“Dante’s Inferno: Paolo & Francesca W/ Gianciotto in Hell”, Sergio De Giusti (1998), Cast hydrostone w/ oil, 51”x30”

Italian artist, Sergio De Giusti, received his Bachelor's Degree in Fine Arts from Wayne State University in the 1960’s and then continued his education at Cranbrook. While attending graduate school, Wayne State commissioned De Giusti to create a sculpture of Anthony Wayne for the school’s campus. Since then he has further left his mark on the university through various commissioned sculptures and through his role as a professor for studio art and art history courses. The artist also often entered sculpture contests, which happened to be the case when he and fellow Detroit area artist, David Barr, won the opportunity to have their designs come to fruition in the heart of Detroit at Hart Plaza. His goal was to honor the achievements of the American working class while also recognizing the hardships faced along the way. As a Detroiter from a working class family, De Guisti felt the impacts of the city’s industrialization and major labor movements firsthand. 

Beyond taking inspiration from the city’s resilience, De Guisti’s imagery is heavily influenced by his Italian heritage. His sculpture, “Dante’s Inferno: Paolo & Francesca W/ Gianciotto in Hell'' uses imagery from a 14th century epic poem written by Italian poet, Dante Alighieri. The poem tells of the author’s spiritual journey symbolized by his travels through Inferno, which is Italian for Hell. De Guisti’s depiction focuses on the second of Hell’s nine circles. The second circle is where those whose sins were driven by lust or pleasure are punished. Those who find themselves in this circle spend their life restless as they continuously seek personal pleasure, this restlessness is symbolized and punished by spending eternity stuck in a treacherous windstorm. At this point of the epic poem, Dante converses with two lovers, Francesca and Paolo. Francesca tells him that she was in a marriage of alliance with Paolo’s brother, Giancotto who caught the two lovers and killed them out of anger. Dante is so overtaken with pity and emotion after hearing about the pair’s tragedy that he loses consciousness.

The Italian artist pays further homage to his heritage through his use of bas-relief technique. This traditional Italian strategy attracted the artist because he felt it provided a mysterious quality to the sculptures. De Giusti also takes inspiration from the strong emotional appeal present in Baroque art throughout the Hellenistic period (300BCE) which is often recognized by highly dramaticized scenes. “Dante’s Inferno: Paolo & Francesca W/ Gianciotto in Hell” is rich in detail, whose three-dimensional qualities encourage the viewers’ eyes to move around it. There is a noticeable difference in sculptural sharpness divided with a horizontal bar between the top and bottom portions of the composition. At the bottom, there is a portion of a single head represented. Based on the title of the piece, and the ancient poem, it could be inferred that the figure is representing Giancotto. Above the separation, in the third ring, the composition is mainly composed of visualizations of the strong winds, but there is also a human face and a figure that could be another human’s hand. These two figures, assumed to be Francesca and Paolo, appear to have softer lines. This contradiction in texture and appearance is symbolic to Dante’s views on the severity of the sinners as he was sympathetic to Francesca and Paolo. By using low relief sculpting techniques and providing limited views of the subject’s bodies, the desired element of mystery is present through an implied existence that there is more to the narrative than what is visible to the eye.

De Guisti was not concerned with making the most elegant and beautiful artwork, he actually wanted his viewers to feel uncomfortable because they could relate to the creation or because they wanted to escape it. He was also concerned with the human condition and believed humans put on masks to conceal our true selves. It could  potentially be seen as putting on a mask when a viewer wishes to escape whatever feeling De Guisti’s work evoked in them. His art contains a wide variety of symbolism which he includes for a reason. Having a general or deep understanding or art history and humankind is extremely beneficial if one wishes to explore one of De Guisti’s creations. As one learns more they will be able to pick out more symbolisms and narratives present in the imagery, but we would say that you are in pretty good hands if you made it this far.

Gifted to the University from the Artist 1998

Written by Shannon Pincheck