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October 2017 Item of the Month

Dante’s Commedia

Image of Durham University Library SA 0135 f.28 showing Dante and Virgil at the gates of hell.
Durham University Library SA 0135 f.28 showing Dante and Virgil at the gates of hell.

This month’s item is a very early completely illustrated edition of Dante’s Commedia, published in Venice in November 1491 by Petrus de Plasis, and indeed it may be the earliest such work. There is another edition which claims to have been issued in the same city on 3rd March 1491 by Bernardinus Benalius and Matteo Capcasa but some scholars believe that the date is a mistake and it was in fact published in 1492. Both editions include the text of the Commedia with Christophoro Landino’s commentary in Italian which first appeared in print in 1481 and was to remain the definitive interpretation well into the 16th century. It was revised and corrected to some extent in the November 1491 edition and very much more fully in the March 1491 edition which suggests the ostensibly earlier text is actually a later version. When we remember that the Venetian year began on 1st March it is quite possible to see how a mistake might have been made. The colophon at the end of the November 1491 edition tells us the reviser was “maestro piero da fighino dellordine de frati minori”. He has recently been identified as Pietro Mazzanti da Figline, a priest who was active in Venice in the late 1480s.

The two editions contain one hundred or so similar woodcut illustrations within the text at the start of each canto. The one shown here is from the November 1491 edition and depicts Dante and his guide Virgil at the gates of hell at the beginning of canto 3 of Inferno. The legend above the gates can be roughly translated as “Abandon all hope ye who enter here”. The gates are of course always open and through the arch we can see a group of naked men and women following a plain banner; these are the neutrals or the lukewarm who never committed themselves to any cause or religion during their lifetimes. They are therefore condemned to follow the blank standard of their self-interest for all eternity, pestered endlessly by insects, although these are not shown in this view. Charon can be seen in his boat ferrying souls across the Acheron. The classical image of Charon was of an old man with long grey locks and some of the very earliest illuminated manuscripts of the Commedia show him in this way, but by the second half of the 14th century he is almost always seen as a devil. Here he has horns and a tail and he is also frequently shown with bat’s wings as well. Much later depictions such as those of William Blake and Gustave Doré revert to the classical model.

Copies of both editions can be seen in the forthcoming exhibition Hell, Heaven and Hope: a journey through life and the afterlife with Dante which opens at Palace Green Library on Saturday 2nd December 2017.

Every month we showcase here an item from our Heritage Collections.