Above is the unbelievably beautiful title page of a 1502 edition of Dante, interesting for a number of reasons. For one, the title The Divine Comedy or at least its usual Italian title, La Commedia (Boccaccio added Divina), is nowhere to be found. Rather, on the verso (left-hand) page it’s referred to as Le Terze Rime di Dante, which refers to terza rima, the complex, interlocking rhyme scheme Dante used in which the second line of each three-line unit (tercet) rhymes with the first and third lines of the tercet before it: aba, bcb, cdc. So, the first two tercets of the Inferno run (in Aldus’s edition):
Nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura;
Che la dirittia via era smarrita:
Et quanto a dir qual era, è cosa dura
Esta selva selvaggia et aspra et forte;
Che nel pensier rinova la paura.
Longfellow translates it like this:
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
Most importantly, this edition, owned by the Newberry Library in Chicago, was published by Aldus Manutius, one of the most influential printers in Early Modern Europe. We can thank him for introducing italic type, but in the Renaissance (and still among bibliophiles) he was best known for publishing beautiful, accessible editions of Greek and Roman classics in relatively inexpensive octavo form – about the size of modern paperbacks. The site where I found this picture, from a Dante exhibition at Notre Dame, has a great little blurb about this edition’s history. The first piece on the new blog Anchora, written by book historian Adam Hooks, talks more about Aldus Manutius and has some more great pictures. I’m looking forward to keeping up with his blog.