William Blake portrait of Dante Alighieri, Tate online learning resource
Dante Alighieri 1800–1803

In 1824, Blake’s friend the artist John Linnell, commissioned him to make a series of illustrations based on Dante’s Divine Comedy. Blake was then in his late sixties. A contemporary account informs us that he designed 100 watercolours of this subject ‘during a fortnight’s illness in bed’.

Here we present seven pictures from Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Each picture is accompanied by an explanation and an original audio recording from the 1812 translation of Dante that Blake himself used when making his designs. So this is your chance to learn not just about Blake, but also about the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321).

Audio recording of the opening lines of Dante's Divine Comedy

In the midway of this our mortal life, 
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray 
Gone from the path direct: and e’en to tell, 
It were no easy task, how savage wild 
That forest, how robust and rough its growth,         
Which to remember only, my dismay 
Renews, in bitterness not far from death. 
Yet, to discourse of what there good befel, 
All else will I relate discover’d there.

How first I enter’d it I scarce can say,        
Such sleepy dulness in that instant weigh’d 
My senses down, when the true path I left; 
But when a mountain’s foot I reach’d, where closed 
The valley that had pierced my heart with dread, 
I look’d aloft, and saw his shoulders broad        
Already vested with that planet’s beam, 
Who leads all wanderers safe through every way.