Pairing medieval and Renaissance poetry with Surrealist art may seem odd, but the result is breathtaking in Dante's La divina commedia (The Divine Comedy) as illustrated by Salvador Dali. This masterpiece, overflowing with rich verse and vivid imagery, is treasured today, but it was met initially with great scorn.
In 1951, when the Italian government commissioned the work in honor of the 700th anniversary of Dante's birth (1265-1321), some Italians were scandalized by the idea of spending large sums of public funds on such a project, and others were horrified by the thought of a Spaniard illustrating the great Italian poet. In response to the public outcry, the minister of culture withdrew Dali's commission.
Despite this censure, Dali continued to create his watercolors. His 100 illustrations were then reproduced as wood engravings in preparation for relief printing. Two engravers spent four years making the 3,500 wood blocks necessary for the project.
The Divine Comedy was published in six volumes--two each for hell, purgatory, and paradise. Dali's watercolor illustrations were printed on loose sheets and inserted within their respective cantos, or chapters, making it easy for a reader to refer to a single illustration while turning the pages and reading on.
Although Dante and Dali were from different ages, their works share several characteristics. It is said that Dali was so affected by the events of World War II that he embarked upon a renewed quest for the divine, similar to Dante's own search for spiritual truth. As Dante had immortalized his beloved Beatrice in his verse, so had Dali depicted his own muse, Gala, his wife, in many of his illustrations of Dante's paradise. Scholars have also argued that Dali succeeds at leading the reader/viewer through the stages of hell in much the same way that Virgil guides Dante on his imagined journey.
Several editions of The Divine Comedy as illustrated by Dali have been published.
Duke's copy, acquired in 1965, was published in Florence and printed in Paris by Arti e Scienze Salani, 1963-64. It is numbered 248 of 3,044 copies.
Selections from the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library
January 31, 2005