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14 September 2021

700 years of Dante at the British Library

Today, 14 September 2021, we mark the 700th anniversary of the death of Italian poet Dante Alighieri. His main work, the Divine Comedy, is widely considered one of the most important works of literature. His vision still informs our idea of afterlife: how Hell, Purgatory and Paradise look like. His poetry still moves and inspires.

The British Library holds outstanding Dante collections, dating from the Middle Ages right up to the present day, which you can find out about in the following video made especially to celebrate this anniversary. The video has been made by European and American Collections in collaboration with Western Heritage Collections.


This video offers the rare opportunity to look at the circulation of one work of literature across seven centuries. Nothing survives in Dante’s own hand. The manuscripts of the Divine Comedy are, for this reason, even more important. The invention of printing shows how Dante was very popular in the 15th and 16th centuries in Italy, and his limited fortune during the Baroque and Enlightenment eras.

The Romantic era, the Risorgimento and the Italian unification sparked a new and increased interest in Dante as national poet. The Divine Comedy was acknowledged as the greatest work of poetry in Italian and became the subject of studies in Italian schools and universities. Translations started to become popular outside of Italy (we have editions of the Divine Comedy in about 40 different languages in our catalogue) and Dante studies became a subject in itself.

Plate by Amos Nattini depicting purgatory

Amos Nattini, Purgatorio, Canto XXVIII

Dante became popular in the mass media: for example, the first Italian feature length movie, commissioned in 1911 for the 50th anniversary of Italian unification, was inspired by the Divine Comedy and titled Inferno.

The political importance of the Divine Comedy is shown by the number of editions published in the 20th century, many directly sponsored by the Italian government.

Two of them are shown in the video. La Divina Commedia novamente illustrata da artisti italiani a cura di Vittorio Alinari (Firenze, 1902-3; 11420.k.11.) is the first. This lavish edition includes works of 59 young artists who had won a contest to produce new illustrations for the Divine Comedy. Two of them, Duilio Cambellotti and Alberto Martini, both in their early twenties at the time of the competition, distinguished themselves with a work of great graphical interest that shows their Symbolist style and anticipates the development of Art Nouveau.

Illustration by Duilio Cambellotti depicting Inferno

Duilio Cambellotti, Inferno, Canto X

The second work that I show is La Divina Commedia / illustrazioni di Dalì ([1963-64], awaiting shelfmark). On the occasion of this anniversary the British Library had the opportunity to acquire a precious edition of the Divine Comedy illustrated by the Spanish painter Salvador Dalì. This edition was commissioned on the 700th anniversary of Dante’s birth, in 1965. The painter took nine years to complete this work. In this collection of 100 watercolour woodcuts, Dalì adds elements of his iconic and unique imagination to Dante’s vision: desolate landscapes, crutches, spiders, figures with drawers.

Watercolour woodcut by Salvador Dalì depicting purgatory

Salvador Dalì, Purgatorio, Canto I

We couldn’t include them all in the video, but here are some other remarkable editions:

La Divina Commedia. Illustrazione su cento cartoline eseguita da artisti fiorentini, ideata e diretta dall’ingegnere Attilio Razzolini. (Milano, [1902, 03]). 11421.e.23. This is a collection of 100 postcards, one for each canto, in Gothic revival style. Each of them is decorated with miniatures by the illustrator.

La Divina Commedia, with plates by Amos E. Nattini. (Turin, [1923-41]). Cup.652.c.

La divina commedia. Introduzioni ai canti, di Natalino Sapegno. Disegni a colori di Antony de Witt. (Firenze, 1964). L.R.413.w.37.

Interested in learning more on Dante? Join us tonight for the online event Dante in the British Library: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven (Tuesday 14 September 2021, 19:30 - 20:30).

Valentina Mirabella, Curator, Romance Collections

10 September 2021

Celebrating 700 years of Dante at the British Library

Tuesday 14 September 2021 will be the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death. The British Library holds extensive Dante collections, with some richly illuminated manuscripts and precious printed editions of Dante’s masterpiece, the Divine Comedy.

To celebrate the Italian poet (c. 1265-1321) we have organised an online event, Dante in the British Library: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, presenting original research on the Divine Comedy. Dr Alessandro Scafi of the Warburg Institute will focus on Dante’s vision of the Garden of Eden against the backdrop of medieval tradition, seen through maps. The second lecture will be given by Elisabeth Trischler, who is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds. Elisabeth will be speaking about the expansion of Florence during Dante’s lifetime and how it influenced the Divine Comedy. She will look at two examples: medieval representations of cities, and towers.

Title page of Dante con l’espositione di Christoforo Landino et di Alessandro Vellutello sopra la sua comedia dell’Inferno, del Purgatorio, & del Paradiso

Dante con l’espositione di Christoforo Landino et di Alessandro Vellutello sopra la sua comedia dell’Inferno, del Purgatorio, & del Paradiso (Venice, 1564) C.78.d.13.

We will also be sharing something really exciting about Dante and the British Library’s Dante collections in the coming weeks!

