Sunday, July 4, 2010

Dante's Divine Comedy: A Graphic Adaptation

Dante's Divine Comedy: A Graphic Adaptation, by Seymour Chwast

Dante's Divine Comedy has, from its earliest days, attracted illustrators ranging from an anonymous 14th-century illuminator, to Botticelli and Blake and DorĂ©.  In our day, it has inspired the likes of Leonard Baskin, Salvador Dali and Barry Moser.  So why shouldn't Chwast, of Pushpin Studios, try his hand?  No reason.

But here's the thing.  He didn't illustrate Dante's Divine Comedy.  Instead, he summarized it and illustrated the summary.   It's 127 pages, mostly illustrations.  My copies of the Divine Comedy range from approximately 600 pages to more than 900, depending on the type size and the length of the notes/commentaries.  You just can't do it in the space here allotted, and have it make any semblance of sense to anyone not already familiar with the work.  Even then, most modern readers will need notes or commentary.

However, the drawings are fantastic!  Picture Dante in a trench coat and fedora, meeting a bowler-hatted Virgil in the dark wood.  Charon's ferry is a speedboat, Francesca's husband wears a wife-beater and carries a can of beer.   On to Purgatory in a rowboat, where Nino Visconti lies in his coffin holding a machine gun and the wanton women of Florence are flappers sipping martinis.  Up to Heaven we go, to find Emperor Justinian is a lounge singer and the crusaders ride in tanks.

I just wish that, rather than compress the text, Chwast had created these illustrations to accompany it.


  1. I participated last year in a group read of Dante in which we compared several different versions. This looks like something I'd really be interested in seeing while my memories of the experience are still fairly fresh. Thanks for the discovery.

  2. But, let's face it, the majority of people would not willingly pick up the Divine Comedy. At least this way they might be interested in doing so.

  3. Sounds really cool. And frightening--there were some mad scary images in that book.