Five ‘business’ lessons to learn from the first printed editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy

As a medievalist, I rarely think of the printed history of Dante’s (Divine) Comedy. Last week, I went to see Barrie Tullett’s exhibition on Dante at Southbank in London, and his opening talk (and performance!) stirred me out of my manuscript-centred complacency and into a reflection of the printed heritage of Dante’s work. The exhibition is called ‘The Typographic Dante’ and represents Barrie’s engagement as an artist with the Comedy’s intellectual and imaginative load. It is a fascinating exhibit of prints based on each of the 100 cantos and I encourage everyone to see it while it’s still on (ending 30 June 2019).

Image credit Barrie Tullett

Barrie’s talk and artworks made me think of the first printed editions of the Comedy and what they can tell us about the challenges of introducing new technologies and new models. The invention of the printing press in the West and its diffusion are regularly described as one of the most important paradigm shifts in world history. So what can the first printed editions of Dante’s Comedy teach us?

Image result for dante foligno stampa
  1. New technology is often imported. Johannes Gutenberg developed the printing press in Mainz in the 1430s. One of his pupils, Johann Neumeister, moved to Foligno in Italy and set up a press in or near Palazzo Orfini. With the help of Evangelista Angelini, he printed Dante’s Comedy on 5-6 April 1472 for the first time. Thus, the first Italian book was printed in Italy by a German immigrant using imported technology. In the 1460s and 70s, a large number of German typographers set up printing presses in Italy, France and elsewhere. The new technology swept through Europe like a tornado. By 1473, the Englishman William Caxton was skilled enough to print the first book in English. This was done in Flanders, in either Bruges or Ghent. Printing was an international development from the start.
  2. It’s always better to tap into an existing market. The first printed books were also the most popular titles at the time. The Bible came first, obviously, but then typographers printed those books which had been most popular and in high demand. By the 1470s, Dante was extremely popular (though not for long) and his Comedy was widely read (down to the popular classes). That Dante’s Comedy and not Petrarch’s Canzoniere or Boccaccio’s Decameron was Neumeister’s first choice reflects the authors’ unequal readership. Dante’s Comedy survives in more than 600 manuscripts, far more than Petrarch and Boccaccio’s works. Petrarch’s Canzoniere, for instance, was printed for the first time in 1501.
  3. Aim high but proceed cautiously, low-risk. It made financial sense for the first typographers to go low-risk with this novel technology. For their first printed editions, they chose only the most popular texts. Then, they didn’t go wild with the number of printed copies. It is believed that Neumeister printed only 200 copies of the Comedy. This was early days, and although printing a text was far less expensive than copying it by hand, it was still a costly enterprise.
  4. It’s not all about the text. The 1472 printed edition of the Comedy was not illustrated. The book reproduced the common layout of manuscript copies of the text, complete with rubrics and large initials. By the 1480s, however, Sandro Botticelli produced two sets of drawings to illustrate the cantos of the Comedy. One set was commissioned by Lorenzo Pierfrancesco de’ Medici in Florence and survives now in two manuscripts in Berlin and in Rome. The other set was designed for print but was left unfinished. The drawings were printed by Baccio Baldini. Only 19 engravings were produced and printed, and there are few surviving copies of Baldini’s edition which contain all of them. Baldini’s iconographic project was not radical, but he was the first to apply it to an edition of Dante’s Comedy. He understood the importance of the image in securing the success of an edition. In a certain way, the history of printed books is also the history of using images to sell text. If we only look at how modern publishers compete with each other using various cover designs and imagery, we see how Botticelli’s stunning prints would have boosted the sale of Baldini’s edition.
  5. Innovate, innovate, innovate. While in many respects early printing was conservative in that typographers relied on pre-existing models inherited from the manuscript culture (script, layout, rubrication, etc), sometimes printers did not fear to go so far as to tamper with current practices and tradition. We owe the title ‘The Divine Comedy’ not to Dante but to the Venetian edition of 1555 printed by Gabriel Giolito de’ Ferrari, and edited by humanist Lodovico Dolce. Although Dante used the phrase ‘divine poem’ in the Comedy, the poem was known, until 1555, as ‘Dante’s Comedy’. De’Ferrari’s venture paid dividends in the long-run as we still have the ‘Divine Comedy’ with us, often as though Dante had intended it this way. In 1502, the first pocket-size edition of the Comedy was produced by the famous Venetian printer Aldus Manutius, under the title ‘Le terze rime di Dante (Dante’s rhyming verses). The Aldine (named after Aldus) edition was more successful in setting a standard in size and layout than in retitling the Comedy.

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