George Cochrane is a modern-day scribe, comic book artist, and manuscript-maker. He has spent the past 7 years working like a monk on a new illuminated manuscript; a fully handwritten and illustrated Divine Comedy. It’s the first of its kind since the 15th century. This year being the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death, its publication couldn’t be more timely.
It was 1994 when artist George Cochrane met Dante Alighieri for the first time. During his junior year abroad in Florence, Italy, George purchased his first copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In this Late Medieval allegorical masterpiece, considered one of the greatest triumphs of literature in the world, Dante imagines himself traveling to the far reaches of hell (Inferno), purgatory (Purgatorio) and paradise (Paradiso). Many of the intense details in the poem have made a lasting impact on the Western imagination for centuries. Although this work of genius represents the art and culture of Italy all over the world, it can be formidable to understand. Like many before him, George had a hard time understanding the depth of its immortal message.
It seemed hopeless, but Dante kept re-entering George’s life like a flame that wouldn’t go out, and George was drawn to that flame. After deciding to give Dante another try, an artistic vision took hold; George decided to make a new illuminated manuscript using his comic font and illustrations, a version of the Divine Comedy that would make Dante’s poem contemporary through art, and his message approachable to younger generations.
Inspired by Medieval Manuscripts
Before even beginning to create, George carefully studied medieval manuscripts as a source for inspiration. In addition to learning Italian, George carried out extensive iconographic research on over 800 surviving manuscripts of the Divine Comedy, several of them enriched by magnificent painted scenes. In today’s day and age, most illuminated manuscripts live behind closed doors in private collections or libraries, with the most historically important codices safely secured behind bullet-proof glass. As George continued his research, he discovered illuminated manuscript facsimiles – stunning, high-quality copies of the original books. He began working with Facsimile Finder to access facsimiles of the Divine Comedy that could inform his work.
No copy of The Divine Comedy has been discovered written in Dante’s hand. Surviving manuscripts date from fifteen years after Dante’s death, and are foundational for today’s modern versions. Because of this, George carefully chose a different source for the text of the three Canticles:
Inferno — Giorgio Petrocchi (1967): the most widely disseminated and generally accepted version of Dante’s text.
Purgatory — Codice Landiano (1336): one of the oldest datable manuscripts of the Divine Comedy, which has never been transcribed before.
Paradise — Codice Trivulziano 1080 (1337): largely considered one of the most “accurate” and finest of the early manuscripts of the Commedia.
Inspired by Dante’s Life
George further looked to Dante and his life to inspire his illustrations. In particular, he looked to Dante scholar Laura Pasquini and her study of the poet’s life in Ravenna. According to today’s leading scholar on art inspired by the Divine Comedy, Professor Lucia Battaglia Ricci, in a conversation with George, called Pasquini’s Iconografie Dantesche (2008) the “key to Paradise”. After a close examination of Iconographie Dantesche, George knew he wanted Pasquini’s research to fundamentally inform his version of Paradise.
Dante wrote Paradise while living his last years in Ravenna. After facing exile from his home city of Florence and roaming for several years, he finally settled in this beautiful city by the sea. According to Pasquini, Dante most likely drew inspiration from the breathtaking mosaics in the city’s churches, churches he visited and prayed in, for the imaginative landscapes of the celestial bodies in Paradise. Unlike most artists over the centuries, George fully embraced this innovative approach to the landscapes of Paradise, and his depictions of the third Canticle are heavily inspired by the same views that Dante loved so much during his final years in Ravenna.
Connecting Medieval Manuscripts to Modern Day Comics
Over the years, as George looked through all of the amazing manuscript art inspired by the Divine Comedy, he realized the connection between the art of the Commedia and comics. Just like early editions of the poem, a comic tells a story using words and pictures in sequential order. Dante strives to present a full range of emotions, often with physical descriptions that are very evocative; the natural entry point for an artist to step in and illustrate that expression. Considering Dante’s own experience of books in his own time – medieval illuminated manuscripts as we know them today – many have imagined that Dante envisioned his poem with pictures around it.
Working Like a Medieval Monk
Just like a medieval monk, George kept to a rigid schedule, waking before dawn to scribe his manuscript pages. Each page took him about 1.5 hours to complete. He would write, every single day for months, as many lines as he could complete before going to work. Once pencil marks were complete, each character was scribed over with Sennelier India Ink containing shellac. Hours or days later once the ink was dry, George had to erase each and every pencil mark and fix every single error, sometimes opting to re-do an entire page if necessary. George copied the entire poem while his normal life was going on. The only free time in his daily schedule was often reserved for sleeping! All in all, George scribed all 350,000 characters, all three canticles, all 14,233 verses of the Divine Comedy.
Using Medieval Pigments From the Time of Dante
For his illustrations, George decided to use ancient and medieval pigments that were used in the time of Dante. To start building his color library, George went to the source: Zecchi, in Florence, Italy. Zecchi is more than just an art supply store. Major Florentine works of art, as well as some of the most important international masterpieces of art – have been restored with the help of Zecchi’s products. They source the finest pigments from all over the world, including colors native to Italy.
One very special color George uses is verdaccio, a hand-mixed combination of Naples Yellow and Raw Umber used for skin-tone shading since the Middle Ages. This color, following ancient formulae, is made only by Zecchi and appears in all of George’s figures.
George knew he wanted to use Lapis Lazuli as well. This was an ancient pigment ground from semi-precious Lapis Lazuli stones. It was a color available during the time of Dante and often sought out and reserved for special circumstances. In the case of some exotic colors, such as Lapis Lazuli, Zecchi uses traditional artisanal methods of grinding to achieve the most intense and luminous colors. Florence’s history of working with le pietre dure dates back centuries. Zecchi continues these traditions, and George was able to source this special pigment directly from their shop.
The Divine Comedy Like You’ve Never Seen Before
With George’s unique approach, his new Divine Comedy will provide readers with a fresh perspective on this timeless masterpiece. The Divine Comedy is, after all, a difficult text, whether reading it in native Italian or another language. To have pictures along with the text every step of the way will give both first-time readers and long-time lovers of Dante’s poem an experience that is both rich and rewarding. La Divina Commedia – The New Manuscript will be published in both original Italian and English (Singleton’s translation), following the Kickstarter campaign launching on March 16th that will aid George in covering publishing costs.