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Visions of Dante

A Dante Collection At Cornell: A Short History

“I have decided to give the library this year a little Dante collection.”

—Willard Fiske to James Morgan Hart,
Professor of English, Cornell University, June 23, 1893

In 1892, Fiske inadvertently purchased a relatively rare edition of the Divine Comedy in Florence. At this point, his real passion was Petrarch, not Dante. In a postcard to interim Cornell Librarian William Harris, Fiske himself downplayed the value of the book: “I sent you a copy of Dante - (Giolito) Stagnino edition of 1536. It is, I believe, complete, but in a sad binding. No special value attached to the edition so far as I know. Should the Library already possess a copy, please forward this to the library at Dryden.”

Despite initial missteps involving bookworms, Fiske decided to assemble and donate “a little Dante collection” at Cornell for teaching and research. Based on the bookplate that he himself designed for the Bibliotheca Dantesca, which included a time span, the plan was to acquire, by 1894, all the existing printed editions of the Divine Comedy, plus the bibliography.

Workshop of Raffaello Romanelli
Italian, 1856–1928
Bust of Dante, ca. 1890
20 x 20 x 12 inches (51 x 51 x 30.5 cm)
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(7 images)

This artifact was made in the studio of Raffaello Romanelli (San Frediano, 70, Florence.) The popularity of this sculptor was growing at such a significant pace that, from 1894 onward, he had to rent a second studio in Piazza Santo Spirito to make space for production. In addition to big commissions (for example, the bronze statue of Garibaldi in Sienna and the cenotaph of Donatello in Florence), Romanelli sold of busts of Dante or his muse Beatrice in large numbers to American tourists. One of his last sculptures was the marble statue of Dante financed by the Italian community of Detroit, Michigan (erected in Belle Isle Park in 1927). Fiske owned several of such busts and medallions, including others on display in the exhibition (see Death Mask of Dante).

Dante Alighieri
Comedia del divino poeta Dante Alighieri
Venice, 1536
Page: 8 x 5 1/2 inches (20.32 x 13.97 cm)
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(2 images)

This, the first Dante volume purchased by Fiske for Cornell, was initially sent to Professor Anna Botsford Comstock (1854–1930) in Cornell’s entomology lab because it contained live bookworms! With the development of hygiene, they had become quite rare in American libraries, and Harris informed Fiske that “Professor Comstock was delighted to get the little pests, and is carefully nursing them in confinement”.

Checklist of editions of the Divine Comedy acquired by Fiske as of March 1894
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(2 images)

“The penciled numbers to the right of each entry are the Library classification numbers Harris assigned to them according to his unique system. [Other] penciled annotations by Harris indicate the works the Fiske Dante Collection lacked as of march 1894 with respect to the joint catalog of the Dante collections in Harvard College and the Boston Public Libraries by William Coolidge Lane, an acquisition at Harvard.”[1]

Dante Alighieri, and Cristoforo Landino
La Commedia
Published by Niccolo della Magna, Florence, 1481
13 x 9 inches (33.02 x 22.86 cm)
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(1 image)

This edition of the Divine Comedy, which presents Dante’s poem along with a new commentary by Florentine humanist Cristoforo Landino (1424–1498), has the distinction of being the first edition printed in Dante’s natal city. It is also the first to be illustrated with prints.

Following drawings by Sandro Botticelli (1444/45–1510), engraved copperplates were produced, most likely by Baccio Baldini (ca. 1436–1487), to provide an illustration for each canto. The engraving technique was an unusual choice, because it required the illustrated pages to be double printed—first with type, leaving space on the page to print the image. Partly for this reason, only the pages for the first three cantos of Inferno received this double-printing treatment, and the intention to fully illustrate each of the 100 total cantos in the Divine Comedy stopped at Inferno canto nineteen. Some copies of the 1481 edition have one or two of the plates, but only about twenty feature all nineteen, most pasted in, rather than printed directly on the pages.

Cornell’s copy features no original illustrations—the original (and apparently sole) original illustration having been cut out—but it is instead illustrated, as Willard Fiske remarked, by “facsimiles of the first five engravings, finely executed by Burt of London.” This indicates both Fiske’s privileging of a copy complete in its text over one with original illustrations, and also indicates nineteenth-century book dealers’ willingness to “complete” more unillustrated copies to make them more attractive to collectors and librarians. This copy was, in any case, at Cornell by 1899, when Fiske wrote about it in his preface to the catalogue of the Dante collection.

