“Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.”
-Dante Alighieri, Canto I of ‘Inferno’
So begins the greatest work of Italian literature. Dante wrote his magnum opus when he was in middle age. The tripartite Commedia proved influential as Italian society moved into the Renaissance. Dante Alighieri ranks as one of the ‘Three Crowns’ of Italian Literature (with Petrarch and Boccaccio). Together, the works of these three writers constitute an important shift. Dante, along with Petrarch and Boccaccio, had one foot in the Medieval world and one in the nascent humanist movement just taking shape. The transition from Medieval to Renaissance is a contentious issue among historians, partly because there is so much overlap. Art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon has emphasized the importance of the Franciscan movement in the artistic developments which would eventually become Renaissance art. He takes issue with the historical back-formations of both Giorgio Vasari and Jacob Burckhardt. Vasari, he argues, was the father of a second Italian Renaissance (one focused far more on Classical antiquity). The first Italian Renaissance has its roots in the metaphysical substructure of the West as expressed in Franciscan Christianity.
“The father of the first Italian Renaissance was Francis of Assisi, who was horrified by the social conditions faced by the new urban underclass which had sprung up in great mercantile cities such as Florence in the early years of the 13th century. Many thousands of people, drawn from the countryside to work in new textile factories, huddled in shantytowns at the margins of the urban centres. They were poor, desperate, and dying in droves. Francis built new churches for them, constructed hospitals, and tried to bring them the consoling message of Christianity. Unlike the cathedrals of the past, Franciscan churches were built quickly and cheaply from brick, and they were decorated not with costly mosaics but with paintings made from coloured dirt: frescoes.” -Andrew Graham-Dixon, ‘In Praise of the Italian Renaissance’
Grounding the artistic Renaissance in the earthy realism of late-medieval Italy makes far more sense than mere intellectual back-formations. The Renaissance was fundamentally, bottom-up, not top-down as it emerged from developments of proto-capitalist societies on the Italian Peninsula. Focusing on Dante Alighieri as the fountain of an intellectual tradition which would ultimately lead to Renaissance thought does much the same thing for the literary foundations of the Renaissance. Dante Alighieri was well-read and deeply connected with the political and religious realities of his time. This is precisely what gave his perspective relevance and allowed him to build an engaging narrative (or, one might see it as a psychological investigation) for his magnum opus. From a solid metaphysical substructure, manifesting itself through the Christian religion, Dante was able to build the beginnings of what could be construed as a humanist perspective on top.
In the realm of painting, Sandro Botticelli, though clearly a Renaissance painter, still has his feet in two worlds. From surviving records, we know that Botticelli was fascinated with Dante’s Commedia and created a series of drawings to accompany a version of this work in a printed edition. Sandro Botticelli’s drawings, thus, constitute a coming together of nascent humanist literature and early Renaissance art. These two great works complement each other quite well. Indeed, one could argue that the drawings Botticelli produced for the Commedia constitute the greatest part of his artistic contributions to the Renaissance.
In the 1480s, Botticelli produced 92 pictures to accompany the text of the Divine Comedy, most of which were not colored. The first printed edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy was to be released in 1481. Botticelli, who had a passionate interest in Dante’s work, produced his series of drawings to be engraved by Baccio Baldini (c.1436–1487). Baldini was a fine engraver but not as great an artist as Botticelli.
Most of the Botticelli images of the Commedia which survive are not the under drawings from which Baldini worked, but images he drew from the 1480s onward (the exact dates of these drawings are not known for certain). Few of Botticelli’s drawings, apart from those related to the Commedia have survived. This collection of drawings, which fell into obscurity until the nineteenth century, thus constitutes almost the entirety of works in this medium by the artist.
Botticelli’s Lucifer drawing is among those which remains uncolored. Botticelli rendered the ghastly figure in a way both imaginative yet largely faithful to Dante’s description. The one thing missing is the ice in which Lucifer is frozen.
“The Emperor of the kingdom dolorous
From his mid-breast forth issued from the ice;
And better with a giant I compare
Than do the giants with those arms of his;
Consider now how great must be that whole,
Which unto such a part conforms itself.
Were he as fair once, as he now is foul,
And lifted up his brow against his Maker,
Well may proceed from him all tribulation.
O, what a marvel it appeared to me,
When I beheld three faces on his head!”
-Dante Alighieri, ‘Inferno’ Canto XXXIV
That other famous illustrator of Dante’s Commedia, Gustave Doré (1832–1883), depicted Lucifer trapped in the ice as described by Dante in Canto 34.
Most of the images Botticelli produced remain in a state of under drawing similar to this image below.
