Dante at Illinois celebrates the rich holdings of The Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. It is no surprise to find the medieval poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) well–represented at Illinois, a place rich in early editions of classics of literature, history, philosophy, and science. The author of the Divina commedia, or Divine Comedy, stands as Italy’s foremost poet, and continues to speak to his readers nearly seven hundred years after his death. In America, Dante is as popular today as he ever has been. The encyclopedic nature of Dante’s Divina commedia and the humanness of his lesser works such as the Vita nuova, or New Life, provoke endless interpretation and reinterpretation.

Dante’s Divina commedia was first printed in 1472 by Johann Neumeister at Foligno, a century and a half after its composition. Fifteen editions of the work were printed in Italy before 1500, many of which are represented in this exhibition. From the first edition of 1472 to the end of the sixteenth century, Dante was an author who sold well. During this time, a varied corpus of commentaries on the Divina commedia began to accumulate. However, in the seventeenth century, Dante’s popularity waned, as is evident by the very small number of Dante editions from that period. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought renewed interest in Dante, especially in Great Britain and America. Henry Francis Cary’s first complete English translation of the Divina commedia, published in 1805–1806, set into motion a continuous stream of translations. Poets such as Robert Pinsky and W. S. Merwin carry on this profusion of translations today.

The impetus for this exhibition came in October 2005 when the University of Illinois lost one of its accomplished faculty members, Anthony K. Cassell. A professor in the Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, Cassell was a scholar of medieval and Renaissance Italian literature. He was a mentor to me and the first to guide me through Dante’s Divina commedia. The desire to honor his achievements has provided me with inspiration for this exhibition.

The original text of this exhibition benefited from comments from Christian Dupont, Valerie Hotchkiss, Brandy Parris, and Bruce Swann. I am grateful for the support of the staff of The Rare Book & Manuscript Library, especially Valerie Hotchkiss, Gene Rinkel, Jane Somera, and Bruce Swann. This online exhibition was designed and produced by Dennis Sears, for whose expertise I am grateful.

All illustrations come from the collections of The Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois. Acknowledgment is due to W. S. Merwin for permission to reproduce freely a page from his literary archives in the collections at the University of Illinois. Acknowledgement is also due to the Gala–Salvador Dalí Foundation and the Artists Rights Society for permission to reproduce two images from; La Divina commedia. Illustrated by Salvador Dalí, 1963-64. Reproduction, including downloading of Dalí works is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Item descriptions for books contain author, title, place of publication, printer or publisher, and date of publication. Information taken from a source other than the item itself is enclosed in square brackets (citations for the fifteenth–century editions follow Frederick R. Goff’s Incunabula in American Libraries). Place names and printers’ names have been regularized, usually in their modern English or vernacular form. Some entries are followed by abbreviated references to works found in the “Bibliography” section of this exhibition. Please click on images that do not extend across the gray text block for a larger–sized view.

A printed catalog of the exhibition is available for purchase at $15.00 postage paid. Please send checks to:

The Rare Book & Manuscript Library
University of Illinois Library, Room 346
1408 W. Gregory Dr.
Urbana, IL 61801

The catalog contains a forward by Valerie Hotchkiss, Head of The Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and descriptions of all thirty-two exhibit items, along with more than a dozen color illustrations.

— Christopher D. Cook


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