A Life For The Stars by James Blish (1962)

From the embankment of the long-abandoned Erie-Lackawanna-Pennsylvania Railroad, Chris sat silently watching the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, preparing to take off.

As opening sentences go, this is a cracking introduction to this, the last-written but third-in-chronological-order of Blish’s four ‘Okie’ novels, about entire cities which take advantage of anti-gravity ‘spindizzy’ technology, to depart earth and go roaming around the galaxy (already well-colonised by humans), trading and dealing and getting into scrapes.

The central Okie novel is Earthman, Come Home, the first to be published (in fact a ‘fix-up novel’ of four or five earlier short stories, brought together in 1953), set around the year 4,000 and which features a series of cracking space opera adventures starring John Amalfi, ‘mayor’ of New York as it roams across the galaxy getting in and out of trouble.

Next in the series was They Shall Have Stars, published in 1956, set in the 2010s (from 2013 to 2020, to be precise). This ‘fix up’ of two long short stories gives us the origins of the two technologies which made interstellar space travel possible, namely

  1. the discovery of anti-death drugs, which allow humans to live for thousands of years
  2. and the Dillon-Wagoner Graviton Polarity Generator which not only allows an object of any size to travel at any speed – faster, even, than light – but also secures a protective field around it enclosing water, atmosphere and so on

Rather than just plonk these discoveries down in front of the reader, Blish goes to great lengths to depict the way the West – specifically America – will, by the 2010s, have become an authoritarian regime dominated by an eavesdropping FBI, which is virtually indistinguishable from the repressive system in the Soviet bloc. Eventually the West, as such, will fall to Soviet domination… but not before a heroic few pioneers have used the spindizzy technology to escape to the stars.

Chapter one: Press gang

I expected this third novel to bridge the gap between those events, which climax in 2020, with the Amalfi era of 4,000 or so AD – but it doesn’t.

Instead the story is set in the 32nd century where anyone with any get up and go has got up and gone in a city to the stars. The entire (short) novel describes the adventures of young teenager Crispin DeFord (p.150, Chris to his family). He is one of the few last impoverished inhabitants of 32nd century earth, living with his father who was once a professor but now routinely suffers from diseases of malnutrition.

Chris comes from their shack to the perimeter of the raggedy old steel-manufacturing city of Scranton to watch it take off but, at the last minute, is caught by perimeter cops and press-ganged aboard. The city takes off, much to Chris’s amazement.

Chapter two: A line of boiling dust

He is dragged in front of the city’s mayor, Frank Lutz, who reminds him of a skunk and demands if he has a speciality (specialists in anything get to eat, non-specialists, not so much). On the spur of the moment Chris claims to know all about astronomy, and manages to answer some basic questions such as the order of the planets, so he is apprenticed to the city’s astronomer, Dr Boyle Warner. He spends a year studying but not getting very far.

Chapter three: ‘Like a barrel of scrap’

Then he and Boyle, attending one of the mayor’s endless public consultations, hear him saying he plans to do a swap with a much bigger city they’ve come in contact with. When he mentions that it’s led by someone named Amalfi, we know this is New York from all the stories we read about in Earthman, Come Home. New York will give them some tech and technies, plus directions to an iron-bearing planet, in exchange Scranton will hand over 300 or so of its least useful citizens.

Chris knows that includes him and finds a hiding place in a disused warehouse. But he’s tracked down by the leader of the press gang which shanghaied him, Frad Haskins (p.146), who has turned out to be a kindly protector of the boy, and persuades him it will be easier to go.

