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!


  1. It is interesting that you do an art study more with a literary purpose than an art purpose. Great idea (if not a bit unusual!)

  2. Hmmmm…… Did I already comment or did I get distracted by pinning and going “This is so cool”? I don’t remember

    You drew a lot out of this lesson, such a great idea, it reminded me I wanted to do more picture studies, so I need to pull out some ideas…….. Thinking, thinking…… Love their artwork, they are very expressive in their pictures, and that is difficult to do.

    1. Ticia, you crack me up! I think if we ever met we would both be so absentminded and scatty we’d be giggling all day!! Thanks so much for the encouraging comment. I thought this was a really hard project for the children and the girls were a bit disappointed by their drawings. I showed them all the lovely comments and they cheered up immediately!

  3. The drawings are so well done – I especially like the animals on gesso – you know, an embroidery needle was a great idea – what else could you use? The tip of a calligraphy pen perhaps… my curiosity is peaked at what might work! Either way, the pencil on gesso looks great.

    1. I thought of an ink pen tip! But I thought it might ruin it and we didn’t have any old ones I wanted to try with. My step father was a surgeon and I tried some of his tools as well, but we couldn’t make anything leave enough of a mark without ripping the paper. So I gave up!!

  4. I have never seen this picture before — it’s really interesting to me, and I know your children found it interesting, too — very cool! I’m so thankful for you and your participation in Collage Friday.

  5. I like your definition of “picture study at its simplest”!! But seriously… thanks for educating me as usual. I think the pictures are fab – you all have a good way with pencils 🙂

    1. It was simple in that we didn’t go into too much depth, at least not like we usually do. I usually strangle a subject by wringing as much info from it as possible. Not this time, it was just a one afternoon peak at Botticelli. It did its literary role though, if not its artistic one!

  6. This is such a complex piece of work — both in terms of visual content and the art skills required. It is certainly not easy at all to replicate Botticelli’s art, even at a professional level. The children have done very well in their art work. 🙂

  7. What a great lesson. I love the way you combined literature and art. As always, inspirational! The children did a fantastic job with their art work. They should be pleased. I love how you pull so many resources together to bring greater understanding to their studies. I now know what you do with all those sleepless hours. Blessings.

  8. do you know where I can get a printed copy of the map?? My son is looking for one for his paper and I’ve been unable to find one to print out for him. Every one I’ve tried to print the picture does not print just the sayings

      1. I tried that Claire and the only thing I was able to get was the comments. So now I don’t know what to do

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