A unique Dante incunable?

14 September 2021 marks the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante. The Wren Library houses a substantial collection of early editions of the Dante, combining many of the standard editions from all periods with some particular rarities. Some of these books have been in the ownership of the College for many centuries – indeed, it is likely that the first books to be added to the Library in a vernacular language other than English will have been editions of the Divine Comedy. Several hundred more were added to our shelves in 1895 by the donation of the Dante collection of Sir William Frederick Pollock (2nd Baronet) by his widow Juliet Lady Pollock. Pollock combined a busy legal career (latterly as Queen’s Remembrancer) with a lifelong fascination with Dante, and published a complete new translation of the Comedia in blank verse in 1854. His collection of older editions of Dante neatly complements the rich holdings of Dante in the library of William Grylls presented to Trinity College in 1863.

Sandro Botticelli, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The collections at Trinity include several well-known editions, not least two copies of the 1481 Florentine edition of the Comedia with commentary by Landino, each with interesting annotations (see the full descriptions here and here).

Much rarer than this is an edition of a text which was attributed to Dante in the fifteenth century but is now known to be apocryphal. The Credo is a versified confession of faith which was said to have been recited by Dante shortly before his death in Ravenna in 1321, its actual author remaining unknown. Some thirteen different editions of this text are known between the 1470s and the 1520s, and the copy in Trinity is an edition which is completely unknown in any other copy. Its full title in this edition is Credo che Dante fece quando fu accusato per heretico allo Inquisitore a Raue[n]na, and it comprises four leaves, with a large and elegant woodcut on the first page. The place of publication, name of printer and date are not recorded. The book has been digitised in full and is available on the Wren Digital Library

Grylls 3.361

The woodcut shows Dante pointing to the Inferno in the bottom left of the image. To the right is a city described in the woodcut as being ‘Fiorenza’, though it bears only passing resemblance to Dante’s native city. In an article published in 1990, the late Dennis E. Rhodes proved that this book cannot have been published in Florence, since the same woodcut was later used to illustrate two editions of Ovid’s Epistolae Heroides, in 1502 and 1508, both of which were certainly printed in Venice. The typefaces used in this edition confirm that it was printed by Bernadinus Venetus de Vitalibus, for sale by the publisher Giovanni Battista Sessa. The date of printing remains uncertain: it must have preceded the printing of the Ovid editions, since the image is very clearly of Dante, but we cannot be certain whether it dates from 1501 or 1500. As a result, it remains impossible to determine whether to describe this book as an incunable, given the strict (but irrational) cut-off date of 31 December 1500 for defining a book as an incunable. It has nevertheless been given the benefit of the doubt by the two major catalogues of incunabula, ISTC and GW.

Further reading:

Dennis E. Rhodes, ‘The Early Editions of the “Credo di Dante”’, Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, 9 (1986-90), pp. 531–36