Divine Inspiration and an Infernal Mystery

By Sewell, Brian | The Evening Standard (London, England), April 6, 2001 | Go to article overview

Divine Inspiration and an Infernal Mystery


Sewell, Brian, The Evening Standard (London, England)


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).

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Divine Inspiration and an Infernal Mystery
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.