Rare Botticelli Drawings At The Courtauld Gallery

Botticelli, Paradiso V – The face of Beatrice was originally drawn looking up and is still slightly visible
Botticelli, Paradiso V – The face of Beatrice was originally drawn looking up and is still slightly visible | © A.Winners
A Winners

There are few opportunities to see rarely exhibited, truly unique pieces of work from an iconic Renaissance artist — and this is precisely the basis for The Courtauld Gallery’s Botticelli and Treasures from the Hamilton Collection, on view from the February 18th until May 15th 2016. For the first time in 16 years, Botticelli’s drawings of the Divine Comedy are on display as a result of a collaboration with the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin.
Sandro Botticelli is most known for his mythology paintings, found in the Florence Uffizi Gallery, like Primavera and Birth of Venus. However, during his time working for the Medici, he was commissioned to make a different type of art. He was to make a series of drawings illustrating scenes from the popular epic, the Divine Comedy by Dante. The purpose of the drawings, thought to have been made around 1480-95, remains a mystery. They were first mentioned by an unknown author in 1540 who said that Botticelli ‘painted and illustrated a Dante on sheepskin for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici [who also owned the Primavera] which was held to be something marvellous.’

Botticelli, Paradiso V – The face of Beatrice was originally drawn looking up and is still slightly visible

A Renaissance Graphic Novel

These extraordinary drawings are unique within Botticelli’s oeuvre and in their bound form. The drawings show the only time Botticelli illustrated literature, and are the result of an incredible amount of work. The artist spent an immense amount of effort illustrating the complex imagery of the cantos (major sections of long poems) of the Divine Comedy, in what came to be 102 drawings. Some of the drawings exhibited show traces of Botticelli’s changes in design.

To make these drawings even more special, they were compiled in a unique format that could be the great grandparent of today’s graphic novel. Normal to the 15th century reader was illuminated manuscripts, in which text occupied most of a page and drawings were mainly placed around the margins. These drawings, however, took up a whole page without words, and the accompanying text was placed on the next page. Each page has a drawing on one side and text on the other. The drawings were bound and meant to be to be turned sideways and read vertically — this is why there is text visible through the vellum of the drawings. It is thought the drawings were to be coloured but that plan was abandoned at an early stage.

Why Berlin?

The book of drawings came to be in the possession of the Duke of Hamilton, but in 1882 the Berlin Kuperferstichkabinett (Prints and Drawings Museum) bought the book and 700 other items, mainly illuminated manuscripts, from the Duke of Hamilton in order to make up for huge debts (looking at you 12th Duke of Hamilton!) This was a horrible loss to England, even Queen Victoria’s daughter tried to prevent the sale. Today, the drawings are not a complete set. The Berlin museum owns 85 drawings, 30 of which are on display at the Courtauld, seven are at the Vatican Library, and 10 drawings are missing (but keep your eyes open at flea markets!)

The Hamilton Bible

The Hamilton Bible

Throughout the exhibit are illuminated manuscripts from the collection of the Duke of Hamilton, the most important of which is the Hamilton Bible. One of the most celebrated books of the Renaissance, the bible has 36 ¾ page illustrations and is opened to a page showing a scene from the Book of Genesis, which makes an appearance in Raphael’s Pope Leo X.

A view of Botticelli and Treasures from the Hamilton Collection at the Courtauld Gallery

A Walk Through The Divine Comedy

The exhibition is organised into the three sections of the Divine Comedy: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. It is through this display that Botticelli’s imagination becomes evident. Tortured souls contort, demons dance, and the Universe swirls throughout the pages. Indeed the emotion of the poem is conveyed as much through the design as the detail.

The first two sections of the story are crowded with small, tightly-packed figures, the third and final section, Paradise, contains only one or two larger figures. Introducing the exhibition are some of the busiest illustrations, and the mind races trying to digest the chaotic scenes. Moving along the walls with Dante’s progress from Hell to Purgatory, the main characters become recognisable but the scenes are still visually complex. At the end, the mood is buoyed by the simplicity and beauty of the Paradise drawings. Though a loss to the original form, it is perhaps in our favour that the pages of the book were separated. In walking around rooms, the viewers can follow along with the story in a greater capacity than possible if it were still bound.

Botticelli, Inferno XXXIV, 2 (detail) The figures of Dante and Virgil are shown several times

The Genius of Botticelli

Florentine Renaissance artists are known for their disegno (design) and Botticelli demonstrates this idea thoroughly throughout his intricately planned drawings. He uses many techniques of contemporary drawing such as continuous narrative, showing the main character, Dante, and another character, Virgil, in the same clothing and appearing in multiple places on a single page as the story progresses.

Botticelli, Purgatorio XXXII (detail) The muses are similar to those in Primavera by Botticelli

Recognisable Across Mediums

Like nervously waiting for a new genre of music from a beloved singer, a question that must be asked is, if he didn’t make illustrations often, can one tell Botticelli was the artist? The answer is a resounding yes. Those familiar with Botticelli’s paintings of flowing drapery, dancing muses, curling ringlets and lush gardens will recognize these same details in his drawings. Viewers will leave the exhibit just as relieved they made it through the nine rings of Hell as inspired by the creative output of a legend of the Renaissance.

The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, London, +44 (0) 20 7848 2777

landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

Winter Sale Offers on Our Trips

Incredible Savings

Edit article