index.html  Beyond Illustration: An Approach to the Text / Image

Relationship in Dante and Rodin

François Blumenfeld-Kouchner

In this paper, I would like to consider the relationship between literature and sculpture, and in particular the similarities and differences in the conveyance of a meaning or emotion through the two media. I shall suggest that despite differences in conception as well as in medium, the artistic image can be conveyed to the reader or to the viewer through what can be analysed as rhetorical forms. In other words, while paying attention to the considerable differences in the conception of the artistic act from Dante to Rodin, I will try to analyse both text and sculpture in terms of the construction of an image, conceived of as the impression made on the reader/viewer by the interaction of rhetorical figures.

Two different levels will be explored: thematic (the construction of ambiguity through an incomplete narrative), and technical, through the study of ekphrasis (the illusion of visual movement in both literature and sculpture through the use of rhetorical constraints on the reader/viewer).

The production of meaning by the literary text or artistic object at first glance seems to be constrained by the type of media involved. While verbal meanings could be associated with the literary only, for which emotional responses would come only as a consequence of the understanding of the text, one could think of visual contents as having a direct control over the spectator’s emotional response. Nonetheless, a careful analysis of texts and visual images shows that the ways in which the reader/spectator responds to them is in great part determined by the ways in which one approaches the works. It is possible to read certain images as allegories, and therefore to find a verbal intertext or paratext to the picture (e.g. Poussin’s paintings, explicitly made ‘to be read’), and conversely certain texts convey a definite visual impression (one can think precisely of Dante’s Divine Comedy). How is it possible for a medium to cross over to another one? How can different types of effects result from the same medium? The concept of illustration provides here a rich example. What is the purpose of an illustration to a text: to clarify the meaning of the text? To expand it? To provide a different viewpoint on it? In other words, the question is whether the illustration is trying to enhance the effect of the text, or if it is as it were living a life of its own.

The story of Ugolino, told by Dante in Canto XXXIII of the Inferno, and its visual renditions in the work of an illustrator such as Gustave Doré and in the hands of Rodin give an insight into the ways in which the text and its artistic by-products cooperate. The object of a major and unceasing scholarly dispute, the tale baffles by its ambiguity: does the starved Ugolino eat his children, or does he die of hunger? The main object of the controversy lies in line 75:

Poscia, più che ’l dolor, poté ’l digiuno.


According to Robert Durling, the question of Ugolino’s hypothetical cannibalism surfaced in the nineteenth century. Durling goes on to list some elements that show that the possibility of the ‘cannibalistic’ interpretation is possible, but concludes by saying that: ‘As Contini said, accepting the idea “may add horror, but not the poetry of horror,” and does not perhaps much affect the basic significance of the episode.’ Footnote It may be interesting, however, to understand why the problem appeared in the nineteenth century and not before, and what exactly it influence is, or should be, on a modern reading of the Canto. In his study entitled ‘El falso problema de Ugolino’, Jorge Luis Borges, calling the dispute ‘la inutile controversia Footnote , claims that the latter stems from a confusion of history and story, ‘una confusión entre el arte et la realidad.’ Footnote Borges moves on to show that while in ‘real time’ decisions have to be made, and choices result in the elimination of the alternative, time in art is ambiguous and allows for both alternatives to coexist: Ugolino did eat and did not eat his children. Footnote Borges’s suggestion explains nicely the emergence of the double reading in the nineteenth century: at the very moment when literary criticism was oscillating between historical and biographical interpretations of the works and a new, more theoretical approach to literature. The Romantic moment creates this intersection of creation and criticism by the mingling of literature and philosophy (or by the erasure or replacement of philosophy by literature) –and it is in the wake of this movement that Rodin chooses to create his own Porte de l’Enfer. Footnote The very idea of reworking Dante’s text echoes Romantic mediaevalism. Ambiguity itself is indeed a topos of the nineteenth-century, and in the context of the family, the ambiguity of many authors’ relationships with their sisters at this period could almost be called fashionable (obviously a Sainte-Beuve would point out to Rodin’s own consideration for his sister, and some psychoanalytical reading would probably suggest rapprochements between the incestuous feast of Ugolino and the sensual meals of Romantic siblings).