Chapter four: Schoolroom in the sky

So he joins the three hundred or so who take a rocket ship from Scranton to New York, his mind boggled by the awesome scale of the bigger city. Arriving, he is put in a cubicle and questioned by a computerised voice – the City Fathers no less – who reveal that

  1. the first anti-death drugs were perfected in 2018
  2. Mayor Amalfi was born in 2998

Chris is submitted to intense hypnopedia i.e. put in a trance while wearing a helmet which pumps him full of facts. This gives Blish a convenient opportunity to write a prolonged and factual history of spindizzies and anti-agathic drugs which links the years described in They Shall Have Stars (the 2010s), follows through the collapse of the West, the creation of the Bureaucratic State which banned spaceflight, how dissidents who kept secret spindizzies nonetheless set off into space where they bumped into the Vegan Empire (2289), which led to war (2310), how the spindizzy technology (repressed by the Bureaucratic State) was rediscovered by the Thorium Trust’s Plant Eight which promptly took off into space and never came back (2375), followed by other power plants, towns then cities. How the city of Gravitogorsk-Mars, calling itself the Interstellar Master Traders (IMT) annihiliated the earth colony on Thor V (2394) giving Okie cities a terrible reputation. The capital planet of the Vegan Empire was ravaged by earth cities, including IMT, in 2413. How the Third Colonial Navy under Admiral Alois Hrunta destroyed Vega II instead of subduing then fled and set up his own empire, naming himself Emperor of Space (after a battle in 2464). So many cities left earth that the Bureaucratic state collapsed in 2522. Succeeded by a police state which lacked real power, but sent out police forces to police the galaxy, giving rise to the situation whereby Arm II of the galaxy is economically underpinned by Okie cities trading and policed by the earth cops, but neither system is really efficient i.e. there’s lots of friction. And that’s where we are when the story begins.

We learn that in the middle 2000s all the fossil fuels ran out and the highlands around earth were returned to farmland.

Chapter five: ‘Boy, you are dumb!’

Chris is put in the class of the martinet Dr Helena Braziller, and meets classmate Piggy Kingston-Throop, which allows the pair to discuss issues surrounding Okie cities, the meaning of ‘citizenship’ and other backstory information Blish wants to convey. Bascially, to become a ‘citizen’, to enjoy the benefits of the anti-agathic drugs, Chris must study and must pass the citizenship exam.

Chris is made the ward of Perimeter Sergeant Anderson, who we read about in Earthman, Come Home: he is head of a sort of Marine corps which is sent out whenever the city lands.

Chapter six: A planet called Heaven

New York lands on a planet where it is always raining, broken by electrical storms – ironically named ‘Heaven’. Chris isn’t involved in any of this since he is still only 17 and still at school – intensive hypnopedia school – but his guardian being Sergeant Anderson he overhears a lot, such as the planet is ruled by a smallish (60,000) caste of aristocrats, named ‘archangels’, who lord it over a vast population of serfs.

The archangels have made a typical Okie deal, that they’ll provide food and raw materials in exchange for the Okies helping them inaugurate an industrial revolution.

Piggy and Chris hang round one of the wharves on the edge of New York, staring out into the endless rain of Heaven, lit by fierce lightning storms, and generally getting in people’s way. Chris learns that the archangels speak a debased form of Russian, ‘the now dead universal language of deep space’ (p.197) (to understand why you really have to have followed the repeated notion that the Soviet Union wins the Cold War by making the West turn into its mirror image, before finally subsuming the entire world in the Bureaucratic Rule.)

Impatient and curious, Chris tries talking to one of the Archangels who stomp back and forth across the wharves, offering him the ‘small cheap clasp knife with a tiny compass embedded in its handle’ in return for… a go on one of the kind of bubble boats the Archangels speed about in: these are boats but completely covered over in perspex to protect from the awful weather.

The Archangel laughs a big Russian laugh and agrees, they climb aboard the ship (they’re known as swan boats), the guy shows him the pretty simple controls and lets him try it out a little, pushing the accelerator and steering. There’s a call from his mates back in the cabin, so he tells Christ to be careful and goes abaft.

Chris has a happy time steering, but curiosity makes him lean back towards the door into the aft cabin and he hears snippets of Russian which he can just about understand are the six Archangels talking about a conspiracy to seize New York, mentioning hostages they’ve already taken, and a ‘Castle Wolfwhip’.

On impulse Chris throws the lock on the cabin door, takes the helm of the swan boat and sets it towards the homing beacon he’d noticed. It is Young Sherlock, Young James Bond.

