in his Life of Dante, which was possibly the source of inspiration for the painting by Andrea del Castagno, together with the effigies of Alighieri found from the 1300s onwards in the wall decorations of public and private buildings in Florence.

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    II.Dante’s face

    The identification of the poet is confirmed by the half-open book he is holding and by the inscription on the base, which reads: DANTES DI ALEGIERIS FLORETINI.

    The wall painting is part of a pictorial cycle depicting a group of illustrious men and women coming from the Carducci-Pandolfini villa in the suburbs of Florence. The wall paintings, which decorated the loggia of the villa, were probably commissioned by the Gonfalonier of Justice Filippo Carducci by 1450. Dante is depicted there together with another two Tuscan poets, Giovanni Boccaccio and Francesco Petrarca. The portrayals of famous characters that often decorated stately homes usually served the dual purpose of inciting the exercising of virtue and celebrating the national glories, with Dante by then considered one of their most illustrious exponents in Florence.

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    III. An ‘Italian’ language for art and faith

    Sandro Botticelli

    Altarpiece of San Barnaba

    1480-1482 c.

    tempera on wood, cm 268 x 280

    Uffizi Galleries, Gallery of Statues and Paintings

    inv. 1890 n. 8361


    O Virgin Mother, Daughter of thy Son, humbler and loftier than any creature,
    eternal counsel’s predetermined goal...

    (Paradise, XXXIII, 1-3)


    The prayer, offered by Saint Bernard to the Holy Virgin, introduces the last canto of the Comedy, which tells of Dante’s meeting with God, marking the end of his journey. The mystical Bernard of Clairvaux who, in the Empyrean, guides the poet in place of Beatrice, sings the Virgin’s praises using oxymorons, (“Virgin Mother”) and antitheses (“daughter of your son, humble and sublime”) that exalt the uniqueness of the mother of God. This is then followed by Bernard’s request for the Virgin to intercede and allow Dante to contemplate God.

    Bernard’s prayer is therefore him devotedly praising the Virgin and, at the same time, invoking her to act as intermediary between God and men.

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    III. An ‘Italian’ language for art and faith

    In Sandro Botticelli’s painting, as in the vision of Dante, angels and some saints surround the Virgin, interceding for the devoted like Bernard in the poet’s favour. The large altarpiece was positioned about the main altar of the Church of San Barnaba in Florence, a church founded to celebrate the victory of the Guelphs in Campaldino, in 1289, on the day of the festival of San Barnaba. The Guild of the Doctors and Apothecaries managed the Church, which was looked after by the Augustinian monks. The painting portrays, from left to right: Caterina d’Alessandria, Agostino, Barnaba, Giovanni Battista, Ignazio d’Antiochia and Michele, saints linked not only to those who commissioned the work, but also to the devotion of the city. Botticelli’s painting is proof of the fortune of the Dantesque prayer, which has become part of the repertory of litanies dedicated to the Virgin. The same phrase “Virgin mother, daughter of your son” accompanies the effigy of the Virgin in other 15th century Florentine paintings, such as the Madonna Adoring the Infant Christ by the Master of the Castello Nativity, kept at the city museum of Villa Mimbelli in Livorno.

    In the same period during which he painted the altarpiece for the main altar of the church of San Barnaba in Florence, in the early 1480s, Botticelli also tried his hand at illustrating the Divine Comedy, providing the drawings engraved by Baccio Baldini for the printed edition commented by Cristoforo Landino published in 1481. His drawings of the Divine Comedy on parchment, commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’Medici, have also survived, and are now divided between the Vatican Library in Rome and the state museums of Berlin.

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    IV. Fortune of the myth of Dante in the 17th century

    Giovanni da San Giovanni 

    The Muses with the poets and the philosophers expelled from Parnassus



    Pitti Palace, Treasure of the Grand Dukes, Room of Giovanni da San Giovanni


    I swooned away as if I were dying;
    and fell, as a dead body falls.

