The Fagel collection was assembled as a working library by several generations of the Fagel family, of whom successive members held high offices in the Dutch Republic throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century. The collection comprises books on a great variety of subjects, including literature in numerous languages. In that respect, it is hardly a surprise to come across an edition of Dante’s Divina Commedia in the library.
Dante was, however, not the most fashionable author in the century-and-a-half in which the Fagel collection was brought together. It is telling that not a single edition of Dante’s masterpiece was published in the Dutch Republic, and, that the first Dutch translation of Divina Commedia was not published until 1863-1864. Nevertheless, the eighteenth century Fagels had a copy in their collection. The edition and the provenance of the copy may hold some clues as to why this work was part of the Fagel collection.
Edition, binding and provenance
The edition of Divina Commedia that is present in the Fagel Collection was edited by Francesco Sansovino (1521–1586) and published in Venice by Giovanni Battista and Melchior Sessa and brothers in 1578. It is a reprint of the edition from 1564, which was the first edition to combine the commentaries of Christoforo Landino and Allesandro Vellutello. The illustrations in this edition were printed from the woodblocks that were first used by Francesco Marcolini in 1544. The titlepage has a woodcut portrait of Dante within a cartouche, which is derived from a portrait of Dante by the mannerist painter Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574).
The Fagel copy has a somewhat later stitched parchment binding (Dutch: splitselband) and has sprinkled edges. This binding might have been added in the eighteenth century, it certainly does not appear to be the original from the sixteenth century. The manuscript title on the spine simply reads ‘Dante’. The verso titlepage holds the most important clue to its provenance: a Maltese cross, the initials AMB, or Lambda MB, and the note , ‘No. iii9’ which is evidence of systematic shelving. So far we have not been able to find out who hides behind these initials, but the combination of a symbol, initials and a shelf mark, all in a legible hand, may well be recognized by some.
Italian books in the Fagel collection
When the Fagel collection was put up for auction in 1802, the copy of Dante was listed under Libri Italiani; Poesi e Mescolanze (Italian books; Poetry and Miscellanea), among other Italian greats as Ariosto, Boccaccio, Machiavelli and Tasso. There are two full pages comprising over fifty different works by Italian authors in the catalogue. The Fagels really seemed to love their Italians – especially when you consider the meagre section of Spanish authors that follows, covering only the well-known works of De Quevedo and Gracian. Further down in the auction catalogue is a section with an astonishing four hundred books on Italian history, subdivided by various geographical regions, such as Rome, Sicily and Naples, Tuscany and Florence, Genova, Milan, Savoy and Piedmont.
The auction catalogue was compiled by Samuel Paterson 0f Christie’s in London and does not necessarily reflect the classification that the Fagels would have used. A book may well have been listed as literature in the catalogue, while it had political significance for family. The Fagels held high office in the Dutch Republic for over a century and were at the centre of Dutch and European politics. Ambassadors and representatives of the various Italian states and cities frequented The Hague and the Fagels represented the Dutch Republic with respect to bilateral relations and trade agreements. They had every reason to be well-informed about Italian history, geography, politics and literature.
Gift or Acquisition?
Books rarely end up in a library by chance. There is often a historical contingency that explains why a specific copy has ended up in a collection. The Dante copy may, for example, have been presented as a gift to one of the Fagels by an Italian representative in The Hague. The simple binding suggests otherwise, but as mentioned above, the parchment does not appear to be the original sixteenth century binding. Another possibility is that one of the Fagels bought the copy at an auction, or even while traveling in Italy. François Fagel the Younger (1740-1773) travelled through Italy as part of his grand tour from 1759 to 1761.
The fact that the Fagels had a sixteenth century edition in their collection, is also a matter of availability. There were no contemporary editions on the market in the Dutch Republic, other than the antiquarian editions from Venice and Florence.
Unlocking the Fagel Collection
The unsolved inscription on the verso titlepage may hold the first clue to its provenance. Even though we haven’t been able to solve the puzzle ourselves, the project Unlocking the Fagel Collection does make the data available for research. All books from the collection are catalogued and all provenances are recorded in the catalogue. We are anxiously awaiting the day that anyone can tell us who hides behind the initials “AMB”.
The next step would be to consult the Fagel Archives in The Hague. There are 62 meters of archival sources, ranging from personal documents of the family to a vast correspondence with hundreds of correspondents from all across Europe. It would not be suprising to see the copy of Dante mentioned somewhere – and a good starting point would be the Journal du Voyage that François Fagel the Younger had drawn up during his grand tour.