Botticelli: Inferno – The Hell of Dante’s Divina Commedia

Chart of Hell Botticelli
Inferno Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones

Inferno: Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon and Felicity Jones as Sienna Brooks

Inferno, the third installment of author Dan Brown’s blockbuster trilogy at the movies late last year after “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons” was directed by Ron Howard and starred Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones, highlighting the work of artist Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)  as they endeavoured to unravel a mystery and save the world, as Professor Langdon is want to do.

Now a new movie length documentary Botticelli: Inferno is showing at Palace Cinemas in Australia, relating the story behind the incredible drawing of the Chart of Hell, which was featured in the film. It is an illuminating experience.

Chart of Hell Botticelli

Sandro Botticelli, Chart of Hell, courtesy Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

Botticelli was commissioned by Lorenzo Pierfrancesco de Medici (1463-1503) to complete a series of drawings to illustrate a publication of the Divina Commedia by Florence’s literary giant and major humanist and poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321).

Of all the drawings Botticelli completed in the series and that have survived, the Chart of Hell now in the Vatican Library, has gained the most attention because of it featuring in the film Inferno, showcasing it to the world. Botticelli worked on the series c1308 – 1320, completing it just one year before his death.

Dante and his Divine Comedy

Dante Alighieri and his Divine Comedy

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,  
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say  
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,  
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

So bitter is it, death is little more;  
But of the good to treat, which there I found,  
Speak will I of the other things I saw there*

Dante & Virgil

Detail of the Chart of Hell revealing Dante and Virgil on their journey, Chart of Hell courtesy Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana.

Dante’s Divine Comedy depicts the journey that he, Dante together his hero the Roman poet Virgil take together when he dies. They descend through the nine stages of hell, which they were forced to traverse before landing themselves in purgatory from where if they prove worthy, they will be able to ascend to Paradise.

The nine (9) circles of Hell to negotiate before they would be considered at all by God as a candidate for spending eternity in for Paradise were; Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, Heresy, Violence, Fraud and Treachery.

Botticelli Magi

Sandro Botticelli self portrait in his Tempera on Panel work 1475-1476, Adoration of the Magi, courtesy Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) according to the biographer of the artists of the Renaissance Giorgio Vasari, lived during a time that was ‘truly a golden age for men of talent’.

To complete this mighty work Botticelli drew on knowledge of Christian theology, philosophical thought and his own intellectual ideas about what undertaking that journey would be all about; a deeply personal examination of the soul.

Dante began his poem in Latin, the language of scholars of the time changing his mind and as he progressed, finally employed Vulgari, the common language of the people.

In modern day writing and in his book Inferno the author Dan Brown favours the art and the extraordinary collection of artists of the Renaissance period, whose history is not only rich and resonant, but also for many quite mysterious.

There is certainly a fascination with the reputed ‘darker side of Botticelli’s nature’ for which there is no evidence at all, except the drawings as presented with his Chart of Hell, which I would attribute to his professionalism.

Botticelli was an experienced artist and important patronage was everything in his day, and if a client had asked him to imagine and draw hell he would. Placing the poet he most admired in history taking the journey with him was an aspect of his wish for beauty to accompany him through its many challenges.

Sandro Botticelli, 1486, courtesy Uffizi Museum, Florence

Sandro Botticelli, 1486, courtesy Uffizi Museum, Florence

The series is directly opposed to the many stunning paintings of incredible beauty he produced including such favourites as The Birth of Venus and La Primavera, the season of spring.


Sandro Botticelli, La Primavera, 1477-1482, courtesy Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Then there are the various images of his mistress Simonetta Vespucci, who was considered the most beautiful woman in Florence at a time when Botticelli’s celebrity was at its highest.

Botticelli Beauty

Detail: Madonna of the Magnificat, modelled by Simonetta Vespucci, courtesy Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Restless as a young man, Botticelli wasn’t satisfied with learning ‘reading, writing and arithmetic’ and so his exasperated father apprenticed him as a goldsmith.

Within a very short time it was clear it was an activity that wouldn’t be enough to keep him interested, inspired and engaged.

Finally placed in the care of Fra Filippo who helped his pupil to thrive, being a great painter of his age as recognised by his peers

Very soon Botticelli’s skill as a painter was being recognised by nobility as being far ‘… greater than anyone could have anticipated’.

Botticelli’s drawings of Dante’s Divina Commedia are now one of the great treasures of the Renaissance period and the world of art, but only since they were rediscovered in the collection of the Duke of Hamilton in England, based in the Scottish Highlands in 1882.

They were then sold to the Berlin Kuferstichkabinett (Prints and Drawings Museum) who purchased the majority of this spectacular series of drawings, which offer audiences a view of the highest culture and knowledge expressed through the most exquisite poetry of Dante during his age. They had been forgotten since Botticelli’s death for some three hundred and seventy two years.

Dante Alighieri

Domenico di Michelino, 1465, portrait of Dante Alighieri standing holding a publication of his Divina Commedia in front of an image of his ‘inferno ‘hell’ with its nine circles, courtesy Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence.

Botticelli illustrated Dante’s view by making the map of hell an early aspect of the viewing experience. Dante had presupposed everyone had to go through hell first, which is really the opposite view to Christian teaching.

It says only those who sin descend into hell while those without sin will bypass that particular horror experience, and either go into limbo (purgatory) to be judged to see if they are able to ascend to paradise (heaven).

The rebirth of the individual, which arose in Florence during the thirteenth century, awakened a desire for beauty and renewal of the pagan pursuit of happiness and these qualities are definitely inherent in Botticelli’s major works.

Renaissance-FacesCreating a dawning of consciousness of the relationship of the individual to the natural world around him, this is the period in human history where nature would become the embodiment of truth.

By the Quattrocento or fifteen century, demonstration of it was the key to social dominance with many communities in Italy gaining new wealth due to a boosted economy, ensuring the inequalities between people in different walks of life grew more pronounced. Certainly sounds familiar.

Medici Procession by Gozzoli

Benozzo Gozzoli: 1459-60 Procession of the Magi in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence

The wealthy individual’s primary mission became to acquire, defend or increase his or her social status within the limits of the community’s toleration, while seeking to win the approval or incite the envy of others. Defence of honour unleashed a cycle of vengeance.

We all know of Shakespeare’s story of Romeo & Juliet set during this colourful period, where the two innocents belonging to rival families became pawns in a game of hatred and revenge

botticelli_birth_venus_2Despite what we may think today, Botticelli was only one of at least a dozen artists of his age, whom the wealthy families of Italy employed to provide them with great works of art to adorn the walls of their vast palazzos in the cities and villas in the countryside.

The documentary provides an rich resonating experience under the direction of Ralph Loop, which is all about encouraging art lovers to contemplate the Renaissance period in Italy, in particular Florence, when so many of the freedoms we enjoy today were born.

hAs always, Italy in either the city or the countryside continues to look spectacular and the film is a feast for the imagination and the eyes.


Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017

*Divina Commedia, Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, FREE on Project Gutenberg

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.