    Hell, Canto V, vv 141-142

    We’re in Palazzo Pitti, in the first room of the Summer Apartments that the Grand Duke Ferdinando de’Medici decided to dedicate to the patronage of his household with a cycle of frescoes, designed by court librarian Francesco Rondinelli and, commissioned to painter Giovanni Mannozzi, who was named after his home town, becoming Giovanni da San Giovanni. He had begun painting the frescoes in 1635 on the southern wall divided into three lunettes depicting the destruction of classic civilisation, the expulsion of poets and philosophers from Parnassus and their exodus to the new Athens, that is, the Florence of Lorenzo de’Medici. The main scene with the attack by satyrs and harpies, is soaked in the sardonic Tuscan spirit of Mannozzi, undoubtedly the most irreverent and anti-conformist artist of his time. The biographer Filippo Baldinucci conveys the witty sayings, jokes and eccentricities of a man completely dedicated to painting and drawing, but who dressed scruffily as if “his clothes had been thrown on to him from the window”. In the scene, Dante appears in the background and with his back turned, a presence that does not go unnoticed, since the painter captures his catastrophic fall from the stairs of Parnassus in a very vivid image.

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    IV. Fortune of the myth of Dante in the 17th century

    The irony of Giovanni da San Giovanni does not spare the other characters either: Pegasus is bowled over and bitten by grotesque harpies and Homer, blind and staggering, gropes his way along, actually heading outside the painted area. Plato, Aristotle, Sappho and Empedocles are also fleeing from Parnassus, figures taken from Raphael’s School of Athens painting in the Vatican Rooms. The cycle was continued, after Giovanni’s death, in 1636, by other painters called upon to illustrate the apotheosis of Lorenzo de’Medici, patron and founder of the Platonic Academy, and surrounded by its artists, poets and philosophers of the Renaissance. Examples of Florence’s ambition to inherit the Greek and Roman culture can be found in art from the end of the fourteenth century, when Coluccio Salutati, chancellor of the Republic, sponsored a dual project in the city. He commissioned a fresco for the Palazzo della Signoria, which has since been lost, depicting the glories of Greek and Roman antiquity inspired by Petrarca’s “De Viribus Illustribus” and a series of illustrious Florentines, including Dante and Petrarca, taken from the “Liber de origine civitatis Florentiae et eiusdem famosisi civibus”; in Santa Maria del Fiore he also sponsored the celebration of the Tuscan glories, including Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio, the aim of which was to have Dante’s body repatriated. The latter project failed but was picked up, again by Salutati’s invitation, by the Guild of Judges and Notaries, where one of the oldest portraits of Dante is still hosted in a fresco on the walls of its building. Obviously, there is no iconographic connection between Dante as a proud, illustrious man of letters, characterised between the 14th and 15th centuries, and the Dante of Mannozzi. However, the artist, in his rightful status as author, may have found inspiration from the many lines in the Divine Comedy in which the poet manifests dread, bewilderment and fear when faced with devils and monstrous creatures, such as here with the harpies and satyrs. A fragile Dante who reminds us that overcoming all kinds of obstacles is essential in order to achieve salvation.

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    V. Dante in words and images

    Federico Zuccari

    The dark wood (illustration from the Dante historiato da Federigo Zuccaro)

    1587 c.

    red and black pencil on paper

    Uffizi Galleries, Department of Prints and Drawings

    inv. 3474


    When half-way through the journey of our life
    I found that I was in a dark wood,
    because the path which led aright was lost.

