The Unexpected (and Illustrated) Dante

“The Unexpected Dante” draws on thousands the Library’s items related to “The Divine Comedy.”

Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy” had been an epic religious and literary work for 150 years when a publisher in Florence attempted to do something that had never been done — illustrate it in a printed book.

The year was 1481. Gutenberg’s revolutionary printing press was just 26 years old. Nicolaus Laurentii took on the ambitious idea of using copper plates to illustrate Dante’s monumental poem — a 14,233-line trip through the nine circles of hell, purgatory and then ascension to heaven. It was to be a big, luxurious volume, nearly 400 sheets of thick paper that was 17 x 23 inches, filled with the poem in one typeface, commentary in a different typeface, and lavishly illustrated. Such a sumptuous project would be a fitting tribute, as Florence was Dante’s hometown and the book was written in the local vernacular.

The grand plan for illustrations didn’t pan out, though, and only a few copies of one edition had as many as 19 illustrations. Most only had two or three. Dozens of spaces were left empty for illustrations that never came.

Today, more than half a millennium later, one of the few surviving copies of that 19-engraving edition is at the Library.  Though it didn’t accomplish what Laurentii wanted, it still represented a transformative moment in publishing history — an ambitious marriage of European literature and the developing art of printing. It was also a major political statement at the time, as Florence was asserting its power across Italy, and Dante’s work in the local tongue would become the foundation of the modern Italian language.

A large folio book, opened to a pave revealing text and an illustration at bottom of one page

The Library’s 1481 copy of “The Divine Comedy.” One engraving and two empty spaces for others show how the project never fully materialized. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Photo: Shawn Miller.

“I consider it one of the most precious copies (of the Comedy) at the Library,” says Lucia Wolf, the Library’s Italian collections specialist.

Laurentii’s edition is one of the key documents featured in “The Unexpected Dante: Perspectives on the Divine Comedy,” a new book that collects five essays by scholars that examine the poem’s shimmering imagery, religious allusions and how both have impacted world art and culture. It draws on more than 5,000 items at the Library that are related to Dante’s masterpiece – dozens of editions of the book, prints, photographs and works of art. It’s edited by Wolf, and published by the Library in association with Bucknell University Press and distributed by Rutgers University Press.

In Laurentii’s 1481 edition, the illustrations are by Baccio Baldini. Contemporary reports say that he based them on drawings by Sandro Botticelli, one of the most famous painters of the era. They are black-and-white, finely etched engravings that take up about a third of a page. They depict scenes from the book — a man in hell being tortured among lost souls; Virgil and Dante in Purgatory, with Beatrice in the distance — that would come to be standard visual ideas of the Christian afterlife. The 15th-century printing techniques were a work in progress, as some of the engravings extend beyond the lines of type, and the image reproduction isn’t always crisp.  There are also dozens of blank squares at the beginning of some paragraphs, where an engraving was planned but not filled in.

“Why this was the case — and what happened to the other illustrations for the book — has been the subject of speculation by historians for generations,” writes Sylvia R. Albro, the Library’s recently retired senior paper conservator, in her essay, “A Florentine First.” Most likely, she writes, a combination of factors, from printing quality to downsizing the copper plate engravings from the size of original drawings to fit the page was to blame.

Still, Laurentii’s work became one of the most influential editions of “Comedy,” buoyed by its commentary by Cristoforo Landino that lauded it as a work of Florentine culture. And “Comedy” itself resonated through the ages, influencing theologians, poets, writers and artists. Even in the United States, a country founded four centuries after the book’s initial publication, people found deep meaning in its allegorical concepts. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the eminent American poet, published one of the first U.S. translations of the poem in 1867, introducing it to a nation recovering from the horrors of war.

“It was seen as a metaphor for the Civil War,” Wolf said. “It was seen as a reflection.”

The Library has eight of the earliest print editions of “Comedy” that were published between 1477 and 1497, acquired in  the collections of Lessing J. Rosenwald and Otto Vollbehr. They remain some of the most valuable examples of incunabula, as books printed before 1501 are known, at the Library. It’s a fitting status for a work of art that has transcended the ages.

“It’s a very particular work,” Wolf said. “It’s medieval. But it has shown again and again throughout history that it’s a great work of art because people are able to repurpose it and apply it to another time.”

Sketched portrait of Dante, wearing a plain collarless shirt and a cap with a laurel of leaves around it

Portrait of Dante. Print of engraving by Raf­faello Morghen after a picture by Stefano Tofanelli. Circa 1826. Prints and Photographs Division.

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