The Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli is probably best known for Birth of Venus and Primavera, two commissions for the young Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici. The same delicate, rhythmic line and fanciful imagination can be found in another project for this patron: an unfinished set of drawings from the 1480s that illustrate The Divine Comedy, Dante's chronicle of his vividly imagined travels through the Inferno and Purgatory to Paradise.
For those familiar with the jewel-like colors of Botticelli's paintings, it may come as a shock that many of the 92 drawings that survive are very faint preliminary sketches. (They were made with a metal point on sheep parchment, sometimes touched up with pen and ink. A few have been colored in.) But just as the poet Virgil serves as the 35-year-old epic hero's indispensable guide, the astute running commentary in this book helps modern readers perceive how Botticelli subtly evokes the hero's feelings. "Botticelli's Dante is guided above all by his eyes," writes Hein-Thomas Schulze Altcappenberg, chief curator of Berlin's Kupferstichkabinett. "[They] are literally opened in proportion to his enlightenment, until his vision ultimately dissolves in an image of pure beauty, liberated from constraints of time and space."
By showing multiple views of the characters in a single drawing, Botticelli portrays Dante's successive reactions to what he sees and Virgil's responses to his charge's state of mind. And by giving every group of doomed souls a distinctive gesture or expression, he follows the poet's lead in illuminating both the individual and the universal. Published to accompany the exhibition of the same title that has been shown in Berlin and Rome and continues at the Royal Academy of Arts in London through June 2001, this book represents a triumph of accessible scholarship, intelligent design, and deeply rewarding content. --Cathy Curtis [via]