Botticelli did not stop at depicting the first third of the Commedia (Inferno). He drew many images for Purgatorio and Paradiso. While the entrance to Dante’s Inferno famously has inscribed upon it the words ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,’ Purgatorio (Purgatory) was a place of the purging of sin. There is hope for those who end up on the mountain of purgatory.
Dante, guided by Virgil (for the first two parts of the text) sees repentance in purgatory — the part of the afterlife most like the Earth. This portion of Christian mythology bears somewhat of a resemblance to Midgard in Norse myth, the major difference is that purgatory is a place for people after death while Midgard constitutes the middle part of the World Tree (Yggdrasil) inhabited by humans. The souls in purgatory are condemned to pay for their shortcomings in life. Their toil must, according to mythology, continue into the afterlife. At the top of Mount Purgatory, one finds the legendary Garden of Eden on the way to paradise.
Virgil has guided Dante through the underworld and purgatory. As a virtuous Pagan, he is not permitted to go any further. Dante gets a new guide — his muse Beatrice.
The writer Dante was infatuated with a woman named Beatrice (who died in 1290) and was immortalized in his works, most notably Commedia. The character Dante is then guided into paradise (heaven) by his love interest. The drawing above depicts here entrance at the end of Purgatorio.
“From that most holy wave I now returned
to Beatrice; remade, as new trees are
renewed when they bring forth new boughs, I was
pure and prepared to climb unto the stars.”
-Dante Alighieri, Canto XXXIII (the last canto) of ‘Purgatorio’
Dante’s depiction of paradise was influenced by the astronomy/astrology of Claudius Ptolemy (c.100-c.170), in which the Earth is not only the center of the universe but the nine spheres of heaven are associated with what were then thought of as the heavenly bodies — the moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the fixed stars (those celestial lights which appear to the naked eye not to move), and the Primum Mobile (the outermost sphere in the geocentric model of the solar system).
The images of paradise are far more sketchy and, in a way, introspective. While Inferno is dominated by graphic images of sinners being punished is very specific and graphic ways, the images associated with Paradiso seem to require more from the viewer. Centuries later, the English poet would describe heaven as flowing with ‘rivers of bliss.’ Such imagery is not as easy to grasp as that associated with hell. Perhaps it is best reading such works while keeping in mind that famous line from Jung:
“No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.” -Carl Jung
Perhaps knowledge of the virtues at any deep level requires a wisdom associated with the negative aspects of human nature. The image of the tree, or vertical movement upward, appears throughout religious myths from across the globe. Consider the Norse world tree Yggrasil — there is a movement from the underworld (called ‘Hel’) through the Earthly realm to the dwelling place of the gods — Asgard. Dante’s sequence is just as important as his literary style in terms of depicting the human condition in a deep and immortal way. One must start by knowing the horrors to avoid, then gradually move toward a deep understanding of, and appreciation for, the great virtues. The spheres of Dante’s heaven are associated with the following virtues: fortitude, justice, temperance(deficient examples of these first three), prudence, fortitude, justice, temperance (positive examples of these three), and faith, hope, and love in the eighth sphere. The ninth sphere is associated with the angels.
Beyond the ninth circle of paradise Dante and Beatrice ascend to the Empyrean — the dwelling place of the Christian god.
“Like sudden lightning scattering the spirits
of sight so that the eye is then too weak
to act on other things it would perceive,
such was the living light encircling me,
leaving me so enveloped by its
veil of radiance that I could see no thing.
The Love that calms this heaven always welcomes
into Itself with such a salutation,
to make the candle ready for its flame”
-Dante Alighieri, Canto XXX from ‘Paradiso’
While Dante’s Inferno descends to the greatest wickedness — identified by Dante as treachery. The highest virtue for Dante is love. Thus, the literary/psychological exploration of the axis mundi ascends from betrayal at the bottom to genuine love at the top.
The sketchy nature of the drawings for Paradiso meant that they were less discernible from each other even for the artist himself. Most of the images for this section of the text show Dante and Beatrice with a circle around them. It is as if the text is one long form of psychological analysis. The focus is first to avoid the greatest evils and to focus on action. When this is mastered, one can move on to focus on deep psychological development.
Botticelli’s passion for Dante and its expression in the form of the Commedia drawings constitute the apex of the early Renaissance — combining a deep understanding of the metaphysical substructure of the West (both through the true Pagan foundations and the succeeding Christian glosses) as well as a creative exploration through drawing. The writer and the artists come together in this series — inspired by Dante and made manifest in image by Sandro Botticelli.