    Hell, I, vv. 1-3

    The fate of the Divine Comedy in the 16th century depended on the many publications which, from 1481 onwards - the year of the Florentine publication commented by Cristoforo Landino and accompanied by the engravings of Baccio Baldini- marked the history of the literature and the printing of the period. Bembo’s Terze Rime, published in Venice by Aldo Manuzio (1502), the editions commented by Girolamo Benivieni and by Alessandro Vellutello, respectively published by Giunti in Florence (1506) and by Marcolini in Venice (1544), and then that of Ludovico Dolce (Giolito, Venice 1555) are the premise to the most important late 16th century initiative in Florence. This was when the Crusca Academy, acknowledging the need for a text that was “reduced to be easier to read”, published a new publication of the Divine Comedy which came out in 1595 printed by Domenico Manzani. In parallel, the focus on Dante’s work was also replicated by the artists, leading to the creation of figurative series, notably including those of Giovanni Stradano and Federico Zuccari. During his stay in Spain, Federico Zuccari, who had already tackled the depiction of Hell in the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore between 1576 and 1579, produced a series of 88 panels, collected at the beginning of the 18th century in an album entitled Dante historiato da Federico Zuccari. The sheets, partly drawn in red and black pencil, and partly with brown pen and ink, illustrate the three canticas, interspersing the Dantesque text - not reproduced in its entirety - with short explanatory notes added by the painter himself.

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    V. Dante in words and images

    This drawing simultaneously portrays the main episodes of the first canto of Hell and the beginning of Dante’s journey, when he finds himself, lost and frightened, in the dark wood (vv. 1-12) On the left, the poet is in fact clutching on to a tree, while just beside him he sees the hill, lightened by the sun’s rays (vv 13-18). Taking heart, he tries to climb up the rock but encounters the three terrible beasts blocking his way: the leopard, the she-wolf and the lion, respectively symbols of the sins of lust, avarice and pride (vv. 32-33; 54-51).

    The central part of the sheet is dedicated to the decisive meeting with Virgil, and even if in the poetic text it comes after the episode of the beasts in chronological order, here it is positioned in full view, to underline the moral meaning of the entire Dantesque epic and the role of “Duke and father” personified by the ancient Latin poet.

    The use of the two pencils, red for the figures and black for the landscape, (with the sole exception of the she-wolf, whose dark features probably serve to emphasise its particularly dangerous nature compared to the other two beasts), animates a tidy, easy to interpret composition, in which the painter aims to translate the entire range of emotions transmitted by the Dantesque verses into images. The scene is completed by the small sign on the bottom right with the title: gioventù male incamminata. Zuccari adds this with an educational purpose, referring to a Dante who, unlike in the original text, is represented here as a young man and so becomes the symbol of an age when one is still naive, and exposed to the evils of those sins that distance him from the “path which led aright”. The painter from the Marche region did not create his collection with the intention of publishing it: instead, he made good use of it during his academic lessons, to teach his pupils about its graphic techniques and compliance with moral principles.

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    VI. Images of Dante in the Medici collections. The entrance to Hades

    Livio Mehus 

    Crescenzio Onofri 

    Dante and Virgil in Hell

    1690 c.

    oil on canvas, cm 100.5 x 99

    Pitti Palace, Palatine Gallery, Deposits

    inv. 1890 n. 5388


    "All fearfulness must here be left behind;

    all forms of cowardice must here be dead.

    We’ve reached the place where, as I said to thee,

    thou’lt see the sad folk

    who have lost the Good which is the object of the intellect.”

    Then, after he had placed his hand in mine

    with cheerful face, whence I was comforted,

    he led me in among the hidden things.

    Hell, Canto III, vv.14 -21


    Behold then, coming toward us in a boat,

    an agèd man, all white with ancient hair,

    who shouted: “Woe to you, ye souls depraved!

    Give up all hope of ever seeing Heaven!

    I come to take you to the other shore,

    into eternal darkness, heat and cold.

    Hell, Canto III, vv. 82-87

    And he to me: “The eternal fire within

    which keeps them burning, maketh them look red,

    as thou perceivest in this nether Hell.”

