Libro d’artista

The illuminated “Commedia”: interview with George Cochrane.

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It has just been published Dante’s Inferno by George Cochrane, handwritten and illustrated. It took seven years to bring it off and the result is a fine work somehow related to the great manuscript tradition. Like Simone Casini said in his interview with Cochrane, the book is going to be published in limited edition.

You’re arrived at the end of this path: how do you feel about the final result? Is it how you imagines it to be the first time?

Before Inferno was published as a single volume, I could not know how my work would be transformed in the finished book. I am only now completing the artwork for Paradiso, so it is difficult to fully imagine the final result. However, prototypes have been made of the various iterations and the results are stunning. The remarkable collaboration between the designer, Giulia Fogliani at Facsimile Finder and me has created the most beautiful volumes imaginable. While I strictly controlled the artwork and page design, I had no initial conception for the covers and bindings. Giulia had innovative, clear ideas from the start. She looked at images I had made of Dante from outside the books’ pages, such as my paintings and drawings. She asked me to make specific works to create the final composite images. The color and binding ideas sprang from the publisher as well. I was thrilled with the results. 

It could be said that with your work you’ve experienced the life of scriptores. How many errors, more or less, did you make? And so what would you do in this case?

The general rule in the medieval era and today is that scribes make one mistake of consequence per page. I found this to be true. I made many more mistakes in Inferno than in the following canticles as my skills improved. The gravity of the error, how easily it could be corrected on the page, and when I discovered the mistake would determine the solution. If I caught the error early, I could scratch away the incorrect letter and write in the correct one. But sometimes the scratching required to cancel the letter would damage the paper too much. The resulting correction would bleed into the paper, drawing the reader’s eye to the mistake. In this case, and with other uncorrectable errors, I would make a completely new page. In a few cases, the mistakes were too severe or discovered too late to fix the manuscript. Scans of the correct letters were added digitally to the published version. 

In the interview with Simone Casini you mentioned some of the comics that you discovered and loved: is there one or more than one, that effected you more in your drawing style?

The comic art of Wallace “Wally” Wood that appeared in Entertaining Comics (E.C.). has had the biggest impact on me. In addition, Will Eisner, Alex Raymond, and Milton Caniff, all shaped my vision. Hugo Pratt and other E.C. artists under Caniff’s spell such as Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Bill Elder, and Graham “Ghastly” Ingles have also profoundly influenced my work. 

Speaking about the colors of the text it is fully black while the cantos titles are in red like the medieval rubrica. For that part it is like you wanted to do something similar to a manuscript. Is it the same for the colours of the illustrations, or did you do them in a more “modern” way?

I wanted the page to take the form of an illuminated medieval manuscript: 42 lines per page, rubricated lead letters, and art on every page. To make the pages more consistent with Dante’s era, I use only colors available at that time, often sourced from Zecchi in Florence. For instance, the rubricating uses an ancient Carmine recipe. The other colors are made from ancient pure pigments. The “modernization” includes the comic font and visual references from across the 700 years of history of art inspired by the Commedia.

 You’re going to do also the Purgatory and the Paradise. This will be a huge work and I guess you’ll need a lot of material. How would you do it? Do you have any fundraising or samething similar?

Actually, I completed Purgatorio during the early phases of the COVID-19 lockdown in New York City. Now, I am at work on the final step, making the art for Paradiso. For resource materials, I have amassed a library that has informed my artistic decisions. Those include facsimiles of incunabula and manuscripts (illuminated and not), artist monographs, first editions of the Commedia, i.e. such as Ebba Holm, Manfredo Manfredini, and Gustave Dore, and scholarly studies and surveys. I have received no funding or payment for any of my work, including from sales of Inferno. I received copies of the book instead. The edition’s publication will be realized through the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. Like Dore after he self-financed the publication of his Inferno, I hope to eventually recoup my expenses, though my primary purpose has been to make the work and see it published.

I saw that you prepared the copy of Inferno for the exhibition at Museo Archeologico Nazionale dell’Umbria. You carved wood for that: how did you do? Is there a story behind this choice, the choice of the type of wood or behind this entire copy? I saw also that the wood broke and you had to put it back together: how did it come the idea to put nine staples, one for each circle of Hell?

