Here we see Dante and Virgil in Hell. As they observe the suffering of the wrathful, they too are observed by a demon of the Malebranche. This would appear to be a scene from Canto VII, in which our Infernonauts encounter three of the damned...
"And I, who stood intent upon beholding, Saw people mud-besprent in that lagoon, All of them naked and with angry look. They smote each other not alone with hands, But with the head and with the breast and feet, Tearing each other piecemeal with their teeth. Said the good Master: "Son, thou now beholdest The souls of those whom anger overcame; And likewise I would have thee know for certain."
This stunning painting comes to us from French artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) and it really sets itself apart from most Inferno illustrations in the eroticism of the brutal combat, the starkly realistic expressions of empathic shock and of course that haunting demon visage floating in the background.
Dante and Virgil is an 1850 oil on canvas painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. It is presently on display at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. The painting depicts Dante and Virgil looking on as two damned souls are entwined in combat. One of the souls is an alchemist and heretic named Capocchio. In this depiction Capocchio is being bitten on the neck by Gianni Schicchi who had used fraud to claim another man's inheritance.
This is a truly breathtaking work and is a prime example of classic art with so much attention paid to the musculature of the human body. The first thing that strikes one about this painting is its unfettered ferocity, which has the effect of either you wanting to turn away from it in shock or you stare at it in a mesmeric state.
The setting for the work comes from Dante Alghieri’s 14th century epic poem, The Divine Comedy, which recounts the journey made by Dante through Hell along with his guide the ancient Roman poet, Virgil. The poem tells us that Hell is made up of nine concentric circles within the bowels of Earth. Each of the circles houses people who have committed certain types of sin. Bouguereau’s painting depicts the two travellers arriving at the Eighth Circle of Hell. This is the Circle which houses the deceased falsifiers. This Circle, nicknamed Malebolge (evil pouches) is unlike the other Circles for it is surrounded by a wall of dull iron-coloured stone, and the valley itself is divided into ten secondary circles or pouches. The setting for Bouguereau’s work is the tenth pouch of the eighth Circle of hell. We see Dante and Virgil watching a fight between two damned souls.
So who are the two main characters depicted fighting in the painting and why are they condemned to stay in this Circle of Hell, which is the home of alchemists, counterfeiters, perjurers, and imposters? Dante Alghieri would have known about the two men. One is Capocchio, a heretic and alchemist from Sienna who was put to death by public burning at the stake in August 1293. The other is Gianni Schicchi who is condemned to Hell for impersonating Buoso Donati and making his will highly favorable to himself. The story goes that...
...Capocchio, the heretic and alchemist is attacked and bitten on the throat by Gianni Schicchi, the usurper. He acts like a vampire. In the background shadows we see Dante and Virgil standing together. Virgil is dressed in a red cloak and hat and Dante is dressed in grey. Virgil looks down at the fighters but Dante has covered his mouth in horror at what he sees before him. However Dante’s eyes are not fixed on the fighting but at something to the right, out of picture. So what is he looking at? Maybe it is more naked writhing bodies similar to those which we see below the winged demon.
...Look carefully how Bouguereau has embellished the muscle structure of the two men. Look how the distortion of the bodies in their over-elaborate poses has added an animal-like ferocity to the painting. I particularly like the way Bouguereau has exaggerated the depiction of Schicchi’s violent stretching of Capocchio’s skin, his finger nails starting to draw blood whilst his knee, which has slammed into Capocchio’s back, bends his victim’s spine....
It is a magnificent work of art albeit a very disturbing one.
1850sacademicfrenchorsayoil on canvas281 cm × 225 cm