With the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death falling in 2021, the world is celebrating the life and legacy of Italy’s most iconic poet in a series of global events. But Dante has been a constant point of reference for the Rylands since the foundation of the library, with his monumental presence embedded in the very fabric of the building, in the stained glass collection of great men (alas, men only) who look down onto the historic reading room.
It is in the collections, though, where Dante really stands out. The legacy of Enriqueta Rylands’ lavishly funded collecting policy is that the Rylands now has one of the most comprehensive collections of early Dante editions in the world: a near-complete run which contains all but four of the editions of the Divine Comedy printed before 1629. In addition to these, we have a small but splendid collection of manuscripts dating from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries, plus a large Biblioteca Dantesca of later editions and scholarship (a further 5000 volumes or so).
The Manchester Digital Dante Collection
For the anniversary year, we’ve made three of the early printed editions and three of our manuscripts publically available in our new image viewer, Manchester Digital Collections. The three printed editions were digitized originally for Guyda Armstrong’s Manchester Digital Dante project in 2009/10, which was funded by the British Academy, and were housed originally in our legacy image viewer Luna. The three manuscripts have been digitized by the John Rylands Research Institute and Library, as part of the wider strategic aim to bring our medieval manuscript collections to a wider audience, and we aim in due course to add further items.
For our new Dante online collection, we have created detailed descriptions for each of these editions and manuscripts, highlighting points of bibliographical and design interest and copy-specific features, mapped to the images of the digital object. This new platform provides a powerful tool for a deep dive into some of our finest Manchester Dantes, and a window into the reading worlds of the past, including the ultra-canonical, maximally authorizing presentation of the first edition of Dante printed in Florence, to a copiously annotated earlier fifteenth-century working copy of the poem. Readers and owners over the centuries have highlighted points of interest, corrected the text, and erased or added different physical elements to the edition in their pursuit of the perfect copy.
The six books we have included here allow viewers to explore various graphic conventions of scribal and print production of the Divine Comedy between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. The printed editions — all printed within four years of each other—demonstrate rich and distinctly varied paratexts.
The 1477 edition was printed in Venice and was the very first edition to include material such as a life of the poet and commentary, while the 1477-78 Milan edition is aimed at a courtly audience, with a more scholarly and humanistic commentary.
Finally, the Florence edition of 1481 brings Dante back home to the most ostentatious degree, featuring a brand-new commentary showcasing Florentine excellence, plus a sequence of copperplate engravings to accompany the text. This is the first printed edition to include illustrations, and our Rylands copy contains the full set of 20 images, plus an additional frontispiece plate of the Last Judgement. The copperplate engravings were made by Baccio Baldini, reputedly from designs by Botticelli, and provide a fantastically animated visualization of scenes from the first 19 cantos of Hell.
The new digital Dante library launches our Manchester year of Dante. We’ll also be scheduling a series of online and (we hope) in-person events around the collections throughout the year, culminating in our physical exhibition on Dante in print in the John Rylands Research Institute and Library, which has had to be postponed due to the pandemic. All being well, this will now open to the public on Dantedì, March 25th 2022, which is the day designated as National Dante Day in Italy.