Engraving of a large figure with horns and beard, from whose mouth still protrude the legs of a smaller figure. Around them, fantasy figures stab other small human figures with pitchforks.

The Faces of Hell. Torsion and Disfiguration in Dante’s “Divina Commedia” and Selected Pictorial Genres

With its intricate weaving together of theology and aesthetics, Dante’s Divina Commedia is a veritable treasure trove of knowledge and information; it is also a highly disciplined work of poetic achievement. This poem is frequently viewed as a summa of theological, cosmological, and anthropological knowledge and—given its ‘vernacular’ nature—has, for some scholars at least, become a compendium of knowledge on the threshold between the Middle Ages and the modern period. Standing at the crossroads of the history of religion and literature however, its unique position within the cultural history of Europe has received too little attention. At this turning point in history, the human face—perceived as an overt force of expression—gives rise to new expectations. This new approach to the face marks, at once, the decline of an understanding of individuals based on the scholastic Christian tradition as well as a simultaneous shift towards a culture of self-discovery. This project focused specifically on the development of a ‘culture of the individual’ in the Commedia, which allows the face to oscillate between its allegorically transpersonal meaning and an early formulation of the individual.

With a grounding in philology and the study of images, the project seeked to describe in concrete terms the sensory imagery used to portray the souls of the dead and the various perspectives that bring Hell’s inhabitants into view in Dante’s Commedia. At the same time, the project seeked to more fully understand the poetic, pictorial, and kinetic processes of figuration (as literally ‘giving a face’ to some thing or person) and to describe the kind of imagery that was emerging at the time. For although the Inferno in all of its proverbial vividness concentrates on the physical expression of the sinners, scholarship has not yet explored the face as an index used by Dante to dramatically evoke the “orribil arte”/“Art of Terror.” Indeed, most criticism discusses questions concerning sensory imagery and the readability of the human being in terms of their relevance to the poetics of allegory in the Middle Ages. While this might seem surprising, Dante’s exemplary work and the works of numerous artists following in his footsteps paved the way for the discovery of an image of humankind that expands with the aid of physical poses, torsions, and disfigurations.

This project addressed the post mortem face in particular and how its distortion is incorporated into poetry and art. If one bears in mind Sandro Botticelli’s work or Gustave Doré’s photograph-like wooden engravings, Salvador Dalí’s color xylographs, early silent film, (Dante-) comics, and the graphic novel, then the Commedia seems to perpetuate the process of figuration that it itself generated, even as it perpetuates the relationship between descriptio and defiguratio. Moreover, the poem also combines elements of specific genres such as seriality and multiple perspectives. In this sense, beyond merely revisiting the poem’s history through a more modern lens, this project examined intermedial relationships and connections to the formal elements of popular genres. Thereby, it revealed an aesthetic matrix that continues to shape the pictorial logic of popular culture today.

The project was based on the research developed by the ZfL project The Face as Artifact in art and science (20112013).

Fig. above: Engraving by Sandro Botticelli (detail), depicting Dante's Inferno with monstrous creatures, Source: Wikimedia

Funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation 2015–2017 and Program funding through the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) 2017–2019 2015–2018
Head researcher(s): Mona Körte


24 Nov 2017 · 7.15 pm

Mona Körte: Dantes Inferno. Grundlagen einer Diskussion über die Hölle und das Böse

Società Dante Alighieri Berlin, Gesellschaft für italienische Sprache und Kultur, Oldenburger Str. 46, 10551 Berlin

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07 Jul 2017 · 3.00 pm

Mona Körte: Vor, Gegen, Zurück. Dantes Inferno als Ort der Wendungen

Kolleg-Forschergruppe BildEvidenz, Arnimallee 10, 14195 Berlin-Dahlem

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19 May 2017 · 12.15 pm

Mona Körte: »Erzähldurst, Vershunger.« Fama und memoria in Dante Alighieris »Inferno«

Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz, Universitätsstraße 15, 8010 Graz (AUT), ReSoWi-Zentrum, SZ. 15.21 (Bauteil A, 2. Obergeschoß)

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06 Oct 2016 – 08 Oct 2016

Doing Face - Gesicht als Ereignis

Forschungszentrum Historische Geisteswissenschaften, Goethe-Universität, Campus Westend, Norbert-Wollheim-Platz 1, 60323 Frankfurt a. M., Cas. 1.801 (Renate-v.-Metzler-Saal)

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