Renaissance painter Botticelli′s dark side revealed in new film - but did he have one? | Film | DW | 04.11.2016
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Renaissance painter Botticelli's dark side revealed in new film - but did he have one?

His "Birth of Venus" is a world-famous masterpiece. But Renaissance painter Sando Botticelli also depicted Dante's vision of Hell. Ralph Loop's new film offers a view into that universe - and the artist's darker side.

Sandro Botticelli is considered one of the greatest painters of the Renaissance. His "Birth of Venus" is continually revisited in art. The documentary film "Boticello Inferno" shows a different side of the great master.

Boticelli's paintings are considered to this day an expression of pure beauty. The Renaissance master, who died in 1510, still has fans bringing flowers and letters to his simple tomb at the Ognissanti Church in Florence.

Like many artists of the time, Botticelli was commissioned to work for the influential Medici family. One of his assignments was to illustrate Dante Alighieri's "Divine Comedy."

In it, Dante describes his travels through Hell and into Paradise, guided by the Roman poet Virgil. Illustrating this work was an honorable assignment for Botticelli, as Dante's epic poem was already considered the most important work of Italian literature, 100 years after the author's death.

Film still from Botticelli Inferno showing part of his Mappa dell'Inferno, (Photo: TV Plus 2016
/Andreas Schwenger)

The film focuses on one work: Boticelli's "Mappa dell'Inferno"

The experience of Hell

Botticelli went to work and drew more than 100 pictures. He spent many years working on them because he wanted to find the right expression for each of the cantos and depict them as vividly as possible.

Today, his work would be called a graphic novel. One of the highlights of Botticelli's series is the "Mappa dell'Inferno," a kind of map of Dante's Hell in the shape of a tunnel. It precedes the other illustrations and shows the various circles of Hell that Dante crosses with Virgil in one image.  

Its special feature: Rather than drawing individual pictures for each of Dante's cantos, as would have been common at the time, Botticelli's "Mappa" achieves a space-time continuum. On one single piece of parchment, he is able to illustrate Dante's and Virgil's entire journey through Hell. This impressively mysterious roundel of images is the pivotal point of Ralph Loop's film.

Documentary films on art are surely not an easy endeavor, especially not a film about one particular artwork. "You only have the pictures, and they are static. And then you have the people who talk about them; that's it," the Hamburg-based director told DW.

One way to get around this dilemma is by employing modern technology, Loop said. That means using unbelievably sharp 4K resolution images, bombastic music and drone flights to evoke the Florence of the Early Modern Age. Loop's rendition of the halls of the Vatican Apostolic Library make it seem like a Hollywood thriller - with the interviewees swaggering through the scenes in super-slow-motion. 

Film still of the Mappa dell'Inferno by Sandro Botticelli (Photo: TV Plus 2016/Andreas Schwenger)

The "Mappa dell'Inferno" went unnoticed in the Vatican's Apostolic Library for a long time

The master's dark side

It was clear from the start that this film would cause a commotion. It aims to evoke a "dark side" to Botticelli yet unknown to people. Frank Zöllner, art historian at the University of Leipzig and an expert on Botticelli, is critical of this approach. "We know virtually nothing about Botticelli as a person, not even his exact birth date," he said.

"There is absolutely no evidence of a dark side to the Florentine artist," he pointed out. "The idea that an artist has a dark side and chooses to express it is a pretty modern concept, which cannot be applied to Botticelli."

Even the inner turmoil of Botticelli as depicted in the film, which supposedly resulted from his preoccupation with Dante's Inferno and which his early biographer Giorgio Vasari mentions, cannot be proven, Zöllner noted. "We know today that Vasari's details about the turmoil in the last years of Botticelli's life were pure fabrication."

Heartfelt infotainment

In the end, it's not the somewhat contrived, mysterious touch that makes "Botticelli Inferno" worth watching. Instead, it's the contrast between the elaborately filmed, bombastic images and the very natural, predominantly Italian protagonists of the film, who provide a vivid picture of Botticelli and the period in which he lived. 

Director Ralph Loop (Photo: private)

Director Ralph Loop

Loop repeatedly returns to a common concern, namely, the question as to what impact Dante's Hell has in 2016? In other words, what do we believe nowadays? The recurrent verbal exchange between an Italian street comedian and pedestrians on a Florence piazza are the true heart of the film.

The little, everyday conversations about the philosophies of life that evolve while together viewing Botticelli's Hell are impressive and evoke an intimacy that is hard to achieve on such a subject.

"Botticelli Inferno" does not aim to offer new art-historical information. Director Loop clarifies that "this film is not one that is supposed to make art historians cluck their tongues. We wanted to make a film that a large audience wants to see," he said. The strength of the film lies in its ability to entertain viewers, while also repeatedly provoking them to contemplate - about one's own views of Hell and about Botticelli and his motivations. "Botticelli Inferno" is infotainment, but it's heartfelt infotainment.


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