How, then, do the visual artist render the ambiguity of the scene in their works? They could simply depict an instant anterior to the decision, perhaps such as G. Doré does by cunningly presenting as an illustration of the disputed verse (75) an Ugolino looking on his children as though he could be considering them for food, while appearing suitably exhausted to let the viewer imagine that he may faint at any moment. In other words, Doré chooses not to interpret. The illustration continues the ambiguity. Rodin’s reaction, however, is more complex. He seems to have considered different solutions to this problem in his drawings, including the depiction of Ugolino eating his children. Nevertheless, the solution he adopted in most of the drawings as well as in the latest plans for the Porte de l’Enfer, represents Ugolino with a child on his lap. In the last sculptural maquette, Ugolino’s head seems to be inclined towards the child, while in the cast he looks vaguely in front of himself, his mouth gaping. One should note that unlike Doré’s depiction of a bearded, exhausted Ugolino –such as one would have been after a long sojourn in an inhospitable cell– Rodin shows us Ugolino as a young man, with no distinct signs of bad health affecting him. Therefore it is important to note the value of the open mouth in the final cast: we read this expression as one of hunger/exhaustion/stupor perhaps only because we can tie it to Dante’s story. Doré’s work is properly an illustration: it is inextricably tied to Dante’s text, which it takes as its title. Rodin’s sculpture gives the viewer a choice: one can either read the image with the text, or simply see the work and be affected by its visual content, purged of the intertext. Indeed, Rodin wanted to express mostly ‘feelings’ (‘L’art n’est que sentiment’ Footnote ), and he claimed that it is better to depict general ‘symbols’ which do not presuppose any written subtext. Nonetheless, he seems there to be relying fully on his appreciation that ‘quand un sujet littéraire [Dante] est si connu, l’artiste peut le traiter sans craindre de n’être pas compris.’ Footnote Thus, while the literary narrative of the Inferno establishes an intertext with an unclear historical reality, Rodin builds on the ambiguity of the scene as described by Dante in order to present the viewer with a fixed instant which appears through the subtext as that of the indecision of Ugolino. Meanwhile, as the sculpture does not move on from this indistinct instant, it exactly depicts the indecision as to the issue of the scene that one is left with in the text. In other words, Rodin does not simply depict the scene faithfully, he furthermore re-enacts the text’s very ambiguity in his representation, on two levels: first, by leaving the viewer decide whether or not to read Dante in the sculpture; second, by facing the viewer with the suspended image of indecision. Again by comparison, Doré avoids the difficulty by having Ugolino turn his back on us, when Rodin shows us the very face of indecision. Footnote

If it is then possible for both literature and sculpture to create ambiguities that are rendered in what Borges describes as a sort of temporal loop, one can ask the question of the capacity of the media to produce an actual impression of time and of space, that is, of movement. For if the thematic ambiguities can be formed upon a textual meaning, the mimetic ability to reproduce movement would seem to be reserved for the modern media, such as cinema, where a technical illusion naturally convinces the viewer. How is physical movement to be conceived of in relation to literature, which uses only words fixed on a page, and to sculpture, whose forms are set in a solid state of fixity? Both media, however, have the ability to constrain the reader/viewer in some ways, as long (or as soon) as the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ is taking place. In the case of the written text, the techniques of illusion are based on those of ekphrasis: the text absorbs the reader in a story that depicts, often with a conscious omission of details (or retention of details until a climax), rather than it describes. The reader is often allowed or encouraged to identify with the narrator’s point of view, reinforcing thus the imaginative potential of the text. The reader takes for his own views the elements that are given to him by the text. Footnote Interestingly enough, this seems to work as well in the visual sphere. Rodin’s sculptures, by rejecting the painstaking depiction of details that would be thought to be realistic, Footnote enables the viewer’s gaze to flow along the curves of its figures, encouraged in doing so by the play of light on the bronze’s surface. As in the literary movement was created through a fast pacing of the text (it is interesting to note how visual the Inferno is and at the same time how this corresponds to a very fast paced metric schema), rushing the reader through images as would a film through frames, the sculptor plays on the movement of light on his work to absorb the viewer into an active contemplation. The changing reflects of light on Rodin’s sculptures already give an impression of movement, and at the same time they encourage the viewer to displace his own point of view to keep track of the changes (or perhaps to try and immobilise the object –in vain). The infinity of movement is in fact made up by the infinity of instants of light playing on the work. This was, according to Rilke, Rodin’s essential principle:

