The Uffizi Celebrates Dante With Rarely Seen Sketches

Art History

April 9, 2021

One of the most works of world literature, The Divine Comedy is a long narrative poem written by an Italian poet, writer, and philosopher, Dante Alighieri. This masterpiece was in production for twelve years during which the author meticulously portrayed the soul after death. Consisting of three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso (Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven respectively), The Divine Comedy captured the dominating religious and philosophical preoccupations that defined the medieval zeitgeist.

This year on March 25, Italy celebrated the National Day dedicated to Dante established by the Council of Ministers in 2020. According to the calculations of the scholars, on this very date in 1300, the poet started the journey into the afterlife. The year 2021 also marks the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death, so The Uffizi gallery organized a dense program of online events, among them an online exhibition titled To see the stars again. Dante illustrated by Federico Zuccari.

Federico Zuccari – Third Heaven of Venus: Carlo Martello, Cunizza da Romano and Folchetto from Marseille

The Great Federico Zuccari

Namely, the current virtual exhibition by The Uffizi features the Dante Istoriato, an astonishing series of 88 drawings produced in Spain by Federico Zuccari (or Zuccaro) between 1586 and 1588. Together with his brother Taddeo, the artist was one of the proponents of late Mannerism in Italy and was active as an art critic and historian.

Federico Zuccari’s career started very early, and throughout his lifetime he created numerous paintings and architectural sites, frescoes in the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, and decorations at the Villa Farnese at Caprarola being the most saluted. This artist, beloved by Cosimo I de 'Medici, was also active in Venice after being commissioned by the Grimani family of Santa Maria Formosa. Zuccari traveled frequently and produced significant works such as a series of cartoons for the Brussels tapestry-weavers, and portraits of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Queen Elizabeth, Mary, Queen of Scots, Sir Nicholas Bacon, Sir Francis Walsingham, Lord High Admiral Howard.

After he died in 1609, The Divine Comedy drawings were owned by the Orsinis, a noble family for which the artist once worked, and then the Medicis. Ultimately, they were acquired by the Uffizi in 1738.

Federico Zuccari – Inferno

The Divine Comedy Illustrations

This is the third time the illustrations are shown publicly by The Uffizi and the first time the entire collection has been presented in its entirety. These were initially part of a bound volume with each pencil-and-ink sketch opposite the verse it illustrated. The collection is the result of Zuccari’s combination of the original text and free interpretation; however, it shows his profound understanding of Dante’s thought and cultural in-depth analysis of the same.

Among the highlights from the collection are 28 drawings portraying Dante's Hell, mostly made by alternating the use of red and black stone. This particular graphic technique enabled Zuccari to highlight the figures against the background and to translate the violent contrasts of light and shadow that mark the infernal landscape. The sheets all of the similar dimensions reflect the complex mix of words and images that were enforced by the scrolls affixed to the drawings.

Another highlight is the portrait of Dante that was most probably made by an anonymous 18th-century painter to replace the dissolved original sheet. The work was assumed to be the title page of Zuccari’s volume of The Divine Comedy in the manner of many 16th century editions of Dante’s works that were opened with the effigy of the poet. The poet is portrayed as showing the book of the Comedy: on the left, the glimpse of the flames of Hell and the city of Florence with Brunelleschi’s dome are featured, while on the right the mountain of Purgatory invested by the celestial light that alludes to Paradise is depicted.

Federico Zuccari - Seventh frame. Lustful Meeting of two groups of souls lustful without restraint and lustful against nature

Celebrating Dante Across Italy

In 1865, The Divine Comedy illustrations were presented for the first time on the occasion of the 600th anniversary of Dante’s birth in Florence. Then, in 1993, more than a century later, they were shown again in an exhibition in Abruzzo. This rare exhibiting has to do with the fragility of the illustrations and the fact they can only be removed from their thermoregulated holdings every five years. Interestingly so, until now, many of them were only seen by a few scholars such as Michael Brunner, who wrote an excellent doctoral thesis in German in 1999, and a few other specialists who assigned a very limited edition facsimile in 2004.

The celebration will span across more than 70 towns and villages throughout Italy this year, while the exhibition of Zuccari’s magnificent drawings together with the text and comments that the painter himself wrote on the back of the sheets will be accessible on Uffizi’s website.

Featured image: Left: Dante Historiato by Federico Zuccari / Right: Federico Zuccari – Portrait of Dante, 1738 – 1753. Department of Prints and Drawings of the Uffizi. All images © Uffizi.