In the meantime, I would like to share some of my favourite lines from the Divine Comedy. It is a quote from Ulysses’ ‘little oration’ to exhort his companions to set sail towards the unknown. This sums up Dante’s own desire for knowledge, which he passes on to all his readers:

Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.
(Inferno 26.118-20)

Consider well the seed that gave you birth:
you were not made to live your lives as brutes,
but to be followers of worth and knowledge.

Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections

31 August 2021

Women in Translation Month 2021

As we come to the end of Women in Translation Month 2021, this blog post brings together three books by women authors in translation from across Europe.

Cover of In Diamond Square

Mercè Rodoreda, In Diamond Square, translated by Peter Bush (London, [2013]). ELD.DS.1778
Chosen by Geoff West, Former Curator Hispanic Studies 

Written when its author was still living in exile, Mercè Rodoreda’s novel tells the story of a young woman in working-class Barcelona from the early 1930s to the aftermath of Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War. At a dance in the Square, the impressionable Natàlia meets a confident young man, Quimet, and soon falls under his spell. He insists that she will be his wife within a year and on giving her the nickname ‘Pidgey’. Inevitably they do marry, and they have two children. However, Quimet now earns little as a carpenter and decides to rear pigeons in their flat. Natàlia takes on work as a cleaner in a middle-class household, adding to the burden of her own housework.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Quimet goes off to fight on the Republican side and is killed. The full impact of the conflict is now conveyed as food and fuel run short. Natàlia loses her job and sends her son away to a camp for refugee boys to ensure he will be fed. After being forced to sell all her possessions to survive, she finally contemplates suicide for herself and her children. However, a providential conversation with a local grocer, who offers her work, saves her. The pair get married and Natàlia achieves an accommodation with the possibilities offered by her new existence.

Rodoreda’s first-person narrative effectively conveys the experiences and reactions of a woman initially unprepared for marriage in a male-dominated society. It also graphically documents the resilience required of ordinary people during war. The final chapters articulate the trauma of coming to terms with the past.

First published in 1962, La plaça del Diamant has now been translated into English three times and into more than twenty other languages. It remains one of the most successful works of Catalan fiction.

Additional references:

Mercè Rodoreda, La plaça del Diamant (Barcelona, 1962) 11303.n.12
Mercè Rodoreda, The Pigeon Girl, trans. Eda O’Shiel (London, 1967) X.909/10529
Mercè Rodoreda, The Time of the Doves, trans. David H. Rosenthal (New York, 1980)

Cover of Desdemona – if you had only spoken! Eleven uncensored speeches of eleven incensed women

Christine Brückner, Desdemona – if you had only spoken! Eleven uncensored speeches of eleven incensed women, translated by Eleanor Bron (London, 1992) YK.1993.a.5906
Chosen by Susan Reed, Lead Curator Romance Collections

The prolific and successful German writer Christine Brückner published this collection of dramatic monologues in 1983, giving voices to well-known fictional and historical women, from Clytemnestra to Gudrun Ensslin. Some, like Katharina Luther, address their husbands. Others speak to other women, including Brückner herself criticising the overly-idealistic utopianism of 19th-century reformer Malwida von Meysenbug. In the title monologue, Desdemona’s willingness to confront Othello’s suspicions changes her fate: he listens and they reconcile. In other stories, the women reflect on their lives and situations, speaking as much to themselves as to any imagined interlocutor.

In the introduction to her English translation, the actor Eleanor Bron explains how “during the interval of a dreary play” in Hamburg she saw photographs from a production of the pieces and was immediately intrigued. She bought Brückner’s book and resolved to resurrect the German she had studied at university to prepare a translation, an experience she describes both entertainingly and insightfully.

Cover of Prague. I See a City

Daniela Hodrová, Prague. I See a City. Translated by David Short; Foreword by Rajendra Chitnis. 2nd rev. ed. (Folkestone, 2015). Awaiting shelfmark.
Chosen by Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

Have you ever been to Prague? If you have visited this wonderful city, you have probably noticed that Prague radiates some magical gleam that is not always easy to catch. Prague has its own unique charm and opens up to those who care to enquire about its history and character. While wandering through the streets of Prague, which guidebook did you have in your hands: Lonely Planet, Eyewitness Travel, or Rough Guides? Maybe, next time you can take Prague. I See a City by Daniela Hodrová.

Born in 1946 in Prague, Hodrová is one of the most distinct and original authors in contemporary Czech literature. Being a literary scholar by training and working as a researcher, she is very aware of rich literary traditions and techniques, as well as theoretical issues of aesthetics, theology and philosophy. Prague. I See a City is a very stylish and moving description of the city through a woman’s eyes. The author takes her readers through the city of her life. It is full of love and dreams, sounds of music and every-day scenes. Written straight after the November 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia (translated into English in 2011), the book is a poetic meditation on the history of the country and how this is reflected in a woman's life and in the city itself: “City of torment! City of puppets! City of Monsters! In all likelihood I am partly to blame for your awakening, I have brought you to life with words.”