And in the end this surface [of the human body] became the subject of his study. It consisted of infinite encounters between things and light, and it quickly became clear that each of these encounters was different and all were remarkable. At one point the light seemed to be absorbed, at another light and thing seemed to greet each other cautiously, and then again the two would pass like strangers. There were encounters that seemed endless, and others in which nothing seemed to happen, but there was never one without life and movement. Footnote

This seduction of the gaze, which can be conceived of as a form of rhetorical persuasion (compare for example to the orator’s gestures or composition), is then the equivalent of a hypotyposis or ekphrasis in a text: the movement of the viewer’s gaze, combined with his deciphering of the figure’s meaning Footnote becomes the equivalent of the narrative progression and becomes for the viewer the movement of the figure itself (or conceivably, if the figure is thought of as immobile, such as in the case of Ugolino, the movement parallels that of the narrator’s gaze, which fades when faced with the invisible Footnote ).

A different type of fixation of the image, this time with a very clear meaning, can be found in The Kiss; the suppression of accessory events of the narration (or of the conflation of events in the narration –compare again with Doré’s illustration of the scene where one can see Gianciotto ready to stab the lovers) and the fluidity of the curves, the impression of a double spiral (as if Paolo’s and Francesca’s bodies were about to be fused together as in one of the metamorphosis occurring later in the Inferno), unites the two lovers in an eternally renewed kiss (thematically conceivable of as a movement), there again representing a feeling given by Dante’s text of the lovers’ eternal union beyond the grave. Meanwhile, movement proves an interesting problem especially as it relates to speech. The viewer’s gaze on Rodin’s Gate, discovering successively the various figures or taking in the general image of confusion and movement if looked at from some distance, parallels the idea of the pilgrim of Dante’s text as a source of light which enables one to see the contents of hell. While the damned souls maybe engaged in some form of movement while they are enduring their punishments, they are inward-looking (toward their sin) and thus invisible at the same time as they are unseeing. Dante’s call to them fixes their movement but gives them the ability to speak, which is vividly conceived of as a movement in the Inferno Footnote . Rodin, however, need not bother with the depiction of speech: his conception of sculpture as expressing pure feelings gives him the occasion to neglect speech and to replace it with the alternating use of mobile and fixed figures. By representing the narrative in purely visual terms, Rodin achieves what he implicitly claims cannot be done by the text: he creates a universal form of language. Footnote

The use of ambiguity in art forces the spectator to pose and consider the options. The thematic motives thus explored through the study of Ugolino’s story serve a double rhetorical purpose in both Dante’s text and Rodin’s work: on the one hand, by refusing the viewer/reader a clear narration, they perform a function of a captatio benevolentiae. On the other hand, they promote an internal inconsistency of the telling, from the point of view of a logical discourse, and thus create a rift between artistic discourse and other forms of communication (such as philosophical argumentation). The success of this method is demonstrated by the quantity of contradictory critical positions on the works, the contents of which cannot be elucidated from any external position. In the same manner, the similarities of techniques used in order to give the reader/viewer the illusion of movement reflects the rhetorical nature of art. A mimetic effect can only be achieved through some sort of delusion, be it lie, concealment of some truth, etc. What the works of Dante and Rodin both show is how the artist conspire with his audience to create a beautiful illusion. The mechanisms of persuasion (of rhetoric) require that there be someone willing to be persuaded to some extent. The success of Rodin and Dante is in creating the desire to be persuaded in their very act of persuasion. The creation of a visual narrative which can be read through a number of intertexts as much as it can be simply enjoyed for its (seemingly) immediate beauty is no stranger to this success: while they both rested ultimately on classical models, Dante and Rodin gave a sense of vigour and renewal of artistic forms (and perhaps of life) through the dynamism of their oeuvres.


Dante Alighieri, Inferno, ed. and trans. R. M. Durling, (Oxford: OUP, 1996)

Borges, Jorge Luis, Nueve ensayos dantescos, (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1999)

Doré, Gustave, The Doré Illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy, (New York: Dover, 1976)

Elsen, A. E., The Gates of Hell by Auguste Rodin, (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1985)

Molinié, G., Dictionnaire de rhétorique, (Paris: LGF, 1997)

Rilke, Rainer Maria, Auguste Rodin, trans. D. Slager, (New York: Archipelago, 2004)

Rodin, Auguste, L’Art, ed. P. Gsell, (Paris: Grasset, 1911)


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