In 1892, just as Willard Fiske was restoring the Villa Landor on the edge of Fiesole, he impulsively purchased a 1536 edition of the Divine Comedy and had it sent directly to Cornell. The Fiske Dante Collection grew from this first acquisition, at first in hesitant increments intended to strengthen the Cornell Librarys holdings in the works of Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), the great Florentine poet, thinker and precursor of the early humanist Italians. However, as Fiske related, my ambition shortly took a broader range; the charm of the chase got possession of me, and it was impossible to escape from its grasp. Fiskes greatest period of Dante collecting was from 1893 to 1896. During that time, he amassed what is widely considered today one of the finest collections of Dante literature.
The Dante Collection celebrates the printed works of the poet, including a remarkable group of editions from the Incunabula period (before about 1500). Highlights include a splendid copy of the first (Foligno) edition of the Divina Commedia, printed in 1472. Of the editions and translations of Dante Alighieris works—the Divina Commedia, the Vita Nuova, and other books of poetry and philosophy—there is far too much to suggest more than a few examples. In May 1894, Professor Thomas Frederick Crane was already able to say that the American student of Dante must now . . . wend his way to Cornell, for the most important Dante library in the world, with the possible exception of the collection in the Biblioteca Nazionale at Florence, is now at Ithaca.