AUTHOR’S NOTE: The format of this essay, and others that will follow as an occasional series, had its first life as a weekly column called Great Works, which ran for many years in the London Independent.
These columns, a selection of which was published in book form by Prestel in 2016, offered up the opportunity to slow down to walking pace, after the rush of the workaday week, by examining a single work of art on its own terms, and to tease out why it might well qualify to be described as great.
My explorations of the works always felt like intense, one-to-one encounters, a little like meeting a friend at close quarters after some months of absence. Great Works, expanding its focus to world art, has now been reborn in an equally sympathetic environment during these straitened times.
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The most translated part of Dante’s Divine Comedy is the Inferno, the very first of three. This is unsurprising.
In the Inferno, Dante’s description of his descent into hell with his revered companion and guide, the poet Virgil, fresh-magicked up from the pagan world of ancient Rome into politically-strife-torn 14th-century Italy (yes, Dante himself is at the centre of his own imaginative world), is documented, circle by circle, with a degree of attention to physical particulars unmatched in the Purgatorio or the Paradiso, the other two sections of this medieval epic of time and space travel.
We see and we feel on our pulses the various grisly torments of the damned: Paolo and Francesca bemoaning their fates; sworn enemies like Ugolino della Gherardesca and Ruggieri degli Ubaldini bound together inseparably for all eternity. We also experience the dangerous descent of the two pilgrims, the sheer toil involved in it. It is almost as if we have become a third companion.
The closer Dante rises in the direction of Paradise and the vision of his beloved Beatrice, the more he begins to resort to abstract philosophical and theological argument, and, consequently, the less easily translatable and, from the point of view of art, the less credibly visualizable the poem becomes.
As the poet’s argument turns more and more upon abstruse theological issues it becomes less humanly engaging and, for the reader, it becomes all the more difficult to have strong feelings about it.
And yet it is an illustration from the Paradiso, the final section of the poem, that appears on this website today. How did Sandro Botticelli succeed so wonderfully where mere translators have so often failed?
The answer lies in what Botticelli chose to ignore, and how he manipulated the text to suit a vision that becomes purely Botticellian in its rapturous sweetness and tenderness.
Here we see the two of them, Dante and Beatrice, together at last — as they never were in life. (Beatrice Portinari married someone else, and died at the age of 24.) And perhaps as they were never quite together in the poem either.
Stripped bare of all divisive and convoluting words — because words are inevitably a distraction from the imagining of a species of beauty that manages to encompass both all earthly perfections and all heavenly virtue — Beatrice is giving Dante a lesson in identifying the souls of the saints, who are now tiny, wafting flamelets, rendered with a fine and beautiful degree of attention to swirling symmetry. Beatrice and Dante are suspended too, treading on nothingness.
Botticelli is obliged to do no explaining whatsoever, of course. His task is to bring over, by the use of a few deft lines of brown ink and metal-point, the humbling, supplicating adoration that Dante experiences in the presence of his Beatrice, to show us how his head tilts up in her direction, and how his hands open, as if expecting to receive her, bodily.
Yes, there is here an unusual hint of physical intimacy — and physical proximity too. In fact, Botticelli makes changes as he goes on in order to increase that sense of physical connectedness. Above the upward tilt of Dante’s head, we can see a pentimento of how he drew it at first, with the face looking down.
And, at the image’s back, behind the drawn lines, we can also glimpse, in reverse, the written words of the fifth canto, ghostly-faint, but there nevertheless. The words are playing at being minor accompaniments to the couple’s physical togetherness.
Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445–1510), was born in Florence, and lived and worked there at its moment of greatest flowering, intellectually and artistically speaking. This coincided almost exactly with the reign of one of his greatest patrons, Lorenzo the Magnificent. Part-trained and part-influenced by Fra Filippo Lippi, Verrocchio, and the brothers Pollaiuolo, his reputation was eclipsed in old age by Leonardo and Michelangelo.