Dante's Inferno: A Brief Explanation
The Inferno: Illustrations and Libretto is a project that I completed in 2005. It had long been on my lifetime "to do" list to read Dante's Divine Comedy. I had heard so much about its impact on literature and how the images and symbolism contained therein had a huge impact on literature and art throughout many ages. In 1979, I went down to Cody's Books and purchased the three volumes of the Comedy, determined to conquer this ultimate intellectual challenge. Every time I attempted to read it, however, I struggled to concentrate on the text, reading and re-reading the same passage over and over again, and just generally suffered through the experience, getting nothing from it. In around the year 2000, I still had in mind to some day complete this project that I had set for myself more than 20 years earlier. Still determined to see what the big deal was about with the Divine Comedy, I knew I needed to find a different approach that would let me enter the treasure house of images stored in the pages of this celebrated medieval text. I decided that what was missing was fun. So I assigned myself the task of drawing a picture of the dominant images in each Canto after I had read through the text. I bought myself a box of colored pencils and embarked on my epic task.
Over the course of 4 or 5 years, taking advantage of those nights when the Muse would visit me, I gradually completed the drawings. At the end of the process, I realized that I needed to clean up some of the smudges and missteps in my drawings and I decided I would have to learn Photoshop to complete that task. I then took a series of classes at Berkeley Adult School as well as various online classes to teach myself the Photoshop skills I would need to complete my project.
Of course, as I became more deeply involved in the poem and finally started understanding it, I started to become increasingly interested in understanding the background and meaning of the story. I spent time on the internet and online understanding more about Dante, his world, and the meaning underlying the poem. I took several classes online on Dante, including a course on the Divine Comedy with Great Courses.
I learned that there is a very deep and broad tradition of different artists having done illustrations of the Divine Comedy and how the Comedy had inspired many great works of art. However, I had made a rule for myself while I was drawing that I could not cheat and look at anyone else's illustrations. After finally completing Canto 34, the last book of the Inferno, I purchased a copy of Gustave Dore's illustrations of the Divine Comedy as well as a copy of William Blake's drawings. I also looked closely at Botticelli's work. I was thrilled to see that the themes and images that I had picked up in my primitive attempt to draw and capture the essence of the Comedy had a lot in common with the images chosen by the great masters before me. I consider that I stand, in my small way, in a long line of artists that have actively engaged with the Divine Comedy and who were deeply moved to interact with the work and produce works of art in response to it.
After reading each Canto, I would make notes on what I had read and then draw a picture that would capture what I thought was the essence of that Canto. After I completed the drawings, I then created what I call a "Libretto", my own personal paraphrasing of the original work. It was never my intent to directly translate Dante's original words or to spend a lot of time understanding the many complex allusions and references therein. My intent was, rather, simply to capture those pieces of the original text that most moved me or seemed relevant based on my own perspective on the work.