If Botticelli played a role in the creation of the Tarot of Marseille, chances are other cards besides Justice and Temperance may give away his influence. A thorough examination of his works allowed me to pinpoint a compelling case.[1]

Sandro Botticelli’s Lucifer

Botticelli’s Lucifer is a large drawing, traced in silver point on a very white vellum, and finished with black ink. It shows a gigantic hairy monster with bat wings, whose three heads have billy goat horns, porcine ears, and grimacing faces. Its three mouths, equipped with fangs and tusks, are busy devouring three naked men.

The image has striking similarities with the 15th trump card of the Tarot of Marseille: the Devil.

Botticelli’s Lucifer (left) compared to the Devil of the Tarot of Marseille (right).

The creature’s posture is the same, standing, in a frontal view, with the legs slightly apart. Both have similar bat wings, have horns on their heads , and have squinty eyes. What is most striking is the similarity of the compositions: The Lucifer monster fills the entire height of the frame, the tips of its wings being tucked precisely in the upper corners. Furthermore, the very center of the composition, at the intersection of the diagonals, is occupied, in both cases, by the same body parts, at the crotch. There, the card unambiguously exhibits the creature’s genitalia. In the drawing, the representation is more allusive, as the artist has modestly concealed the organ’s lines in the middle of the monster’s tufts of hair. However, the point aimed at leaves little room for doubt, all the more so as the artist traced a circle around it, making it the bull’s eye of a target.

The center of the compositions: Lucifer (left) and the Devil (right)

What do these genito-centric compositions mean?

Botticelli’s Lucifer is part of a series of 94 illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy. This huge work was probably produced over a long period and remains unfinished. According to the artist and historian Vasari (1511-1574), Botticelli became passionate for this masterpiece of Italian literature. This keen interest of the painter’s was probably triggered when he collaborated on the first illustrated edition of the Divine Comedy, printed in 1481. This edition included a commentary by Cristoforo Landino and an introductory letter by Marsilio Ficino, and should have been enriched with several etchings. Technical difficulties seem to have thwarted this project, and all known copies of this edition have only a few vignettes illustrating Inferno. An engraver named Baccio Baldini executed the etchings from designs by Botticelli. The author of the commentary, Landino, was on familiar terms with the Medici and was a close friend of Marsilio Ficino’s. Older than Ficino, he had been his master before becoming his disciple in Plato. His edition of the Divine Comedy appears as a collective enterprise, promoted by the Medici, encouraged by Ficino, and involving Florentine artists, artisans, and printers.[2]

The monster drawing illustrates Inferno’s last canto. After having gone through all circles of damnation, Dante, guided by Virgil in these inhospitable places, arrives at the bottom of the Underworld, facing Lucifer himself. The fallen angel is standing still, flapping his wings to no avail, stuck forever at the center of the earth. Botticelli’s drawing, just like a comic strip, shows the successive steps of this ultimate encounter in Dante and Virgil’s trip through hell. Dante is frightened upon seeing the monster. Reassured by Virgil, he is convinced to travel down with him, hugging his back, along Lucifer’s hairy torso. At the middle of the vellum leaf, however, Dante and Virgil are suddenly represented upside down.

Dante and Virgil approach Lucifer.

Dante and Virgil travel down along Lucifer’s hairy torso, then turn upside down.

Having passed the center of the earth, Dante and Virgil climb to Purgatory (leaf turned upside down).

Here, Botticelli is faithful to Dante’s verses, in which Virgil explains this sudden turnaround:

You imagine that you are still on the other side of the center […] As long as I descended, you were on that side; when I turned myself, you passed the point to which all weights are drawn from every part.[3]

The geography of the afterlife postulated by the Divine Comedy puts Lucifer right at the center  of the earth. As soon as Dante and Virgil go beyond this point — the one toward which all bodies converge because of gravity — then gravity inverts for them, and they find themselves climbing into the opposite hemisphere, along Lucifer’s legs. From there, they will reach Purgatory, where they will emerge from their underground trip. The turning point is defined in the poem as „where the thigh turns just on the thick of the haunch,” which corresponds to the waist, or navel-high.[4] Strangely, Botticelli’s drawing does not highlight that point, but another lower one, right in the middle of the circle at the center of the vellum leaf, at Lucifer’s genitalia. This oddity can be explained by Landino’s commentary on the Divine Comedy, a text that frequently echoes Ficino’s Platonic ideas. Landino’s interpretation of Lucifer’s central position is allegoric. For him, Lucifer’s fall into the center of the earth illustrates the damnation of vices, especially the excess of sensuality. [5]

Physical desires are like natural forces, drawing souls into the materiality of the world. To get out of it, the souls must go beyond the point to which all heavy bodies are drawn; that is, they must move past their carnal appetites aiming at physical life and procreation. Botticelli probably puts Lucifer’s genitalia at the center of the earth to express the idea that procreation is the engine of the physical world. Only the souls that free themselves from the worldly can rise to the upper world of matter-free ideal realities. In all likelihood, the Devil of the Tarot of Marseille – with the genitalia of the monster also placed in the middle – should be interpreted in the same way.

Landino’s commentary also offers an explanation of a feature shared by both Botticelli’s drawing and the Devil card: the demon’s squint. He writes, about Lucifer’s three faces, supposedly representing wrath, greed, and sloth:

Each face has two eyes, and these are going astray with respect to each other. In wrath, the right eye is too much looking for one’s own pleasure, the left too much fleeing’s one’s suffering. In greed, one is too much keeping what is yours, the other too much covetting what belongs to others. Likewise, sloth aims at escaping fatigue and at taking some rest.[6]

According to that interpretation, thus, the squints allude to certain human behaviors induced by vices.

Lucifer’s squint (left) compared to the Devil’s (right)

Landino also proposes to see in Lucifer’s bat wings – the wings of a nocturnal animal — an illustration of ignorance in the darkness of night, which leads to diabolical temptations:

He did not have bird wings; they were rather like bat wings. […] Lucifer, thus, was one of these birds that fly at night, and night means ignorance, which indicates that our ignorance leads to diabolical temptations.[7]

Several features shared by Botticelli’s Lucifer and the Devil of the Tarot of Marseille thus find their explanation in Landino’s commentary on Dante’s Inferno. However, the card and the drawing do not represent the same situation, and the Devil should not be seen as a mere illustration of Dante’s Inferno. One only has to notice the many features of the Lucifer monster that fail to appear in the card: the three heads devouring three men, the hairy body, the three pairs of wings (reduced to just one in the card). Furthermore, the human figures of Dante and Virgil are replaced in the card by two naked prisoners with their hands in the back. What are these two individuals doing here?

[1] See my Un diavolo nella caverna di Platone, “Bruniana & Campanelliana”, XVI (2010), pp. 89-106

[2] See Paolo Procaccioli’s introduction to Cristoforo Landino, Comento sopra la Comedia, ed. Paolo Procaccioli, Rome, Salerno, I, p. 9-105, here 11-31 and 88-90.

[3] Dante, Inferno XXXIV, 106-111 (transl. Charles S. Singleton).

[4] Inferno XXXIV, 77 (transl. Charles S. Singleton).

[5] Cristoforo Landino, Comento sopra la Comedia, cit. , Inferno, xxxiv, [70-87], 21-27, ii, p. 1025.

[6] Landino, Comento sopra la Comedia, cit., Inferno, XXXIV, [37-54], II, p. 1019.

[7] Landino, Comento sopra la Comedia, cit., Inferno, XXXIV, [49-51], II, p. 1020.

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