‘Dante and Virgil in Hell’ is a painting that depicts a horrifying scene from the book “Divine Comedy” in perhaps the most elegant way. The painting was painted by French painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau in 1850.
‘Dante and Virgil in Hell’ was not made for selling or any auctions. Bouguereau was an academic painter and he had made this painting for the coveted Prix de Rome.
Unfortunately, due to the caliber of the event, even a painting as magnificent as this did not win the prize. But that does not mean the painting went under-appreciated. People and critics loved this painting.
Composition and Structure of ‘Dante and Virgil in Hell’
‘Dante and Virgil in Hell’ is a three-layer structured painting; there are three layers on which the subjects are placed. Omitting the background as it is meant to hold the subjects, there are three areas of focus.
At the far distance, you can see a group of people (or souls, as they are in hell) suffering in some way. Coming to a layer above, you can see a hellish creature with its arms folded, flying above and looking at Dante and Virgil.
The final layer, and the foremost shows two souls locked in a fatal fight. It seems as if the devil has gotten inside them since they are not fighting in the usual way.
The second layer also shows a person lying on the ground, perhaps the remnant of a previous battle.
The tone of the painting is hot and warm with the use of deep reds, yellows, and brownish-orange. These colors depict fire, smoke, burning, etc. It is expected that the artist will use such colors to depict Hell.
The painter has also masterfully played with the highlights and shadows, giving the painting realistic lighting. While it is not at Caravaggio’s level, the painting excels in getting viewers’ attention where it’s needed.
The highlights work the same way as the layers do. The first and foremost layer has the most highlights, and as we go deeper into the layers, the amount of light on the subjects decreases.
People in the Painting
Now that we know the structure and other technicalities of the painting, let’s take a look at the scene that has been depicted. Who are these people and what’s going on here?
Artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau wanted to paint something grand, something that will connect with the masses and the judges. What could be better than the ever-popular and ever-horrifying “Divine Comedy” by Dante Alighieri?
“Divine Comedy” was a book that described, in detail, life after death. It described how souls are taken into hell where they suffer. And these descriptions were graphic.
So naturally, with such good descriptions and an imaginative world that people could connect, artists wanted to paint these scenes. From Botticelli to Fuseli, every artist made paintings depicting some scenes from this terrifying book.
In ‘Dante and Virgil in Hell’ the two people you see fighting each other in the foreground are Gianni Schicchi and Capocchio.
Here’s the verse that describes the scene in the book, mentioning the names of both the people in the painting.
“two shadows I saw, stripped and pallid,
Biting and running in the selfsame way
A hog behaves when let out of the sty.
One came straight at Capocchio and sank
His tusks into his scruff and, dragging him,
Scraped his stomach against the stony floor.
And the one left behind, the Aretine,
Shivering said, “That ghoul is Gianni Schicchi,
And he goes rabid, like that, mauling others.”
Not much is known about the heretic Capocchio, but we do know that he was also an alchemist. And for his crimes, he was sentenced to death. Capocchio was burned at a stake in 1293.
Dante knew the man in real life, and perhaps this is the reason why Capocchio is mentioned in the book.
Gianni Schicchi was another alchemist, but he was more than that. He was a famed imposter who used trickery to claim the inheritance of someone else’s. He was an unhinged person with a soul beyond redemption.
That’s the reason why he is shown as a rabid animal. While this happens, both Dante and Virgil. Virgil was a famed Roman poet of the Augustan period. He acts as the guide for Dante, taking him through the depths of hell and purgatory.
The Focus of the Painting
The subjects of the painting have been established. We know that the artist was depicting a scene from the “Divine Comedy.” But is that the focus of the painting?
Actually, the focus of the painting is the details and elegance with which the artist has painted the subjects. After all, this painting was meant for a scholarship.
Take a look at the two fighting figures; the tendons, muscles, and each vein that pops out. Notice how the knee of Schicchi creates the folds on Capocchio’s back. How his fingers dig into the skin of his chest.
But not just that. Look at the expressions of these two people. Capocchio’s face is almost like a photograph; the visible expression of pain and stress emanating from his face.
The painting was to show the artist’s command over his paintbrushes. It was to show his understanding of perspective, proportions, and lighting. How elegantly the artist has brought a description of a scene into life.
That’s what makes this painting powerful and unique. While this painting did not get the artist the scholarship he needed, he did get it the next year with his painting When Shepherds Find Zenobia on the Banks of the Araxes.