Thursday, June 2, 2016

Dante in the Divine Comedy: Everyman and a specific man, full of complex feelings

Dante in the Divine Comedy may be Everyman, but he is also credibly a specific man, full of complex feelings. In the course of the poem, we see him experience not only love and joy but also fear, pity, hesitation, anger, remorse, curiosity, and bewilderment.

For example, at the end of Canto 17 of the Inferno, Virgil commands Dante to ride with him on the back of the monster Geryon. In just eight lines Dante describes the terror he felt at this prospect, then his shame at the thought that Virgil would consider him a coward, then his request to Virgil that the poet hold him tight as they ride—but, as in a nightmare, he is so afraid he cannot even really get these words out. Once on the back of the monster, he is momentarily reassured, only to feel even greater fright as the beast plunges into the abyss.

Botticelli beautifully captures the intensity of Dante’s response by drawing this sequence as a series of four scenes arranged in a continuous narrative. First we see Dante, hesitant and afraid, with his head down, eyes closed, and hands crossed guardedly on his chest, as Virgil beckons to him from the beast. Next we see Geryon take off with Virgil clasping Dante, whose shoulders are hunched high in fearful self-protection. Then as the beast plummets we see Dante staring in nauseous horror; and finally as Virgil and Dante disappear below the rim of the seventh circle of Hell, almost all we can make out of Dante’s face is one eye glaring further into the frightful depths. I do not know of any other early Renaissance work of art that so convincingly portrays the experience of sickening terror.

Following Dante’s lead, Botticelli depicts many other states of thought and feeling as well. For instance, Dante repeatedly describes how on his journey he had to pause in confusion as he reached his limit of understanding before, with the help of Virgil or Beatrice, he learned to perceive more clearly and to pass on to a higher level of wisdom. We can see how Botticelli illustrates such a scene in his drawing for Canto 2 of the Paradiso. Here the painter shows Dante floating with Beatrice inside the sphere of the moon as she begins to explain to him the nature of the heavens. Lost in concentration, Dante’s head is back, with his mouth open, and his eyes peering far into the distance. Although Botticelli has drawn his face with just a few quick strokes, instantly you can recognize the great effort the poet is making to comprehend what Beatrice is telling him. In Botticelli’s picture, thinking is an action, a movement of the mind and soul, made visible by pose and expression.

The Divine Comedy is a love story, most famously of the love that moves the heavens, and the love of Dante and Beatrice. But it also recounts the love between Dante and Virgil. The relationship of a mentor and a protégé is a unique one in the drama of human life: a teacher and pupil are bound together with close ties of affection, but this affiliation is fundamentally different from those between lovers, family members, or friends. As perhaps no earlier writer, Dante celebrates such a relationship in the Divine Comedy. He calls Virgil not only master, guide, and teacher, but also “dearest father,” and at least once compares Virgil’s concern for him to that of a mother for her child.

Botticelli responded powerfully to this portrayal and depicts the affection of the two men with great imagination and sensitivity. In sheet after sheet, we see Virgil exhorting, encouraging, instructing, and correcting Dante; the Roman poet points out to him where to look and tells him what lesson to learn from what he sees. Their bond is especially visible in the way they gracefully move together across the drawings, almost like two dancers on a stage. Botticelli illustrates Virgil’s care and Dante’s trust with such authority that they seem drawn from life, not just literature, as if the artist were calling upon his own experiences as a pupil and teacher. - Andrew Butterfield