Through me the way into the suffering city

“Through me the way into the suffering city,

Through me the way to the eternal pain,

Through me the way that runs among the lost,

Justice urged on my high artificer,

My maker was divine authority,

The highest wisdom, and the primal love,

Before me nothing but eternal things were made,

And I endure eternally,

Abandon every hope, who enter here.”

A casting of The Thinker
A casting of The Thinker

The above is the opening verse of Canto III in the Divine Comedy, Vol I – Inferno.[1] Written by the 13th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Inferno is oft confused and translated differently, the above verse is the reading of an inscription located high upon the infamous gate to hell from the third Canto or chapterof inferno.  It signified Dante Alighieri’s entrance to the city of woe, which was the first level of hell in the epic poem, and the point of no return in his journey to paradise.  The final line is perhaps the most famous line of poetry to ever come out of Italy, and it has inspired much artful attention.

One famous example of Dante inspired art, though not readily thought of as inspired by Inferno, is a piece by Auguste Rodin.  Most people have seen incarnations of this piece in museums, in movies and on TV, but few are aware of its connection to the Divine Comedy.  Commonly known as The Thinking Man, its proper name is The Poet[2], so named as it was originally to be a representation of Dante himself.  Some scholars disagree with that identity, citing the fact that the figure is posed naked as an indication a more allegorical interpretation.

The unfinished Gates of Hell
The unfinished Gates of Hell

Auguste Rodin (12 November 1840 – 17 November 1917) was a classical French sculptor, largely inspired by Michelangelo.  He is most famous for his carving of Poet, but most people don’t know the whole story. In 1880 Rodin was commissioned to sculpt portal for Paris’ planned Museum of Decorative Arts.  It was to be a depiction of the famed Gates of Hell (as described above) used as an actual doorway in the museum, and the figure of Dante was intended to be the center piece for the portal.  Unfortunately, Rodin never completed the entire sculpture. The Gates of Hell comprised 186 figures in its final form. Many of Rodin’s best-known sculptures started as designs of figures for this composition, such as The ThinkerThe Three Shades, and The Kiss, and were only later presented as separate and independent works. Other well-known works derived from The Gates are Ugolino, Fugit Amor, The Falling Man, and The Prodigal Son.

As mentioned, few people outside of those explicitly interested in art-history are aware of the connection between Rodin and Dante, and it is my opinion that the Divine Comedy should be read by everyone.  It’s always amazed me the depth of the contemporary references to, not only Inferno, but to all three volumes of the comedy in popular culture.  Aside from this, both Dante and Rodin deserve their fame and should be regarded as denizens of art-history.

[1] Dante Aligheiri, The Divine Comedy, Vol I – Inferno Canto III (A verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum)

[2] Elizabeth Lundy, The Secret Lives of Great Artists, page 126

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