Depictions of Hell in Dante’s Inferno

Dante House Museum in Florence

The first encounter I remember having with Dante’s depiction of Hell happened in a seventh grade social studies classroom, more than a decade before I would read the poem. Tucked in the corner was a wooden model of what looked like an arena. It caught my attention, and I asked Mr. Rasmussen about it.

Mr. Rasmussen was a kind, older teacher who once casually suggested the only reason the people of the world might ever unite would be to deter a threat from aliens–which is a great way to leave an impression on a 12-year-old. He also told a story about losing one of his childhood friends while the two were playing in Secaucus, New Jersey. As they scampered along the crust of piles of manure, his friend quietly fell through the hardened outer layer and suffocated before he had realized what happened–which is an even more effective way to leave an impression on a 12-year-old. And while I enjoyed his class and remember liking him as a teacher, it is only these two events and that model, that I remember clearly now almost three decades later.

Mr. Rasmussen did not reveal much about the model other than saying it was of Dante’s Inferno, with that “of course it is” tone that anyone who has encountered Dante’s masterwork is in danger of adopting. What other work would inspire a middle school student to build a three-dimensional model for fun? What other work would inspire countless readers and artists to sketch out its world, or create an endless stream of derivative works? One of my students just today told me about a restaurant in town named Dante’s Fire. As a rule great literature inspires its readers, but Dante’s Inferno seems to engage the imagination more than most.

As I continue working through my long list of locations from the Inferno, here are a few depictions of Dante’s Hell worth checking out.

A Google search of Diagrams of Dante’s Inferno will provide dozens of examples, as will this Pinterest page. This image by Lyusya Durasova, Nadezhda Avdeeva, and Antoniya Gapotchenko presents Hell with 16-bit graphics and is pretty fun.

There are numerous posters available on Amazon, but my favorite poster(s) came from the Dante House Museum in Florence. Unfortunately, the posters created by Federighi Editori are not readily available in the United States. You can, however, see them more clearly on The World of Dante website, which has great information about the book including a collection of famous images of Dante’s universe and even some maps of the geographic locations mentioned in the work.

The most famous collection of images of the Inferno belong to Gustave Doré.

William Blake’s illustrations provide a nice stylistic counterpoint to Dore’s dark etchings, and I like to share both of these in class for students to compare.

And finally there is this video of L’Inferno (1911)–the oldest surviving feature film–which depicts Dante and Virgil’s journey through Hell. There are some great old-timey special effects–especially with the Carnal in Circle Three, Geryon’s flight, and the transformations of the thieves, which Dante himself was so proud of. If you watch the whole thing, see if you pick up on the editing mistake.

Be sure to check out all of the posts about the Inferno here:

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And if you ever built a model of the Inferno, created a work of art based on any book, or scampered along the manure piles in Secaucus–tell your story in the comments below!