“Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here.”
In Dan Brown’s Inferno, the Harvard Symbologist Robert Langdon finds in his Harris Tweed pocket a small container with a biohazard sign. It contains a tiny medieval bone cylinder with a carved image of three- headed, horned Satan who is in the process of devouring three men. A high- tech laser pointer in the cylinder projects a modified image of Botticelli’s Mappa dell’ Inferno. With these ominous symbols start Langdon’s quest for discovering and destroying his antagonist’s deadly secret; an expedition in which Dante’s epic and Botticelli’s painting looms large. I read Brown’s novel recently, and the whole Dante- Botticelli references enthralled me. The novel’s journey through beautiful locations in Italy are enough to compel you to browse the web for photos of Palazzo Vecchio, Duomo or the Vasari Corridor. But the plot’s infatuation with the Mappa dell’ Inferno is what charms you.
The Divine Comedy is a 14th century epic poem by the Italian poet, Dante Alighieri ( 1265 – 1321) . Inferno is the first part of the epic, followed by Purgatorio and Paradiso. In Inferno, Dante describes his journey through hell, with the Roman poet Virgil as his guide, where he beholds the souls of the sinners trapped in endless torment. Each punishment is a ‘contrapasso’ ( ‘suffer the opposite’) according to which it resembles or contrasts with the sin itself.
The Mappa dell’ Inferno or the Map of Hell is the illustration of Dante’s Inferno by the early Renaissance Italian painter of the Florentine school, Sandro Botticelli ( 1445 – 1510) . Although Botticelli began his apprenticeship long ago, his art mainly flowered under the patronage of Lorenzo di’ Medici of Florence. The ‘Birth of Venus’ and the ‘Primavera’ are ranked among his masterpieces. Botticelli was so bewitched by The Divine Comedy that he made several illustrations of it, and added his own commentaries to several Cantos. Among these illustrations, the Mappa dell’ Inferno is the most famous. The ‘Primavera ‘ and the ‘Birth of Venus’ are painted with bright colours, but Map of Hell is predominantly brown, red and sepia.
Botticelli shaped his Hell as a funnel with nine concentric rings. Descending down to the ninth circle – the Circle of Treachery – Satan is shown trapped in the middle of the earth, in the Lake Cocytus.
The nine circles are –
1. First – It is called the Limbo, where the virtuous pagan and the unbaptized suffer.
2. Second – Here, the lustful sinners are swayed perpetually by violent storm, because they allowed themselves to be swayed by passion in their lives.
3. Third – The souls of the gluttons lie in a mixture of putrid mud and pungent water. A dirty, cold rain increases their suffering.
4. Fourth – The souls of the avaricious and the prodigal suffer here. Plutus, the demon of wealth, also dwells here.
5. Fifth- The wrathful and the melancholic are punished. The angry ones tear at each other with their teeth and the gloomy ones gurgle their lamentations in the mud. River Styx flows here.
6. Sixth – It is the City of Dis; Satan’s miserable city, inhabited by the three Furies. The souls of the heretics burn perpetually.
7. Seventh – It is full of stench and trees with twisted branches and poisonous fruits. Sinners like the tyrants, assassins and the sodomites are tormented here.
8. Malebolge – The Malebolge features prominently in Brown’s novel. Here, there are ten ditches or Bolgie made of stones, punishing various sinners such as the panderers, the hypocrites, the fortune- tellers, the flatterers, the corrupt, etc.
9. Cocytus – This is the pit of hell where the three- headed Satan resides, chewing the three traitors – Brutus, Cassius and Judas. He flaps his wings eternally to produce chilling winds, and the souls of the treacherous freeze in ice.
Botticelli has used colour pencils and the technique of the silver tip in Mappa dell’ Inferno. The small size of the parchment (32.5 cm by 47.5 cm) makes it difficult to discern the fine details of the painting. It is currently preserved in the Vatican Library in Rome.
Although, Dante’s masterpiece has been illustrated by many talented artists – such as the 19th century painter, Gustave Dore, who gives Inferno a shade of dark and romantic horror – yet Botticelli’s rendition is loved by most of the art- lovers ( including me). The fact that the Inferno has come alive yet again in the twentieth century indicates human beings’ fascination with the underworld and afterlife. Even Botticelli spent most of his love on painting the Inferno. The Purgatorio and the Paradiso are painted rather selectively and less vividly.