by Roderick Conway Morris

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Berlin State Museum
Dante and Virgil in the Eighth Circle of Hell (Canto XVIII) by Botticelli, 1480-95

Sandro Botticelli: Artist of the Divine Comedy

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 18 November 2000


Dante has been enshrined for so long as the National Poet and the prime founder of the peninsula's modern 'lingua franca' - 90 percent of his vocabulary is still in use in Italian today - it is easy to forget that neither the poet nor his works were always the subject of universal admiration.

Forced to flee Florence in 1301, he wrote 'The Divine Comedy' in exile and died in Ravenna. The fortunes of his magnum opus in the next two and a half centuries were hardly more even. Dante was periodically condemned for having used the vulgar tongue rather than Latin, the standard literary language of his times, and accused of being 'a poet fit for cobblers.' He was further damned for treating divine and elevated themes in the language of the streets and, by employing this language, making available knowledge of theology, philosophy and science to the ignorant and semi-educated who had no business to occupy themselves with such weighty matters.

Yet Dante's reputation took a decided upturn in his native city in the second half of the 15th century. This was partly for nationalistic reasons, since he came belatedly to be seen as a true, Tuscan-speaking patriot and a worthy representative of the burgeoning Florentine state. But it was also because he was adopted by Florence's Platonist and neo-Platonist academy as having been one of its own before the fact.

These trends came together in palpable form in a lavish new edition of 'The Divine Comedy,' with a commentary by the humanist Cristoforo Landino. Published in 1481, it contained a preface by Marsilio Ficino - whose translations of Plato and the ancient neo-Platonists had finally made them fully available to the West - in which this doyen of Renaissance Platonists symbolically welcomed Dante home as a hero, at last returning from a long and iniquitous exile to receive in his birthplace the poetic crown he so richly deserved.

A remarkable innovative feature of Landino's 'Dante' were its 19 illustrations. The artist was Botticelli, who went on to undertake an even grander project of illustrating all 100 cantos of 'The Divine Comedy.'

Ninety-two drawings have survived from this ambitious but unfinished enterprise. These have been brought together and are being publicly displayed for the first time ever in a fascinating traveling exhibition, 'Sandro Botticelli: Artist of the Divine Comedy.' The show will continue until Dec. 3 at the Scuderie Papali al Quirinale (the old stables of the Quirinale Palace, recently converted into an impressive exhibition space), and then go on to the Royal Academy in London (March 17 to June 10).

A host of questions hang over the ultimate purpose of this unique set of drawings, all of which were done on large pieces of parchment and only a handful of which reached the initial coloring stage. Theories range from the suggestion that they were preparatory designs for frescoes in Florence's Duomo, or for paintings to be set in the paneled walls of a never-realized 'Dante Gallery,' to the possibility that Botticelli intended to compile a sumptuous illuminated edition of the 'Comedy,' perhaps even for himself.

Within 150 years or so, the set had been broken up, eight sheets finding their way to the Vatican and most of the rest ending up, after obscure peregrinations, in England, where they were sold in 1882. The latter were subsequently split between two museums in Berlin, later to find themselves on either side of the Wall. It is only recently that the Berlin drawings have been reunited at the city's Kupferstichkabinett at the Kulturforum.

Despite the multiplicity of doubts surrounding the drawings, their authorship has never been in question. In fact, one of the sheets is signed, something Botticelli seldom did, 'The Mystic Nativity' at London's National Gallery being a rare exception. Certainly the drawings' brilliantly distinctive and lyrical line leave no doubt that they are by Botticelli.

But other enigmas regarding their content remain unsolved: Why, for example, did Botticelli use an outmoded method of pictorial narrative, repeatedly showing the figures of Dante and his psychopomp Virgil more than once in the same 'frame' at the different stages of their journey through Hell and Purgatory, and several times likewise the poet and Beatrice, his guide in Paradise? One explanation hazarded by Shulze Altcappenburg in his valuable essay in the catalogue, is that Botticelli was deliberately imitating a style he thought appropriate to the era of the poem's composition - which, if correct, would make this an extraordinarily early example of deliberate archaizing to achieve 'authentic' period effect.

Whatever Botticelli's motives were for embarking on this enormous task, after having had this marvelous opportunity to study it, one has an overwhelming impression that it was substantially a labor of love.

And, although the artist lived at a time when Dante's star was in the ascendant, he would certainly have been aware of the accusations that the poet's language had vulgarized sacred mysteries.

Thus, it is not difficult to see Botticelli's 'Divine Comedy' as not only the tribute of a great painter to a great poet, but also a highly conscious, popularizing attempt to translate the full narrative sweep of his work and the religious thought it contained into pictorial form in order to make it even better known and accessible to the widest possible audience.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024