Stanford's 1481 'Divine Comedy' Online

September 2, 2021
Benjamin L Albritton
Dante Canto 2 decoration

In 1987, Stanford Libraries acquired a major collection of materials by, and about, Dante Alighieri. Among these materials were nine 15th-century editions of his Comedia (more familiarly, the Divine Comedy) - editions which are constant highlights in the teaching and learning programs in Special Collections and, because of the familiarity of the text to many students and visitors, in regular use by researchers.

Among these early editions, the 1481 imprint, produced in Florence and with a semi-realized cycle of engravings based on designs by Sandro Botticelli, presents some particularly interesting (and sometimes thorny) questions which are now the focus of a project being coordinated by the Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL), and funded by The Polonsky Foundation, to produce an illustrated copy-census of this particular edition. (See more here) According to the project, approximately 166 copies of this edition survive worldwide, each with unique elements.

This curated display will convey to academic and non-academic audiences the fact that each book, even of the same edition, has its own distinctive and unique story to tell.

- Cristina Dondi,

Our copy, for instance, has only two of the illustrations, and most of the book retains blank spaces where the illustrations could have been inserted.

Comparison of pages with illustration and without

First illustration in this edition, on left, blank space for third illustration on right

The Stanford copy also has multiple instances of printing errors that point out some of the challenges faced in the creation of early European printed books, and the types of mistakes that might be made in the production process.

Two running headers with "octavo" reversed and upside down on the left, reversed and right side up on the right

Example of incorrectly-oriented running headers in the 'Paradiso' section of the Stanford copy

Stanford Libraries has now fully digitized our copy of the 1481 edition, with many thanks to Chris Hacker, Wayne Vanderkuil, and the whole team in the Digitization Production Group for their work to make this happen. We have contributed information about our copy, and now the links to the digitized version as well, so that this volume can be considered alongside copies held at 129 other libraries worldwide. We look forward to learning more about our volume as research emerges from this consortial project in the years to come. If you would like more information on the CERL project, including a link to a video of a multi-location presentation on the project, please see here.

In the meantime, you can explore Stanford's copy through the embedded viewer here or in SearchWorks. Information about our copy can also be found at the Material Evidence in Incunabula (MEI) site.

You can also compare the 1481 edition with our fully-digitized 1497 printed edition, or 14th-century manuscript leaf: