The following is a post by Lucia Wolf, Reference Librarian and Italian Specialist, European Reading Room, Latin American, Caribbean and European Division.
Born in Florence between May 21 and June 20, 1265, Dante Alighieri remains an international force in poetry 700 years after his death. Together with Bucknell University Press, in 2022, the Library of Congress released The Unexpected Dante: Perspectives on the Divine Comedy edited by the Latin American, Caribbean, and European Division librarian Lucia Wolf. As part of a series of events commemorating the anniversary of Dante’s death in 2021, Wolf’s book brings treasured collection items to life while connecting the Library of Congress holdings with the Divine Comedy’s historical and contemporary journey from Italy across the globe.
Hurried twentieth-first-century passersby might miss references to Dante Alighieri enshrined in the Thomas Jefferson Building on Capitol Hill, but Dante’s bust still graces the portico of this historic building. Beyond these references set in stone are many monuments to Dante shrouded in paper, ink, pasteboards, leather, engravings, and woodcuts. These books include copies of Dante’s Divine Comedy in multiple languages and varied visual interpretations of his imagined pilgrimage through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. After having been banished for life from his native Florence because of his righteous and idealistic beliefs, Dante conceived this unique medieval work of poetry, with 14,233 lines in Italian vernacular organized in consistent three-line stanzas and a chained rhyming pattern throughout. A reflection of Dante’s singular genius, the Divine Comedy immediately posed questions about its translatability but soon spoke across many languages and formats as a testament to Dante’s universal and timeless appeal. This extraordinary influence of Dante’s opus and the publication of The Unexpected Dante were highlighted in a collection display at the entrance of the Hispanic and European Reading Rooms in Summer 2022.
The following are descriptions of Divine Comedy copies in the Library’s collections representing the most unique translations and artistic interpretations from Europe and the Americas, including a special contemporary North American adaptation.
An impressive Italian edition, which is likely the first after Thomas Jefferson’s to make its way from Italy to the Library, was published in Florence between 1817 and 1819. This elegant piece highlights the idea of rebirth. The coupling of neoclassicism with the widespread revolutionary movements in Europe during the nineteenth century—particularly in Italy, where they eventually led to national unification in 1861—prompted a rediscovery of the Divine Comedy as an articulation of new ideals of political and individual liberty.
Imagining this edition as a flashback to the beginnings of the publication of the Divine Comedy, we start with three limited-edition facsimiles of prestigious fourteenth-century Divine Comedy manuscripts held in Italian libraries. While significantly different from modern print books, these manuscripts set the tone for the memorialization of Dante’s poem.
They also help us visualize the fourteenth-century texts, which emerged from early medieval monasteries. Commissioned by clergy, aristocrats, and even members of the up-and-coming mercantile classes, these manuscripts were the work of anonymous copyists and, occasionally, members of noble families. Divina Commedia Palatino 313, Divina Commedia Gradenigo, and Divina Commedia Angelica, featured here were created in littera textualis (Gothic script). Originating in France between the end of the eleventh and the beginning of the twelfth century, littera textualis enabled early European universities to promote a new way of reading books. The layout in columns, integration of text and illustrations, historiated initials, rubric marks, and space in the margins for glosses underscored a pedagogic revolution of sorts. The history behind illustrating the Divine Comedy is idiosyncratic and complicated. Manuscript illuminations were often ambitious undertakings frustrated by lack of time and resources, as the many empty spaces left in the manuscripts show.
The Divine Comedy offers fertile ground for elaborate illustrations. Of note is the work of nineteenth-century French artist Gustave Doré and the twenty-first-century American artist Sandow Birk. Parisian publisher Hachette rejected Doré’s original proposal of a completely illustrated French translation of the Inferno. The rousing success of his self-published limited edition of L’Enfer (1861) with seventy-five of his finest woodcut engravings resulted in Hachette’s famous telegram and mea culpa: “Success! Come quickly! I am an ass!” Ultimately, the Hachette publication became a worldwide bestseller reprinted and published in hundreds of editions in other European languages. See for example Dmitry Dmitriyevich Minaev’s word-for-word translation in Russian Bozhestvennai︠a︡ komedīi︠a︡ (1874–1879); Cayetano Rosell’s prose edition in Spanish La Divina comedia (1884); and Domingo Ennes’ verse translation in Portuguese O Inferno, poema em trinta e quatro cantos (1887). Doré’s exquisite illustrations still inspire artists today, as is evident in Sandow Birk’s lithographs. His radical and thought-provoking contemporary reinterpretations inspire new thinking on Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise against familiar United States backdrops.
Spanish accounted for the first translations of the Divine Comedy, with two fifteenth-century versions: the 1428 prose translation in Castilian by Enrique de Villena (1384–1434) and the 1429 Catalan translation in tercets by Andreu Febrer (1375–1440). Villena’s and Febrer’s translations became the models for any subsequent Spanish translation, offering either the option of staying less close to the poetic form of Dante’s masterpiece as in Villena or closer to the original poetry as in Febrer. According to most critics, modern Spanish translations culminate in Ángel Crespo’s decisive adoption of Dante’s tercets in chain-rhyming hendecasyllables first published in Barcelona (1973–77).
After 700 years, Dante’s poem continues to inspire translators and artists around the globe. This longevity raises the question: How can such a staggeringly complex literary work enjoy such an afterlife? Jorge Luis Borges offers an answer in his Siete Noches:
Se trata de que ningún libro me ha deparado emociones estéticas tan intensas. Y yo soy un lector hedónico, lo repito; busco emoción en los libros. La Comedia es un libro que todos debemos leer. No hacerlo es privarnos del mejor don que la literatura puede darnos….
(No book has given me such intense aesthetic emotions. And I am a hedonistic reader; I look for emotion in books. The Commedia is a book that we should all read. Not to do so is to deprive oneself of the greatest gift that literature can give us.)