Fine art: Even Botticelli’s genius can’t bring hell to life

The Devil’s many forms, by Botticelli

Botticelli and Treasures from the Hamilton Collection
Courtauld Gallery, until May 15

In 1481 Dante and Botticelli formed a partnership made in hell, purgatory and heaven. In Botticelli’s brown-ink drawings, begun in that year, we see the traces of a Renaissance canvas in the placing of Beatrice’s sandalled foot, in the nebula of her folded robes. The Courtauld Gallery (Botticelli and Treasures from the Hamilton Collection, showing until May 15) has 29 of the 102 Botticelli illustrations of The Divine Comedy, once owned by the dukes of Hamilton. The drawings were originally models for bigger paintings.

In Purgatorio XVIII we see people who were slothful in life running around, in energetic atonement. In Purgatorio XI the pride of the artist is illustrated by showing figures holding huge boulders over their heads. Dante is seen here looking on, his face like a beautiful, calm mask of the type Botticelli uses, which has become a paradigm of beauty.

The drawings become more tranquil in paradise, with less weeping and gnashing of teeth, and with more placid scenes of Beatrice and Dante. These seem more successful from a practical viewpoint, as there is less tiny detail and more harmony, with visions of Beatrice’s beauty looped inside the celestial spheres.

At the end of my second visit, Ernst Vegelin Van Claerbergen, the director of the Courtauld Gallery, spoke to me of his excitement at the collaboration of masters like Dante and Botticelli. The allegories spelt out by Dante and drawn up by his collaborator are full of a liberating genius – they help you see your faults and fear of rejection at the gates of heaven.

Miguel Cullen

Botticelli Reimagined
V&A, until July 3

Neither of Sandro Botticelli’s best-known works, Primavera or The Birth of Venus, are in the magnificent exhibition at the V&A; they are too delicate to be moved from Florence. But both paintings have had an enormous influence on 20th-century art, which is where Botticelli Reimagined (until July 3) begins. The first section has several modern reinterpretations of the figures in the paintings: from Andy Warhol to Venus arising out of piles of junk, to fashion designs, to René Magritte’s Le bouquet tout fait.

Famous in his lifetime, Botticelli was all but forgotten for centuries until his rediscovery by the Pre-Raphaelites, several of whom owned paintings by him. A number of works in the second section by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Evelyn De Morgan, William Morris and others show their massive stylistic and compositional debt to him – not just in their linearity and flatness of style, but most obviously in their tall slender figures in high-waisted dresses.

The final section has some 50 paintings, including Pallas and the Centaur and Mystic Nativity, by Botticelli himself or from his workshop; in his lifetime there was such a high demand for his works, especially tondi, or round paintings of the Virgin and Child, that his workshop produced many variations of his originals. The clear lines, the beautiful inclined heads, tumbling hair and floating drapery are Botticelli’s hallmarks; but most startling are the gorgeous colours, still bright after 500 years.

David V Barrett