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700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri: the UBL Dante collection

In September 1321, exactly 700 years ago, one of Italy's most famous writers, Dante Alighieri, died as a Florentine exile in Ravenna. That makes 2021 a Dante year. Already during his lifetime, he was a famous writer. His current fame rests especially on the Divine Comedy, a long narrative poem describing his voyage through hell, purgatory and heaven. Leiden University Libraries (UBL) has a rich collection of books from Dante's hand and about Dante. We selected a few interesting examples from our collection.

Leiden Dante collection

In the Leiden Dante collections, two donations stand out. In 2010, the library received the collection of Tilly van de Sande-Swart, and in 2014 the ‘small, but exquisite collection of beautifully designed editions of the work of Dante Alighieri’ of Teunis Swanenburg. Many books from the Dante collection are available for regular loan and can be requested in the Catalogue. Some valuable books, manuscripts and other documents can only be studied in the Special Collections Reading Room.

Codex Altonensis (facsimile)

This facsimile of the Codex Altonensis was published on the occasion of the 700th anniversary of Dante's birth in 1965. The codex itself is kept in the library of the Christianeum in Altona, a district in the German city of Hamburg. It is a fourteenth-century manuscript of the Divina Commedia. In the accompanying studies by Haup, Scheel and Degenhart, the provenance of the manuscript is studied, on the basis of the texts and the illuminations. According to Degenhart, the illustrations show the influence of the fourteenth-century School of Bologna (Vitale da Bologna, Niccolò da Bologna and his nephew Jacopo di Paolo).

DOUSA 88 5361-62: Alighieri, D., Haupt, H., Scheel, H. L., & Degenhart, B. (1965). Divina commedia : Codex Altonensis. Berlin: Mann.

English translation by Dorothy Sayers

Sayers (1893-1957), the writer of the famous stories about the detective Lord Peter Wimsey, made a translation of the Divine Comedy at the end of her life. She described her first acquaintance with Dante as follows:

‘However foolish it may sound, the plain fact is that I bolted my meals, neglected my sleep, work, and correspondence, drove my friends crazy […] until I had panted my way through the Three Realms of the Dead from top to bottom and from bottom to top.’

This small booklet contains only the first three cantos of Hell. Sayers’ translation wasn’t finished when she died. Barbara Reynolds translated the last thirteen cantos. That must have been a difficult task: Reynolds had to do justice not only to Dante’s poetry, but also to Sayers’ style of translation.

DANTE 6 F 23: Alighieri, D. Sayers, D. L., & Penguin (Firm). (1996). The first three circles of hell.

Divina Commedia by Salvador Dalí

The famous Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dalí (1904 - 1989) received a commission from the Italian government to illustrate the Divine Comedy in the beginning of the 1950s. He made 100 drawings, one for each canto, on the basis of which watercoloured woodcuts were produced. That this task was granted to a foreigner caused an outcry in Italy, which caused the Italian government to withdraw the commission. Dalí, however, finished the work independently.

DANTE 4 G 35 : Gualandi, G. L., & Dalí, S. (1995). Salvador Dalí : la Divina commedia e altri temi : opere grafiche. Bologna: Bora.

illuminations of Dante’s Divine Comedy by Giovanni di Paolo

Giovanni di Paolo (1399-1482) was a painter and miniaturist from Siena. He made the illustrations in this book for the king of Naples in the years 1438-1444. The original drawings, 61 illustrations in total, are currently held in the British Museum (‘The Yates Thompson Dante’). Di Paolo made drawings for Paradise only; those for Hell and Purgatory were created by other, unknown masters.

Dante 5 E 21: Pope-Hennessy, Alighieri, Singleton, Giovanni di Paolo, Alighieri, Dante, & Singleton, Charles. (1993). Paradiso : the illuminations to Dante's Divine Comedy by Giovanni di Paolo. London: Thames and Hudson.

Original manuscript of Dutch translation by Frederica Bremer

A Dutch translation of the Divine Comedy from the hand of Frederica Bremer was published in 1941. It was accompanied by introductory texts and notes from Wilhelmina Kuenen (1868-1938), who, as Bremer's teacher, had been a strong inspiration for her. After Kuenen’s death, Bremer used Kuenen’s lecture notes for explanations added to the text. Bremer’s translation appeared during the Second World War. This echoes in the introduction of the manuscript: ‘[F]or us, searching people of a shattered, searching time. Dante’s value judgements, Dante’s, convictions, Dante’s belief in a sure guidance, can become a deep consolation.’

LTK 2270: Dante translation Bremer. (1930). Netherlands.

Van de Sande Fellowships

Tilly van de Sande-Swart and her husband Jaap van de Sande not only bequeathed their book collections to Leiden University Libraries, but also instated fellowships for research into the history of pharmacy, botany of medicine and into Italian literature and culture – preferably into Dante of course. There is a senior fellowship, for a residence in Leiden with a maximum duration of three months, and a junior fellowship for a two-month maximum length. Take a look at the right-hand column for more information.

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