Dante’s Divine Comedy illustrated by Botticelli
The mystery of Dante’s poem in the drawing of the Renaissance Master
The 100 parchments with Dantesque drawings by Botticelli in late 1400 were commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, called the Man of the People (second cousin to Lorenzo the Great), friend and patron to Sandro Botticelli. The Maestro painted his most famous works for Pierfrancesco: “The birth of Venus” and “Spring” (Florence, Uffizi Gallery).
Botticelli’s Dantesque work which went from 1480 to 1495 was divided into two groups for centuries. The first with the greatest number of parchments (85) is kept in the new Kupferstichkabinett in the Kulturforum, after the Berlin State Museums were united; the second has seven parchments and is kept in the Vatican Apostolic Libraries, and comes from the collection of Queen Christine of Sweden.
To complete the corpus of the 100 canticles in the comedy, eight tables from the inferno are missing which are considered to have been lost (II-VII, XI, XIV) while those for the two canto of Paradise (XXXI and XXXIII) are thought not to have been painted. The corpus of 92 plates includes the “The Infernal Gulf” and “Inferno” which were drawn on the front and back of the same sheet, and “The Great Satan” which is drawn on a double sheet. To this we must add the parchment of Canto XXXI of Paradise, without illustrations.
The sheets are fine sheep parchment and measure 325mm high by 475 mm wide, and only the “Great Satan” is 468 x 635mm. Except for the “Great Gulf”, the illustrations are on the smooth inner side (the meat side) with the text on the outer porous side, called the skin.
For this enormous work Botticelli used various different tools: for the foundation lines for the composition he used “metal nibs”, including silver ones, and to make the outlines more marked he used a “pen” and ink, which give the plate its light yellow or black and gold colours. In all events, the work shows various levels of finish. Only some of the drawings reached us complete and completely or partly coloured.
The only complete one is “The Infernal Gulf”, which opens the series designed by Sandro di Mariano di Filipepi. Here the artist drew a fascinating global portrayal of the Dantesque inferno: a large funnel full of illuminated building details and figures, which forms a summa, synthetic but complete, of the scenes he painted in later drawings. The entire work is now mounted on separate sheets, and represents a narrative continuation, a sort of modern film sequence that tells the story of Dante’s literary and philosophic journey.