On the verge of Hell

In my previous post I revealed the identity of Dante Alighieri in Giorgio Vasari’s fresco depicting the Battle of Marciano. His guide through the first two parts of the Divine Comedy, Inferno and Purgatario, was the Roman poet Virgil.

Vasari portrayed Virgil as the faceless head alongside the helmet representation of the exiled Dante, and partly overshadowed by the helmet of the rider at his left shoulder, emphasising his role as a ‘shade’ or spirit of both darkness and light.

Notice also the helmet’s egg-shape, a reference to the sea-front Castel dell’Ovo (Egg Castle) in Naples and its egg legend associated with Virgil.

Vasari also played on the word Virgil as meaning verge or fringe, hence why he placed Dante’s guide at the edge of the frame.

The helmet’s sickle-shape weld, or fringe, suggests a merger of two parts. Here Vasari connects Virgil and the Egg Castle’s location to the sickle-shape coast-line of the Gulf of Naples; and then plays on the word gulf with Guelphs, a name associated with the political faction that supported the Papacy, as opposed to the Ghibellines who favoured the Holy Roman Emperor. Dante Alighieri took the side of the Guelphs.

Castel dell’Ovo (Egg Castle), Naples, Italy

Within sight of Naples and a short distance of about 20 kilometres is the volcano Mt Vesuvius, which is another pointer to the ashen colour of Virgil’s helmet and armour. Dante’s red plume – suggesting the features of “a man of sorrow” can also be visualised as a fiery eruption and a pointer to the descent and journey of both poets into Hell, or Inferno, the first part of the Divine Comedy.

Naples, Italy, with Mount Vesuvius in the background.

As well as embedding references in the Marciano fresco to Dante’s journey through Hell and Purgatory to finally reach Paradise, Vasari also included pointers to Virgil’s famous poem, The Aeneid, the story of Aeneas who fled the fall of Troy and made his way to Italy where he became the ancestor of the Romans.

Vasari merged elements of these two narratives with content from other artistic works to form a framework of connections and links to produce a new creation. The work  was commissioned by the Florentine duke Cosimo I, to cover over the fresco depicting the Battle of Anghiari that was started and abandoned by Leonardo da Vinci some 60 years earlier.

I shall explain in a future post how Vasari called upon and utilised a particular image from a very rare Late Antique illuminated manuscript, now referred to as Vergilius Vaticanus, as part of the process off merging narratives of myth and truth in his Battle of Marciano fresco.