I wanted to make a unique copy of Inferno, starting with its cover and binding. I visited a woodworking shop near my old studio. I asked for the oldest wood they had, something special, one with its own history. The boards were “too thick” for traditional wooden covers, but I teamed with an amazing book binder, Celine Lombardi, who told me she could work with them regardless of their size. I have carved wood many times making woodblock prints, but this would be different. The old wood had a “mind of its own” and would not withstand any intricate design. Instead, I chose a simple selva oscura motif, and carved the cover. When I sanded the verso to receive a painted motif, the wood split into two pieces. I wanted extra strength in the repair, so in addition to wood glue I chose the heavy-duty staples I use to stretch a canvas.
Once I found the solution, I decided that I would use one staple to represent each level of Hell. The staples also made a ladder form mirroring Dante and Virgil’s decent. Next, I designed the red leather spine motif that is divided into three sections, one per canticle. Within each section, I place three concentric circles. Ten small circles are arranged around these groups. By assigning a number to the circles according to their size they total 100, the number of cantos in the Commedia. On the back cover the wood grain pattern suggested a waterfall. A wound in the wood where there once a clasp or hinge was attached, now appeared to me in the shape of Geryon, flying below the falls. I colored its image in the book, and it dubbed the edition “Geryon.”

Are there some differences between how you did Inferno and how you’re doing Purgatorio and Paradiso? Is there anything you learnt from your first experience that made you change something?

My approach to each canticle has been unique. With Inferno, created first, I took the approach of looking to the 700 years of art inspired by the Commedia. From these numerous sources, both famous and lesser known, I populated my infernal landscape with citations, “corrections,” and even jokes (I find Dante to be very funny despite his grave demeanor). I also made Inferno under unusual pressure. In the spring of 2017, I learned that I would have a Dante-themed exhibition in Brooklyn in the fall. It would include my Graphic Novel in-progress Long Time Gone, drawings, paintings, and the original art and manuscript for Inferno. I asked the publisher when they would need the complete artwork from me in order to publish the books in time for the exhibit. They told me I had six weeks. In a flurry of creativity, I drew 230 plus pages in six weeks. The time pressure meant that I often had to produce art for an entire canto of three or four two-page spreads each day. My solution was to create a visual rhythm that flowed from pages full of complicated details and multiple figures to ones more sparsely illustrated. The reader can now experiences this rhythm of changing visual density. I followed this model for the each subsequent canticle.
I made Purgatorio under very different circumstances. The original publisher decided not to publish the complete Commedia. I had to decide to go forward if I wanted the work to be ready for 2021, even with or without guarantee of publication. Freed from a set of a publication date, I made Purgatorio in six months during the COVID-19 lockdown in New York City. My approach to making the art for Purgatorio was essentially the same as with the first canticle.
Paradiso is another story altogether. I knew I had to change my way of thinking for the final, most “abstract” canticle. In Inferno and Purgatorio Dante often describes his visual reality in detail, making the job of the illustrator clear. However, Paradiso attempts to describe the indescribable, creating greater interpretive challenges for the artist. To be honest, for a long time I did not have a solution. I knew that it could not emerge from other artists’ work as it had in Inferno and Purgatorio. I had to do something new. My first idea was to populate the images with the mosaic decorations found in Ravenna’s churches. I wanted the reader to “see” heaven with the same iconography that inspired Dante’s Paradiso. But I still needed a framework to arrange the visual elements.


The music in the Commedia plays a noted role in echoing central themes in each canticle. In Inferno only snatches of music are heard. For Purgatorio, the music is created by unison choirs, and by polyphony in Paradiso. With this insight, I am plotting the celestial voyage of Dante and Beatrice through a visualization of music, musical notation. Again, I’m looking to how music appeared in Dante’s day. I am, in effect, “composing” a visual score of celestial bodies to, as Dante does, take the reader into a hitherto unseen realm.



Emanuela Monini
Emanuela Monini
Emanuela Monini (1997) si laurea a Perugia in Filologia Romanza con una tesi riguardante le terzine provenzali della Commedia. Ha parlato ai convegni del ciclo Charun dimonio e l’immaginario mitologico dantesco, presso il MANU (Museo Archeologico Nazionale dell’Umbria), portando le figure di Medusa e della Ruota della Fortuna. Le piace il Signore degli Anelli, e ha deciso di farne un tratto della personalità, si appassiona a problemi filologici ma solo se irrisolvibili, e ogni tanto scrive qualche poesia.

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