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Un ange indique au Dante et à Virgile un sentier moins rude que les autres

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CAT 98. Etienne Achille Réveil after John Flaxman. Un ange indique au Dante et à Virgile un sentier moins rude que les autres. Plate 19 (from canto 15) in Purgatoire du Dante. Paris: Audot, 1833. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

At the end of canto 14, the mellow cadence upon which Dante and Virgil had departed from Guido and Renieri was harshly ruptured by “volley’d lightening” representing Cain and Aglauros, who had famously envied their own brother and sister, respectively. As they walk toward the direct light of the setting sun at the beginning of canto 15, Dante “felt a weight / Of more exceeding splendour, than before / Press on my front” from “cause unknown.” This “gorgeous superflux of light” against which he “strive[s] to shield the sight in vain” emanates, as Virgil helps him to see, from another of those “blessed Angels” whose “dazzling radiance” will help him to “ascend” as his “perception” of the divine increases. As soon as they reach him, this angel “hail’d us with glad voice: / ‘Here enter on a ladder far less steep / Than ye have yet encounter’d’” (15.10-12, 25-36). They then ascend that ladder into the third cornice of Purgatory, where the sin of anger is to be purged.

Flaxman’s Conducted by an Angel puts the Angel, Virgil, and Dante on the same plane.  The Angel’s easy grace is an effect in which Flaxman excelled (note the sinuous curve of the negative space that rises, untouched, from inside the foremost leg through the entire body up to the edge of the neck). The spatial interaction of the poised wings and the radiating light give an apt feel for angelic dazzle that Virgil and Dante seem to take in with equal eye. In Dante’s text this angel is male (at least in the two translations I have studied closely, by Cary and Ciardi), but Flaxman’s depiction looks female to me (though all of his angels do have a somewhat prepubescent feel that tends either sex toward the androgene). Réveil here, as elsewhere, does this or that to show he is not imitating Piroli instead of Flaxman: his angel’s hair has thicker strands than Piroli’s, and in his engraving the angel’s foremost foot acquires an ankle bone, where none was there before.