Chapter seven: Why not to keep demons

Chris begins to wonder whether he’s doing the right thing and decides he better turn round and steer the boat back towards the New York wharf, when it is seized by the Archangel tractor beam and the controls stop functioning. He sees a huge building emerge from the rain and fog and then the swan boat abruptly sinks beneath the surface of the ocean, down down till its tracks hit bottom and then it clambers along, emerging back up above the surface in a sheltered cavern.

Here he is quickly arrested and thrown into the same cell as his guardian Sergeant Anderson, and a colleague Dulany, as per thousands of American adventure series and movies.

When he tells them that their ‘hover suits’ are hanging up in the main hall where he was interrogated. Anderson and Dulane break out of the cell, fight their way to their suits, and then tear ‘Castle Wolfwhip’ to pieces. Since he hasn’t got a suit, they put him in a swan ship and guide it back to New York.

Where his guardian reads Chris the riot act for being a very naughty boy.

Chapter eight: the ghosts of space

To Chris’s amazement Amalfi keeps on with the contract with Heaven’s Archangels. Business is business, and they need the raw materials.

Chris goes back to school for more densely packed hypnopedia sessions, which Blish summarises. He carries on chatting on quays with Piggy, who tells him the urban legend of the great Lost City of Los Angeles which landed on a remote planet where antiagathic drugs grow in the plants. Chris drops into a Library cubicle after school and quizzes a librarian i.e. one of the city father computers, which tells him about this kind of urban legend.

Then he discusses the idea with his guardian Anderson and wife Carla, and they end up reeling through a number of aspects of their world which are basically backstory which introduce various legends or entities we will meet in Earthman Come Home, such as:

  • cities that go rogue, named ‘bindlestiffs’
  • specifically the city of the IMT which genocided Thor V
  • the Vegan orbital fort

This handy little bit of exposition, or reminder, is threaded through with a bit of home-made Freud: namely that some of these stories may be true (they will, in fact, all prove to be true in Earthman, Come Home) but there is a deeper psychological force at work, namely that we make up bogies to scare us about things we ourselves actually want to do.

‘It’s always themselves that people are scared of.’ (p.207)

Chapter nine: The tramp

New York’s contract with Heaven is fulfilled and it takes off (we hear nothing at all about the supposed industrial revolution the city was meant to have organised).

Chris’s hypnopedia education continues regardless, and becomes so intense, he is being daily stuffed with so many facts via the hypnopedia headgear, that he begins to feel physically ill. He asks his tutor Dr Braziller if this is normal and she explains that the City Fathers (who run the hypnopedia) don’t care about individuals; pupils are stuffed with facts like geese with grain, because the Fathers are waiting to see what traits, what qualities will emerge, which the city can use in its eternal quest for survival.

Wistfully, Dr Braziller tells Chris she harboured hopes of becoming a composer but the City Fathers had never heard of a woman composer so that was that.

Chris is worried because the only subject he shows any gift for is history and the City Fathers are already, in effect, the city’s historians, since they contain a vast database of dates and events which he’ll never be able to match.

All this is interrupted one day when Anderson tells him the city has a new contract but it’s complicated. It’s with a planet, Argus III, to do mining, but it has slowly emerged that the planet already has another city on site, which was under contract but failed to deliver. That city? Scranton. The city which shanghaied Chris right at the start of the story. Not fulfilling your contract but squatting on the site defines you as a ‘tramp’. Theoretically Argus III could call the cops (cops always come into these city disputes) but then Scranton could counter-claim that their contract was being breached and/or New York was trying to poach the work, a serious breach of earth law and Okie tradition.

New York has picked up radio broadcasts by both parties, Scranton and the Argolids. John Amalfi himself wants Chris to listen in on the Scranton broadcasts and use every scrap of knowledge he gained on the city, to help interpret them.

Chapter ten: Argus asleep

New York lands on Argus III. There’s some nice science about how the stars of the system are relatively young and so full of metals, as are the planets. Good mining country. Chris begins to analyse Amalfi’s decisions which, of course, allows Blish to explain them to us, the reader.