This image accompanying Inferno canto 15 finds Dante and Virgil in the seventh circle of hell, where sodomites (those who have engaged in homosexual relations—not sanctioned in Dante’s society) are condemned to walk eternally on burning sand. A man tugs at Dante’s cloak and he recognizes his own teacher, Brunetto Latini (1220–1294), like Dante, a Florentine intellectual and political exile. The engraved composition closely follows Botticelli’s original drawing, now in the Vatican; as Latini detains him, Dante stoops and rests his hand on Latini’s brow, tenderly completing the circle of touch. This significant gesture—not present in the poem—makes a visual analogue to Dante’s kind treatment of Latini in the text, and underscores the teacher/pupil bond expressed there.

“Some Dante Treasures Under Lock and Key” and “A Corner of the Dante Alcove”
Photographs of the Fiske Dante Collection and study room, Cornell University Library, ca. 1895–1900
As published in Theodore Wesley Koch, The Growth & Importance of the Cornell Dante Collection, Cornell University, 1904.
Albumen print photographs
5 1/2 x 4 inches (13.97 x 10.16 cm)
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(2 images)

These photographs found in Willard Fiske’s own Dante portfolios show some of the then seven thousand Dante volumes of the Fiske collection securely shelved in the University library (now known as Uris Library). This arrangement was the brainchild of Theodore Wesley Koch, a Harvard-educated scholar who was hired to catalogue the Fiske Dante collection in 1895. If Fiske was the dogged chaser of early editions and multiple translations, Koch had a soft spot for the visual material as well, cataloguing and displaying reproductions after famous artists’ works after Dante. The bust on the pedestal against the far wall as well as the life mask hanging on the wall at center feature in the exhibition as well.

About this curated arrangement of artworks relating to Dante, Koch wrote:

“These illustrations will give some idea of what I have tried to do to relieve the harshness of iron floors and fire-proof construction. When I first assumed charge of the collection…there was no inviting place near the books themselves where the visitor… could consult them and keep in touch with anything poetical… So, making the best of these circumstances, I thought of hanging a few portraits of Dante on the walls of the stack and at the ends of the book-presses. Then I added a few portrait busts and reproductions of some of the more interesting pictures inspired by Dante’s life and works.”

In 1900, Koch published a hand-list of all the framed portraits and other pictures, for the use of students and other visitors. In the preface to the list, Koch took pains to point out his desire to express “by the subjects here presented that Dante is the poet of a higher nature of man, and not the mere recorder of the grotesque and horrible, which the popular mind…conceives him to be.”

Analysis of the original plans for the university library Cornell University Archivist Evan Earle indicate that this “alcove” was most likely on the main floor of the library, adjacent to the main reading room, offering easy access for students.

Edmé de Boulonois
Flemish, active late 17th century
Portrait of Dante, from Isaac Bullart, Académie des Sciences et des Arts, contenant les vies et les éloges historiques des hommes illustres (Brussels, Amsterdam, and Paris), 1682
Image: 7 1/4 x 5 3/8 inches (18.42 x 13.65 cm)
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(1 image)

For Willard Fiske, building a world-class Dante collection extended beyond the systematic pursuit of historic editions of the Divine Comedy. Fiske seems to have adhered to the long-held belief that one could understand Dante better by examining his physical likenesses—perhaps because Dante himself is so famously the main character of his own work. These likenesses persisted even though the post-Renaissance understanding of Dante’s visual appearance is based on a life mask of the poet whose relationship to Dante’s actual face is spurious (see Death Mask of Dante).

As such, the Fiske Dante collection features scores of Dante portrait prints, busts, and statues (see “Some Dante Treasures Under Lock and Key” and “A Corner of the Dante Alcove”), enabling an examination of the patterns of depicting Dante from the sixteenth century to the turn of the twentieth. This loose leaf from a seventeenth-century book about “illustrious men,” features the customary long face, aquiline nose, earflap cap and laurel crown seen in most portraits of Dante—as well as the library’s stamp, twice.

Telegram from the Treasurer of Cornell University to Fiske, October 28, 1896.
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(1 image)

The payment of both the cataloger’s salaries and the printing of the catalog were discussed in several letters. Eventually, Fiske paid half of the sum, and Harris paid the reminder from the Library’s budget.

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[1] Christian Yves Dupont, “Collecting Dante from Tuscany: The Formation of the Fiske Dante Collection at Cornell University,” Studies in Bibliography 58(1), January 2007.