Salvador Dali / Dante Alighieri: The Divine Comedy

Dali meets Dante

The Creation of Dali's Divine Comedy

In 1950, Salvador Dalí was invited by the Italian government to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the birth of Dante Alighieri, Italy’s most famous poet, by creating a series of illustrations for Dante’s masterpiece, Divina Commedia. Dante’s epic poem is considered one of Italy’s national treasures. Understandably, Dalí was excited and quickly immersed in the project, and in 1951 he started to create preliminary watercolours. Ultimately, the idea was not well received by the Italians, as it was deemed inappropriate to commission a Spanish painter to honour the work of Italy’s greatest poet. 
Even though the project was dropped in Italy, Dalí and French publisher Joseph Forêt continued to pursue the project and the publication of The Divine Comedy. After the French edition was created, the Italian government went ahead with the original plan and finally commissioned an edition as well.

The Story

The Divine Comedy (Italian: La Divina Commedia) is an epic literary work by Dante Alighieri, completed in 1320, a year before his death in 1321.

Written in first person, it describes Dante’s journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio) and Heaven (Paradiso) in 100 verses, so called cantos. The poet Virgil guides him through Inferno and Purgatorio, while Beatrice, Dante’s ideal woman, takes him through Paradiso. Beatrice was a woman from Florence whom Dante had met in childhood and admired from afar.

Even though the story describes Dante’s passage through the circles of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, at a deeper level it represents, allegorically, the journey of life in the search of purpose and higher values.

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was a great poet and a master of Italian literature. The Divine Comedy is a milestone in the history of European literature. It was the first literary narrative not written in Latin, as it was customary during the Middle Ages, but used the common Italian language widely spoken in Tuscany.

Beatrice and Gala

Beatrice did actually exist in Dante’s life. She was the daughter of a noble family in Florence whom he adored and made immortal in many of his literary works. This love story reminds of the passion that Dalí had for his wife, lover, muse and model, Gala. 

On some of Dali’s images of Paradiso, the face and contours of Gala are clearly to be recognized.Beatrice died at a young age and Dante married a woman named Gemma Donati from a famous Florentine family. 

Originally Dante Alighieri titled his literary work La Commedia because it has a happy ending. The title La Divina Commedia was created much later, after Dante’s death in Ravenna. This long narrative poem remained a source of inspiration for painters, writers and musicians throughout the centuries.

Dante Alighieri’s career in Florence had a bad ending. He got entangled in political rivalries of two Florentine families fighting for power. He was forced to seek exile in Verona, a Northern Italian province and died without ever having seen Florence again. On its most personal level, the story draws on Dante’s own experience of exile from his native city of Florence.
(For more details and information about the story and its historical background, please visit this link.)

The Complete Suite

The suite consists of 100 wood engravings – one for each canto – which were created in the years 1959 to 1963 in Paris, commissioned by Joseph Forêt. 

Wood engraving is a relief printmaking technique and is similar to woodcuts. The raised parts of the block are inked and printed. Everything that shall not be printed has to be cut away. For wood engraving blocks, the end grain of a hard wood is used and it allows to make finer lines than woodcuts and more impressions from the same block. The German painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer used this technique.

To produce multi-colour prints, several blocks - one for each colour - have to be made. For the series of The Divine Comedy, 3,500 blocks were carved by two professional carvers, Raymond Jacquet and Jean Taricco, working under the supervision of Dalí.

After sketching a composition on a block of wood, a knife or gouging tool is used, to cut away pieces from the block. The areas having been cut away will not receive ink when the raised portions of the woodblock are inked with a roller. A sheet of paper is placed on top of the block and the paper is pressed, so the image gets transferred to the paper. The paper is lifted away from the block. The raised areas of the block have printed in reverse, and the recessed areas have remained blank. 

Wood engraving is the oldest and most laborious printing technique among all the different methods, therefore it was not commonly used in modern times any more. Salvador Dali's decision to choose this very printing method, shows a great integrity, as it matches the technique of the time of Dante and when the actual literary work was written. 
Watch the demonstration about creating woodcuts on The Metropolitan Museum's web site.