Our Botticelli and Treasures from the Hamilton Collection exhibition is currently under way and the Prints and Drawings Study Room is also celebrating Dante’s Divine Comedy. We asked Alexander J. Noelle, Print Room Assistant, to tell us more:
As a doctoral student whose research focuses on the Italian Renaissance, I was thrilled when I heard that the Gallery was planning an exhibition of Botticelli’s exceptional drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy, now on view. I thought that the arrival of these masterworks would provide an excellent opportunity to showcase related prints from the Courtauld’s collection of works on paper. In my role as a Print Room Assistant, I began searching through the 26,000 prints to select a small group for a temporary display in the Prints and Drawings Study Room. What I found was the first full set of widely distributed illustrations for Dante’s epic poem.
In 1792, British sculptor John Flaxman (1755 – 1826) designed 111 plates depicting the complete narrative of Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Although other artists had responded to the visually evocative text before Flaxman, he was the first to draw an illustration for every canto (an Italian term for the sections of a long poem) and, through print, disseminate his work to a wide audience. Flaxman was praised for his ability to reduce Dante’s complex language to simple symbolic icons that still managed to capture the spiritual essence of the story.
The prints certainly look modern when compared to Botticelli’s depictions, yet when they were first published they were celebrated as belonging stylistically to the age of Dante himself. Flaxman was living in Rome when he drew the illustrations, actively studying artworks made by ‘primitive’ Medieval and Renaissance artists, and sometimes copying exact motifs into his illustrations. This influence, combined with the simple outline design, led Flaxman’s contemporaries to associate his drawings with Dante’s own era.
The sixteen prints on view in the Prints and Drawings Study Room correspond to specific drawings of the same canti by Botticelli in the Gallery. While it is unlikely that Flaxman saw Botticelli’s own illustrations, the comparisons query whether the viewer today can see the Renaissance influence in Flaxman’s prints.
‘Drawn from the Age of Dante: John Flaxman’s Illustrations of the Divine Comedy’ is on view in the Prints and Drawings Study Room until 15 May. See opening times here.