Not only that he begins to make his own suggestions based on the little he picked up from seeing Scranton’s mayor in the flesh, namely that he is ruthless, treats passengers like scum, has a shortage of anti-agathic drugs. Also he points out that something must have been going wrong for a while if Scranton is so far from the planets of metal which New York recommended to her back when they did the passenger exchange.

Then the situation is transformed when it is revealed that Chris’s friend, Piggy, has defected to the other side, taking two women with him, one the unhinged wife of a New York cop who had been taught how to fly one of the city’s planes and then stole it. Piggy must have had some plan to become a big valuable man over there, but first thing New York knows is a message from Scranton saying the three are being held hostage.

Chris suggests sneaking over to Scranton on a solo mission, but his guardian emphatically rules it out.

Chapter eleven: The hidey hole

Chris does it anyway, with a plan. He meets up with Frad Haskins, the leader of the grab squad who press-ganged Chris onto Scranton right at the start of the story. Frad explains how even those close to him think Scranton’s mayor has gone nuts. He discusses with Chris what concessions and peace Amalfi would offer if Frad leads a coup to overthrow the mayor. then Chris hides away in his hidey hole in the disused warehouse, the one we saw him seeking refuge in back in chapter three, while a coup actually takes place.

When Frad comes to fetch him it’s something like a week later and Lutz has been overthrown. Frad is shabby, unshaven, dirty and has a black eye. Exiting back onto the streets Chris sees bulletholes and shell holes. Obviously the coup was violent. (It is, pretty simply, a cop-out of Blish’s part not to show any of it at all; all we get for the entire period of the coup is an account of Chris hiding, getting hungry, and trying to sleep. This reminded me a lot of Asimov’s Foundation series where there’s a lot of talk about battles and political struggles, but precious little actual description of them. This, I think, is because the entire approach of space opera is surprisingly limited: the fate of the entire galaxy hangs in the balance – again and again – and yet turns out to hang on the confrontations of a few super-clever characters in a room. This is the opposite of history as we know it, where the fate of empires and nations has been decided by wars which drag on for years and about which vast multi-volume libraries can be written.)

Chapter twelve: An interview with Amalfi

Chris is brought back to New York, along with the new leaders of Scranton to negotiate a deal with Amalfi. With fairy tale simplicity the deadline for doing a deal with Scranton had expired on Chris’s 18th birthday, which was also when his citizenship exam, the one he’s been cramming for for the previous couple of years, was due to take place.

At a stroke Amalfi announces that Chris has shown all the qualities required by a citizen, and amazes Chris and his guardian and Frad by offering to make Chris city manager of New York. Happy ending.

Coda

Very casually, half way through the last book in the series, The Triumph of Time, Blish tells us that DeFord was shot by the City Fathers for crooked dealing ‘seven centuries’ before that story is set, so about 3295 (p.559). Since The Triumph of Time was published in 1959, three years before A Life For The Stars, anyone who’d been reading the books as they came out, will have known Chris’s ultimate fate throughout their reading of this narrative.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by embittered working class narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – a mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish –

1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

Botticelli and Treasures from the Hamilton Collection @ the Courtauld Gallery

In 1882 the 12th Duke of Hamilton caused a national uproar by over-riding objections from the Royal Family and John Ruskin and selling his collection of priceless art works to the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett (Prints and Drawings Museum). At the heart of his collection was a set of illustrations of Dante’s famous epic poem, The Divine Comedy, by Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli.

This exhibition gives us the opportunity to see these rare and precious works, along with other highlights from the Duke’s collection, namely a selection of invaluable illuminated manuscripts including the celebrated ‘Hamilton Bible’, back in the country for the first time in 130 years.

Dante

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was born and raised in Florence. He took the style of love poetry developed by the troubadors of the south of France to new heights in the love poetry he wrote to his muse, Beatrice Portinari. Florence was a hot-bed of political infighting and when Dante’s party, the White Guelphs, were violently overthrown in 1302, the poet was driven into bitter exile.

