Simply called the Commedia, Dante Alighieri’s fourteenth-century magnum opus has fascinated scholars since its conception. It has produced many artistic, literary, and psycho-analytical examinations of its concern with eschatology. For those unfamiliar with the poem’s structure, it is the Inferno, with the pilgrim’s journey through Hell, and the powerful visual imagery associated with the narrative, which has been the catalyst in its populism of artistic manifestations over the years, and specifically it’s fifth canto: the lustful. The Romantic poet and painter William Blake embarked upon his own Commedia illustrations right up until his death in 1827, which, in totality, were left in various stages of completion.
In this post, I present a visual analysis of Blake’s Inferno V watercolour, which he titled “The Whirlwind of Lovers”. In it, I introduce some thoughts as to how Blake, who was a firm believer of nature’s power over man, used his techniques to manifest the theme of misery and hope through motion.
Here, there, up, down, they whirl and, whirling, strain with never a hope of hope to comfort them, not a release, but even of less pain.”
– Divine Comedy, Inferno V
William Blake was a committed Christian and anti-materialist, whose ideology informed his work. Effectively an outlier in the history of art, it is generally agreed that Blake’s watercolours are not only illustrations, but substantial revisions of, and commentary on, some spiritual or moral aspects of the text. With his articulation of Canto V, there are both consistencies and deviations from other artistic representations. The complete Canto V subject matter involves many characters, but Blake, like others, chose to focus on the narrative which relates to the four protagonists of Francesca, Paolo, Dante the pilgrim, and his guide Virgil, and their meeting. This encounter shares one of the most tragic love stories of Medieval literature, that of Francesca da Rimini, and the illicit love affair with her brother-in-law Paolo Malatesta, which ultimately proved fatal at the hands of her husband/his brother Gianciotto. Blake chose to focus on the moment after their discourse in Hell, the fulcrum of which is Francesca’s evocative elucidation of her story to Dante pilgrim, and his subsequent overcoming of emotion and fainting; a fascinating fissure between the very passion that led to Francesca and Paolo’s relegation of reason to desire, and their subsequent damnation, against the Stoic beliefs of Dante the poet. In Hell, on the bank of the River Acheron, Dante pilgrim lies face-up and motionless, his guide standing over him, whilst the two damned lovers, locked in their steadfast ignorance, ascend to re-join the plethora of shades in a never-ending tempest of their contrapasso.
There has been much debate regarding the historical context of this canto. It is believed that Dante the poet was inspired to include Francesca’s tragedy in the Commedia, as he was a guest of Guido Novello da Polenta, the nephew of Francesca da Rimini, during his Florentine exile in Ravenna. There has been much artistic experimentation of Canto V, and in particular the treatment of the Francesca/Dante intercourse (including by Gustave Doré, perhaps the best-known interpreter). This interest has ranged from narrative timing (their temporal events or the encounter in Hell), topography, landscape, and compositional layout, all exploring different ideas of the economy of love and ontological truth. From a geo-political perspective, cultural hegemony was a primary motivator in the renewed interest of Dante in Western Europe during the long-nineteenth century, partly based on premises of national identity and patriotism. There was never ‘one-Dante’ during these times and geographies; instead the Italian poet was appropriated as an instrument for various purposes, “where language, the arts, and culture play a significant role in the reification and performance of national identity” (Dante in the Long Nineteenth Century, 2012). Artistically, Dante’s engagement with Francesca and Paolo captured the zeitgeist of the Romantics, and their engagement was contemporaneous with some of the Romantic themes being explored post Enlightenment. The rhetorical devices used by Francesca in her re-telling played well with the visual manifestation of amorous romance. Blake showed in his watercolours a portrayal that was more idealised and ethereal rather than horrific and desolate; paradigmatic of his works.
Compositionally, Blake’s watercolour is designed not to impose, but rather augment the reader/spectator’s experience. The picture is split into two distinct parts: 2/3 on the left and bottom replays the more literal interpretation of the shades (souls) and the hellish storm they are caught up in, and the remaining 1/3 in the top-right the more metaphorical view of the four protagonists and the moment of Dante pilgrim’s succumb to emotion (opposite). Blake uses cyclical devices and soft edges to give us a strong sense of movement. This awareness of motion is created by the many curves and diagonals and not horizontals and verticals; although there is essentially one horizontal and one vertical – the standing figure of Virgil, which is not really a true vertical – and little evidence of linear perspective. The tube-like cylinders, consistent in shape, encase the damned through a vortex transportation system as they are sucked out of the water in a circular direction of travel. The foreshortening of anatomical structures, twisted and stretched within the whirlwind, gives emphasis to the shades torment. They’re tossed, dispassionate, weep, and, as a direct parallel to their sin, have lost control. Even the shape of the pilgrim, as he lies on the ground, is curved. The two narratives are connected through optical progression, which carries our eyes from left to right in a never-ending rotational flow (opposite), adding to our sense of oscillation and disorientation. Finally, in the top right, Blake installs a perfectly symmetrical divine sphere, with the two lovers in the centre, possibly symbolising hope. This balance affords Blake the opportunity to stay both faithful to the narrative of the canto and infuse his own sense of idealisation: what was (the story), what is (the shades torment), what will be (divine optimism).
