Sometime around 1490 Sandro Botticelli set out to make a book unlike any ever seen before. Prompted by a patron, and inspired by his own deep love of Dante, the artist planned the first fully illustrated edition of the Divine Comedy. Almost since the poem was completed around 1321, painters had decorated manuscripts of it with illuminations of selected scenes. But the very qualities that drew so many readers to the poem—its vivid accounts of the horrors of Hell and the splendors of Heaven, its sprawling narrative, its penetrating descriptions of emotion, its philosophical gravity, and its unequaled mix of realism and what Dante called alta fantasia—were all far beyond the skills of earlier painters to convey. Even the most elaborate illuminated manuscripts of the book, including those made for humanist rulers such as Alfonso V of Aragon, king of Naples, were illustrated with comparatively naif and rudimentary images. Botticelli was determined to be the first painter to do justice to the great poem.
An exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery in London allows us to see what he hoped to achieve. It features thirty of the surviving ninety-two parchment sheets he made for the book. The sheets are relatively large—about 12 1/2 by 18 1/2 inches—and they are arranged in what is commonly called landscape format. Each sheet bears on its back Botticelli’s illustration for a canto, and on its front the text of the following canto, written in the neat lettering of a Florentine scribe. Most scholars agree the plan was to bind the sheets together in a codex, with its spine on the top, like a modern-day calendar. When opened to a spread it would present Botticelli’s picture of a canto on the upper page, and the text of the same canto on the lower page. In all earlier illustrated versions of the Divine Comedy most of the images are small and tucked among the blocks of script, or placed at the foot of the page. By contrast, in Botticelli’s the pictures and the text were to be given equal space, and the pictures were to go above the writing. This format was unprecedented in Italian book design.
Three of the illustrations—although none in the London show—are at least partially colored, and it is generally thought that Botticelli had originally meant to paint all the illustrations in the book. In the event, however, he never completed the drawings for the project, stopping while at work on Canto 32 of the Paradiso, seemingly defeated by the challenge of depicting the utmost reaches of Heaven, which by Dante’s own account are outside the capacity of human representation. It is perhaps fortunate for us that he did not finish. Made with pen and brown ink over faint preliminary sketches, Botticelli’s drawings for the Divine Comedy are among the most lively, tender, and psychologically searching works he ever created.
Botticelli first made drawings of the Inferno around 1480; those served as the basis for nineteen engravings in an edition of the Divine Comedy, with a commentary by the Florentine humanist Cristoforo Landino, that was completed in 1481. The prints are small, cramped, and crude, and Botticelli’s drawings for them do not survive, so any analysis of his interpretation of Dante at that time is necessarily limited and speculative.
Almost all scholars believe that the extant drawings instead come from the 1490s and were made for a deluxe codex commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici (1463–1503). He was Lorenzo the Magnificent’s cousin, and perhaps Botticelli’s greatest patron. Among other works he ordered from the artist was the Primavera.
In his commentary on the Divine Comedy, one of the achievements Landino celebrated was Dante’s power “to place form before our eyes.” This praise may come from ancient classical texts on eloquence, and yet it still gives a sense of the daunting difficulties the poem posed for the artist. Despite the fantastical settings, the characters in the poem have a credibility of action and feeling unlike those in almost any earlier work of Western literature. In the words of Erich Auerbach, “Never before—scarcely even in antiquity—has so much art and so much expressive power been employed to produce an almost painfully immediate impression of the earthly reality of human beings.” For Botticelli the problem was how to translate such immediacy into actual images of comparable authority.
We can see this problem, and Botticelli’s response to it, in the depiction of Dante as a figure in the Divine Comedy. Renaissance painters typically only had to represent rulers, heroes, or holy persons—people often portrayed as having an ideal and exemplary moral stature that placed them above the sufferings of everyday life. With some important exceptions, such as scenes from the Passion of Christ, or the Annunciation to the Virgin shown in the instant of change from confusion to obedience, the protagonists in early Renaissance art are rarely presented in moments of pain, doubt, or uncertainty. By contrast, Dante in the Divine Comedy may be Everyman, but he is also credibly a specific man, full of complex feelings. In the course of the poem, we see him experience not only love and joy but also fear, pity, hesitation, anger, remorse, curiosity, and bewilderment.
For example, at the end of Canto 17 of the Inferno, Virgil commands Dante to ride with him on the back of the monster Geryon. In just eight lines Dante describes the terror he felt at this prospect, then his shame at the thought that Virgil would consider him a coward, then his request to Virgil that the poet hold him tight as they ride—but, as in a nightmare, he is so afraid he cannot even really get these words out. Once on the back of the monster, he is momentarily reassured, only to feel even greater fright as the beast plunges into the abyss.
Botticelli beautifully captures the intensity of Dante’s response by drawing this sequence as a series of four scenes arranged in a continuous narrative. First we see Dante, hesitant and afraid, with his head down, eyes closed, and hands crossed guardedly on his chest, as Virgil beckons to him from the beast. Next we see Geryon take off with Virgil clasping Dante, whose shoulders are hunched high in fearful self-protection. Then as the beast plummets we see Dante staring in nauseous horror; and finally as Virgil and Dante disappear below the rim of the seventh circle of Hell, almost all we can make out of Dante’s face is one eye glaring further into the frightful depths. I do not know of any other early Renaissance work of art that so convincingly portrays the experience of sickening terror.
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