Books: From the Land of Shadows : Flights of Angels |
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Flights of Angels

The Drawings by Sandro Botticelli for Dante’s Divine Comedy with an introduction by Kenneth Clark (Thames & Hudson, London, and Harper & Row, New York)

The coffee-table art book and the standard scholarly work are usually two different things, but occasionally the one volume must serve both purposes, to the benefit of the layman, even if the scholar feels let down. Speaking as a layman, I can only say that if I had not already possessed a coffee-table I would have been willing to construct one merely for the purpose of receiving The Drawings by Sandro Botticelli for Dante’s Divine Comedy. Visually, if not verbally, this must be one of the most resplendent books ever to have been made generally available. The price might seem high, but your local library will be getting a lot for its money. Just to make a preliminary acquaintance with the drawings takes weeks, they are so finely detailed — although Botticelli’s authority for the task convinces you at first glance.

Until the advent of this volume, a first glance was the most you could hope to get. The original drawings are in Berlin and the Vatican. Lipmann’s edition of 1877, reproducing the drawings full-size in collotype, has always been a specialist tool: you need a crane to turn the pages. Some of the drawings, painfully reduced, were in the Nonesuch Dante. Dover’s paperback of selected reproductions could give you only some idea. Now here are all the surviving drawings in their proper order, in photographic copies as near to full-size as is convenient, with the narrow tonal range of ink and vellum faithfully adhered to. The more you look, the more you see, and the more it becomes evident that Lorenzino de’ Medici — Lorenzo the Magnificent’s inspired cousin — commissioned the right man to illustrate Dante. Since Lorenzino also commissioned the ‘Primavera’ and the ‘Birth of Venus’, his track record with regard to Botticelli may confidently be said to have been pretty good.

As Lord Clark points out in a typically comprehensive (though atypically stilted) introductory essay, Botticelli was an obsessive student of Dante. Like Michelangelo — whose Dante drawings are lost, if ever they existed — Botticelli had an intellectual commitment to the Divine Comedy, not just an emotional response. The task of illustrating the poem called on the full resources of both mind and heart. Everything he had to offer went on show. His full mental range, which is locked together so tightly in his paintings that only the erudite iconographical studies of scholars like Wind can spring it all loose, is in these drawings spread out so as to be easily intelligible and all the more wondered at.

It is not a matter of technical equipment. Botticelli knows and cares little about dramatic relief: though enormously more resourceful, he is still recognizably in the same world as Giotto. It took Gustav Doré, who in terms of theatricality was only a step away from Walt Disney, to echo something of Dante’s immediate impact. But Doré echoed that impact romantically, by lighting a selected subject and casting the surroundings into shadow. Dante is never like that, and nor is Botticelli. It might be disappointing that Botticelli does not figuratively reflect the heroic stature Dante gives Farinata (Inferno X) or Ulysses (Inferno XXVI) but such losses in drama are more than made up for by the uniformly clear intensity of his draughtmanship — a linked narrative providing the exact graphic equivalent of Dante’s closely focused language, which illuminates everything it touches.

Yet even with that said, it is still remarkable how often Botticelli does manage to capture something of his author’s dramatic power. When Virgil and Dante catch a lift from the flying monster Geryon in Inferno XVII, Dante achieves the most amazing effects of flight: Geryon backs off from the rim of Malebolge and turns down and away like a glider. Botticelli gets the same effect by drawing Geryon in several positions, sliding back at a shallow angle and then tilting impassively down, the long hair on his eerily human head suddenly tousled by the air-stream and the rising thermals from the Eighth Circle. I must have looked at the drawing dozens of times before noticing what the wind does to Geryon’s hair. Botticelli’s thoughtfulness strikes you over and over again — an inexhaustible subtlety, delicacy made robust by force of imagination.

The gravity-defying ascent of Dante and Beatrice in Paradiso I is registered by Botticelli in a design that uncannily forecasts Michelangelo’s visions of Christ floating from the tomb. The whole of the High Renaissance seems implicit in these drawings. Lord Clark points out the connection between Botticelli’s and Leonardo’s angels and indeed it is hard to miss: there is one in the drawings for Purgatorio XXVIII without thinking of the ‘Primavera’.

Botticelli’s failures are few, and were sometimes Dante’s in the first place. The two-page fold-out Satan (Inferno XXXIV) is an ape-suited heavy, but Dante’s version is (whisper it) not much better. In the vexed case of Beatrice’s arrival (Purgatorio XXIX and XXX), Botticelli actually comes close to redeeming the one unarguable flop in the whole poem. It is reasonable that Dante should weigh Beatrice down with allegorical trappings, but disappointing — and I can’t believe it was anything else even at the time — to make her look like, of all things, an admiral. Botticelli has done a good job of injecting life into the symbolism and would have pulled off an unequivocal triumph if only he had done more for Beatrice’s personal appearance. Instead of making her look like an admiral, he makes her look like Mr Roy Hattersley — a step in the right direction, but not far enough. Later in the drawings, however, she is suitably beautiful, especially in the sphere of Jupiter (Paradiso XX).

The true disappointments lie in the scenes unattempted, or else gone missing. There is no drawing for Paradiso XXXI, in which Dante, at the height of his lucid imagination, describes Paradise as being like a giant white rose, with angels diving through it like bees. Imagine what Botticelli would have done with that. The drawing for Inferno V was purloined long ago — not surprisingly, since Paolo and Francesca are as far as most non-Italians ever get with Dante, so it is doubly a shame that Lord Clark writes about Virgil talking to the tragic lovers. In fact it is Dante who talks to them: Virgil talks only to Dante. A venial slip, but indicative of a general bittiness in editorial control. Word-wise, the book is a dog’s breakfast. Scholars are not likely to appreciate George Robinson’s commentary if there are any more howlers like the one in his exposition of Inferno XIX, where the Pope upside down in the hole is identified as Boniface III. Even as a misprint for Boniface VIII, this would not pass, since the inverted pontiff happens to be Nicholas III, who mistakes Dante for Boniface VIII.

Let any such errors be corrected, however, and the volume would still be lumbered with John Ciardi’s translations from Dante, of which the best you can say is that they are not as bad as Dorothy Sayers’s. What the facing pages need, instead of the verbal ballast they have got now, is the relevant passages in the original language; a prose translation of established quality, such as Sinclair’s; and a commentary which conveys something of what humanist scholars like Sapegno have done to synthesise the critical tradition. But failing all that, the book as it stands is still a treasure-house. Those unacquainted with Dante will find out a lot about Botticelli, and may rest assured that the more they get to know about the poem, the more they will be gratified by how the poet’s luminous originality survives undimmed in the artist’s disciplined fragility of line.

New Statesman, 1977.