Images of Dante's Exile in 19th-Century France

By Audeh, Aida | Annali d'Italianistica, Annual 2002 | Go to article overview

Images of Dante's Exile in 19th-Century France


Audeh, Aida, Annali d'Italianistica


Aida Audeh's "Images of Dante's Exile in 19th-century France" brings the reader back to Dante's exile and the extent to which it influenced French imagination in the 19th century. Aida Audeh, in fact, shows how, in the midst of the great interest in Dante in French arts and letters in the 19th century, a subgenre appeared on the basis of biographical legends surrounding the period of Dante's exile. Investigation into this sub-genre reveals a complex interchange of historical facts, anecdotes, fancy, and outright errors, producing images of Dante's exile unique to France. Cultural manifestations of interest in Dante's exile are so extensive as to necessitate a full-length study of his role in shaping painting, sculpture, and popular imagery. References to Dante's exile appear in works of fiction and in biography, as well as in commentary accompanying French translations of the poet's works. What is significant and striking is French literature's reformulation and embellishment of history or biography concerning Dante's exile and its effect on interpreting French art.

While it is commonly and correctly asserted that Dante was a favorite subject of artists of the Romantic movement, it is however not accurate to claim that the interest in Dante began and ended there. Rather, investigation reveals that Dante was subject of art works, ranging from small "troubadour" paintings to large academic "machines," and sculpture, from kitsch to monumental, throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries in France. In fact, somewhere in the 19th century a perceptual shift occurred that put Dante in that rare position of subject transcending all schools and genres, an honor in a sense traditionally reserved for subjects of mythology, history, or religion. Investigation into the records of state-sponsored Salon exhibitions in Paris from 1800 to 1930 reveals that Dante as subject (either based on his literary works, his biography, or legend) appeared at least 294 times in the works of artists well-known and obscure, avant-garde and academic, republican and ultra-montane. (1)

The earliest, most popular subjects, as would be expected, were those derived from the vividly described episodes of the Inferno, particularly those of Paolo and Francesca and Ugolino, but also including those of Farinata in the flames, the Suicides, Dante and the three beasts, Thais "dans la merde," etc. As the century continued, the subjects depicted by artists expanded to include episodes drawn from Purgatorio, Paradiso, and the Vita nuova, marked by the appearance at the annual salon exhibitions of several Mathildas, Pias and, of course, Beatrices. The popularity of Dante as subject for art in France reached well into the 20th century. Still inspiring creative arts into the 1920s and 1930s, representation of Dante's life and works expanded particularly in the medium of sculpture in the wake of Rodin's Gates of Hell, the monumental doors of bronze bas-relief illustrating Dante's Divine Comedy commissioned by the French state in 1880 for a proposed (but never built) museum of the decorative arts.

In the midst of this great interest in Dante in French arts and letters in the 19th century, a sub-genre developed based on biographical legend surrounding the period of Dante's exile. Investigation into this sub-genre reveals a complex interchange of historical fact, anecdote, fancy, and outright error, in sum producing imagery and importance for Dante's exile unique to France. Manifestation in French literature of interest in Dante's exile is so extensive as to necessitate full-length study, and its role in the formation of painting, sculpture and popular imagery of Dante is vital. References to Dante's exile appear in works of fiction and in biography, as well as in commentary accompanying French translations of the poet's works. What is significant and striking is French literature's reformulation and embellishment of history or biography concerning Dante's exile and its effect on interpretations in French art. …

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