Salvador Dalí's Illustrations to the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

Draft of an essay by Wolfgang Everling, Hamburg - Germany, contributed to
Frank Hunter   Supplement to The Official Catalog of the Graphical Works of Salvador Dalí; (to appear 2006)

Sabater, Enrique LAS ARQUITECTURAS DE DALÍ Edición especial para la Fundación de Cultura Ayuntamiento de Oviedo, Umberto Allemandi & Co., Turin-London (1998). ISBN 84-88951-66-3
Item number 176: "Originals for Vogue Magazine inspired by the theatre works As you like it (Rome), Salomé (London) and Don Juan (Madrid), 1949-1950, 48 x 79 cm."

Dalí   Exclusif reportage pour Vogue, de son activité en 1949
As you like it Luguino Visconti, subencione par l'état -
Don juan Tenorio Teàtro Nacional, Luis Escobar
ilustrationes Divine comédie - Poligrafico del Estato -
Solome Roayol Coven Garden, Pitter lorre
Dalí   Exclusive report for VOGUE on his activity in 1949
As You Like It Luchino Visconti, with government's support
Don Juan Tenorio National Theatre, Luis Escobar
Illustrations Divine Comedy Polygraphic State Institute Rome
Salomé Royal Covent Garden, Peter Brook

The illustrations to the Divine Comedy were mentioned by Dalí's handwritten note for a VOGUE article (1950) among his projects of 1949. The same note shows Dalí's sketch of himself kneeling and kissing the ring of the pope, presenting the Madonna de Port Lligat on a chair behind him. This context hints at Dalí's reasons to take up the projects he later called 'My Italian campaign'. In 1949 it would have been too early to plan for Dante's seventh centenary 1965.
A 1950 interview 'Dalí hoy' by J.M. Massip in Barcelona's Destino # 660 quoted Dalí: "He had been reading Dante's great work with passionate interest", he said, "and had discovered that it reflected his own spiritual evolution. In his mind the work was already planned." [GI, p. 512]
[An e-mail to Ian Gibson, May 2007: Only recently I received a copy of the Destino edition in question and read it in Spanish. Much to my surprise the first statement in your English version is by no means a literal translation of Massip's quotation. The decisive passage reads "El libro me apasiona: The book has aroused my passion" and does not mention any reading! Thus it remains an open question whether Dalí ever read by himself the books he illustrated. He may as well have relied upon Gala reading in front of him while he did other things - painting for example. Nevertheless, Dalí's adherence to the illustrated texts remains undeniable.
There are more deviations of your book from the Destino interview. The changes in the order of sentences are not too relevant. But your rendering that "it (Dante's great work) reflected his spiritual evolution" gives the misleading impression of Dalí seeing his evolution equivalent to Dante's pilgrimage through three realms. The Destino interview only states that illustrating Dante "... Es una obra que me atrae ... porque encuentro en ella los dos aspectos de mi propia vida: It is a work attracting me ... because I encountered in it the two aspects of my life". These two are the subject of the whole interview: Dalí's being first an atheist and later a mystic. This, of course, cannot be said about Dante!]
The Dante project took the form of 102 watercolors, signed and dated between 1950 and 1952. Their excellent, printed reproductions discussed by The Official Catalog give a reliable impression of their appearance. Their size of 16-1/2 " by 11" was maintained for the lithographs Italy 1-7 and for the print of La Danse. After 1963 only few of the watercolors were presented in public or in auctions.
A 32 page catalog commented on the exhibitions 1954 in Rome, Venice and Milan. 1955 in New York, only a flyer was printed. Both documents name, among other works, a total of 102 watercolors illustrating the Commedia. Two of these, the Rhinoceros in disintegration suitable for a book cover, and Dante, a frontispiece reminding of Raffael's Parnasso, were named separately. No Dante illustration was among the catalog's many reproductions. A newspaper reporting on the Rome exhibition found Dalí "too erratic and eclectic to truly let himself in for a painted comment to the Commedia".
A portfolio was printed at this occasion in 750 copies by the Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato. Its foreword, dated September 1952 by the Dante scholar Luigi Pietrobono, does not mention Dalí's name. It comprised seven lithographs, reproduced as Italy 1-7 in The Official Catalog, page 194, and the text of three Canti from the three parts of the Poem (viz. Inf. 27, Pur 23 and Par 9). Italy 5, the hands of Antaeus, was chosen for the cover. Two each (viz. Italy 6 and 4 for Inferno, Italy 7 and 2 for Purgatorio, Italy 3 and 1 for Paradiso) were placed between the corresponding text pages. Here already, the texts did not at all correspond with the associated images. The portfolios may have been printed at Dalí's expense. To the understanding of Reynolds Morse, exhibitions and portfolio were meant to support finding an editor who would finance the project. However, Dalí's effort failed.

When illustrating the Tricorne in 1959, Dalí came across a multicolor printing technique for reduced scale reproductions of watercolors. A printing machine produced by the company Nebiolo in Torino/Italy permitted precise overlay print using bakelite plates mounted on woodblocks, one for each color, their elevated parts carrying the color. The editor also produced decompositions, showing the prints from individual plates and their progressive overlays.