    Hell, Canto VIII, vv. 73-75

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    VI. Images of Dante in the Medici collections. The entrance to Hades

    A large cleft in the dark rock hails the beholder, like a raised curtain, plunging him into the thick of a very lively theatre scene. In the corner at the bottom, Virgil and Dante stop in front of the first, dramatic vision of Hell, narrated in the second part of Canto III. Here, steep rocks of various colours, with disturbing profiles reminiscent of diabolic masks, conceal dwellings populated by monstrous creatures. On the boiling waters of the river Acheron, Charon appears, a terrifying demon with eyes ablaze who is waiting for his charge of damned souls, to ferry them towards the punishment assigned to them. In the background, the spectacular explosion of fire anticipates another moment in the pathway of the two poets, narrated in Canto VIII: the arrival at the city of Dis, whose burning, iron walls, guarded by the devils host the sinners guilty of heresy. The theme of Dante and Virgil’s journey into Hell was adored by those who commissioned paintings in Florence in the 17th century, because the extraordinarily striking text lent itself to be turned into images full of imaginative and grotesque details, such as those seen in the versions of Filippo Napoletano, Francesco Ligozzi, Jacques Callot and others. In this painting, Flemish painter Livio Mehus expressed the qualities of his fast, dense painting style to the full, animated by vivid contrasts of light and colour, relying on the collaboration of Roman landscape painter Crescenzo Onofri, who was also active in the Medici court towards the end of the century.

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    VII. Dantesque images in the Medici collections. The city of Dis

    Filippo Napoletano 

    Dante and Virgil in Hell

    1618-1620 c.

    oil on panel, cm 44 x 67

    Uffizi Galleries, Gallery of Statues and Paintings, Deposits

    Inv. 1890, n. 1254

    “Now, son, at last the town, whose name is Dis, is drawing near with all its host of burdened citizens.”

    Hell., VIII, 67-69


    And he to me: “The eternal fire within which keeps them burning, maketh them look red, as thou perceivest in this nether Hell.”

    Hell, VIII, 73-75

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    VII. Dantesque images in the Medici collections. The city of Dis

    A nocturnal setting, torn apart by fires, illuminates a city that can perhaps be identified as Dis. In the background there is a ruined architecture. Virgil, with Dante, enters slowly form the left and shows him the multitude of damned souls tortured by a variegated repertory of monstrous creatures moving on the ground and in the air. So this is not the representation of an individual episode of the Divine Comedy, but a compendium of episodes of damnation which, among other things, hosts the main demons of Dante’s Hell gathered together on the same stage, as if in a kind of medieval bestiary. These include Charon (Hell, III), Cerberus (Hell, VI), the Centaurs (Hell, XII), the Harpies and the black dogs (Hell, XIII), the Dragons and the Snakes (Hell, XXIV-XXV). The iconography taps into a consolidated repertory, but Filippo Napoletano does not hesitate to add a few original elements. These include the large lobster, almost taken from a Flemish still life painting, or the flying animal skeletons and the skeleton of death on horseback, a unique talent of this painter, acknowledged by his peer Giulio Mancini and sealed by the series of Skeletons engraved for Johanness Faber. The painting reflects the interests accrued by the artist in his Florentine years (1617-1621), in contact with the taste of Cosimo II de’Medici, who was particularly focused on the themes discussed in the Divine Comedy and in particular the Hell cantica, a hotbed of moralising meanings suited to the dictates of the Counter-Reformed Church. A ‘macabre’ vein that Filippo Napoletano willingly expresses here, both by adopting the Nordic models adored by the Grand Duke - in particular Aeneas and the Sibyl by Jan Brueghel the Younger - and by providing an inventive composition that, similarly to the medieval beasts, strikingly illustrates its unique value.

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    VIII. Female figures in the Divine Comedy: Pia dei Tolomei

    Prithee, when to the world thou hast returned,

    and when from thy long journey thou art rested,”

    after the second spirit said the third,

    “do thou remember me, who Pia am!

    Sièna made me; Maremma me unmade;

    he knoweth what this means, who previously

    had, in betrothal, ringed me with his gem.

    (Purgatory V, 130-136).

    Dante’s story of Pia, exemplified here by the paintings of Vincenzo Cabianca, Enrico Pollastrini and the group of sculptures by Pio Fedi, is swathed in mystery because there is no evidence to confirm the real identity of the character Dante was referring to in Canto V of Purgatory, except the few pieces of - contradictory - information that can be gleaned from the comments made once the text was finished.

    Much of the artistic and literary fortune enjoyed by the theme throughout the centuries undoubtedly stemmed from verses 130 to 136 of Canto V of Purgatory. Dante meets Pia in the Ante-Purgatory, among the souls who met with a violent death, sinners who had repented at their latest hour and were waiting to be admitted to the terraces and pay for their sins. The prayers of the living can shorten such periods of waiting and so Pia asks Dante to pray for her. The poetic force evoked by the meeting with this gentle female figure probably lies precisely in its brevity and in the suggestion that, like a contrail, it hints at a tragedy without going into any detail.

    Many theories have been put forward on the nature of the tragedy and the characters required by Dante to construct this fleeting, yet powerful apparition. Dante’s character has traditionally been identified as Pia de’ Tolomei, a woman of ancient Siennese descent, who was married to Nello d’Inghiramo de’ Pannocchieschi, lord of the Castel di Pietra in Maremma. Among the ruins of the castle, near Gavorrano (Grosseto), the so-called Salto della Contessa (the leap of the Countess) still holds the memory of the sinister story in which the woman was said to have been thrown out of a castle window on her husband’s bidding, as he wanted to remarry, this time wedding a member of the Aldobrandeschi family.

    Over the centuries, the story has been enriched by various different elements: from Pia’s unfaithfulness to Nello in Matteo Bandello’s version, to the Shakespearian-like drama narrated in the works chosen here. According to these, Nello, jealous of his wife’s beauty and instigated by an evil counsellor, suspected that Pia had been unfaithful and imprisoned her in the castle in Maremma, where the woman is said to have died of desperation. This version was spread orally, as in fact were Dante’s own verses, which would be recited off by heart in the countryside and during local festivals. In 1822, Bartolomeo Sestini published La Pia de' Tolomei: leggenda romantica, putting the oral tradition down on paper: the poem inspired many works of art and an opera by Gaetano Donizetti, Pia de' Tolomei (1837). Pia, who addresses the poet with a degree of familiarity (“do thou remember me, who Pia am”), still appears in any case to be the victim of her husband’s brutality, disturbed by a grudge, suspicion or insidia.

    Sestini states in his preface that the medieval tragedy deserves to be narrated with the essentially 19th century and powerfully romantic poetic means of which the century avails: “This is why I am writing about Pia, a character dear to anyone who has read the four mysterious verses of the Divine Comedy that mention her, with my version pieced together from as much as I was able to learn in the Maremma area from old traditions and other trustworthy documents. It has given me an opportunity to describe, in the style of the Greeks, certain famous cases and places of the Homeland, and the ancient feudal castles, and the clothes and the obsequies, and the costumes of our ancestors, and to present a catastrophe from which one can learn a moral lesson, and finally to honour and defend the ever-present memory of that beautiful soul, who affectionately urged the ungenerous Poet to have her remembered when he returned to the earth, where her life and her memory had been lost.” (B. Sestini, La Pia de' Tolomei: leggenda romantica, Milano 1848, p. 6).

    Pia de’ Tolomei and Nello della Pietra
    Architettura | Gli Uffizi
    Artwork details
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    VIII. Female figures in the Divine Comedy: Pia dei Tolomei

    Vincenzo Cabianca  

    Pia dei Tolomei taken to the castle of Maremma

    1860 c.

    oil on canvas, cm 57 x 75

    Pitti Palace, Gallery of Modern Art

    inv. Galleria d'Arte Moderna - Giornale n. 4873

    “Concealing the cold jealousy

    by which he was bitten, to that feared hostel

    he was taking you, unlucky Pia,

    your husband, the lord of the castle:

    to make the unpleasant road easier to bear

    you turned your honest, beautiful face towards him,

    entertaining him with light chatter

    met with short answers […]

    The beautiful lady and the horseman step over

    the threshold of the funereal dwelling;

    untroubled by any thought

    she scours the empty halls and the rooms”

