The Divine Comedy with commentary

On the opening page of the Douce Pliny we see its translator, Cristoforo Landino (1424-1504), standing before the Duomo of Florence, book in hand. Another monumental work by this industrious humanist, a professor of poetry and rhetoric who enjoyed the patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici, has just been digitized for the Polonsky Project: his commentary on Dante’s Divine Comedy, published in Florence in 1481.


In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries Dante was celebrated as a supremely great poet throughout the Italian peninsula. Uniquely for a modern writer, his work was accompanied by critical commentaries of a kind formerly reserved for scripture and the great works of classical antiquity. These commentaries circulated first in manuscript and then in printed form, and they could be dauntingly long ­– unavoidably so, for Dante’s poem contains an extraordinary number of references to history, politics, theology, philosophy, literature and science. The first printed edition of the Divine Comedy, published in Foligno in 1472, presents the poem, without commentary, in just over 400 spacious pages. Landino’s volume is larger, longer (over 700 pages) and several pounds heavier. The length and weightiness of his commentary, which would be reprinted many times, confirmed Dante’s status as an auctor, a figure of authority to be followed as a model and guide. It also reclaimed the poet as a great son of Florence, the city from which, in the latter part of his life, he had been exiled. In a ceremony held on 30 August 1481, Landino solemnly presented the city council with a copy of the book ­– Dante thus returned home.


Arranging the parallel texts – Dante’s poem and Landino’s commentary – on the page in a clear and attractive fashion was a challenge to the typographers. Compare the opening page of Purgatorio in the 1472 and 1481 editions. The former has a brief summary followed by 18 lines of the poem. The latter has just six lines of text, and around it a full 56 lines of commentary, densely set in smaller type (the commentary continues on the next page for another 53 lines before we finally get back to the poem).

Auct. 2Q 2.18 fol. [a1]r
Auct. 2Q 2.18, fol. [a1]r
Auct. 2Q 1.11 fol. aa3r
Auct. 2Q 1.11, fol. aa3r


An additional, and very different type of commentary was intended for the Landino volume. With four exceptions, space was left at the beginning of each of the poem’s 100 cantos for an illustration. In most cases, these spaces have remained just that. The majority of the surviving copies only have illustrations to the first two cantos of Inferno; in sixteen copies, including the Bodleian copy, the second engraving is printed again – in our case, for some reason, upside-down. Twenty copies contain as many as nineteen engravings. These illustrations have been linked, with varying degrees of certainty, to another great Florentine, Sandro Botticelli. 


Auct. 2Q 1.11 fol. a2r
Auct. 2Q 1.11, fol. a2r
Auct. 2Q 1.11 fol. b1v
Auct. 2Q 1.11, fol. b1v
Auct. 2Q 1.11 fol. c1v
Auct. 2Q 1.11, fol. c1v


You can compare the 1472 and 1481 editions of Dante's masterpiece below, using Mirador: