As every Italian schoolchild knows, The Divine Comedy opens in a supernatural “dark wood” just before sunrise on Good Friday, 1300. Dante Alighieri, a figure in his own work, has lost his way in middle age and is alone and frightened in the darkness. At the request of a woman called Beatrice, the ghost of the Roman poet Virgil is about to show him hell.
Midway in the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark forest,
for the right path was lost.
Begun in the first decade of the 14th century, Dante’s three-part poem through hell, purgatory and paradise is, for many, the greatest single work of Western literature. It gathers together an extraordinary range of literary styles: lyric, satiric and biblical – as well as some memorable invective.
The poem’s bold intermixture of realities, from the sublime to the vile, is part of what makes it seem so modern. Unsurprisingly, The Divine Comedy inspired many late 18th-century British artists, from William Blake to Henry Fuseli.
But the most graceful and sinuous of Dante illustrations were those by the York-born neoclassical draughtsman and sculptor John Flaxman, a somewhat forgotten figure today. Pared down and restrained to the point of severity, the illustrations convey a maximum of drama with the minimum of means.
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