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Dante’s (Re)Birth at the Library of Congress

The following is a post by Lucia Wolf, Reference Librarian and Italian Specialist, European Reading Room, Latin American, Caribbean and European Division (LAC&E). This post is designed to help online and onsite visitors celebrate Dante’s Divide Comedy in many languages.  

The Unexpected Dante: Perspectives on the Divine Comedy. Ed. Lucia Wolf (2021)

The front cover of the book edited by Italian Specialist, Lucia Wolf

The Unexpected Dante: Perspectives on the Divine Comedy. Ed. Lucia Wolf (2021)

Born in Florence between May 21 and June 20, 1265, Dante Alighieri remains an international force in poetry 700 years after his death in 1321. Together with Bucknell University Press in December 2021, The Library of Congress released The Unexpected Dante: Perspectives of the Divine Comedy edited by Latin American, Caribbean, and European Division librarian Lucia Alma Wolf. As part of a series of events commemorating the anniversary of Dante’s death, Wolf’s edited volume brings treasured collection items to life while connecting Library of Congress holdings with the Divine Comedy’s historical and contemporary journey from Italy across the globe.

Image of Dante bust on the exterior of the Jefferson Building

Dante Bust by sculptor Herbert Adams, Portico, Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.

Hurried and distracted twenty-first-century passersby might miss references to Dante enshrined in the Thomas Jefferson Building on Capitol Hill, but Dante’s bust still graces the portico of this historic building. Beyond this reference set in stone, are many Library monuments to Dante shrouded in paper, ink, paste boards, leather, engravings, and woodcuts. These books include copies of Dante’s Divine Comedy in multiple languages and with varied visual interpretations of his imagined pilgrimage through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. After being banished for life from his native Florence because of his righteous and idealistic beliefs, Dante conceived this unique medieval work of poetry, with its 14, 233 lines in Italian vernacular organized in consistent three-line stanzas with a chained rhyming pattern throughout. A reflection of Dante’s singular genius, The Divine Comedy immediately posed questions about its “translatability” but this work speaks across many languages and formats as a testament to Dante’s universal and timeless appeal. To celebrate The Unexpected Dante, we welcome readers to a collection display at the entrance of Hispanic and European Readings Rooms in the Thomas Jefferson Building [floor plan] through August 31, 2022. Anytime between 8:30AM- 5:00PM, Monday – Friday, readers can see 35 different copies of the Divine Comedy, chosen because of their differing languages, unique stories, or exceptional illustrations. Please find below some context for this curated display; and let us know what you think the comment sections.

 

Introductory Piece: An impressive Italian edition, which is likely the first after Thomas Jefferson’s to make its way from Italy to the Library’s International Collections. Published in Florence between 1817 and 1819, this elegant piece highlights the idea of rebirth at the core of the display. The coupling of Neoclassicism with the widespread revolutionary movements in Europe, and particularly in Italy, during the nineteenth century prompted a rediscovery of the Divine Comedy.

 

Paradiso, volume 3 of Divina commedia di Dante Alighieri, con tavole in rame by Tipografia all’insegna dell’Ancora. Florence, 1818. Full-page copper engraving of Dante encountering Beatrice in Paradiso Canto 1. Library of Congress General Collections.

 

Central Enclosed Case: Three limited-edition facsimiles of prestigious fourteenth-century Divine Comedy manuscripts held in Italian libraries. While significantly different from modern print versions, these books set the tone for 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, anonymous copyists, and sometimes members of noble families, created these manuscripts. Divina Commedia Palatino 313, Divina Gradenigo, and Divina Commedia Angelica, on display feature 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 for writing and 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 iconographic projects muddled by inadequate time and resources, as the many of the empty spaces left in the manuscripts shows.

 

Divina Commedia Palatino 313. Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Florence. Castel Guelfo, Italy: Imago, 2013. Reproduction of the illustration of Inf. 21. Library of Congress European Reading Room.

 

Divina Commedia Angelica. Ms. 1102. Biblioteca Angelica, Rome. Castel Guelfo, Italy: Imago, 2016. Full-color facsimile reproduction of the illuminated illustration of Inferno 1. Notice the hand-applied gold leaf to the reproduced facsimile image. Library of Congress European Reading Room.

 

Divina Commedia Palatino 313. Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Florence. Castel Guelfo, Italy: Imago, 2013. Full-page facsimile reproduction of Purgatorio 1. Notice separately attached illustration, two-column layout, red and blue rubrics, and glosses in margin. Also notice the empty space left for historiated initial. Library of Congress European Reading Room.

 

Illustrations/Tables: The Divine Comedy offers fertile ground for elaborate illustrations. Of note in this display is the work of nineteenth century French artist Gustave Doré and 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 wood 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 (Saint Petersburg: Izdanīe Mavrikīi︠a︡ Osipovicha Volʹfa, 1874–1879); Cayetano Rosell’s prose edition in Spanish La Divina comedia (Barcelona: Montaner y Simon, 1884); and Domingo Ennes’ verse translation in Portuguese O Inferno, poema em trinta e quatro cantos (Lisbon: David Corazzi,1887). Doré’s exquisite execution still inspires artists today and that is evident in Sandow Birk’s lithographs. These radical and thought provoking contemporary reinterpretations inspire new thinking on Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise against familiar United States backdrops.

Dante Alighieri. L’Enfer de Dante Alighieri, avec le dessins de Gustave Doré. Paris, Librairie de L. Hachette et cie, 1862. Gustave Doré’s engraving of Inferno 5: Paolo and Francesca caught in an endless vortex that keeps them spinning around in the air for eternity. Dante and Virgil staring at the scene. Library of Congress General Collections.

Dante Alighieri. L’Enfer de Dante Alighieri, avec le dessins de Gustave Doré. Paris, Librairie de L. Hachette et cie, 1862. Gustave Doré’s engraving of Inferno 12: The Centaurs. Library of Congress General Collections.

photo on many books in a diplsay case

Display cases at the entrance of the Hispanic and European Reading rooms offer a selection of the Divine Comedy in multiple languages

Language Diversity/Cases & Tables: Among Romance languages, Spanish translations retained the primacy of the first renditions of the Divine Comedy in Europe with two fifteenth-century versions: the 1428 prose translation in Castilian by Enrique de Villena and the Catalan translation in tercets by Andreu Febrer (1375–1440). Please see a reprint of Febrer’s translation in the display (Barcelona: A. Verdaguer, 1878). Villena and Febrer set the stage for future translations of the Divine Comedy in Spanish with the options of translating it with more or less proximity to Dante’s writing. According to most critics, modern Spanish translations culminate in Ángel Crespo’s decisive adoption of Dante’s tercets in chain-rhyming hendecasyllables. The 2003 edition of Crespo’s translation accompanied by the illustrations by the Mallorcan artist Miquel Barceló is on display.

After 700 years, Dante’s poem continues to inspire translators and artists around the globe. This longevity begs the question: How can such a staggeringly complex literary work enjoy such an afterlife? Perhaps, as Dante devotee Jorge Luis Borges puts it:


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…. (Siete Noches) … 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…]

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