    (Bartolomeo Sestini, Pia de’ Tolomei 1822)

    Vincenzo describes the arrival of the unwitting woman, taken to Castel di Pietra by her husband. The painting style used is that which the artists of the Accademia reserved for sketches in the 19th century: a rapid synthesis of stains of colour designed to focus on volumes and relationships of light and shade, rather than on the precision of the drawing. This pictorial style became the favoured medium in the circle of the Macchiaioli who studied the painting of the past masters in Florence, renewing it with a modern focus on the natural element and abandoning the theatrical conventions of academic painting. For a long time, this canvas was believed to have been the sketch for a much larger painting with the same subject and setting. However, recently critics have restored the autonomy of this sketch, which appears to be an exercise in style based on a literary theme, carried out with the modern medium experimented by Cabianca as he regularly frequented the animated discussions held in the Macchiaolo meeting place, Caffè Michelangelo. And in fact, Adriano Cecioni, one of the theoreticians of the group, and an artist himself, stated that the modernity of a work did not necessarily consist in the abandonment of the traditional theme, but in the innovation of its form.

    Pia dei Tolomei taken to the castle of Maremma
    Architettura | Gli Uffizi
    Artwork details
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    VIII. Female figures in the Divine Comedy: Pia dei Tolomei

    Pio Fedi

    Nello with Pia


    marble, cm 84

    Pitti Palace, Imperial and Royal Apartments

    inv. Oggetti d'Arte Pitti 1911 n. 725

    Meanwhile her lord, head bent

    paces swiftly here and there, up and down;

    He bangs his forehead and then stops,

    staring into her eyes with a gaze that looks as if he’s made of stone,

    Like a man not used to committing a crime, preparing,

    with his mind made up, to commit a new misdeed.

    But by now the night, with the sun hidden in its cloak,

    calls everyone, except him, to rest.

    At the table, silent and tormented;

    the woman sits opposite him, and stares

    not at the food but into his eyes, having

    noted the torment he is failing to hide; after a long spell

    of silence, with her pretty voice

    she asked him: - Husband, what’s wrong? –

    Nothing, he answered and a bitter smile

    flickered on his mouth, but his face was not smiling.

    But then the servant cleared the table

    and then, left alone behind closed doors,

    she wrapped her white arms around his neck

    as she was accustomed to doing:

    Then she took his hand in hers,

    and with a naive and tender look

    she squeezed it and hoped he would return the gesture, in vain;

    as her hand was that of a dead body.

    (Bartolomeo Sestini, Pia de’ Tolomei 1822)


    Pio Fedi portrays the moment when Pia affectionately asks her husband to tell her the reason for his dark mood. The sculptor’s attention to the details of her costume was the result of his careful studies on the art of the past, often used as a model and reinterpreted with a special focus on the naturalness of the gestures and the effectiveness of the expressions, and of an accurate modelling skill gained during his academic training. In fact, here, the attention paid to the natural element provides a faithful representation of the mood of the scene, in its most subtle psychological nuances.

    Already in 1846, the Grand Duke Leopoldo II had commissioned Pio Fedi to sculpt a group depicting Nello della Pietra and Pia de’ Tolomei: the work had been extremely well received and the Grand Duke then requested a smaller version in marble. The subject then became very popular and was replicated in many editions and variants. The small group kept in the Royal Apartments was presented in 1861 at the Italian Exposition in Florence and was purchased by the king of Italy “for his personal gallery”, the private apartments of Victor Emanuel II in the Palazzina della Meridiana of Palazzo Pitti. In 1865, the year of Dante’s centenary, Florence became the Capital City of Italy, but for a few decades, Dante had already been one of the National Glories celebrated as an example of virtue and high intellect, the strong roots of the national identity in the age of the Risorgimento.

