New York Review of Books
May 26, 2016
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.