Seeing Dante with Botticelli’s eyes

Joseph Luzzi tells the rich, entertaining story of the Renaissance artist’s renderings of a quintessentially medieval text.

Joseph Luzzi, who teaches comparative literature at Bard College, has a gift not only for writing scholarly books that engage big cultural topics (Romantic Europe and the Ghost of Italy, A Cinema of Poetry) but also for producing intimate memoirs (In a Dark Wood, My Two Italies). He is versatile in other ways as well. An accomplished academic, he also has wide popular appeal: he hosts a virtual book club, writes New York Times articles, and captivates TEDx watchers with his enthusiastic lecture “How Literature Can Change Your Life.” Engaged and engaging, communicating in lively prose, Luzzi knows how to tell a good story.

These qualities are on display most recently in Botticelli’s Secret. The secret at stake here is a set of drawings made by Sandro Botticelli for a Medici patron in late 15th-century Florence—a commission meant to illustrate all 100 cantos of Dante’s intensely Christian early 14th-century Commedia by a painter best known (then and now) for more secular projects, like Primavera and The Birth of Venus. What a Renaissance artist made of a quintessentially medieval text brings Luzzi to ponder all that was entailed in the seismic cultural rebirth that took place in Florence 500 years ago and has been reinterpreted again and again across the reaches of the Western world.

The sweeping panorama Luzzi unfolds stretches from the 14th century to the present day, from the workshops of Florence, where art was made, to the bunkers and salt mines of wartime Germany, where it was meant to be preserved. To populate these spaces, Luzzi brings to life a varied cast of characters: poets and painters, aristocratic patrons, connoisseurs and collectors, historians and critics, charismatic religious leaders like Savonarola, and political figures ranging from Medici princes to Adolf Hitler. Luzzi has an eye for the roller-coaster ride of literary trends and shifts in taste. In the mid-18th century, for instance, Voltaire could proclaim the unthinkable: “Nobody reads Dante anymore.”