Botticelli drawings showing a nobleman feasting on the head of an evil archbishop, various sinners being cooked in baths of tar and a particularly scary Lucifer, chewing three traitors and flapping his six bat wings to create an icy wind at the interchange of despair and hope, are to get a very rare outing in the UK.
The 30 drawings, all by Botticelli, go on show from Thursday at the Courtauld Gallery in London. The works, illustrating scenes from Dante’s epic poem the Divine Comedy, are considered some of the finest of all Renaissance drawings.
Famously exhibited in 1882, when a dissolute Scottish duke sold them to Germany to pay off his immense debts, they have not been seen together in London for more than a decade.
They are packed with astonishing detail. “They are like a graphic novel,” said the exhibition’s curator, Dagmar Korbacher. “It is not only a horrifying story, it is a story of life and humanity … there are so many different things to be discovered.”
The drawings are on loan from the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin, a museum of prints and drawings which acquired them in the 19th century in a sale that does not cast the finest light on the British aristocracy.
They were first acquired by the 10th Duke of Hamilton, part of an astounding collection of art and furniture he created thanks to fortunes made from his Scottish coalfields.
“He was renowned for his erudition, taste, learning, elegance and grace and was referred to as Il Magnifico and as Scotland’s magnus Apollo,” said Ernst Vegelin van Claerbergen, head of the Courtauld Gallery. “None of those qualities, it’s fair to say, attach themselves to his grandson.”
The 12th Duke of Hamilton was known for little more than hunting, gambling and debts, which is why the art collections were controversially sold in 1882.
The Botticelli drawings were bound together and originally advertised by the auction house as “the most important manuscript ever to be sold at auction”.
In the end it never went to auction because of the canniness of Friedrich Lippmann, then director of the Kupferstichkabinett, who recognised the unparalleled brilliance of the Hamilton library collection.
If it is any consolation, the nearly 700 manuscripts did not come cheap. Germany paid what was then a fortune of £80,000, overcoming something of a national outcry over the sale.
High-profile opponents included Queen Victoria, who wrote a letter to her prime minister, William Gladstone, and John Ruskin, who launched a campaign to raise money to keep them in the UK.
Korbacher put a positive spin on the sale. “It was the best thing that could have happened,” she said. “They left a private collection for a public collection and still today they are publicly available. It actually does not matter where they are.”
The Botticelli drawings are going on display alongside another Hamilton treasure bought by Berlin, the 14th century Hamilton Bible – regarded as one of the most important illuminated manuscripts in the world and a book famously depicted in Raphael’s portrait of Pope Leo X in the Uffizi in Florence.
The Botticelli drawings will soon be followed in London by a far bigger exploration of the artist’s genius when the V&A next month stages its blockbuster Botticelli Reimagined show.
- Botticelli and Treasures from the Hamilton Collection at the Courtauld Gallery, London, 18 February-15 May
• This article was amended on 18 February 2016. The headline and introduction previously suggested Botticelli’s drawings had not been displayed in the UK for more than a century; they were included in a Royal Academy show in 2001. It is the Hamilton Bible that has not been seen in Britain since then.