The Divine Comedy as a Renaissance graphic novel

Supernatural saviours, fabulous flying beings, diabolical opponents – the Italian poet Dante Aligheri put all the elements for a modern graphic novel into his Divine Comedy as long ago as the 14th Century. And in his epic picture series based on Dante’s poem, Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli employed many of the strategies used in graphic narratives today.

Just like a comic artist, but without using the panels and speech bubbles we are used to, Botticelli created a sequence of artworks on 100 sheets, each of them depicting a series of events .

Dante's part
The Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy) is the major work of the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321). This verse epic was probably started in about 1307 and completed just before Dante’s death. It is Italian literature’s greatest poem and one of the masterpieces of world literature. 
As his own first-person narrator, Dante takes us in the Comedy on a fictitious journey in 100 Cantos through the three regions of the afterlife: Hell (Inferno), the region of purification, Purgatory (Purgatorio) and the heavenly Paradise (Paradiso). On his path of redemption from sin and damnation via atonement and forgiveness to salvation, Dante is first guided by the ancient poet Virgil, personifying human reason. 
Botticelli's Part
Sandro Botticelli, who created such icons of Renaissance art as ‘Spring’ and ‘The Birth of Venus’, was commissioned in the late 15th Century to paint a cycle of pictures based on Dante’s acclaimed verse epic and illustrated each of the 100 Cantos on a separate sheet. 
Even though he stuck closely to the text of the Commedia, he created an independent pictorial narrative that has its own internal consistency and does not need Dante’s text to make sense – a forerunner of the graphic novel!
The Botticelli Coup
85 of the 100 pictures were acquired for the museum’s collection in the 19th Century by Friedrich Lippmann, then the Director of the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett, under spectacular circumstances from the private collection of the Scottish Duke of Hamilton, and so they became available to the public.

The 85 sheets of Botticelli’s Divine Comedy graphic epic in the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett are the greater part of the cycle – but where are the rest? Seven of the initial drawings are in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana in Rome, including the first of the 100 illustrations. Here, Botticelli depicts Hell as a huge subterranean funnel divided into nine circles and reaching to the centre of the earth – a topography of Hell, resembling an amphitheatre. Some of the illustrations immediately following this are also in Rome, while others are believed to be lost.

The story
The illustration for the Canto 8, the first sheet in the collection of the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett, takes us straight to the centre of the action. First-person narrator Dante and his companion Virgil have crossed the first regions of Inferno and are now, in the upper right-hand corner of the picture, entering the Fifth Circle of Hell. 

The ferryman Phlegyas is rowing the two travellers across the River Styx before the gates of the City of Dis. During the crossing, souls trapped in the marshy river as a punishment for sloth cling to their boat.

While Dante and Virgil are refused entry to Dis by diabolical guardians, the viewer can already see inside the city. By looking ahead to burning graves, Botticelli’s drawing sets the scene for the action that follows.

In each of the drawings, the artist links the events and narrative details of a single Canto together, often depicting the action in a sequence of simultaneous but consecutive scenes running through the picture in an S shaped curve. This is what happens here, too. Like a comic artist, Botticelli draws the viewer in to construct a dynamic action sequence from the static pictures.

The repetition of the figures of Dante and Virgil enables us to trace the path of the travellers. Coming from the upper right, where Phlegethon, the river of Hell, falls into the abyss leading to the next region of Hell, the travellers cross the area where the souls of usurers suffer fiery torment. At the edge of the circular abyss they meet Geryon...

...a human-headed hybrid...

...who bears them on his back down into the Eighth Circle of Hell.

In this coloured drawing the Eighth Circle of Hell the two travellers are dressed in glowing robes to distinguish them clearly from the swampy greyish-brown of the concentric rings of the Malebolge (the chasms of evil). Botticelli uses dull colours to illustrate how flatterers and whores have to serve their eternal sentence in filth and excrement in the lowest chasm.

The artist also creates for us a visual impression of the unbearable stench that must be rising from this chasm by showing Dante holding his nose.

To help the viewer place the action in the continuing narrative, Botticelli repeats the flatterers’ and whores’ chasm full of excrement from the previous illustration at the top of this frame. Coming from there, our two travellers are now standing on the stone bridge across the next chasm of evil in which corrupt church dignitaries are being punished. Botticelli graphically depicts these sinners upside down in holes in the ground with their legs flailing and their twitching feet on fire.

Here Botticelli pulls out all the stops of his art as he portrays a hugely-varied horde of terrifying demon henchmen who accompany Dante and Virgil on this part of their journey.

The artist draws these demons armed with spears in great individual detail. Some could even have been taken from comics of our time.

This sheet, too, is an impressive example of Botticelli’s cinematographic narrative method. The stone bridge leading from the sixth to the seventh chasm is in ruins.

In tight sequences the artist depicts how Virgil helps Dante to clamber over the rocks, pushing him step by step uphill. Dante has to rest briefly before descending into the seventh chasm, but Virgil urges him onwards. The rock masses filling the space give the viewer a good idea of how exhausting the journey is.

At the end of the Eighth Circle of Hell, giants protrude like towers from a round pit. One of them receives the travellers with a horn signal.

