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Face of Dante reconstructed for the first time

Dante Alighieri
Scientists and artists use modern techniques to reveal what the writer looked like more than 700 years after his death

Dante’s clear depiction of hell has persisted for centuries, but an accurate image of the writer himself had remained a mystery as many portraits were made after his death.

Now, scientists and artists have used modern techniques to reveal what the writer likely looked like, more than 700 years after his death in 1321.

Botticelli’s 1495 striking portrait of Dante in profile shows the writer with a long nose and pointed chin, which echoes a similar image of the writer that appears in a fresco in Florence cathedral.

But the new 3D image of Dante shows he had less pronounced chin and an aquiline nose, but without the downwards point he had previously been depicted with.

Brazilian graphics expert Cicero Moraes used a study of Dante’s skull from 1921 combined with information about the writer’s face from a 2007 article, and found Dante had a big head, aquiline nose, large eyes and a long face.

Graphics experts used an image of Dante's skull to help reconstruct his face
Graphics experts used an image of Dante's skull to help reconstruct his face - Cicero Moraes/Pen News

Mr Moraes said most portraits of Dante had aligned with one of the only contemporaneous accounts of what the writer looked like, which came from Boccaccio, who was born in Florence near the end of Dante’s life.

“Most traditional depictions are based on the information contained in the biography of Dante composed by the writer Boccaccio,” said Mr Moraes.

“Namely, that he was an individual of medium height, somewhat stooped, with a long face, an aquiline nose and eyes that were more large than small.

“However, Boccaccio did not know Dante personally and collected reports from people close to the poet and who lived with him.

“All approximations seem to follow Boccaccio’s descriptions, but we seek to do strictly what the bones indicate.”

The team at Federal University of Uberlândia in Brazil used a process called facial approximation which makes a series of projections based on statistical data extracted from tomography and ultrasound analyses and is combined with anatomical deformation.

Facial approximation technology was used to reveal what the writer looked like
The team used facial approximation to reveal what the writer looked like - Cicero Moraes/Pen News

Anatomical deformation is when the digitised face of a living donor is warped until it fits the skull in question, revealing a face compatible with that of the poet in life.

“Two sets of images were generated, one with an objective approach, in grayscale, without hair and with eyes closed,” said Mr Moraes.

“And another in colour and with subjective elements, such as the colour of the eyes, skin and clothing, according to the best-known images.”

Dante is best known for his Divine Comedy, which described a journey into heaven, hell, and purgatory, but also played a key role in shaping the Italian language.

Photo shows an 1850 depiction of Dante (seen wearing a red hood) visiting hell by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Dante is known for his depictions of hell - Credit: Pen News

He was exiled from his native Florence in 1302 and died in Ravenna in 1321 and Mr Moraes claims the face he created reveals a tormented individual.

“It shows a brilliant man, but embittered by exile,” he said.

The project also revealed that Dante – who is often hailed as the father of the Italian language – had a larger-than-average skull.

Mr Moraes said: “There is a great debate about a larger brain being endowed with greater intelligence.

“Even if we ignore this approach, it is a fact that Dante’s work was that of a genius individual. It was full of universality that influenced not only world literature, but also the organisation of a language and – maybe exaggerating a little – the creation of an entire nation.”

Mr Moraes and his co-author, Thiago Beaini of the Federal University of Uberlândia, published their study in the 3D computer graphics journal OrtogOnLineMag.