Here are some of the drawings Botticelli made to illustrate The Divine Comedy.
Printing was a new and exciting discovery in his time and Botticelli liked the idea of having his drawings engraved and printed in the new books. But, according to Vasari, he couldn’t afford the time. “He wasted a great deal of time on [these drawings], neglecting his work and thoroughly disrupting his life. He also printed many of his other drawings, but the results were inferior because the plates were badly engraved……”
Vasari gives Botticelli a weak character. “Botticelli was a follower of Savonarola’s, and this was why he gave up painting and then fell into considerable distress as he had no other source of income.”
Maybe he was a weak character. But as an artist he had the authority of a king: in his time there was no one above him.
Probably the lines of these drawings were made as cleanly as possible and without shading to facilitate the work of the engraver (who then botched the job). They are as masterly as the old Greek vase paintings. But their style is not that of a period but of a single man, never to be repeated. Artists are always proud of their “action” sketches—quick croquis of a figure in motion, in some familiar and suggestive posture. Here there are hundreds, drawn with incredible precision and care. And grace. That grace is the hallmark of a Botticelli. You would think it is a finery particularly inappropriate to this subject. Gustav Doré’s romantic bombast was probably more fitting. But Sandro couldn’t help it. That same etherial beauty that he gave to his famous Venus coming out of the sea and to his Virgins and angels—it wasn’t a pose or contrivement created for those paintings. It was a feature of his soul.