Picture Study: Botticelli’s Map of Hell

The Map of Hell By Botticelli


The parchment was completed by Botticelli between 1480 and 1490, using the technique of the silver tip and coloured pencils.  This will be the first time we have ever studied anything coloured in with pencils!  The Map of Hell is one of seven of Botticelli’s parchments currently kept in the Vatican library in Rome. Although many artists have tried to replicate visually The Divine Comedy,  Botticelli is known for his attention to detail, being very faithful to the words of Dante.  The small size of this piece (32.5cm by 47.5cm and with the individual figures measuring less than 1cm) makes it a difficult piece to study.  Nonetheless, I felt it would be a helpful exercise in aiding the children’s understanding and therefore visualisation of the Inferno poem.  As the author of ‘The World of Dante’ states ‘In the Chart of Hell, Botticelli spatializes and adapts what is essentially a temporal experience, namely the reading of poetry.’  Being 10 and 11, they need all the help they can get (as do I!).  It is important to understand that my goal for this study is simply a greater understanding of Dante’s Inferno.  It is thus primarily to aid their literature studies rather than add to their artistic knowledge.  Which is just as well, because as an art lesson, this study sucked!

At the beginning of the week we looked at the picture on the computer and read a bit about Botticelli.  I had the children fill in artist note pages downloaded from the very excellent Practical Pages.  Nadene has some fabulous note pages which she designs herself and gives freely to others.  We use them with each art study we have done over the years:


Afterwards the children got a chance to explore the interactive version of the picture which allows some parts of it to be zoomed in on, and thus the detail seen more clearly.  I was pleasantly surprised by how much detail the children actually remembered of Inferno.  It was satisfying to know that it had grabbed their attention so thoroughly that even three months later they were remembering details that were forever lost in the echelons of my mind.

In addition we watched this YouTube video together which shows detail of the above picture as well as Boticelli’s original preliminary drawings.  Here are a couple of examples of his drawings:

Botticelli, Three Beasts

Botticelli, Dis


For a (much) more extensive study of this picture please see here.  We neither had the time, nor at this time, the inclination to study any deeper than simply enjoying the art and listening to all it had to say to us individually.  Remember, my main aim of carrying out this picture study was to help the children to see that which Dante had described so explicitly in his poetry

As this was a short one week study I only had two activities planned, however this study would be a very important and effective lead in to our study of the physical inferno as described by Dante next week, when we would be comparing Botticelli’s interpretation to those of other artists as well as attempting to make one of our own (help!!)

The first activity was to reproduce one of Boticelli’s drawing in silver tip.  The problem was, no matter what art shop I tried, no one had heard of silver tip and no one had anything sharp that was made of silver.  I had googled it, so I knew what it was, I just wasn’t sure how well I could replicate it.  In the end we covered some parchment paper with gesso made from chalk, glue and white paint:

I made the gesso with white glue, crushed chalk and white paint pigment
I made the gesso with white glue, crushed chalk and white paint pigment
Parchment with thick layer of gesso
Parchment with thick layer of gesso

And we used embroidery needles for the silver point, only it really didn’t work, so the children decided to use pencil.  No, not very, very authentic.  The children chose to do their sketch of one or more of the three beasts in the woods, at the beginning of Dante’s journey.  Here are our resulting pictures:


Our second project was to use colouring pencils to try to recreate the dull muted tones of Botticelli’s version of the inferno.  Using either the drawings we had already drawn in silver tip (pencil) or a photocopy of some of the detail of Botticelli’s Circle of Hell as our guide, we proceeded to colour.  It was way harder than we imagined it would be, so you can imagine my surprise when T11 turned round and said how much he had enjoyed doing it!  The problem, I think, was that the children seemed unable to use them in any different way to that which they had been doing all of their lives.  Botticelli had a much lighter and delicate touch.  Here are our drawings in all their toned down glory (!):


This really was a picture study at its most simplest, however it had done its job well.  The children were drawn in to the whole concept of a pictoral hell and very much enjoyed Dante’s imagination and Botticelli’s representation of it.  They were totally primed for our coming week, when we would delve a little deeper into the interior of the Inferno.  C10, in particular, couldn’t wait!