Here he conceived his epic poem, The Divine Comedy, divided into three books, in which the poet is escorted through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, respectively. Although each book is quite long – and the whole poem is 14,233 lines long – they’re built up from quite short two- or three-page cantos (33 in each book), in each of which Dante and his guide meet dead souls who give potted histories of their lives.

Although 700 years old, Dante’s verse still feels fast-moving and fluid, and the often powerful stories of the dead give the poem a timeless appeal. What raises it to the position – in many people’s opinion – of the greatest work of literature in European history, is the tremendous scaffold of Christian theology and symbolism which underpins it. The dead souls Dante talks to not only relate stories but each represents a different aspect of Catholic theology, as well as embodying many levels of medieval symbolism.

For example, at the same time as the poem describes a ‘real journey’ through a precisely imagined terrain, it is also symbolic of the soul’s journey towards the loving Christian God. The more you investigate the poem, the richer and deeper it becomes.

Although the Divine Comedy is long, it is made very readable by being divided into short cantos, and by the interlocking rhyme scheme of terza rima, each verse made of three lines which rhyme aba, bcb, cdc and so on, drawing the reader onwards into the narrative. The famous opening lines are:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Which can be translated as:

Halfway along the roadway of my life
I found myself within a darkened wood,
For I had stumbled off the direct way.

Botticelli

Sandro Botticelli (1445- 1510) was an Italian painter of the early Renaissance, famous for the serene expressions of his slender shapely women, exemplified in his allegorical paintings, The Birth of Venus (1486) or Primavera (1482). Like Dante he was born and raised in Florence, and there is evidence that he was especially attracted to Dante’s poem – a near contemporary wrote that Botticelli had written a detailed commentary on the Divine Comedy.

We know that Botticelli was commissioned to create drawings illustrating the poem, most likely for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, who also commissioned the Spring and Venus paintings. The Divine Comedy has 99 cantos and 92 Botticelli drawings have survived, dating probably from the 1480s. They are drawn with pen and ink on vellum ie sheep or goat skin. The sheets were created so that the drawings were done on one side and on the reverse was the next canto in the poem. When these were bound together you read the book sideways, by opening the pages vertically like a calendar, with the text of each canto written across one page and the illustration below.

As soon as the codex arrived at the Berlin Museum, the Germans unbound it in order to frame each drawing individually and exhibit them to the public. You can still see the series of little holes along the side of each picture where the stitching has been undone. You can also see the shadowy impress of the columns of text on the facing page, giving each image a ghostly imprint of the poem itself.

This exhibition displays ten drawings from each of the three parts of the Divine Comedy, charting Dante’s imaginary journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise.

Sketchy

Your first impression is that they are very faint and sketchy, with an almost schoolboy clumsiness in the way humans and clothes are depicted. Faces, bodies, clothes, expressions, limbs, hands, they all look a bit amateurish.

Punishment of the corrupt in the eighth circle (Divine Comedy, Inferno XXII) by Sandro Botticelli -  (ca. 1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 32.9 x 47.1 cm. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

Punishment of the corrupt in the eighth circle (Divine Comedy, Inferno XXII) by Sandro Botticelli – (ca. 1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 32.9 x 47.1 cm. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

An internet search quickly brings up the comprehensive set of illustrations for the Comedy done by the French artist Gustave Doré in the 1860s which, by comparison, are smooth and sinuous and fill the three dimensional space.

The contrast reminds us that the Botticelli created these nearly 400 years before Doré, right at the start of the western tradition, right at the moment that perspective was being rediscovered and the position of figures in a three dimensional space explored.

Some of the drawings have vestiges of colour, prompting the theory that they were initially all going to be coloured in. But something – maybe the size of the task, maybe artistic reasons – led them to remain uncoloured, fragile pen lines on a blank cream background.

