External link opens in new tab or windowInterpreting Middle-earth With Artist Donato Giancola

External link opens in new tab or windowJeff LaSala, author, from Tor.com

Fri Aug 19, 2022

When I visited Venice last year, I was overcome by the quality and quantity of the art filling the great halls of the famous Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace). The works of Italian Renaissance painters like Paolo Veronese and Tintoretto surround you and nearly overwhelm you in that place. Saints, kings, soldiers, philosophers, angels, and gods throng the walls, ceilings, and frescoes. But you know, if someone could sneak in an armload of paintings by artist Donato Giancola—paintings like “Gandalf at Rivendell,” “Boromir in the Court of the Fountain,” or “The Tower of Cirith Ungol”—and scatter them around the palace, I bet it would take a good long while for some snooty art historian to notice and complain.

Hell, I probably wouldn’t double-take, either, because those paintings would be perfectly at home there among the masters. I suppose if you put up enough of Donato’s masterpieces in the Louvre or the Met, maybe tourists would eventually wonder why Satan looks an awful lot like a Balrog or ask who all those stressed-out, grey-robed, pipe-smoking old men are, and hey, what’s that blonde lady doing with a sword and, whoa, is she facing off against a headless, mace-wielding black knight who’s just been unhorsed from some kind of pterosaur? What Greco-Roman myth is that even from?!

Personally, I was sold on Donato Giancola’s work the moment I first saw his illustrious and mesmerizingly expansive “Beren and Lúthien in the Court of Thingol and Melian.” I later contacted him to ask if I could include some of his art in External link opens in new tab or windowThe Silmarillion Primer. Not only was he cool with it, he turned out to be a surprisingly down-to-earth fellow, and it was only a matter of time before I roped him in for an interview. Good timing, because he’s got a great new book out, too.

In the book’s Introduction, fellow Tolkien illustrator and Middle-earth luminary External link opens in new tab or windowTed Nasmith writes:

Doubtless the most striking aspect of Donato’s artwork is the impression that he stepped out of an 18th century French or Italian atelier, of course.

And Ted of all people would know!

Need some more proof? Have a look at Frodo here, languishing in torment at the hands of his orc captors in the Tower of Cirith Ungol. You know, before Sam arrives to show them who’s boss.

“The Tower of Cirith Ungol” by External link opens in new tab or windowDonato Giancola

If you’d never seen this piece before but someone told you with a straight face that it was painted by Anglo-Swiss artist Henry Fuseli—perhaps as a follow-up to his famous “External link opens in new tab or windowThe Nightmare“—you’d have to believe it for a few moments. Of course, this one’s more like Frodo’s nightmare…

Still, External link opens in new tab or windowDonato Giancola isn’t just a Tolkien artist. He’s a teacher at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts and an award-winning painter who’s done an unfathomable amount of work for Wizards of the Coast, LucasFilm, a bunch of magazines and video games, and basically all the major book publishers (which includes Tor!). But I’ve cornered him here to talk specifically about his Tolkien treatment. In fact, he’s just released his second art book on the subject, and it’s incredible. External link opens in new tab or windowMiddle-earth: Journeys in Myth and Legend, by Dark Horse Books, has nearly two hundred illustrations that offer a fresh take on the characters and realms of the professor’s glorious world. Fresh and yet somehow invoking classical antiquity.


I guess what I’m saying is: Donato is the Tolkien neoclassicist we need right now, but not the one we deserve.

Or do I have that backwards? You know what—let’s just jump to the interview:

Donato, you’re a New Yorker (or, like me, a transplanted one), and it’s 2019, so I have to ask this first: Did you make it to the External link opens in new tab or windowTolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibit at the Morgan Library? What did you think, as an illustrator, or as a book fan?

Donato: Certainly I have stopped in at the Morgan and taken in the Tolkien exhibition there! I am soon heading over for my third visit (the benefits of membership). What is there to say? As a fan it doesn’t get much better than viewing the conceptualizing of Middle-earth through the intimate eyes of the creator. Art and maps, taking in the original cover art created for the first edition of The Hobbit, and browsing various letters where he questions and makes fun of his own writing, it is all pure gold!

One of the issues I was most impressed by, from the exhibit, is the craftsmanship Tolkien brought to his illustrations; they are carefully and beautifully rendered in shape, form, and detail. The passion he had for manuscript illumination is very evident in the small scale the works were executed in and the precision handling of line and color. His thoughtfulness to world-building in words extended into that of visual art as well.

Right. I’m accustomed to thinking of Tolkien’s “secondary world,” as he called it, in a strictly literary sense. But seeing his actual drawings and maps up close really reminds you that he didn’t limit his world to the written world, not even in his own mind.

Next question: In a nutshell, what’s your Middle-earth origin story? We all have one.

Donato: My introduction to Tolkien happened in two ways, first indirectly as I began to play Dungeons & Dragons after being introduced to it in middle school from my friends and participating in the immediately formed after school D&D club. Second, very directly about a year later when my older brother Mike, who was in high school at the time, handed me a book they had just read in English class “You might like this,” he said on a Friday afternoon.

It was The Hobbit.