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Tuesday, 13 March, 2001, 14:59 GMT
Botticellis reunited after 500 years
Inferno XV
Inferno XV: illustration of Dante's poetic journey to hell
A London exhibition has reuinted 92 Sandro Botticelli drawings illustrating Dante Alighieri's epic poem Divine Comedy for the first time in 500 years.

The unique exhibition of drawings created by one of the greatest artists of Renaissance Florence, opens at The Royal Academy of Arts on Saturday.

Birth of Venus
A detail from Botticelli's famous Birth of Venus
It is thought that the drawings are part of a commission for a Medici prince.

There is no contemporary record of the drawings, but an anonymous 16th Century chronicler wrote: "He (Botticelli) painted and illustrated a Dante on parchment for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, which was considered to be a marvellous object."

Botticelli never finished the commission and the incomplete collection was split up and has been scattered across Europe since the mid-17th Century.

Reuniting the collection has long been an ambition of the academy's secretary Norman Rosenthal.

You must remember at that time people had no doubt about the reality of heaven and hell and indeed purgatory

Curator Norman Rosenthal
"They were divided between east and west and ended up in Berlin post World War II so of course it is only really now we've been able to get them back together," he said.

Some of the drawings were in the Vatican, others were at the Hamilton Collection in England but were sold to Berlin, against the wishes of Queen Victoria in 1882.

The Divine Comedy is an epic masterpiece by Italy's greatest poet and was written in the first two decades of the 14th Century.

It tells the story of the poet's journey through the three worlds of the afterlife - Hell, Purgatory and Paradise.

Botticelli's Inferno X
Dante talks to Farinata and Cavalcante - Inferno X
Botticelli's commission to illustrate the text - which is on the back of the drawings - came some two centuries later.

"I'm sure he got incredibly emotionally involved in these drawings," Mr Rosenthal said.

"You must remember at that time people had no doubt about the reality of heaven and hell and indeed purgatory."

"They knew they existed."

Botticelli also worked in fresco and on panel and produced the first great mythological paintings of the Renaissance, the best known of which are Primavera (Spring) and The Birth of Venus.

In 1481 he was one of a team of artists summoned to Rome by Pope Sixtus IV to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel.

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