    Pia de’ Tolomei and Nello della Pietra
    Architettura | Gli Uffizi
    Artwork details
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    VIII. Female figures in the Divine Comedy: Pia dei Tolomei

    Enrico Pollastrini  

    Nello at Pia’s tomb.


    oil on canvas, cm 147.5 x 185.5

    Pitti Palace, Gallery of Modern Art

    inv. Galleria d'Arte Moderna - Catalogo Generale n. 560


    “Here he had covered his dear Pia

    with earth up to her chin

    where even death appeared beautiful in her face,

    and he, who was intent on burying her,

    almost blown away by the very thought,

    that he had witnessed the light of two suns being turned off,

    had covered her chaste body, and was torn

    by the idea of insulting her face by covering it with earth.

    She lay, like a blossoming almond tree

    early in the year, on the banks of the river;

    The river had swelled, and burst its banks,

    and the trunk lies on the flat river bed;

    the uprooted trunk is buried

    in the mud and all that is visible of the trunk born so bare

    are its pronged remains

    featuring arid flowers, squalid leaves”.

    (Bartolomeo Sestini, Pia de’ Tolomei 1822)

    As if on the apron of a drama, Nello reaches Pia’s tomb too late, and she is lying dead in the sepulchre, still open, which provides a striking setting. The positions of the people, the looks and gestures of the bystanders, coherent with the role of each one, are all in tune with the story. The beautiful young woman, dead due to suspicion and lies, provides a motionless counterpoint to the dynamism expressed by the entry of Nello who, shocked, finds himself the protagonist of a tragedy that he himself has caused.

    Leopoldo II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, commissioned the painting to draw attention to the lands of Maremma he had begun to reclaim. This appointment forms part of the course of action undertaken by the Grand Duke to avert the peril of revolt while democratic ideologies and those of the Risorgimento spread: the celebration of the Italian genius, the launch of public works and the implementation of reforms, were indeed designed to sustain the credibility and popularity of the sovereign. The painting with its “pitiful subject”, an example of historical Romanticism due to the accuracy with which it represents the details of the costumes and settings, and the realistic way in which it present emotions and feelings, moved the public that had the opportunity to admire it in 1852 in the painter’s studio.

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    IX. Female figures in the Divine Comedy: Piccarda Donati

    A virgin sister was I in the world;

    and if within itself thy mind look well,

    my being fairer will not hide me from thee,

    but thou wilt recognize that I ’m Piccarda,

    who, placed here with these other blessed ones,

    am happy in the slowest moving sphere.

    Paradise, Canto III, vv. 46-51


    It’s early afternoon on 30 March 1300, Dante is visiting the First Sphere of Heaven, the Moon. It hosts the Defective Souls, relegated to a lower sphere of beatitude because they had been unable to maintain their vows in life.

    The poet addresses the soul who appears the most eager to speak: Piccarda Donati, his wife Gemma’s cousin and the sister of Forese, his childhood friend who appears in Canto XXIV of Purgatory. The woman had a personal connection to Dante, who is therefore well aware of her painful human existence: she had been brutally kidnapped from the convent of Santa Chiara, between 1283 and 1293, and forced by her brother Corso, head of the Black Guelphs, to marry the Florentine nobleman Rossellino della Tosa for political reasons.

    Bust of Piccarda Donati
    Architettura | Gli Uffizi
    Artwork details
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    IX. Female figures in the Divine Comedy: Piccarda Donati

    Raffaello Sorbi

    Piccarda Donati, kidnapped from the convent of Santa Chiara as ordered by her brother, Corso


    oil on canvas, cm 175 x 230

    Pitti Palace, Imperial and Royal Apartments

    inv. Oggetti d'Arte Pitti 1911 n. 893


    To follow her, when I was but a girl

    I fled the world, and in her habit clothing me,

    I promised that I would keep within her order’s path.

    Thereafter men more used to ill than good,

    out of that pleasant cloister dragged me forth,

    and God knows what my life was after that.