Another bears Dante and Virgil, holding tightly on to each other, down to the Ninth Circle of Hell on the palm of his hand. Botticelli starts our mind-movie with the scene on the right-hand rim of the giants’ pit. We are already looking at the next illustration and in our mind’s eye a movement takes place as the giant sets our two travellers down one stage lower on the frozen lake of the lowest layer of Hell.

This movement has just been completed as we come to the next sheet. Botticelli shows us Dante looking up in fascination to where the helpful giant has apparently stood up again, with his legs and those of the other giants still visible in the funnel leading up to the next level.

But then the gaze of the travellers and, guided by Botticelli, our gaze, too, is drawn to the figure of Satan, half encased in the ice of the frozen lake in the bottom circle of Hell.

The three-headed master of Hell has six wings, the constant beating of which creates the cold wind that freezes the lake. Botticelli has drawn two of these wings in precise anatomical detail down to the bones and joints.

Botticelli devotes a double page of two parchment sheets stuck together to this turning point in the journey through the underworld, showing the devil in all his glory.

Dante and Virgil climb down his fur to the deepest point of Hell. There they cross the mid-point of the earth — to make this clear the artist turns the two figures by 180 degrees — ...

...and reach the surface of the southern hemisphere, which is where the Commedia locates Purgatorio, the region of purification.

In the centre of the picture, Dante and Virgil emerge from a crack in the rocks at the foot of the Mountain of Purgatory. They are received by Cato, the Guardian of Purgatory, who helps Dante to cleanse himself with dew of the filth of Hell. In the same way as at the beginning of the Inferno chapter, Botticelli begins by giving an overview of the action.

As a counterpoint to the funnel of Hell, a cylindrical mountain rises up here on an island in the ocean with seven ring-shaped terraces. Souls with hope of redemption are purified here as they climb step by step as they atone for their sins, until they have proved themselves worthy of being accepted into Paradise at the summit of the mountain.

On this sheet Botticelli brings the travellers and us to the foot of the Mountain of Purgatory. An angel has brought souls to the island for purification and is leaving on its boat. From here the two travellers climb the steep crevice in the rocks, which Botticelli hints at in the right half of the picture, leading up to the First Terrace of Purgatory.

Here the souls of those who were haughty in life atone for their sins. They are weighed down with heavy stones, forcing them to crawl on the ground.

The penitents are also confronted with exemplary images of modesty and humility which are carved in marble as reliefs on the rock wall of the First Terrace of the Mountain of Purgatory. Dante’s Commedia describes the extreme realism of the reliefs — a challenge eagerly accepted by the artist Botticelli.

In the middle relief he is demonstrating the one-point perspective, one of Renaissance art’s major achievements, drawing a team of oxen in such a way that it seems to be charging out of the relief towards the viewers, Dante and Virgil.

Botticelli fashioned the right-hand relief as a picture-within-a-picture. Dante and Virgil are standing like museum visitors before a thoroughly lifelike historical picture with a multitude of figures. Their animated facial expressions reveal their delight. In this illustration, Botticelli is using Dante’s text of the Commedia as a vehicle for foregrounding his own profession as an artist with all its possibilities and limitations.

Dante has climbed the Mountain of Purgatory and reached the Earthly Paradise. Here he meets Beatrice, the deceased love of his youth, who, as the embodiment of divine wisdom, will be his guide in the Heavenly Paradise. The climax of the scene is the moment when Dante recognises Beatrice, who appears in celestial array on a magnificent triumphal chariot.

In the company of Beatrice Dante has left the earthly sphere and has entered Paradise. Beatrice tells him that he will now, relieved of gravity, rise up with her through the spheres of heaven to the source of all being. Botticelli depicts this using an ever more abstract mode of illustration. Here, Dante and Beatrice are hovering in the Second Sphere of Paradise, which the artist has represented in the picture as a simple circle. The couple are surrounded by an evenly-spaced ring of fire, which is Botticelli’s way of translating into image the radiant shine with which the shimmering souls of the blessed light up Paradise.
Here, Dante und Beatrice are about to enter the Seventh planetary Sphere, still accompanied on their way by the shimmering lights of souls. Whereas the Commedia refers to these as flamelets, Botticelli draws them as cherubs. The couple are standing at the foot of a ladder. They can be seen again further up in faint outline. Botticelli probably initially wanted to depict the ascent to the next planetary Sphere but then changed his mind and scratched his first drawing from the parchment. In a coloured version, this correction would be concealed by a covering of paint.

In the Ninth Sphere, Dante sees God as a bright light surrounded by choirs of angels. Well hidden in this sheet there is a small sensation – Botticelli’s signature.

Botticelli depicts Dante‘s and Beatrice‘s path to the Empyrean as gliding on a river of light. The tender way the figures are drawn makes them seem transparent, as though their bodies were transfused with light. To represent the blessed, the artist again uses cherubs, tumbling playfully with childlike joy through the river of light. Botticelli uses them to help us visualise the dynamic vitality and happy atmosphere of this moment. Dante will soon be reaching the destination of his journey through the afterlife.

Botticelli never illustrated the divine light described in the final Canto of the Commedia. At the end of Dante’s journey through the afterlife there was a blank sheet, which was lost around 1900.

Credits: Story

Text: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz

Concept / Editing: Dorothee Böhm
Translation: Catherine Hales, Stephan Schmidt

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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