Dynamic

In the poem Dante is guided through hell and purgatory by the great Latin poet, Virgil (70-19 BC). (It is notable and touching that he doesn’t select a theologian to be his guide through Christian belief, but the greatest author of the ancient world and a fellow Italian.) The entire poem is a journey in which – to take the two most obvious levels – Dante is shown the geography of the afterworld and gains a deeper understanding of Christian theology.

This helps to explain one of the most striking things about the images – the way Dante and Virgil appear in each one multiple times. In the drawing of the seventh circle of hell the two figures appear no fewer than eight times, progressing through the scene. The wall label points out that Inferno XXVII is unusual in depicting the pair only once.

The way they are shown progressing through each scene gives the pictures a tremendous dynamism. Once you settle to follow them through each scene, you find yourself examining it more carefully and then turning back to reread what it’s depicting. These are book illustrations and are designed to interact with a text: you read about Dante being stopped by an acquaintance in hell and then look down to see the illustration. Then you return to the text to read the soul in hell explaining how the dead are being punished in this particular circle – and look back at the illustration to find the couple in their next position, overlooking the panorama of tortured souls. And so on.

Each picture tells a story, selecting not a moment but a series of moments to capture the physical journey and the spiritual education. This is emphasised by the bridges down between the circles of hell, which Dante and Virgil cross and descend, their figures drawn at the top, in the middle and then at the bottom, moving ever downwards into realms of deeper horror.

Gestures

As I looked at the figures more closely, and followed their progress across each scene, I began to appreciate how Botticelli deploys a whole lexicon of physical gestures: here is Virgil showing, displaying, pointing, indicating, placating, berating, taking Dante’s arm, hand, embracing him. Similarly, it is Dante’s physical gestures rather than features which indicate that he is alarmed, distracted, clutching his head in horror, covering his eyes to blot out the terrible scenes.

A good example is the big illustration of Satan for which Botticelli, uniquely, used two pieces of vellum stitched together – a double-fold centre-spread of evil. Satan is a giant figure with three pairs of enormous bat’s wings, endlessly beating, creating the freezing wind which whirls some of the lost souls around hell. He has three heads and is depicted eternally eating the bodies of traitors, Judas and the two betrayers of Julius Caesar – Brutus and Cassio.

Centre of Hell. The full figure of Lucifer (Divine Comedy, Inferno XXXIV,2) by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 63.2 x 46.3 cm © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

Centre of Hell. The full figure of Lucifer (Divine Comedy, Inferno XXXIV) by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 63.2 x 46.3 cm © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard. Note: I have added the red highlights showing Dante and Virgil.

His body is covered in the shaggy hair of a goat but the most striking thing about it is the way it is wedged right at the bottom of hell, conceived of as an enormous stepped funnel, an inverted circular pyramid, each step down taking the poets into a new ‘circle’ of hell. Here at the bottom is a narrow hole representing the centre of the earth, and Satan’s body is wedged tight into it. Here they must hastily scurry across the body of ultimate evil in order to pass through the hole and out the other side to begin their journey back up to the surface of the world.

Botticelli depicts the scared poets no fewer than seven times in this one illustration (highlighted in red, in the image above), in successive postures of cowering dread as they scurry over the malign body, squeeze through the hole and out the other side, where they emerge upside down. The interactive qualities of the illustrations, the use of multiple figures, and the lexicon of gesture all reach a kind of apogee in this one image.

Mount Purgatory

In the poem the poets climb up a long tunnel to the surface of the earth and there discover Mount Purgatory on an island, rising up through similar stages to the Earthly Paradise at its top. It is immediately noticeable that in these illustrations the human figures are in groups. In hell each figure was scattered and alone, in psychological as well as physical torment, epitomised by the illustration of the circle named Cocytus with over 100 human figures disfigured and dismembered and abandoned to their misery. Here in purgatory, humans are allowed to congregate and speak. And unlike the movement of the poets ever downwards, now their figures move upwards through the pictures.

