If you thought trying to save important works of art from being sold abroad by cash-strapped toffs was a uniquely twenty-first-century problem, think again. Nineteenth-century London was all aflutter at the sale, in 1882, of the Duke of Hamilton’s collection of rare manuscripts to Berlin’s Prints and Drawings Museum. The critic John Ruskin voiced his concerns; even Queen Victoria and one of her daughters got involved – and they were pretty much German anyway. But, off the works went, nearly 700 in total, to help pay down the debts of the ne’er-do-well twelfth duke.
Chief among them were Sandro Botticelli’s drawings of Dante’s epic fourteenth-century poem the ‘Divine Comedy’: some of the most staggeringly detailed, spellbindingly beautiful images ever created.
Now 30 of these works are back for a few months in a succinct but rapturous exhibition at the ever-excellent Courtauld. Unlike the bells-and-whistles Botticelli extravaganza at the V&A, this show is exquisitely focused on its subject. Begun in 1308 and completed in 1320, Dante’s 14,233-line poem is one of the great works of world literature. Unawed, Botticelli set about illustrating every aspect of Dante’s imaginary journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, accompanied by the Roman poet Virgil and led into Heaven by his great, lost love Beatrice. Taking some 15 years to complete, the series is a masterpiece, both in terms of its narrative sweep and attention to detail. With its bat-winged Lucifer munching the bodies of arch-traitors, Hell is the most fun. Botticelli’s sensual line makes even the most ardent horrors a pleasure. Hamilton must have recognised himself among the tormented sinners and the unscrupulous moneylenders. And, while it’s a deeply superstitious worldview that few can relate to today, Botticelli’s drawing style has a thrilling immediacy. Grab one of the magnifying glasses at the entrance and feel the chasm of half a millennium close up magically before your eyes.