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Sandro Botticelli
Chart of Hell (recto)
ca. 1480-95
at the Royal Academy of Arts

Inferno XV
ca. 1480-95

Inferno XXVII
ca. 1480-95

Inferno XXXXIV (1)
ca. 1480-95

Purgatorio V
ca. 1480-95

Purgatorio XXXII
ca. 1480-95

Paradiso XXXVIII
ca. 1480-95
Botticelli's Dante
by N. F. Karlins

"Botticelli's Dante: The Drawings for The Divine Comedy," Mar. 17-June 10, 2001, at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London.

"Botticelli's Dante: The Drawings for The Divine Comedy" was to be shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but something went wrong with the arrangements at the last moment. The sudden cancellation left lovers of drawings (and the Met) upset.

The exhibition is now at the Royal Academy in London until June 10, 2001. It features 92 pen-and-ink sheets (four with added color) still extant of the 100 originally planned by Botticelli. A visit here is your last chance to see what remains of the complete work in a single place for the first time since the 15th century.

The exhibition unites eight sheets belonging to the Vatican and 84 belonging to the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin, where the Berlin Wall until recently divided some drawings. The show has already been seen at the Kupferstichkabinett and at the Scuderie Papali al Quirinale in Rome.

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) probably created the drawings for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici sometime between 1480 and 1495. He executed them with a metal stylus on sheep's parchment, went over them with a lead point similar to a pencil, and finally reinforced them with ink. Many are only partially completed.

Botticelli followed Dante's text pretty closely. He mapped out his projected 100-sheet traversal of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven by making a chart of funnel-shaped Hell. Its lowest pits hold the worst sinners. The chart carefully lays out the various levels of the damned with the figures of Dante and Virgil, his guide, repeatedly seen navigating from one level to the next. The first canto is sketched on the back of the chart very roughly.

Several of the earliest canto drawings are missing, but the ones of Hell that have survived are by far the most finished and imaginative when compared with the Purgatorio and Paradiso overall. The plain of burning sand with its writhing victims and the blood-running River Phlegethon of Canto VX illustrates how effective Botticelli was. You can almost hear the screams. Works with added color, like this one, vary considerably in quality and the color may or may not have been added by Botticelli.

While the realistic nudes doing contortions seem to pour from Botticelli's pen for Canto VX, he was also willing to take liberties with his figures to follow Dante's text. For instance, he conjured up talking heads of fire for the flames of deceivers for Canto XXVII. His sensual, fluid line makes viewing even horrors a guilty pleasure.

The Purgatorio describes the sins and punishments of those who will see God only after their atonement. Even if the drawing is not totally penned in, like Canto X showing the victims of pride with its lively battle scene, the detail and narrative sweep can be extraordinary in this master's hands.

Purgatory is pictured here as a kind of ziggurat that ascends toward the Earthly Paradise and on into the heavenly spheres. After Dante's sins are forgiven as he approaches the end of Purgatory, his lost love Beatrice appears in a magnificent chariot to escort him into the higher realms forbidden to Virgil.

Many of the Paradiso drawings have the figures of Dante and Beatrice and not much else. Here the works are much more abstract, as is the text. The richest of the drawings is Canto XXVIII, which shows the nine glowing circles. Amid nine orders of angels is one holding a scrap of paper with Botticelli's name on it, making the drawing a kind of visual prayer by and for the artist.

There is no final illustration of the celestial paradise. The last page, now lost, was blank. Maybe Botticelli thought it wasn't possible.

We do know that he abandoned the drawings in 1495, a year after the Medici were expelled from Florence. They seem to have been intended for a projected luxury codex with text and illustrations.

To enjoy these drawings, visitors to the Royal Academy must suffer their own Purgatorio. Relegated to the Sackler rooms where the drawings march around the walls, one next to the other, the space is crowded and overheated. People take lots of time listening to their audio guides, free with the price of admission. I admit that the guided tour is better than most, but its use makes for slow progress in already cramped quarters.

Oh well, bliss isn't far away.

N.F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.