Dante at 700


Commemorating the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri is an Italian poet whose allegory 'The Divine Comedy', written between 1308 and the year of his death in 1321, had a profound influence on Western thought and literature. Dante was born in Florence in May 1265. This post will mark the 700th anniversary of the death of the poet Dante by looking at the two artworks from our collection that highlight the influence of Dante's 'Divine Comedy' on the visual arts.

William Dyce (1806-1864) was born in Aberdeen and he was the son of a medical professor. He studied medicine and theology at Marischal College in Aberdeen. After a brief period of study in London, he went to Rome, where he was influenced by a group of German painters, the Nazarenes. Like them, Dyce wanted to promote a style of art that had the purity and spiritual intensity of the early Italian masters of the 15th century.



'Beatrice', 1859 by William Dyce

Currently on display in Gallery 18, Aberdeen Art Gallery


This portrait was commissioned in 1859 by the influential Victorian Prime Minister, W. E. Gladstone, who was a friend of Dyce and his associate in the High Anglican Church.

Gladstone was also a great enthusiast of the 14th century Italian scholar Dante and he requested that Dyce paint a picture of Dante’s heroine Beatrice. At Gladstone’s suggestion, Dyce was to use an artist’s model and former prostitute, Maria Summerhayes, whom Gladstone had met in July 1859.

Dyce has given the sitter an air of stillness. Jasmine is not an attribute of Beatrice in the writings of Dante. However, in Victorian floriography, jasmine has many meanings including joy, separation, sensuality and amiability.

The story of Dante and Beatrice appealed to the Pre-Raphaelites on a spiritual level and as an emblem of supreme love, for Dante said of Beatrice in 'La Vita Nuova' (c.1290-4); “I hope to write of her what never yet was written of any woman”.



'Dante and Beatrice' by William Dyce

Currently on loan

The attraction of Dante’s 'Divine Comedy' for Dyce, in particular, would likely have been its religious, divine aspect, which he chose to depict in this unfinished oil painting.

As a young boy of nine, Dante met Beatrice Portinari (1266-1290) in his native Florence and fell deeply in love. Beatrice died at the age of 24, but at the end of the second book of the Divine Comedy, Dante is reunited with her in the afterlife and she becomes his guide through the different levels of Paradise.

In this painting, Beatrice is pointing the way to the next sphere of Paradise. The composition is focused on the movement of the two figures in a diagonal direction, imparting dynamism to the scene. 

This painting is currently out on loan at Musei di San Domenico in Forlì in Italy for an exhibition titled 'Dante:  La visione dell’arte da Giotto a Picasso' (Dante: The Visionary in Art from Giotto to Picasso) from 1 April - 11 July 2021.

Please click on the following link for more information on the exhibition:

If you would like to follow any other events in Aberdeen that commemorate the 700th anniversary of the poet's death, please also check out Società Dante Alighieri and its official website:
https://aberdeenitaliancircle.org/  Facebook@AberdeenItalianCircle

Società Dante Alighieri is a society, based in Rome, that promotes Italian culture and language around the world. Today this society is present in more than 60 countries and in Aberdeen is represented by the Aberdeen Italian Circle.


Blog by Griffin Coe, Curator (Art)


Aberdeen Art Gallery re-opens on Monday 26 April - come and visit and see Beatrice by William Dyce on display in Gallery 18: People and Portraits.