The emphasis of this painting is orientated towards the geometrical organisation of space rather than the realism of the subject it is depicting. The deliberate rounding of the forms converts them into more fuller volumes, and Blake has gone to great lengths to present these forms in a way that creates an unrelenting sense of turbulence, which both explain and enhance the mood. The painter catches the attention of the spectators eye by placing some brightly coloured forms right in the foreground: the funnel of light from bottom right attracts the eye and lead it into the picture. The eye, caught by this channel of light, juxtaposed with the dark blue of the topography, creates recession, and ensures that our impression of depth is intensified. The vanishing point lies high, which means that the greater part of the setting – the part nearest to the spectator – is seen from a level slightly below the horizon. The illusion of depth and space is difficult, but not impossible, as we are able to pick out the planes (opposite). We are adjacent: observers but not participating. The stark contrasts of brilliant light and the perpetual darkness contribute in making the atmosphere strikingly apparent: it envelopes all of the objects and it fills the space between them. It is an exceptional reality; romantic both with regard to its forms and to the moment in which is it representing.
The version of Hell that Blake constructs is one permeated with emotion. Instead of sharpness, rigid angles, and gnarly contours, there is a tendency towards softly flowing convex forms. Where the edges are soft, the eye is encouraged to travel round, and this creates movement in the forms of the figures themselves. Blake uses tonal variation, which creates form and volume, to bring depth, for example on the clothing of the standing figure and also the gradations of tone on the lovers. The tenebrous background is used to for projecting the lighter and brighter areas forward, so you can feel the ins and outs of the three-dimensional structures. These proficiency of circular forms, the looping intersections and velocity of the wind, the passivity on the faces of the condemned, the catatonic position of the pilgrim, all play together to bring the feeling of misery and hope through motion.
Colour was used by Blake to model his figures and to invigorate composition and narrative, but it was also crucial in his treatment of light and the evocation of atmospheric qualities, and as each layer of watercolour dried, Blake would add more, repeating the process again and again, so as to achieve an impression of depth and transparency (The Complete Drawings of William Blaker Dante’s Divine Comedy, 2017). The watercolour is of studied simplicity, as Blake uses the primary hues of red, yellow and blue foundationally, applying only a contrasting colouring of green for the bank of the River Acheron. The thick blue outline of the whirlwind, together with the internal juxtaposing of whitish and yellow, creates an emphasis on the central structure and characters within. Tints of yellow are applied throughout to bring a sense of volume (opposite). In the rapid flows of the river, Blake applies red to various degrees, which both offsets and adds depth to the dominating ivory vortex, whilst ostensibly creating a sense of torrid waves, the heat bubbling under the surface, and frothing foam smashing and lapping at the edge of the shore. It’s a composition that becomes more intelligible as you read its minimalist colour contrasting.
The tonal contrast is important in this illustration as Blake uses the ivory of the paper, and the thick or sparseness of colour application, to clearly express intensity within the scene. Blake executes this in a very subtle way, and is best illustrated within the diluted red of the River Acheron and blue of the background. From the bottom right, the river feels cooler and calmer, as the white of the paper dominates. As the river progresses inwards, we feel the velocity and temperature increasing as the concentration of red hue builds. The shadow of the bank which overcasts the river creates a thick dark strip, merely adding to our growing sense of foreboding. As the river expands at the bottom left it has intensified further; a mixture of blues, reds and whites creating drama as well as a luminosity as if the river itself was being lit from beneath. Hell is peering through, and even the natural worldly elements of water and fire cannot resist its infernal reach. This combination of tone and colour helps us understand the forms, and to know where we are in relation to each one.
When reflecting on this work, it occurs to me that Blake dissolves this canto into form, colour, and emotion, each playing its own part, bringing it to life. The pictures secret lies in the pattern of its energy of despair; we are all lost in the whirlwind of our lives, washing between hope and despair, buffeted between temptation and reason. It is the agony of our life, and it can be catastrophic. To conclude, as Julian Barnes eloquently expressed “Catastrophe has become art; but this is no reducing process. It is freeing, enlarging, explaining. Catastrophe has become art: that is, after all, what it is for.”
Full Text of Inferno Canto V (The Literature Network)
Summary of Inferno V (DanteWorlds)
The Divine Comedy (online book @ Project Gutenburg – Henry Longfellow translation)
William Blake’s illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy (Tate Gallery)