Behind the scenes Collections

Digitising Dante

Introduction to the Envisioning Dante project and its photographer, Samuel Simpson. As well as a comparison between two copies of the 1484 edition of Dante's comedy.


My name is Samuel Simpson, and I am the (relatively) newly appointed Dante project photographer, working on Dr Guyda Armstrong’s AHRC-funded project Envisioning Dante c. 1472-c. 1630: Seeing and Reading the Early Printed Page.

My role in the Envisioning Dante project is to digitise the Rylands’ extensive collection of Dante’s early printed works, to create data which can then be analysed by both humans and machines.

This project will offer the first in-depth study into the material features of almost the entire corpus of prints (1472 – 1629) of Dante’s Comedy. The 1472 edition was one of the first vernacular books printed in Italy, and over the next 150 years over 50 more editions would be printed, a frequency which made it one of the most printed books of its day and consequently a highly influential book in Europe.

In using cutting-edge technology such as machine learning and image matching as well as book historical, literary and art-historical approaches, this project will shed light on the immense amount of information held in these temporal objects, the narrative and commentaries contained within them, and their place in the rich history of the printed book.

Dante who?

Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321) of Florence, remains one of the most prolific, iconic and influential vernacular poets of Italy. His work is of global renown and importance, having been translated into over 80 languages. The Divine Comedy was Dante’s opus magnum, narrating the poet’s journey through the afterlife – Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise. For his journey through the Inferno and most of the Purgatory, Dante is guided by the Roman poet Virgil (70 – 19 BC). Virgil was an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period. He is considered one of Rome’s greatest poets and his Aeneid is considered a national epic of ancient Rome.

For the rest of his journey through Paradise, Dante is guided by Beatrice. There is some debate around the identity of Beatrice (and whether she even existed at all), but she is most commonly believed to have been one of the daughters of Folco Portinari, a rich Florentine banker. In his Vita Nova (New Life) Dante claims to have fallen in love with her when he first saw her at the age of nine, and carried his love for her all his life. It could be said that in Dante’s Comedy, Beatrice is the incarnation of Beatific love. She is thus a central figure in his literary writings.

Don’t judge a book by its cover

There are a few editions which have been rebound for the Rylands at some point, which are in immaculate condition considering some are over 500 years old. It is pleasing to know that the 87 copies I will be digitizing have been looked after with so much care over their long history. I can only imagine where they have been over their life spans, each one having a history of its own. I am now a modest part of their history in being the first (in most of their cases) to bring them into the digital sphere.

Here is a notable example of the immaculate condition some of these rebound editions are in, and additionally some information as to the background of this book (R1803), as described on EMu:

First recto of Inferno, R1803.
Cover of R1803
Detail of binding, R1803.

“This edition of Dante’s Commedia was printed in Venice by Octavianus Scotus on 23 March 1484. It is one of three copies of this edition held at the John Rylands Library (see also R96503 and 18443), and was acquired by Mrs Rylands sometime between 1890 and 1900, almost certainly forming part of the Library’s original collection.

The volume is bound in dark green Moroccan leather, with the John Rylands Library motif stamped on the front and rear bindings in gold-tooling. The leaf edges are gilded and the spine, noticeably faded, bears gold-tooled lettering which reads ‘DANTE / OCT. SCOTUS / VINEGIA / 1484’. On the inside of the front binding, in gold-tooled lettering, is printed ‘BOUND BY W. PRATT’. William Pitt Pratt was a bookbinder working in London during the nineteenth century.”

Parallel lives

When I took this edition out of storage to be digitized, I was surprised by its condition, not only of the binding but also of the pages within. It took me a few minutes to take in this magnificent object. I find it interesting that this edition is in such good condition while another copy of the same edition is in such a fragile state of repair. The two separate lives these editions have lived is revealed by their current condition. Here is some information from EMu and images of this particular fragile copy (R96503):

“This edition of Dante’s Commedia was printed in Venice by Octavianus Scotus on 23 March 1484. It is one of three copies of this edition held at the John Rylands Library (see also 18443 and R1803), and was donated to the library on 13 May 1951 by Sir John J. Conybeare, in memory of his late father, F. C. Conybeare. A bookplate documenting this bequest is attached to the front inner binding, along with notes confirming that the volume is incomplete and wanting several leaves, including the title page.

The volume is loosely bound in crude vellum and is secured by ties. The bindings appear contemporaneous with the printing of the book, and show signs of damage to the front cover. Handwritten upon the spine are the words ‘Dante / Inferno / Purgatorio / Paradiso / Venezia 1484’. However, this has been written on the wrong end of the spine, giving the impression that the bindings have been attached upside-down. Further damage may be observed within the volume, much of which has been repaired in an amateur fashion (see especially fol. B.iii: a large portion of the leaf has been detached completely, and has been repaired using red wax and small pieces of paper).

The volume is made up of quires of mainly eight leaves. The leaves in the first half of each quire are signed in the bottom right-hand corner of the recto side of each leaf. The text is printed on paper, in Roman type. Most leaves are folio format, although fols. z.ii and z.vii and quire ‘&’ are printed in quarto format on half sheets of super-royal paper. Small sections of Dante’s poem are printed on each leaf and are completely surrounded by the accompanying commentary by Christopher Landino. Woodcut initials have been printed throughout the volume, both within the text of the poem and the surrounding commentary. New paragraphs within the commentary are marked with alternating red and blue capital letters.

Due to the fragility of the bindings and the severe damage to several of the leaves, this volume is in a delicate state of repair.”

First recto of Inferno, R96503.
Spine and head of R96503.
Exposed spine detail of R96503.


While this copy is fragile, it could be said to possess more character; its imperfections seem to add to its personality. This copy has seen action. I wonder how many have read and studied its pages over its life. This copy has a patina which is true to its age, a hint of what it will have looked like when it was first made. It is clear that this copy has lived a full life and it can now rest comfortably at the Rylands.

In conclusion, I can say with confidence that each book I digitise as part of the Envisioning Dante project will be unique; all having their own respective histories and quirks. Some bear signs of heavy use while others remain almost as pristine as the day they were printed. As different as they may be on a physical level, they are all held together by one common story: Dante’s Comedy.

It is a privilege to be a small cog in both this great project and the amazing place which is the John Rylands Library. I look forward to the revelations which will come about as this project develops and to learning of the discoveries which have been and will be made through photographing and studying the Special Collections at the Rylands.

View some of our digitized Dante editions and manuscripts in Manchester Digital Collections.

2 comments on “Digitising Dante

  1. Elaine McKinney

    Beautiful read. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experiences

  2. This lovely piece on early printed books led me to write a blog post about the hand-lettered blue Lombardic ‘H’ versus the printed lower case ‘h’ in the previous image.

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