    Paradise, Canto III, vv. 46-51


    Raffaello Sorbi represents the climax of the clash between two opposing wills: on one hand Piccarda’s vocation to a cloistered life, on the other the sinister political reasoning of her brother. The expressive power, accentuated by the contrast between the male and female groups, is focused in the theatrical emphasis of the arms stretched out and the eloquent gestures of the hands: some of the nuns are imploring God , others are protecting themselves, Mother Superior is scolding the usurpers, while Piccarda is grabbing on to her in vain and trying to wrench herself from the violent clutches of the henchmen. The kidnapping is witnessed by Corso, who firmly draws his sword and forces his sister to follow his will with proud contempt. The broken, downtrodden rosary is the symbol of Piccarda’s mortified vocation, which, along with the repressed love of Francesca da Rimini and the melancholic resignation of Pia de’Tolomei, is part of a female trilogy. A trilogy that is tragically topical and perfectly coherent with the ideals of the historical Romanticism that inspired art and literature until just after the mid-800s.

    This is the context in which the work by Raffaello Sorbi can be placed. Famous for his historical paintings, a few years earlier, he had created a painting with a similar subject entitled “Corso Donati wounded by the Catalani in San Salvi” By virtue of the success this achieved, King Victor Emmanuel commissioned this work with its Dantesque theme. Here, the painter demonstrates the highly accurate drawing skill he had inherited from his teacher Antonio Ciseri, combined with a complex compositional ability, not unlike those of famous models such as Stefano Ussi who, in 1861, had presented his masterpiece “The expulsion of the Duke of Athens” at the National Exposition.

    Piccarda Donati, kidnapped from the convent of Santa Chiara as ordered by her brother, Corso
    Architettura | Gli Uffizi
    Artwork details
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    IX. Female figures in the Divine Comedy: Piccarda Donati

    Giovanni Bastianini

    Bust of Piccarda Donati


    marble, cm 53.5 x 45 x 28

    Pitti Palace, Gallery of Modern Art

    inv. Galleria d'Arte Moderna - Catalogo Generale n. 722, Giornale n. 231


    Brother, love’s virtue sets our will at rest,

    and makes us wish for only what we have,

    and doth not make us thirsty for aught else.

    Paradise, Canto III, vv. 70-72


    Legend tells us that Piccarda had kept her virginity, dying of leprosy before her wedding. Dante does not entertain this version, but instead makes Piccarda and her painful resignation a paradigm of man’s need to align his will with that of God, as a tool for achieving eternal beatitude.

    Therefore, while Raffaello Sorbi portrays the woman in a desperate attempt to resist the kidnapping, Giovanni Bastianini seems to assign a different interpretation to the verses used by Dante to describe her, choosing to depict in her the melancholic acceptance of the destiny forced upon her and almost the expectation that a future reward will avenge her sacrifice.

    The sculptor, who passed away before his time just like the gentle Piccarda, was originally from Fiesole and worked as an apprentice in the workshop of Pio Fedi. He taps into the repertory of the famous masters of the Renaissance, such as his countryman Mino, explicitly referenced in this very delicate bust. A very gifted, precocious sculptor, he began working at an early age for an art trader who commissioned him to reproduce ancient sculptures. Through this exercise, which he performed with meticulous precision, he became familiar with the work of the masters of the 15th century which he reinterpreted in sculptures like this one, adding that explicit grace and antiquated interest in the details of the costumes typical of 19th century style, such as the stylish hairstyle and the splendid textured fabric of the gown.

    Bust of Piccarda Donati
    Architettura | Gli Uffizi
    Artwork details

Non per foco ma per divin’arte

Dantean echoes from the Uffizi Galleries


Scientific Coordinator: Anna Bisceglia

Introduction: Paolo Procaccioli

Texts: Andrea Biotti, Anna Bisceglia, Daniela Parenti, Patrizia Naldini, Chiara Toti, Chiara Ulivi

Translations: Eurotrad Snc.

Editing by Area Strategie Digitali (Uffizi Galleries)

Photo by Francesco del Vecchio e Roberto Palermo 

Please note: each image in this virtual tour may be enlarged for more detailed viewing. 

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