The “Art of Visible Speech”: Illustration as Exegesis in Botticelli’s Commedia
Sandro Botticelli’s fifteenth-century drawings of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy are an art-historical puzzle. In a lavish manuscript consisting of 100 illustrations drawn on precious vellum, the artist widely varies his mode of representation by radically deviating from the tradition of the illuminated book. To address these inconsistencies, this study first employs a rigorous statistical method to establish precisely how Botticelli departs from canonical illustrations of the Divine Comedy, and then situates the series within the world of the Florentine humanists’ cult of Dante to hypothesize about the why. I argue that both of the manuscript’s peculiar characteristics—the unusual form of the drawing and the unusual form of the codex—can be understood as a pictorial expansion of a prestigious 1481 Dante commentary by the humanist Cristoforo Landino. Building upon fundamental components of humanist rhetoric and contemporary theological beliefs, Botticelli gives innovative visual form to Landino’s overarching textual interpretation of the Divine Comedy as an allegory for the soul’s ascension from disorder to order. By leafing through the pages and perceiving the striking structure and style of the illustrations, the observer could experience the incremental progress of Dante the Pilgrim’s soul—and perhaps his own—through the different stages of hell to paradise.