British Romanticism and Italian Literature: Translating, Reviewing, Rewriting

By Laura Bandiera; Diego Saglia | Go to book overview

Carla Maria Gnappi (Università di Parma)


The Sunflower and the Rose:
Notes Towards a Reassessment of Blake’s Illustrations of Dante

As William Blake’s last work, his illustrations to Dante’s Divina Commedia represent the synthesis of his thought
and achievements, and have been the object of an extended critical debate. This complex, unfinished series of
images resists precise definitions, for it is unclear whether it is meant as an illustration to, for or from, Dante’s
masterpiece. Thus, the wide range of critical responses has encompassed antithetical claims: on the one hand,
Blake’s water-colours are read as a faithful illustration of Dante’s vision, while, on the other, they appear to have
little in common with the text they purport to ‘illustrate’. Moreover, the dispute about the alleged fidelity to, or
departure from, Dante’s poetry is linked to the broader question of Blake’s opinion of the Italian poet. This essay
responds to established views that Blake’s images constitute a critique of Dante’s religious and spiritual principles
through repeated references to the illustrator’s own beliefs, and suggests that the images and themes in the
Commedia were particularly relevant to, indeed intimately interwoven with, the illustrator’s processes of visual
mythmaking.

‘Come O thou Lamb of God and take away the remembrance of Sin’
(William Blake, Jerusalem, Plate 50)

William Blake’s unfinished illustrations based on Dante’s Divine Comedy,1 a work in progress on his death-bed, are more than his last commissioned work: they represent the final synthesis of his thought and achievements – his spiritual and artistic last testament.2 Of

1 Blake notably learnt Italian at the age of 67 to read La Divina Commedia in the original. However, his quotations and references to the text are based on the translation by Henry Francis Cary (1805–06, 1814), a translation widely used by the Romantic poets. An invaluable study on the English versions known to Blake is Valeria Tinkler-Villani, Visions of Dante in English Poetry (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1989).

2 The seminal source for the story and destiny of the illustrations is Albert S. Roe’s Blake’s Illustrations to the Divine Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953). The story is told again and again in the literature on the illustrations, which gives it a disturbing déja-vu quality. I will therefore refer the reader to Robin Hamlyn and Michael Phillips, William Blake (London: Tate Publishing, 2000), pp. 74–75, and William Blake, La Divina Commedia, ed. by David Bindman (Paris: Bibliothèque de l’Image, 2000), pp. 4–19. A detailed account of the dispersal of the ‘Dante bid’ at Christie’s in London on 15 March 1918 is given in Krystof Z. Cieszkowski, ‘“The Murmuring Divide; While the Wind Sleeps Beneath, and the Numbers Are Counted in Silence”: The Dispersal of the Illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy’, Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly, 22/23 (1988, 1989–90), 166–71. As a result of the auction sale and subsequent transactions, the illustrations are now divided as follows: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (36 plates); Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Mass. (23 plates); Tate Gallery, London (20 plates); British Museum, London (13 plates); City Museum and Art Gallery Birmingham (6 plates); Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (3 plates); Royal

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