Chiaroscuro- Light on the Dark side- Botticelli and Dante
Updated: Feb 19
I've just completed a thoroughly delightful and engaging book on an artist and period of history that I've long held a passion for, namely Botticelli and the Italian Renaissance. The crux of this book however involves the famous 15th century Italian painter of wispy nudes, with the author of the pivotal book, sometime called the Third Testament- namely, Dante Alligheri and his poem, The Divine Comedy. This book, by Joseph Luzzi, titled "Botticelli's Secret- The Lost Drawings of the Renaissance" shows the poet and painter, who were separated by about 150 years interacting and further elucidating a classic text and by extension furthering the artist's depth and ouvre into a new direction.
The big secret of Botticelli or his secretum, in the latin, was for him to toil in the margins of his career, while continuing to work on his high-profile and obiviously more famous works like "Birth of Venus" or "Primavera" which have become iconic and well-known. The project to illustrate the Divine Comedy of Dante was an extremely ambitious undertaking and done in the delicate and exacting medium of silver point drawing- which uses a stylus with a silver end to draw on specially prepared paper or velum - with sufficient tooth or grit to leave an impression and producing fine lines and soft articulation. Botticelli's life is more secretive and mysterious in other ways too. For example Leonardo or Michelangelo left volumes of notebooks, poetry and the latter had two biographers. Whereas there is scant written documentation of Botticelli.
I found the book of Luzzi's fascinating as it sheds lots of new light on an artist and period of history that has received an abundance of attention. Hence, chiaroscuro is used for this essay's title- as it means the play and interaction of light and shade. So, it is indeed refreshing to see how the author breaks new ground. The book involves a convoluted intersection in Renaissance history, with many players- politicians, religious fanatics and shifitng currents of the last period during that artist's life and in subsequent modern years as well. In fact, the continual ebb and flow of the fate of the drawings is a story in itself. Luzzi brings all of this out, which I am sure is new to most readers. For example, the art expert/connoisseur Bernard Berenson and the American collector, Isabella Stewart Gardner figure into the narrative, for it was through these two that Botticelli's work was resucitated and brought to the American public- namely at the Gardner Musuem in Boston. The book also brought to light a new (to me) connoisseur and champion of Botticelli, namely Herbert Horne who collected Botticelli's work in the late 19th century before they were sought after and coveted. There is also a museum in Flornece of Horne's Collection which I've never heard of heretofore. I must make a stop there on the next visit.
The bad wrap that Botticelli received started back in the day with Giorgio Vasari, the first art historian who denigrated Botticelli in his book of 1550, "The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects." What is more, subsequent commentators tended to accept Vasri's negative appraisal. Vasari used the term "infinito disordine" infinite disorder to describe the effect caused by Botticelli's decision to illustrate the 100 cantos of Dante's Inferno.
We can imagine Botticelli going home in the evening, perhaps after a demanding day of painting frescoes or tempera panel paintings with his assistants, to his project of drawing these imaginative interpretations of Dante's fraught tale.
We now understand some of the dichotomies that tore at the artist. His brother was apparently an ardent follower of Savonarola, the strident and penitential friar who preached damnation. This fire and brimstone apocalypse and vitriol was directed specifically to acts of vanity. The defenition of vanity in Savonarola's mind included works by artists, poets and musicians who produced "licentious" themes. If one of Botticelli's works were said to illustrate this late career angst it would be the painting titled, "The Calumny of Appelles" of 1494. I've written a previous essay about this painting, and I was inspired to paint my own version of this theme. It's fraught and fractious nature seemed to have plenty of relevance and parallels to today's current political events.
Near the end of his book, Luzzi goes into how the drawings of Dante's were divided in Berlin when the city was walled between east and west in the 20th century during the cold war. There they languished - captives of ideology and politics.
Also mentioned in the book is E.M. Forester's novel "Room with a View" which takes place in Florence with the main character being a Brit named Lucy Honeychurch. I've borrowed that name for an intimate. The connection to Villa I Tatti outside of Florence is also mentioned, which I've passed and looked into on occasion. But as this legacy of Berenson is only for Harvard scholars like Luzzi - it is off limits for us mere mortals.
There is a term that seems apt to end on, "Leggiadria" which is the Italian word for lightness and by extension and more ineffably, the quality of inexpressible, dancing joy that emantates from a Botticelli painting. The drawings under discussion here might show this leggiadria even more so as they are sinuous and delicate illustrations that show the artist's consumate mastery of the beauty of the human figure. And also mentioned in this text is the phenomena of "Stendahl's Syndrome" or being overwhelmed by aesthetic ecstacy while viewing Botticelli or other Renaissance works in the Uffizi. Luzzi brings out that this phenonmena is an actual condition and treated by professional psychiatrists in Italy. I thought it was just hypeerbole.
Botticelli finds the middle ground while illustrating Dante's poem and according to one 19th century British critic, Water Pater. Many have found the Divine Comedy just too severe and too much an advertisement for the Catholic Church's take on life. So it is refreshing to read of Pater's assessment. Here is a passage from the book.
" Pater argued that Botticelli had surpassed Dante. A man of complicated faith, like Jacob Burkhardt, had considered becoming a priest. Pater rejected the certainties of Dante's Medieval vision and unwavering and unforgiving judgements. He found Botticelli to be more humane and magnaminous than the poet he was illustrating."
Yes, the paintings of Botticelli we love, but the drawings offer us the direct and unvarnished window into the creative process. The drawings were intended to be paired with the written script of the poem and probably painted with watercolor. We can count ourselves fortunate to have them in thy are in drawing stage alone.
I've only seen the few drawings of Botticelli's from this series that were the focus of Luzzi's book. I look forward to seeing the collection in a book of the complete works.