Giovanni de Serravalle’s Latin translation of the Divine Comedy

The reversal of Dante’s popularity at the end of the medieval period starts with an apparently popular move: translating the Divine Comedy into Latin. Meant to boost interest in the poet’s magnum opus, it signed its decline for at least 200 years. Humanism was about Latin, not the vernacular, about antiquity, not medieval science and theology. After Petrarch, Dante’s Comedy was seen as belonging to an inferior age. The only way to save it, many argued, was to lay it on the Procrustean bed of humanist Latin. It took it 250 years to get out of that bed, when interest in it was reawakened in the 18th century.

One Latin translation was made by the Franciscan humanist Giovanni Bertoldi de Serravalle (known in Latin as Johannis de Serravalle) and commissioned by two English bishops attending the Council of Constance (1414-1418). Giovanni also included a commentary, emphasizing Dante’s classical knowledge and the orthodoxy of his moral-theological outlook (not always the case). The translation took only 5 months and the commentary was finished within a year. The texts survive in only two manuscripts, one of which is in the British Library.

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All this finished in 1.5 years. One of the two surviving copies. British Library, Egerton MS 2629

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A neat writing worthy of an Italian humanist. British Library, Egerton MS 2629

The reception of Dante’s Comedy in the late-medieval period and the Renaissance shows that the Comedy was too radical for the medievals, and too medieval for the Renaissance humanists. Caught between two worlds, it failed to nourish the world around it for a long time. It is only recently that readers and scholars have begun to recover the full power of the poem.

Below is an example of Giovanni de Serravalle’s commentary taken from the first canto of Inferno:

Proemium. Ad expositionem libri accedendo, primo est sciendum, quod liber primaria divisione dividitur in prohemium et tractatum. Tractatus incipit in principio tertii capituli huius primi libri, scilicet Inferni, quod incipit vulgariter:

Per me si va ne la città dolente;

litteraliter vero incipit:

Per me itur in civitatem dolentium.

Adhuc, prima pars dividitur in duas. Quarum in prima ponuntur alique disposiciones ipsius auctoris. In secunda ponitur invocatio. Secunda pars incipit ibi, vulgariter:

Lo giorno se ne andava

in principio secundi capituli; litteraliter:

Dies iam declinabat.

Adhuc prima pars, que est primum capitulum, quod incipit vulgariter:

Nel mezo del camin de nostra vita;

litteraliter:

In medio itineris vite nostre,

dividitur in quatuor partes principales. In prima ponit auctor suam visionem. In secunda ostendit, quomodo perveniens ad quemdam collem, super quem ascendere volebat, tres bestie contra ipsum venerunt ad impediendum iter suum, seu ascensum: ibi vulgariter:

Ed eccho quasi al comenzare;

litteraliter:

Et ecce quasi in principio ascensus.

In tertia parte ostendit quomodo, dum erat in tali periculo, apparuit sibi unus incognitus, qui sibi auxilium prestitit: ibi vulgariter:

Mentre che io ruinava in basso loco;

litteraliter:

Dum sic ruinarem in ymum locum.

In quarta parte ostenditur, quomodo Virgilius sibi consuluit, declarando sibi multa; ibi vulgariter:

A te convene tenere altro viagio;

litteraliter:

Aliud iter te oportet tenere.

Ad intelligendum primam partem, notandum est, quod auctor consideravit tres species viatorum; scilicet peccantes et obstinatos in peccatis, et penitentes et virtuose operantes. De his fecit libros tres in hac Comedia: de primis fecit primum librum, scilicet Infernum: de secundis fecit secundum librum, scilicet Purgatorium: de tertiis fecit tertium, scilicet Paradisum.

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