Metamorphosing DanteAppropriations, Manipulations, and Rewritings in the Twentieth and Twenty-First CenturiesVienna: Turia + Kant, 2010
Copy to Clipboard
Add italics as necessary
Cite as: Antonella Francini, ‘Transferring Dante: Robert Rauschenberg’s Thirty-Four Illustrations for the Inferno’, in Metamorphosing Dante: Appropriations, Manipulations, and Rewritings in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, ed. by Manuele Gragnolati, Fabio Camilletti, and Fabian Lampart, Cultural Inquiry, 2 (Vienna: Turia + Kant, 2010), pp. 323–37 <>

Transferring DanteRobert Rauschenberg’s Thirty-Four Illustrations for the InfernoAntonella Francini

Keywords: Alighieri, Dante – Divina Commedia – Inferno; productive reception; American art; avant-garde; aesthetics; drawing; illustration of books; Rauschenberg, Robert

In December 1960 the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York displayed a series of thirty-four illustrations of the Inferno by the avant-garde artist Robert Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg had developed this project over the previous two years, working on it almost exclusively, first in New York City, and then in an isolated storage room in Treasure Island, Florida, where he retreated to concentrate on the last half of the cycle. When Rauschenberg decided to illustrate the Inferno in early 1959, his reputation in the New York art world was growing, although he did not achieve full recognition as the leading artist of his era until 1964, when he won the Venice Biennale International Grand Prize. But by the mid-1950s his works were shown in major galleries, and he had begun to be regarded as a major, if controversial, figure of the generation following Abstract Expressionism. As is well known, his Combines juxtapose found objects as diverse as stuffed animals, chairs, photographs, plastic, quilts, and pillows with paint, watercolour, and graphic signs. This refuse collected from the streets of New York was Rauschenberg’s ‘visual archive’, his ‘public act of collective memory’, to borrow Rosalind Krauss’s description in her discussion of the artist’s shift to photography in the early 1960s. Just think of two celebrated pieces, Bed and Monogram, as examples of the artist’s three-dimensional work of the 1950s: his own quilt and pillow (in the first case) and a stuffed goat with a tire around its middle (in the second) stand out as transfigured objects, visual allegories of his age. For, writes Krauss, ‘it is exactly the notion of memory, or of any other private experience which paintings might have formerly expressed, that is redefined by these pictures. The field of memory itself is changed from something that is internal to something that is external.’ Leo Steinberg first suggested a connection between the surface of Rauschenberg’s works and the mind itself ‘as a running transformer of the external world’. His picture planes are, wrote Steinberg, ‘for the consciousness immersed in the brain of the city’. As memos to the viewers, they document collective history, entrusting common images with the task of representing an age and its culture through exemplary objects. ‘The strongest thing about my work’, said Rauschenberg to Barbara Rose in 1966, ‘is the fact that I chose to ennoble the ordinary.’


The full text can be downloaded above and here as pdf.


  1. Alighieri, Dante, The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, trans. by Mary Prentice Lillie (San Francisco: Grabbon Press, 1958)
  2. La Divina Commedia, trans. by Harry Morgan Ayres (New York: Vanni, 1953)
  3. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: A Translation in Terza Rima, trans. by Glen L. Swiggett (Sewanee, TN: University Press of the University of the South, 1956)
  4. The Divine Comedy, trans. by Thomas Goddard Bergin (New York: Appleton Century Crafts, 1955)
  5. The Divine Comedy: A New Prose Translation, trans. by H.R. Huse (New York: Rinehart, 1954)
  6. The Inferno, trans. by John Ciardi (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1954)
  7. Purgatory, trans. by Dorothy L. Sayers (Baltimore: Penguin, 1955)
  8. Ashton, Dore, Rauschenberg’s XXXIV Drawings for Dante's Inferno (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1964)
  9. ‘Thirty-four illustrations for Dante’s Inferno’, METRO, 2 (May 1961), pp. 52–61
  10. Auricchio, Laura, ‘Lifting the Veil: Robert Rauschenberg’s Thirty Four Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno and the Commercial Homoerotic Imagery of the 1950s America’, in The Gay 90s: Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary in Queer Studies, ed. by Thomas Forster, Carol Siegel and Ellen E. Berry, special issue of Gender, 26 (1997), pp. 119–55
  11. Barthes, Roland, Mythologies, trans. by Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972)
  12. Cage, John, ‘On Robert Rauschenberg, Artist, and His Work’, in Silence (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), pp. 98–108
  13. Eliot, Thomas S., ‘What Dante Means to Me’, in To Criticize the Critic and Other Writings (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965)
  14. Fugelso, Karl, ‘Robert Rauschenberg’s Inferno Illuminations’, Studies in Medievalism, 13 (2004), pp. 47–66
  15. Hawkins, Peter S., and Rachel Jacoff, eds., The Poets’ Dante: Twentieth Century Reflections (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001)
  16. Hunter, Sam, Robert Rauschenberg: Works, Writings and Interviews (Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 2006)
  17. Krauss, Rosalind, ‘Rauschenberg and the Materialized Image’, Artforum, 13.4 (December 1974), pp. 36–43, repr. in Robert Rauschenberg, ed. by Branden W. Joseph (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), pp. 39-56
  18. Rose, Barbara, Rauschenberg (New York: Vintage Books, 1987)
  19. Seckler, Dorothy Gees, ‘The Artist Speaks: Robert Rauschenberg’, Art in America, 54.3 (May–June 1966), pp. 73–85
  20. Steinberg, Leo, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972)
  21. Taylor, Paul, ‘Robert Rauschenberg’, Interview (New York) 20.12 (December 1990), p. 147
  22. Terza, Dante Della, Da Vienna a Baltimora: La diaspora degli intellettuali europei negli Stati Uniti d’America (Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1987)
  23. Tomkins, Calvin, The Bride and the Bachelor (New York: Penguin, 1962)
  24. Off the Wall (New York: Penguin, 1980)
  25. Vincklers, Bitite, ‘Why Not Dante? A Study of Rauschenberg’s Drawings for the Inferno’, Art International, 12.6 (Summer 1968), pp. 99–106
  26. Wright, Charles, ‘Dantino Mio’, in The Poets’ Dante, ed. by Peter S. Hawkins and Rachel Jacoff (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), pp. 259–64
  27. Young, Joan, ‘Chronology’ in Robert Rauschenberg: A Restrospective, ed. by Walter Hopps and Susan Davidson (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1997), pp. 550–87