Divine Inspiration and an Infernal Mystery

Article excerpt

Byline: BRIAN SEWELL

THE artist of the Florentine Renaissance was expected to be a Jack of all artistic trades, painter, sculptor, metal smith and master of the decorative arts, as able to make a fine harness for a patron 's thoroughbred horse as paint a triptych for his chapel. Andrea Verrocchio, for example, Leonardo 's master and,if not Botticelli 's, then certainly his source of influence, served his apprenticeship as a goldsmith but became an inventive painter and an even more inventive sculptor in terracotta, bronze and marble,who did much to drive the Renaissance out of a near-doldrum of complacent prettiness, his workshop a powerhouse of ideas for his many pupils and assistants. Botticelli, however, was so obstinately a painter to the exclusion of all other crafts that we must wonder why he accepted the commission to illustrate Dante 's Divine Comedy,a task, indeed a labour, ill-suited to his temperament.

The Divine Comedy was completed just before the poet 's death in 1321 and in Botticelli 's day, a century and a half later, was renowned as the greatest work of Italian literature indeed, is revered so still.

Botticelli was to some extent accustomed to doing what he was told his Primavera and his Birth of Venus, the most celebrated of his paintings, are both informed by Latin texts that, since the painter is reputed to have had neither Latin nor Greek and still to have been learning to read at the age of 13 in 1458 (a detail from his father 's tax return that year),must have been interpreted for him by Humanists and Neo-Platonists at the court of the Medici family for whom he worked so much, particularly by the precocious Angelo Poliziano; but to incorporate in a painting the literary imagery of the antique past was one thing, to slavishly illustrate a text and to do so with more than a hundred impressively large and intricately detailed drawings was quite another. That, however,was what was involved in illustrating the Divine Comedy.

What we know of the commission for this extraordinary labour is based on an anonymous life of Botticelli written some 30 years after his death in 1510. It is perhaps not to be relied on; the author states that "a Dante "was executed for Lorenzo di Piero de ' Medici, head of the family 's cadet line, and was "marvellous "no note of the great number of drawings, nor of their ambitious scale, nor of their unfinished and their intended final form, nor purpose, destination or then whereabouts, only that sheepskin parchment was the material used. From so little information we must assume that the writer had not seen the 92 surviving illustrations (eight are lost)that the Royal Academy now invites us to examine, and that his information was at best at second hand.

Most of these illustrations were in Florence in 1803, apparently in a Parisian binding; they were in Britain by 1819 and in Berlin by 1882, but their earlier history is quite uncertain - even that the commission came from Pier-francesco de 'Medici, for The Birth of Venus was for donkey 's years said to be his but we now know that it was not.The curators of the exhibition suggest, as though it were fact, that the drawings were for centuries in France, perhaps a gift to Charles VIII on his coronation in 1483, when Pier-franceso was Florentine ambassador in Paris, but for this there is no shred of evidence and the profoundly unfinished condition of the drawings overwhelmingly militates against their having been a gift from one state to another.

Above all things, when examining these sheets, we must remember that they are unfinished, some hardly even begun, many utterly unresolved, and that we have no idea of their intended final form, for they are far too large to be thought of as an illuminated manuscript, far too fragile to have been bound as a book, for when completed, to turn the pages would have put all applied pigment at risk of flaking and serious loss from wear and tear (when they were put in their Parisian binding this was only possible because of their unfinished state). …