Sandro Botticelli’s small, nearly unknown 15th-century masterpiece gives us a human being stripped of all hope. The painting is a metaphysical crucible filled with the woes of the external world, invisible emotions, shame, wailing last things, cataclysmic loss, silence, final journeys, the closing down of life, demonic intensity, and the retraction of self. Often called, perfectly, La Derelitta (or “The Desperate One”), it is the saddest painting I have ever seen, though I’ve never seen it in the flesh. I first saw it in my 20s. I had talked my way into a job showing slides for art-history classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The afternoon I projected it, it smote me.
There’s no visual way into or out of this picture — no space. It’s all wall, a kind of premodern brutalism and rigid minimalism. Everything is stripped of adornment, rendered in low relief, unreal, dreamlike, diminished but concrete, realistic. Botticelli made The Desperate One in Florence when he was approaching a life crisis. He was born there in 1446 and died there in 1510. He never lived for long more than a few miles from where he was born, like Bruce Springsteen, who also has imagined encyclopedic universes filled with operatic casts. Springsteen once remarked, “I made it all up; that’s how good I am.” Botticelli saw it all. He was an eyewitness to the birth of a new world and the beginning of its death.
Florence was the center of the Italian Renaissance and indeed the entire West. Botticelli was at the center of this center. He worked in the service of the Medici, including Lorenzo de’ Medici, known as Lorenzo the Magnificent. The Medicis’ bank was the biggest in Europe; they were brokers to the pope and to potentates. Lorenzo was less about business, though, and more about culture. He was a notable poet and gathered around him a cadre of philosophers, poets, and sculptors and painters of the future: Botticelli, Michelangelo, Verrocchio, Ghirlandaio, and Leonardo. Together, they delved into recently rediscovered Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Plato and helped invent humanism. They were archaeologists as well and identified extraordinary lost works of pagan, Greek, early Roman, and early Christian art. This whole ancient world was revealed for the first time in over a thousand years. It was as if these artists and thinkers had found a new sun.
Almost overnight, hundreds of years of medieval, Byzantine, and Gothic art dissolved. Gone was the stiff, flat, linear, ultrareligious piety of these former styles. Then, in the beginning of the 15th century, came the equivalent of the invention of the camera: the rediscovery of the kinds of perspective seen in ancient Roman wall painting. Soon followed the reinvention of portraiture and landscape painting, with things depicted in a new, receding “realistic” space. It was like seeing movies for the first time — objects seeming to move toward or away from you! People were flabbergasted. With the new humanism came the reintroduction of all sorts of lost and found pagan and mythological stories. These included mythical beings, satyrs, and subjects like homosexuality, debauchery, and the sensuous pleasures of the world. (It was a time when calling someone a Florentine meant “homosexual.”)
In 1482, when Botticelli was in his full powers as a painter, the preacher-prophet Girolamo Savonarola came to Florence. Assigned to one of the city’s most important churches (where the beatified Fra Angelico painted), Savonarola arrived breathing fire and brimstone. He railed against aristocrats, the Medicis, wealth, the corrupt Church, and the papacy and advocated a return to ascetic Christianity. Anything pagan was wickedness. Savonarola soon had his own roving gangs of young supporters who turned belligerent enforcing Savonarola’s will. On the eve of Lent, the thugs went from home to home in Florence rounding up all things considered “vanities.” This could mean mirrors, clothing, furniture, keepsakes, jewelry, books, and much more. Including art. Particularly art like Botticelli’s, deemed to be unchristian, sacrilegious, sinful, and pagan. These items were taken to Florence’s central square, where they were stacked into an enormous pile, then set aflame. This was the infamous “bonfire of the vanities.” Legend has it that, under Savonarola’s sway, Botticelli burned some of his own work. If so, the loss reverberates still.
Savonarola was now perhaps the most powerful man in Italy (aside from the pope). He held so many under his influence that the pope himself was having none of it. Finally he reached his limit. In 1497, he excommunicated Savonarola and soon threatened Florence with an interdict should the city continue to harbor the demagogue. In May of the following year, Savonarola was hanged and burned as a heretic in the same square as the former bonfire.
The Desperate One, seemingly painted in prophetic anticipation of all of this, gives us glimpses of the internal ruin Botticelli experienced. This is a scorched, depleted world. The grieving figure is bent over. No face is visible, only flowing male hair. He is barefoot like the dancing Dionysian figures and nymphs Botticelli had painted previously and now despaired of. The figure feels like a penitent, almost a ghost. It’s like the Rapture just happened: Everyone has vanished or left; the figure is alone. Except for a few mystic visions, Botticelli spent his last years in unproductive emotional exile. He lived to see his own Early Renaissance style subsumed by the big three of the High Renaissance: Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael. Botticelli was all but forgotten until the 19th century, when the Pre-Raphaelites reclaimed him. From the vantage of today, his life might look like a righteous tragedy — a noble artist defeated by the forces of repressive belief. But they repressed him, too, and oppressed him. Savonarola may have been burned, but his judgment hung over Botticelli nevertheless.
I dwell on the painting’s only detail, a small wooden double door with ironwork atop it in a shallow, narrow hallway. This door is important, I know. The only visual respite in the painting is seen just over the door: a patch of blue sky. I ache to know what’s on the other side of that door when a strange question pops into my head: Will the door ever open?
Now I see it: an absence on the door that finally unlocks the painting. I always knew it but never noticed it before: There is no doorknob, no handle, latch, or lever.
Though some scholars believe the painting depicts Mordecai from the Book of Esther, I see the figure as Botticelli. He could be in Hell; there are no gates, so I can’t say. Instead, I surmise that he is outside the closed Gates of Paradise. The door before him may only be opened from the inside, by Saint Peter, who weighs one’s sins, deeds, and life. Botticelli’s beliefs and actions condemned him, and he knows it. This is not Hell. This is a terrible purgatory of knowing grief. A constant cry comes from this little picture. It is not Sartre’s existential smirking “Hell is other people.” Rather, I hear something I now hear more every day from so many reaching out of their seclusion: Hell is no other people.
*This article appears in the May 25, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!