Beatrice explains to Dante the order of the cosmos (Divine Comedy, Paradiso II) by Sandro Botticelli (1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 32.4 x 47.4 cm © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

Beatrice explains to Dante the order of the cosmos (Divine Comedy, Paradiso II) by Sandro Botticelli (1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 32.4 x 47.4 cm © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

Paradise

Dante eventually has to bid farewell to Virgil who was, after all, a pagan. He is taken forward in his spiritual education by Beatrice, the beautiful girl he fell in love with as a young man and stayed devoted to all his life, even though they both married other spouses.

In the ten illustrations from paradise the figure of poet and muse are much much larger than previously, as if by approaching spiritual purity, as if by approaching the most religious territory, Dante is becoming more human. His and Beatrice’s figures become larger, their expressions easier to read, and he is drawn always looking upwards, up towards the light radiating from the abode of bliss and the godhead. These are the most Botticelli-esque of the drawings, with the light swirling skirts and fabrics of Beatrice for the first time really reminding us of the Botticelli of the Primavera and Venus. No coincidence that it’s one of these illustrations which the Courtauld has selected as poster for the show. The wall label tells us that Kenneth Clark thought The ascent to the heaven of fire captured a delicate beauty ‘unequalled in Western art’.

Beatrice and Dante ascending to the heaven of fire (Divine Comedy, Paradiso II) by Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 32.4 x 47.6 cm © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

Beatrice and Dante ascending to the heaven of fire (Divine Comedy, Paradiso II) by Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 32.4 x 47.6 cm © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

The images also become progressively emptier, less cluttered, with more space and light, as we climb higher towards the ultimate source of all light. The physical torment and spiritual chaos of hell is partly conveyed by its sheer clutter, its messiness, the busy-ness of the images. In the final illustrations the sketchiness of the lines emphasise the all-encompassing light. It is revealing that the artist seems to have struggled with the final cantos which describe the rose garden at the height of heaven, and opts eventually for the image of holy figures made tiny, remote, by their distance from the profane author.

The Hamilton Bible

Having started by thinking the drawings area bit sketchy and amateurish, you finish the sequence exhausted by the journey the poem and artist have taken you on and utterly won over by their creative engagement with the unparalleled text. I started out preferring the Doré but ended up much preferring the Botticelli. Something mysterious, something very powerful, is revealed by prolonged study of them.

It is a bit of a wrench to turn your attention to the other element in the exhibition, the equally priceless and stunning illuminated manuscripts which are housed in display cases. After the thirty monochrome Botticelli images, there French and Italian masterpieces from the Renaissance, they overwhelm you simply by being in colour.

Centrepiece is one of the most important illuminated manuscripts in the world, the massive and beautifully illustrated ‘Hamilton Bible’, famous enough in its own day to have been depicted in Raphael’s portrait of Pope Leo X.

Most of these have been artfully opened to display theological illustrations, with several colourful (literally) depictions of hell to compare and contrast with the Botticelli. The Hamilton Bible is open at the first page of Genesis, opposite which is a full page illustration made up of a dozen or so discreet images depicting key incidents from the Christian creation story – the creation of the universe and world, Adam and Eve in the Garden and Eden, and so on.

Cristoforo Orimina - Genesis (in the so called 'Hamilton-Bible'), around 1350-60. Book illumination and gold on parchment, 37.5 x 26.5 cm. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Jörg P. Anders

Cristoforo Orimina – Genesis (in the so called ‘Hamilton-Bible’), around 1350-60. Book illumination and gold on parchment, 37.5 x 26.5 cm. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Jörg P. Anders

Botticelli’s altarpiece

If you’ve paid the admission price to see this exhibition, you shouldn’t miss the Botticelli which is part of the Courtauld Gallery’s permanent collection, and housed on the first floor. It is the large altarpiece of The Holy Trinity with John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene, dated to the same years as the final drawings of the Dante series.

Botticelli at the V&A

This exhibition has been planned to coincide with a major new exhibition of Botticelli at the Victorian and Albert Museum, scheduled to open in March. It seems to be, fittingly enough, a Botticelli spring.

This is a beautiful, inspiring and moving exhibition to kick it off.

Related links

%d bloggers like this: