Durante degli Alighieri, usually known simply as Dante, was born in Florence, probably in 1265. He held various political posts and was among the White Guelphs exiled in 1302. An amnesty was offered in 1315 but Dante refused it as it involved a heavy fine and public penance. He died in 1321, never having returned to his native city and was buried in Ravenna. Florentines eventually came to regret his absence – an empty tomb was built in 1829 in the hope of repatriating his remains and in 2008 the city council finally passed a motion rescinding his sentence.
Dante wrote some of his works in Latin, as was the custom of the time, but he was also among the first to write in the vernacular, leading to his soubriquet ‘Father of the Italian language’. His best known work is the epic poem Commedia, later called by Giovanni Boccaccio Divina (The Divine Comedy), which is in three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso and tells of Dante’s journey through the three realms of the dead. Commedia (original spelling Comedia) has been translated into numerous languages in the original ternary rhyme, in free verse and in prose. It is universally recognised as a literary masterpiece.
The images here are from Trinity College Library’s two earliest editions of Commedia which are in the Quin Collection of early continental printings. Quin 51 was printed at Foligno in 1472, the first ever printed edition, and Quin 52 in Venice in 1502. Quin 51 has a beautifully illuminated initial page and the printer has left space for an illuminated initial at the start of both Purgatorio and Paradiso which were never completed; a P has been lightly written into Purgatorio but there is just a blank space where the L of ‘La’ should be in Paradiso.
Due to the light levels, these incunabula cannot be displayed in the Berkeley foyer. Instead, there is currently a modern, limited edition, English version of Paradise on display there opposite a 1757 illustrated Italian edition.
Trinity College Dublin, in conjunction with other Irish institutions, is marking the 750th anniversary of Dante’s birth with a reading of the entire Commedia – Inferno in Dublin on 28th November, Purgatorio in Cork on 4th December and Paradiso in Trinity on 11th December. See details here and a podcast of Paradiso here.