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Watery deeps: William Blake drew out the poetic nuances of Dante's Commedia in masterfully handled watercolour.

William Blake: The Drawings for Dante's Divine Comedy

Sebastian Schutze and

Maria Antonietta Terzoli

Taschen, 99.99 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 9783836555128


When William Blake died, early in the evening of 12 August 1827, his friend George Richmond was at his bedside. Richmond was one of the Ancients, the small group of artists who had gathered around Blake in the last years of his life and all but apprenticed themselves to him; as the only Ancient present at their master's end, it fell to him to record the event. 'In truth,' he wrote, Blake 'died like a saint.' With his final breaths, the artist's 'eyes brightened and he burst out singing of the things he saw in Heaven'.


It would be hard to imagine a more fitting death for a printer and poet who had spent a good portion of the last three years of his life illustrating the Commedia - a poem whose consummation lies in Dante's attempt to 'show even the shadow of that blessed kingdom / graven in my brain' (Paradiso I). The 102 watercolours and seven line engravings that Blake left behind had been a much-needed source of both income and creative energy in those final years. When the artist and patron John Linnell gave Blake the Dante commission in 1824, it was with the express aim of providing 'ease and comfort'; according to Alexander Gilchrist, Blake's first biographer, he was paid '2 [pounds sterling] or 3 [pounds sterling] a week' for 'doing as much or little as he liked'. But despite the unfinished state of many of the illustrations published in this new edition by Sebastian Schutze and Maria Terzoli, it is clear that doing 'little' was not really Blake's style. Aside from the volume and complexity of the work he did accomplish on the project, Gilchrist records that the ailing artist also applied himself with 'characteristic fervour' to learning Italian, the better to draw out the subtleties of Dante's poem.

That attentiveness is clear from the first illustration (Fig. 2). The she-wolf that confronts Dante in his dark forest seems 'laden with all cravings in her leanness'; Blake has her head low between her shoulders, ears flattened; a ragged mane sloping to a body where six distended dugs pull the skin tight over outlined ribs. In the illustration to Inferno XIX (Fig. 1), meanwhile, the same verbal attentiveness underlies the dynamism of the entire composition. As with Dante's gaze within the text, the viewer's eye is drawn to the figure of Pope Nicholas III, head down in a carved cylinder. Inside, the sweeping twist of the body, running in a curve from claw-like fingers to the feet in their coronas of fire, is a vivid rendering of Dante's 'guizzando': squirming, like a fish in the bottom of a dinghy. The focus given to the flaming feet picks out the moment when the Pope finishes his speech, and kicks them violently; while, just as in the poem, Virgil clasps Dante to his chest, lifts him, and moves on.


What sets Blake's Hell apart from other great illustrations of Dante--Botticelli's intricate ink drawings, Federico Zuccaro's ant heaps of the damned, Dore's chiaroscuro caverns, Tom Phillips' post-Pop 'visual commentary'--is not, however, his attentiveness to the text. Instead, it is his medium: watercolour and ink. It remains unclear how many of the pieces here were destined to become line engravings, but the watercolours, seemingly so counterintuitive for the Inferno, offer a vividness and range of effects one can hardly imagine Blake wanting to abandon. His Hell is a watery realm, always reminding the viewer that Dante's damned, whichever infernal microclimate they find themselves condemned to, are collectively i sommersi, the drowned. And, with rare exceptions, Hell's darkest hues are compounded out of individually bright washes of red, yellow, and, above all, blue --from the tourbillion of the lustful souls in Canto V, to the sprung body of the giant Antaeus setting Dante down in the circle of the traitors.

The illustrations depict not just Hell, however, but the whole Commedla. Even if, as Schutze points out in his introduction, Blake's energies were far from evenly distributed across the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradlso (with 70 watercolours dedicated to the Inferno), it seems unfair to suggest that he was necessarily more drawn to the damned than the saved. Where much of Hell remains plainly unfinished, the summit of Purgatory and Paradise itself inspire some of the most extraordinary works in a career dedicated to realising metaphysical visions. At the end of his ascent of Purgatory, Blake places the pilgrim Dante before the earthly paradise, on a carpet of flowers, under prismatic skies and the open canopy of a selva lucida that recalls and overwrites the dark wood of the opening illustrations. The next plate finds Dante, in one of the most carefully worked-up illustrations of the series, standing before Beatrice's chariot: a hallucinatory allegory, feathered and eyed like a peacock's tail, as much alive as the griffon drawing it. And where other artists' visions of Paradlso have tended to attenuate into ever sparser, brighter repetitions of circling souls, the few developed illustrations here show Blake taking on the challenge with gusto, especially in the luminous visions of Saint Peter, and Dante's adoration of Christ.

By every visual standard, Taschen has produced a sumptuous tribute to Blake's Dante. But in critical terms the book is less inspiring. While Terzoli's essay on the Commedia and its reception is a fine introduction to a complex subject, Schtitze's contribution on the illustrations does little to reflect the flourishing state of Blake studies, and his commentary on the plates is never more than descriptive. Although the priorities here are clearly visual, a book this large could have made room for more ample discussion of the tensions between Dante and Blake's theological views, or for analysis of individual plates that went beyond teleological cliches about the anticipation of modernity. It seems a shame that such a beautiful book could not also have something to contribute to the debates about its subjects, especially when they happen to be such intractable arguers as Blake and Dante.

Tim Smith-Laing is a writer and academic based in Oxford.
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Author:Smith-Laing, Tim
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2015
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