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The Fiske Dante Collection

Dante Alighieri. La divina commedia.
Foligno (Italy): Johann Neumeister, 1472.

The Fiske Dante Collection was donated to the Cornell University Library by Daniel Willard Fiske, Cornell’s first University Librarian, an outstanding linguist and an energetic book collector.

Fiske began collecting Dante almost inadvertently in April 1892 and initially had no intention of pursuing such an enterprise. He records that “the charm of the chase got hold of me,” and the rest is bibliographic history. The Dante Collection Fiske assembled between 1893 and 1896 was celebrated in its own time and remains to this day almost incomparable in America as a repository of Dante imprints. The collection features not only hundreds of early editions of The Divine Comedy but also spans across the entire range of Dante’s oeuvre, from the inception of printing through much of the twentieth century. In addition, the Dante Collection incorporates an unusually extensive assemblage of literary criticism focused on Dante and the early humanist era in Italian literature. Today the collection includes nearly twelve thousand items and is part of the rare book collections in Cornell Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.

Few manuscripts are in the Fiske Dante Collection. The impressive run of Incunabula and sixteenth-century imprints of The Divine Comedy, however, offer a nearly comprehensive resource for textual historians and a unique perspective on the history of Renaissance printing. The collection includes one of the two first editions of the Comedy published in 1472, a handsome copy of the printing by Johann Neumeister in Foligno.

The collection continues to grow today, with the acquisition of selected important new editions and fine press versions of The Divine Comedy, a recent example of which is an American translation of the poem, illustrated by California artist Sandow Birk. The artist locates the Inferno in Los Angeles (complete with police helicopters on the night horizon), Purgatorio in San Francisco, and Paradiso in New York and locales beyond.

Fiske’s remarkable achievement as a collector of books by and about Dante is preserved in the Catalogue of the Dante Collection presented by Willard Fiske, compiled in two volumes (1898-1900) by Theodore Wesley Koch (with supplemental volume of Additions in 1920, compiled by Mary Fowler, curator of the Dante and Petrarch Collections from 1907 to 1920).

Access note:

The Dante Collection is part of Cornell Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC). Books may be requested through the RMC reference desk and viewed in the RMC reading room.

Related Online Resources:

The image archive in Artstor contains a number of images related to the Fiske Dante Collection, in particular a comprehensive scan of the 120 images in John Flaxman’s La divina comedia: cioè L’inferno, Il purgatorio ed Il paradise di Dante Alighieri (1793).