Jeffrey Marshall, the Director of Special Collections, recently announced that Special Collections has purchased a 1568 copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy in memory of Birdie MacLennan.
After esteemed colleague Birdie MacLennan passed away unexpectedly last March, Special Collections staff gave a lot of thought to how they might best honor her memory. Birdie, who was hired in 1990 as a serials cataloger and appointed Director of Resource Description Services in 2008, loved old books and was very fond of the Romance languages. She was a member of the local chapter of Alliance Française and the Italian Club of Vermont. Birdie earned a master’s degree in French in 2005 and was learning Italian when she died. She also attended Rare Book School at the University of Virginia. The department agreed that an addition to the Rare Book collection of an important book in French or Italian would be an appropriate memorial.
“As it happened,” Marshall says, “We had no early editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a defining work of the Renaissance and one that maintained its popularity through the transition from manuscript to printed books. In fact, we had no editions of the Divine Comedy printed before the mid-eighteenth century. An early printing of this work seemed the ideal choice to honor Birdie.” He contacted a highly regarded book seller to inquire whether a fine copy could be located.
Within a couple of months, Marshall received a beautiful copy of the Divine Comedy printed in Venice in 1568. Bound in green morocco in the eighteenth century, with marbled endpapers from the same era, the book is in remarkably good condition. This edition contains the commentary of Bernardino Daniello da Lucca (1500-1565) and was printed by Pietro da Fino, an obscure Venetian printer whose ten known books span the years 1555 to 1576.
Daniello’s Dante includes full-page engravings at the beginning of each book—Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso—as well as printer’s devices on the title page and last page.
The title page device shows a rooster perched on a globe (which rests on a book), with the motto “tota nocte excubo” (I keep watch throughout the night). The device on the last page features a similar rooster on a globe against a more elaborate background, with the motto “excubo ac vigilo” (I keep watch and remain awake).
Early printed books are valuable for many reasons. Early printers were usually highly conscious of the relationship between book design and text, producing books that are esthetically pleasing. Often, scholarly works featured the author’s text in a block surrounded by the editor’s annotations, and other printing conventions that demonstrate the detailed, exhaustive analysis Renaissance scholars applied to great works. This form of commentary had largely disappeared by the eighteenth century, often replaced by extensive introductions and footnotes. The physical aspects of the book, as well, suggest much about the status of the work, its intended audience, and the cultural context of its creation at the time of printing.
Birdie MacLennan had a large and lasting impact on the University libraries. Special Collections is pleased to add an important sixteenth-century book to the Rare Book collection in her memory.