A Digital Archive of the Earliest Illustrated Editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy (1487–1568)

Book his­to­ry buffs don’t need to be told, but the rest of us prob­a­bly do: incun­able—from a Latin word mean­ing “cra­dle,” “swad­dling clothes,” or “infancy”—refers to a book print­ed before 1501, dur­ing the very first half-cen­tu­ry of print­ing in Europe. An over­whelm­ing num­ber of the works print­ed dur­ing this peri­od were in Latin, the transcon­ti­nen­tal lan­guage of phi­los­o­phy, the­ol­o­gy, and ear­ly sci­ence. Yet one of the most revered works of the time, Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy—writ­ten in Italian—fully attained its sta­tus as a lit­er­ary clas­sic in the lat­ter half of the 15th cen­tu­ry.

In addi­tion to numer­ous com­men­taries and biogra­phies of its author, over 10 edi­tions of the epic Medieval poem— the tale of Dante’s descent into hell and rise through pur­ga­to­ry and paradise—appeared in the peri­od of incunab­u­la, the first in 1472. The 1481 edi­tion con­tained art based on San­dro Botticelli’s unfin­ished series of Divine Com­e­dy illus­tra­tions. The first ful­ly-illus­trat­ed edi­tion appeared in 1491. None of these print­ings includ­ed the word Divine in the title, which did not come into use until 1555. The Com­me­dia, as it was orig­i­nal­ly called, con­tin­ued to gain in stature into the 16th cen­tu­ry, where it received lav­ish treat­ment in oth­er illus­trat­ed edi­tions.

You can see Illus­tra­tions from three of the edi­tions from the first 100-plus years of print­ing here, and many more at Dig­i­tal Dante, a col­lab­o­ra­tive effort from Colum­bia University’s Library and Depart­ment of Ital­ian. These images, from Columbi­a’s Rare Book and Man­u­script Library, rep­re­sent a 1497 wood­cut edi­tion, at the top, with a num­ber of hand-col­ored pages; an edi­tion from 1544, above, with almost 90 cir­cu­lar and tra­di­tion­al­ly-com­posed scenes, all of them prob­a­bly hand-col­ored in the 19th cen­tu­ry; and a 1568 edi­tion with three engraved maps, one for each book, like the care­ful­ly-ren­dered visu­al­iza­tion of pur­ga­to­ry, below.

Of this last edi­tion, Jane Siegel, Librar­i­an for Rare Books, writes, “the rel­a­tive lack of illus­tra­tions are bal­anced by the fine­ness and detail made pos­si­ble by using expen­sive cop­per engrav­ings as a medi­um, and by the live­ly dec­o­rat­ed and his­to­ri­at­ed wood­cut ini­tials sprin­kled through­out the vol­ume at the head of each can­to.” Each of these his­tor­i­cal arti­facts shows us a lin­eage of crafts­man­ship in the infan­cy and ear­ly child­hood of print­ing, a time when lit­er­ary works of art could be turned dou­bly into mas­ter­pieces with illus­tra­tion and typog­ra­phy that com­ple­ment­ed the text. Luck­i­ly for lovers of Dante, fine­ly-illus­trat­ed edi­tions of the Divine Com­e­dy have nev­er gone away.

You can see more images by enter­ing the Dig­i­tal Dante col­lec­tion here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Free Course on Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty

Artists Illus­trate Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy Through the Ages: Doré, Blake, Bot­ti­cel­li, Mœbius & More

Botticelli’s 92 Sur­viv­ing Illus­tra­tions of Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy (1481)

Mœbius Illus­trates Dante’s Par­adiso

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.