The Botticelli Map of Hell has appeared in a novel by Dan Brown, and in a recent documentary. This has captured the imagination of the public, so here we take a closer look at these extraordinary drawings and the artists behind the story.
Botticelli and Dante are linked by a thread that runs though history. As a Renaissance painter, Sandro Botticelli was fascinated by the author of the “Divine Comedy” who had lived two centuries earlier. He was given the job of illustrating a copy of the Comedy by a member of the Medici family, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco. The drawings took many years to complete and reveal Botticelli’s extraordinary sensitivity and real knowledge of Dante’s poem.
Botticelli Map of Hell
One of Botticelli’s drawings was the Map of Hell, a visual imagining of all hells’ punishments. Many agree that it’s one of the most impressive of all Botticelli’s drawings. Within it Hell is represented as an inverted cone, and full of gory details. Just like in the Divine Comedy.
Dante tells us in the Comedy that this cone originated when God cast Lucifer down to earth. Lucifer, as the origin of Evil, is set at the centre of the earth, the furthest point away form God. Within the circles of hell, the sinners atone for their sins. And here, Botticelli represents the punishments of the damned with incredible detail. As a fan of the fanatic preacher Savonarola, it’s a subject that would have been of particular interest to him in the last years of his life.
It’s a multi-layered image of horror and suffering. The avaricious are forced to push heavy stones around for eternity, the wrathful and sullen are forever stuck in the muddy water of the Styx, the heretics are consumed by purifying fires. They are guarded on all sides by a multitude of devils.
The influence of Savonarola
Critics are still debating the exact dates of these work. Most likely started in 1481, Botticelli might still have been working on them until his death in 1510. They were difficult times. Lorenzo de Medici died in 1492 and the religious fanatic Savonarola, obsessed with sins and repentance, had taken power in Florence. During these years, Botticelli went through a profound personal and spiritual crisis that influenced his work, including his visual interpretation of Dante’s Inferno.
Where is the Map of Hell today?
The mysterious history of these drawings has given rise to a documentary, “Botticelli Inferno”, released last november. For anyone interested, it’s a chance to see some of Botticelli’s work that have been kept locked away for centuries. These drawings travelled all over the world and exchanged hands many times. But today they are divided between the Vatican Library in Rome, where the Botticelli Map of Hell is kept (and not displayed to the public) and Berlin’s Kupferstichkabinett.
These drawings have also become protagonists of modern culture, when Dan Brown used the Map of Hell as a plot device in his novel “Inferno”, dramatised in the film by Ron Howard.
Botticelli and Dante in brief – two very illustrious Florentines
Dante (1265-1313) was born in Florence. A writer and political figure, he was sent into exile in 1301 when the Black Guelphs assumed power of the city, and never set foot in Florence again. While in exile he wrote the “Divine Comedy”, a poem of 100 cantos filled with religious, political and philosophical themes. It tells of Dante’s journey into the Underworld, from the sins and torments of Hell and Purgatory to the divine wonders of Paradise. Dante is considered the father of Italian language and the Divine Comedy is his masterpiece.
It’s possible to walk in the footsteps of Dante in Florence, following our popular Dante itinerary.
Botticelli (1445-1510) lived in Florence all his life and worked intensively for the Medici family. His famous works include “Birth of Venus” and the “Primavera”, today housed in the Uffizi gallery. In later years he changed his interest from allegories and mythological subjects to religious ones. Botticelli also dedicated himself to the illustration of Dante’s Inferno, giving a painstakingly accurate picture of Hell’s torments. He was considered among the best artists of his time, but went out of fashion in the last year of his life, and was appreciated again only in the 19th century.