Upside-down illustration on Canto 3 in the Bodleian's copy, Auct. 2Q 1.11, of the 1481 Florence edition of Dante's Comedia

A virtual tour of Dante 1481 in multiple copies

Although the invention of printing seemed to promise a stream of identical copies from the press, scholars of early printing are well aware that this was not always the result. Stop-press changes and accidents in the press account for minor or sometimes major differences between copies of the same edition. The marks of ownership over several hundred years have added further copy-specific elements to the objects held in libraries today. Examining several copies of the same book, especially one printed before 1500, is therefore an enlightening experience. The copy-census is a valuable method for the study of early printing and one which requires personal inspection of copies which may be widely distributed around the world. To do this in person is a long and expensive process. A glimpse of the knowledge gained, though, could be had in a virtual visit to eight libraries, coordinated on 4 May 2021 to look at copies of one particular publication, the 1481 edition of Dante’s Comedia with a commentary by 15th-century Florentine scholar Christoforo Landino. Springing happily from a suggestion by Tabitha Tuckett, Rare-Books Librarian at University College London, this international tour co-hosted by UCL and the Bodleian, with support from the Italian Cultural Institute in London and the Bibliographical Society of America, expanded on a growing practice of librarians showing books online using a visualiser. In pre-pandemic times the visualiser or document camera could be used for teaching in a lecture theatre or at a distance; in times of limited international travel it is a way to communicate across institutions, and librarians have grasped the possibility of ‘face-to-face’ comparisons on camera, as at the January, 2021 seminar on Myles Coverdale’s Goostley Psalmes between the Queen’s College Oxford, Beinecke, and Bodleian Libraries.

For a description of the ambitious – perhaps too ambitious – 1481 edition and the drawings by Botticelli which seem to be the source of the illustrations, see this blogpost by Gervase Rosser, Professor of the History of Art at the University of Oxford, The first printed and illustrated edition of Dante’s Comedy

The edition is now the subject of a collaborative copy-census research co-ordinated by Cristina Dondi, Professor of Early European Book Heritage, University of Oxford, via the Printing Revolution project:
https://www.printingrevolution.eu/the-polonsky-dante-project/

The event included short talks on Dante (Professor John Took, UCL and Dr. Alessandro Scafi, Warburg Institute), Botticelli’s illustrations (Professor Gervase Rosser, University of Oxford), on surviving copies (Professor Cristina Dondi, University of Oxford and Secretary of CERL) and on the context of the book’s production (Dr. Tabitha Tuckett, UCL).

Library curators from several institutions gave their time and expertise to this exciting tour which revealed the complexity of the original printing project and the rich history of collecting this edition over the succeeding centuries. A recording of the online event is hoped for. Libraries taking part in the 4 May virtual tour:

·      Bodleian Libraries, Oxford, UK (co-organiser)

·      Library Services, University College London, UK (co-organiser)

·      Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, Italy

·      Biblioteca Vallicelliana di Roma, Italy

·      The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, USA

·      The British Library, UK

·      John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, UK

·      Trinity College, Cambridge, UK

The Bodleian’s copy, which is available in digital facsimile online, includes three printed illustrations; the illustrations to Canto 2 and Canto 3 are each printed from the same intaglio plate, but in Canto 3 this has been printed upside down. A film made at the Bodleian’s Bibliographical Press workshop demonstrates how the printing of an intaglio illustration on a letterpress page might have been done by fifteenth-century printers.

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