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From Dante to Doré: The Depiction of Lovers

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Gustave Doré, a French artist, began illustrating Dante’s Divide Comedy as early as 1855, over five hundred years after Dante wrote the epic poem in Italian. Doré’s engravings quickly gained popularity, and with the fame of the art came a revival of Dante’s work. However, the scenes that Dante describes clash with the ideas in Doré’s engravings. Doré was an artist during the Romantic Era, which involved a greater attention to powerful emotion, feeling, and instinct. Doré’s illustration of Francesca and Paolo in the circle of lust embodied these principles of Romanticism, immediately grabbing the attention of Doré’s audience and being among the first in the portfolio to become popular. It shows the forbidden yet undeniable love between Francesca and Paolo. However, Doré’s engraving was far from Dante’s description of the former lovers whose temporary pleasure in life became their eternal torture in Hell. Doré changes or ignores any detail significant to the tone, thus creating an entirely different climate. Doré’s depiction of the lovers opposes Dante’s portrayal of them; Doré’s illustration titled Francesca and Paolo embodies the emotional ideals of Romanticism through his depiction of the beauty and the passion of forbidden love, while Dante makes it clear that the characters are experiencing the absolute physical and emotional distress that is present in every circle of Hell.

In the fifth canto, Dante describes the circle of lust as having swirling winds and shrieks of pain. As in every other circle, all shades in the circle of lust are condemned to eternal suffering. Dante’s language makes this very clear. In line 27 he describes the sounds of weeping, and in line 35 he describes the “shrieks, laments, and anguished cries.” The winds are black and stormy, and the shades are swept by the “battling winds” (49) without any control over their bodies. It is apparent that this second circle causes nothing but suffering for all the shades condemned to it. However, this contradicts Doré’s engraving of Francesca and Paola in the second circle of Hell. Francesca is pictured in front of Paolo, and neither of their faces expresses the anguish that Dante describes. Paolo looks down at his lover pensively, and there is no suffering in his facial expression or tears on his face. They are not in the black wind that Dante conveyed so vividly; there is a soft light on Francesca that gives her an angelic quality. The wind does not look harsh or “battling” (49) but instead it seems to billow, creating soft curves in the fabric that that Paolo is holding. This scene shown in Doré’s illustration is far from the harsh circle of Hell described by Dante, and although Francesca and Paolo may still be together, they are experiencing eternal suffering nonetheless.

Dante keeps Paolo and Francesca together in Hell, but this is to conserve the idea of contrapasso and it is part of their punishment. Dante’s description conserves contrapasso because it is an extension of Paolo and Francesca’s real life when they were forbidden lovers engaged in an affair. However, it becomes clear in the fifth canto that being together is actually their torment in Hell. There is no passion between them and Dante the Poet makes it clear that Francesca’s sweet talk to Dante the Pilgrim is just an act. Francesca refers to Paolo with impersonal phrases such as “this one,” revealing that she thinks little of him by the fact that she never uses his name (5.101). In line 105 she says, “he never leaves my side,” alluding to her distaste for Paolo and the fact that her lover in life has become her tormentor in Hell (5). Paolo is crying but never speaks, an indication that he is not at all pleased with the situation (5.140). Doré, however, disregards the evident hostility between them. He instead chooses to illustrate the passion of Francesca and Paolo’s forbidden love, without suggesting any enmity between them. Their bodies echo one another, suggesting harmony. While Dante alludes to distaste between the couple, suggesting that Francesca and Paolo’s intimacy is actually their torture, Doré’s engraving displays lust, indicated by their close embrace. Both Paolo and Francesca are classic images of beauty, making Doré’s attempt to make their sinful love majestic evident yet again. The two depictions of Francesca and Paolo differ not in trivial details but instead at principal points and thus cause the representations to have different messages and tones.

Doré’s engraving and Dante’s description of Francesca and Paolo have little in common, in spite of the fact that Doré’s images were intended to be complementary to the text. The difference was due to the time period in which they were produced. While Dante lived in an era where truth was determined by what one could see and what one had experienced, Doré lived in the Romantic Era. Doré and other Romantics believed that truth was determined by what one could feel, and they believed that feelings and emotions were more important than societal rules of behavior. Their different beliefs show why Dante and Doré saw the couple in different ways; while Dante described former lovers who were experiencing eternal suffering because of their sins, Doré illustrated that their love was never lost and that in their love they ‘conquered’ Hell because they were still together. Doré’s disregard to the text reveals that he was more interested in incorporating his ideas of Francesca and Paolo’s love and catering to his Romantic audience than he was to portraying the exact themes of The Inferno. The passion of their forbidden and eternal love was enticing to Doré’s audience, and ironically it was this misreading that propelled Dante’s works back into their former fame. Doré’s engravings of the Inferno lead to an expansion of interest in his work with numerous translations of the Divine Comedy into French. Although Doré’s illustrations may have been off the mark on what Dante meant when he wrote The Inferno, Doré nonetheless left us with beautiful engravings and a renewed appreciation for one of the greatest works of Medieval Europe.



Works Consulted
Audeh, Aida. "Gustave Doré." The World of Dante. University of Virginia. Web. 04 Mar. 2012. <http://www.worldofdante.org/gallery_dore.html>.
Doré, Gustave. Francesca and Paolo. 1861. Private collection. Dante Worlds. Web. 4 Mar. 2012. <http://danteworlds.laits.utexas.edu/>.



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