Canto I from the Divine Comedy, Inferno

“Inferno,” the first section of the Divine Comedy, begins with Dante at the midpoint of his life, having lost his way in a savage wood. That concept resonated for artist George Cochrane ’95 as he was lettering Alighieri’s words, first in Italian, then in English. Pairing the verses with drawings, Cochrane created a 230-page illuminated manuscript in honor of the 750th anniversary of the birth of the medieval Italian poet. “There was a certain amount of turmoil in my middle-aged self,” Cochrane recalls, “and this idea that halfway through your life you come to some crisis resonates more with me now than it did when I read Dante in college.”

Cochrane gleaned inspiration from early illuminated manuscripts as well as later masters who captured Dante’s world—Botticelli, Michelangelo, Doré. At the time, Cochrane was also working on an autobiographical graphic novel in which Dante served as guide. “When I looked at what was done in the past,” he says, “it became obvious that an illuminated manuscript reads like a comic book, combining words and pictures.”

A studio art professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Cochrane became enchanted with Italian while studying with Judith Serafini-Sauli ’63 (Italian/literature, emerita), who encouraged him to begin his junior year abroad in Venice at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Later, in Florence, he studied Italian language as well as painting, drawing, and printmaking. “I wouldn’t be lettering Dante if it weren’t for Dr. Serafini-Sauli,” he emphasizes. “That one year continues to shape what I do today.”

Sixteen of Cochrane’s double-page spreads will soon be part of Columbia University’s “Digital Dante” site, which spotlights copies of the book from each century in its collection. Cochrane’s work, published on letterpress in a limited edition by Thornwillow Press, is the first entry for the 21st century. —Patti Harmon