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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.