Domenico di Michelino, Dante, Florence and the Divine Comedy
- Domenico di Michelino - Alesso Baldovinetti
- Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore
- Specific location
- Interior, left nave, fourth bay, wall
- Height: 232 cm; Width: 290 cm; Depth: 10 cm;
- Tempera pigments, canvas, wood
This famous painting, a tempera on canvas applied to a panel, depicting Dante Alighieri with Florence and the Realms of the Divine Comedy (Hell, Purgatory, Paradise), was commissioned by the city government from Domenico di Michelino in 1465, for the bicentenary of the birth of the exiled poet.
Dante is depicted at centre, with his iconographic clothing and facial characteristics (red tunic and cap, aquiline nose, sharp features). He wears a laurel crown, yet his expression is melancholic. In his left hand he holds the Divine Comedy, showing the first verses. The poem emanates golden rays, illuminating Florence at the right, with its sum of main structures: the city walls, the Cathedral with dome and Giotto's bell tower, the towers of Palazzo Bargello and Palazzo della Signoria (seat of city government), finally the bell towers of the churches of the Badia Fiorentina and San Pier Scheraggio. With his right hand, Dante gestures towards a crenelated battlement with the Gate of Hell, and a line of slothful people, bitten by large insects and led by a demon carrying a white banner. In the background stands the mountain of Purgatory, conical and rising in levels, each hosting a group of souls subject to different punishments. At the top is the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve at the forbidden tree. The blue sky is crossed by arches, each marked by a golden sphere and an astronomical symbol that identifies the different heavens of Paradise. In the lower margin is an inscription, painted as though carved in stone.
Among the many ancient portraits of Dante, this one is the most important for monumentality and iconographic complexity. The inscription declares that he is the “venerated soul” of his homeland, and celebrates him as the author of the Divine Comedy. The laurel wreath is a kind of compensatory gift, because it fulfils the desire expressed by Dante in his poem, to return and one day receive the poet’s crown in the homeland that had exiled him.
But this recognition extends beyond the level of poetic fame: the painting raises Dante to the dignity of an inspired theologian, almost to a prophet, thanks to his writings. In fact, according to the customs of ancient iconography, the emanating light assimilates his own book to the volumes preserved by the Saints Doctors of the Church (Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory, Jerome), or even the Evangelists, signifying that the Divine Comedy reflects the Divine Light of Truth and that its author composed these verses with the inspiration of God and Providence, to serve a saving mission (as Dante himself declares in the poem). This explains his portrayal with such sad expression and eloquent gesture: he is showing Hell to Florence and its inhabitants, as if warning his fellow citizens to save themselves by reading his poem, with account of his journey accomplished. The celebration of the great poet is therefore also a comment on his homeland: according to some scholars, the similarity of the gates of Florence with the mirroring ones of Hell would recall St. Augustine's idea of the metahistorical contrast between the Civitas Dei (Kingdom of God), and Civitas Diabuli (Kingdom of Evil), and therefore allude to Florence as if a heavenly Jerusalem, a new Holy City.