In the 1480s, the great Florentine painter Sandro Botticelli was commissioned by Lorenzo de' Medici to illustrate Dante's Divine Comedy, the poetic masterpiece that laid the foundations of Italian literature. Botticelli's genius as a pictorial narrator made him ideally suited to the commission and he followed the text meticulously, giving extraordinary visual form to the poet's epic tripartite journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Executed on large sheets of sheepskin parchment, each extraordinarily delicate ink line drawing illustrates one canto or section of Dante's poem.
Botticelli worked on the cycle for almost 20 years and made 100 drawings. Of these, 92 survive and have an intriguing history. Left incomplete, possibly as a result of the flight of the Medici from a turbulent Florence in 1497, the cycle of illustrations was split up in the mid-seventeenth century. Some drawings made their way to the Vatican, some to Scotland and then to Berlin in 1882. Split between the collections of two museums by the Berlin Wall after the Second World War, the Berlin drawings have only recently been reunited. Today, 84 belong to the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin and the remaining eight to the Vatican. Over 500 years after their creation, the existing illustrations have been brought together once more in a spectacular new exhibition currently running at London's Royal Academy.
Mapping the infernal regions of Hell and Purgatory with a geographer's precision, Botticelli takes the viewer on a journey of visceral, blood-curdling horror. Led by the poet Virgil, Dante descends through successive circles of Hell, where the souls of the damned are condemned to endure a variety of ingeniously agonising punishments, depicted in exquisite detail. Heretics are imprisoned in flaming sarcophagi, corrupt clergy flail upside down in holes, flatterers wallow in sluices of pitch-black excrement. Squirming, goggle-eyed demons equipped with whips and pitchforks lurk in every crevice. At the epicentre of this nightmare world stands the hairy, horny Devil himself, frozen for eternity in a lake of ice. From the claustrophobic cone of Hell, Dante and Virgil move up through the terraces of Purgatory, where the torments are equally graphic and inventive -- the envious have their eyes sewn shut, the proud are weighed down with huge boulders -- but here at least there is the prospect of redemption. The final part of the journey explores the ethereal realms of Paradise, where Dante is guided by a ravishing Beatrice through the shimmering, starry firmament to touch the face of God.
Over 700 years later, Dante's poem and its imagery still haunt Western sensibilities. Driven initially by anguish and spiritual confusion, then by curiosity and a thirst for knowledge, his protagonist undertakes a daunting physical and spiritual journey that finally culminates in moral elevation and divine illumination. Through his consummate technical skill and artistic vision, Botticelli brings this heroic progress brilliantly and miraculously to life.
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|Title Annotation:||Sandro Botticello's drawings of Dante's Divine Comedy|
|Publication:||The Architectural Review|
|Article Type:||Brief Article|
|Date:||May 1, 2001|
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