J. Estrade (r.) (Photo Everling 1999)
By mediation of Joseph Forêt, in 1959 the French book editors Editions d'Art LES HEURES CLAIRES took over and financed the project. Their logo is a sun dial, counting the clear hours only. They had experience in editing illustrated classical literature since the 1940s. The house had three directors; the last of these, Jean Estrade, died 2005 in Paris. One hundred watercolors were reproduced at a scale of 60%, illustrating a book with the French prose text by Auguste Julien Brizeux (mid 19th century). In a first test monochrome, dark blue coppers by Makart were used, later on the multicolor Nebiolo technique.
This edition contains a printed work description. Between 1959 and 1963, about 3500 plates, for an average of 35 colors per print, were prepared. Colors were chosen with extreme professional subtlety. The individual prints of various decompositions clearly give the impression that the plates were the result of photographic transfer and chemical etching, except for very few additions by hand. Only few plates still exist. Estrade showed me one in 1999, two were recently exhibited in Warsaw. The term 'gravure sur bois' in the work description usually stands for 'woodcut'. It may be understood correctly as 'bakelite etching (gravure) mounted on wood (sur bois)'. Its allusion to purely manual etching by the artist or others, however, and to wood carrying the color is misleading. A manual worker would not have reproduced the signature date 1951 of one single watercolor, the Eagle clawing Aurora, omitting the date in all other cases.
The French edition had six loose-leaf volumes. It was printed in steps, first Paradiso I and II, then Purgatorio, and Inferno last because it was most attractive for the customers. The printed Justification du Tirage accounts for 4765 copies, 515 of these with an extra series of printed illustrations. The edition was announced by an exhibition 1960 in Musée Galliera, Paris.
For this exhibition, Forêt published a catalog with 101 numbered titles and 'corresponding' text quotations, but only 30 photocopies. Hence the placements and the signature dates of the watercolors are not documented completely. The catalog also served as a prospectus and announced 33 de Luxe copies to be sold by Forêt with watercolors. Appendix O of The Official Catalog lists the titles.
Only one image, Italy 7 or La Danse, was printed at full scale by the multicolor Nebiolo technique, and as exhibition posters. It got the misleading title Les Servantes.
The Italian edition 1964 also had six volumes but a different arrangement of the images. Printed lists of the illustrations gave 100 numbered titles and text quotations in Italian, again not matching the Forêt catalog. The Official Catalog used this arrangement for its figures.The Italian Justification accounts for 3044 copies, 144 of these with an extra series. The use of prints from LES HEURES CLAIRES had been mediated by Mr. Reinz of Galerie Orangerie, Cologne - Germany (see also Tristan). His provision consisted of 150 + III series of the printed illustrations which he got signed in three colors by Dalí. The total print runs close to 8000 are another serious argument against 'woodcuts'.
The number of decompositions actually printed is unknown. Contrary to the printed French Justification, some copies from its first three groups were actually shipped with six decompositions. The same modification seems to have applied to the Italian edition. A decomposition into N colors used the N plates from N to 1 times for the successive overlays, totalling N(N+1)/2 times. Plates 2 to N were used once more for individual prints, adding N-1 times, that is. The total number of passes of some plate under the press hence is (N+3)N/2 - 1, resulting in 559 for N=32. For the average N=35 the result is 664.

Both French and Italian edition suffer from two types of inconsistencies: titles versus quotations, and both versus the visible content of the illustrations. 8 of 101 French and 29 of 100 Italian quotations are taken from Canti different than the Canto they are associated with by the numbering. Only 29 of the French and 36 of the Italian titles and quotations do match the motives of the illustration they are associated with. Surprisingly, another 24 French and 22 Italian titles or quotations match other illustrations than they are associated with!
As late as 1973, Dalí gave a verbal report about his Dante episodes in interviews with André Parinaud [PA]. It is the only source claiming that an Italian government commissioned him to do the illustrations. From 1949 to 1954, Italy in fact had many governments, all of them shaken by more important subjects than Dalí's works. One of the many Ministers of Public Instruction was professor Gaetano Martino. He was named patron in the 1954 catalogs when he had already been promoted to be Minister of Foreign Affairs. Dalí covered his own refusal to take responsibility for the arrangement of prints in the book editions by remarks contradicting the 1950 interview. He even added an anecdote ridiculing lifelong, serious study of the Commedia, saying this would never be his intention [PA. p. 307].

Being an attentive reader of the Commedia, my first impression of the illustrations exhibited in the French arrangement struck me as misleading. Early in 1999, the Dalí Archives encouraged my studies of the problem they called a 'quagmire'. The result is a sequence of titles and quotations matching the images' motives, the quotations suggesting a consistent placement. It was surprising for me to find for each illustration exactly one passage of the Commedia describing it literally!
This close correspondence is reflected by a table to be attached to the Supplement but not included here. It was published 1999 by EBDSA and 2000 in the German Dante- Jahrbuch. Now it has become part of a more comprehensive comparison on Internet page The web site as a whole comprises 16 [2007: 22] similar rearrangements for other illustration cycles by Dalí. Photos of bakelite print plates are presented under 'Xylography' with permission of the editor Bosz.

A. Field (l.) (Photo Everling 1999)
My book Dante Alighieris's Divine Comedy illustrated by Salvador Dalí - Re-established Correspondence between Text and Images, 2nd edition (2003), ISBN 3-00-011853-5 accompanies all 102 illustrations by their signature date if known, summaries of all Canti, and full reasoning for the suggested correspondence. It also gives references, relevant quotations from [PA], and shows the copper for Print 17 in comparison. The book is on sale in the Salvador Dali Museum St. Petersburg, Fla., and may be ordered for the US through the Dalí Archives.

I am glad to gratefully acknowledge Dr.iur. Enrique Zepeda's references to details of this essay, such as VOGUE 1950, catalog 1954, Italian colophon 1964.

[GI] Ian Gibson The Shameful Life of Salvador Dalí London 1997, New York 1998
[PA] André Parinaud Aveux Inavouables (Unspeakable Confessions) Paris 1973

© August 2005: