Thursday, December 30, 2010

Spitzer family papers

A recent donation to Brandeis Special Collections, the Spitzer family papers tell the story of a Czechoslovak Jewish family throughout much of the last century. At four linear feet, this is a small but powerful collection, providing a rich history of the lives of the Spitzers before, during, and after World War II. Mostly written in Czech and German (the family having spent a great deal of time in Franzensbad, a predominantly German-speaking town in Czechoslovakia), the papers date from the last decades of the nineteenth century through the late 1970s.

The collection was compiled by Bruno Spitzer, its main actor and the only member of the family to have escaped Czechoslovakia prior to the German invasion. While most of the Spitzer family perished in the Holocaust, Bruno (an active and well-known political lawyer in Czechoslovakia) and his wife, Draga, came to the United States in 1939. Upon arriving in Massachusetts, Bruno worked as a laborer in a furniture factory, and Draga worked first with National Research in Cambridge and later as a librarian at Harvard’s Peabody Museum. They lived for 21 years in Lynn, moved to Austria for a brief time, and returned to the United States to settle in Brookline.

The collection includes a portfolio of Rabbi David Spitzer’s letters, papers, and books (including a copy of the rare Menorat ha-Maor by fourteenth-century scholar Isaac Aboab), dating back to the nineteenth century. Father to Bruno and Harry, Rabbi Spitzer was born in Vienna and spent much of his life in Prague.

A large and remarkable section of the collection includes hundreds of photographs of the Spitzer family, dating from the 1920s through the 1970s. These photos, a great many of which were taken in Franzensbad in the interwar period, draw a stunning and intimate portrait of a happy family just before the sky of war fell.

The life of Bruno and Draga (who, though rarely separated, wrote prolifically when apart) in both Europe and America is well documented through their letters to each other as well as through their correspondence with friends and family back in Europe, before, during, and after the war. Also included is their correspondence with and other documents regarding the T.G. Masaryk Circle, an association of Czechoslovak citizens residing in Boston, with which the Spitzers were quite involved.

Perhaps the most gripping materials in the collection are contained in a folder entitled “Harry Affidavit.” These papers document Bruno and Draga’s herculean efforts to get Harry Spitzer (Bruno’s younger brother) out of Czechoslovakia after the war. Among the documentation are several letters and telegrams from Harry, who had been interned in Theresienstadt with his father and stepmother (his father died there) before being transferred to Auschwitz, where his stepmother, Dora (Schwartz) Spitzerova, died and from where he was eventually liberated. Included as well is Harry’s harrowing account of his time in the camps and of his parents’ deaths. Bruno and Draga were successful in their efforts to bring Harry to the United States, and it is in fact Harry’s daughter who donated this collection to Brandeis.

description by Surella Evanor Seelig, Archives & Special Collections Assistant and PhD candidate in History

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye and the Kelmscott Press

One of the most beautiful books Brandeis owns is the Kelmscott Press edition of The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (Rare -- Versh PQ1570.A7 E5 1892) by Raoul Le Fèvre, a generous gift from Arthur Vershbow. When William Caxton first printed the Recuyell in Bruges in 1473-1474 it became the world’s first printed English book. William Morris’s decision to bring it out in the second year of the Kelmscott Press—and the way that he and his team produced the book that now sits in the Brandeis Special Collections Department—makes a remarkable story.

It sheds light not only on the Arts and Crafts movement that he spearheaded, but also on the entire history of modern bookmaking, which was born with one eye on history, and the other glued to the latest technology. In Morris’s case, that technology happened to be the magic lantern, which now strikes us as little more than a quaint device used for making shaky illusions in the pre-film era. But when we see the uses to which Morris put that lantern, the double-faced nature of the Kelmscott project, hyperantiquarian and hypermodern both, becomes crystal clear. No wonder that Morris’s daughter May early on dubbed the Kelmscott Press a “new-old industry.”

I recently passed a downtown row house with an impressive historical marker, oval, dark brown and authoritative. My history-obsessed daughter halted us and together we solemnly read out, “On this spot, March 1, 1879, absolutely nothing happened.” Even in the most eventful life, most days are like that. The story of this spectacular book, though, begins on a day when something undeniably did happen. On November 15, 1888, William Morris went to a slide lecture by the skilled typographer Emery Walker at the Arts and Crafts Society. That night changed his life, and the course of the modern book arts. It was that night that he saw a series of brilliantly colored magic-lantern slides of photographs of illuminated books, projected through one of the newly powerful (likely German-made) gas lanterns that were soon to revolutionize as well the study of art history. It was not the pages themselves (many of the slides were in fact made from books that Morris himself had given to Walker) but seeing how well these modern enlargements and illuminations conveyed the beauty of the originals that decided Morris. He would, after all, make the effort that he had since his college days considered and rejected countless times. The following morning he went to visit Walker and the provisional plans for the Press were drawn up; less than three years later, in January, 1891, the first book was made, a copy of Morris’s own medieval-inspired romance, The Story of the Glittering Plain (which Bostonians are free to examine at Harvard’s Houghton library).

William Morris, writer, designer, socialist, and founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, is the most talented and influential of those exceptional artistic polymaths who flourished in the age of Darwin. Like Darwin, or like George Eliot or Herman Melville, there was little he was not interested in; unlike those other greats of his day, there was also almost nothing he did not turn his hand to. Stained-glass (visit the Trinity Church in Boston to see a fine local example), house design, furniture, fabrics (check your uncle’s tie collection), and wallpapers (inspiring this brilliant 21st century response) are only a few of the “lesser arts” that he turned his hand to. Morris has been called (by Frank Lloyd Wright, Roger Fry, Nicholas Pevsner, and others who should know) the father of modern design.

Although his designs, in books, houses, fabrics, and glass, went on to become the basis of Modern design, and perhaps one of the key bases of Modernist art generally, he was history-obsessed in a way that few who followed him were (compare for example this gorgeous Doves press book, spare and almost obsessively typography focused, to the ornate illuminations of the Kelmscott books below). Morris looked backward to medieval and early modern workers for inspiration, not because they were made authoritative by the gap of centuries that yawned between, but because their struggles with their medium impressed him, as an artist, as the finest kind of aesthetic effort. His credo: “Have around you nothing that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” remains an inspiration to those who decorate or ornament their living spaces—but still more perhaps a guide to those who make those things. Morris always thought about producers and consumers, the makers and the deployers as partners in the process of making an entire beautiful life.

He was also the de facto leader of English socialism during the unhappy late 1880s, when a string of disappointments, internal divisions, and brutal government clampdowns (including one in Trafalgar Square that was the original Bloody Sunday) left the hopes of the radical left near total extinction. In the darkest days Morris published, in his remarkable socialist magazine Commonweal, a utopian novel, News From Nowhere. This was a blistering rebuttal of (Boston’s own) utopian capitalist novel, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. In the century since, writers from Zamyatin (We) to Orwell—as well as a wide range of Labor and radical politicians worldwide—have been stimulated, irked, and inspired by Morris in their darkest hours; the Kelmscott Press frontispiece of News from Nowhere has been reproduced countless times.

Morris, though, never defined himself solely as a socialist. Even in the days of his most fervent lecturing and organizing for the party he brought with him magic-lantern slides of cathedrals and unfinished manuscripts of epic poems (he liked to compose hexameter verse while weaving). Moreover, the grim news of the late 1880s turned him away from outright activism. By the late 1880s he was on his way to becoming something a lot more interesting than a card-carrying member: he left party politics, but without ever giving up on his ideals, or his efforts. The result was something rich and strange, but with the determination to make of it something very different from the main currents of his day. Morris’s formative encounter with John Ruskin’s 1853 “The Nature of the Gothic” (he was later to republish it in a memorable Kelmscott Press edition) had persuaded him to look back to the creative efforts of medieval workers for inspiration.

And so we come back to the choice that Morris made, a year into Kelmscott production, to reprint Caxton’s Recuyelle. Morris saw genius in the way that medieval workers had devoted themselves to expressing their individual insights in a durable medium that spoke to the hopes, fears, and desires of all.

Morris was not merely parroting Ruskin, nor was he, as unsympathetic critics have sometimes alleged, merely a servile imitator of the past, a sterile antiquarian who loved the Middle Ages as a refuge from the present. In fact, his reasons for admiring medieval work had everything to do with Kelmscott’s curious double identity as half antiquarian, half radically new. He praised medieval art for its doubleness always. In fact, medieval books struck him as differing radically from their modern successors, being at once visually compelling (what he called “ornamental”) and narratively absorbing (“epical”).

All organic art, all art that is genuinely growing, opposed to rhetorical, retrospective, or academical art, art which has no real growth in it, has two qualities in common: the epical and the ornamental; its two functions are the telling of a story and the adornment of a space or tangible object.

In fact it was Morris’s infatuation with medieval bookmakers like Caxton that inspired him, after Emery Walker had opened his eyes in November 1888, to found Kelmscott Press itself. The Press was Morris’s effort, in collaboration with artists of all aspects of bookmaking, to find in the early days of printed books inspiration for a thoroughly modern kind of beautiful object.

Although this is not the place to reconstruct the entire history of the early Kelmscott experimentation, it is worth noting that the creative process was a remarkable one for several reasons. No one before Walker and Morris had ever used magic-lantern slides of letters, blown up enormously as a template. And no one had ever before done what came next either. As Morris’s daughter May reports it:

Mr. Walker got his people to photograph upon an enlarged scale some pages from Aretino’s “Historia fiorentina” printed in Venice by Jacques le Rouge in 1476 and pages of all the more important fifteenth century Roman types. These enlargements enabled Father to study the proportions and peculiarities of the letters. Having thoroughly absorbed these, so to speak, he started designing his own type on this big scale. When done, each letter was photographed down to the size the type was to be ….. My father used to go about with matchboxes containing these “smokes” of the type in his pockets, and sometimes as he sat and talked with us, he would draw one out, and thoughtfully eye the small scraps of paper inside. (May Morris, “Introduction” to William Morris, The Collected Works of William Morris, vol. 15, The Roots of the Mountains, London: Longman, 1912), xv-xvi, xxii-iii)

The book Brandeis now happily owns, The Recuyelle of Troye, is a crucial transition for the Kelmscott Press. The typeface experiments that May Morris describes led to the first type set Morris made, the Golden font. Though beautiful in its own right, Golden in some ways suffers from the laborious process of magnification, comparison, and inspiration that went into its making. It suffers principally because although Morris took as his model Italian types, in his heart he was more drawn to the German (or Gothic, or black-letter, the name deriving from their thickness and blackness on the page) types. Though strangely beautiful, Golden is an odd in-between, a halfway house of a font.

With The Recuyelle from Troye in 1892 (about the sixth book Kelmscott produced), Morris turned for the first time wholeheartedly to Gothic antecedents. The result was two separate typefaces, both seen in this book for the first time: the Troy and the Chaucer. One was an 18-point type that produces the remarkably vivid pages that you see reproduced here. And the other was a 12-point version, which is used here for the index and table of contents. This would later become the central font for the acknowledged masterwork of the Kelmscott press, the book known as The Kelmscott Chaucer.

I stress that what you see is only a reproduction, brought to half-life on your screen, because Morris himself was so insistent on the requirement that readers encounter any book as a discrete art object in its own right. A book is not a mere carrier of text, he stressed, nor an accidental vehicle in which you can find your favorite stories—and perhaps some illustrations alongside. Look at a book in that dismembered way—and this applies equally to fetishists who only consider typefaces and paper, ignoring the story that the book tells—and you miss a crucial dimension that adds depth to an otherwise flat artwork. Care merely for text (or merely for book as thing), and you are walking around one-eyed in a wonderfully three-dimensional world.

This was the credo that he and Walker shared throughout their collaboration—and it explains why pages of his letter and writings are filled with musings on the correct ratio of white space to text on the page (high!) on the ratio between inner and outer, upper and lower margins (the lower margin must be the largest), and on the darkness of ink (as black as possible). A credo that, taken seriously, will send anyone intrigued by these reproductions down to the Special Collections Department located on the second floor of the Brandeis main library to examine the book itself.

description by John Plotz, Professor of English

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Perry Miller Collection on the Colonial Religious Experience in America

The Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections Department holds an extensive collection of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century works of religion, history, and law as part of the personal library of the late Harvard University Professor Perry Miller, who died December 9, 1963. Brandeis University acquired the collection in the fall of 1964 from Miller’s widow, Elizabeth Miller. While most of Perry Miller’s nearly 2,500-item collection resides in the Bertha and Jacob Goldfarb University Library, Archives & Special Collections houses a small portion of about 200 rare and first-edition books that have significant historic and literary value.

Born in Chicago, 1905, Miller received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1928 before beginning graduate work in American Literature at Harvard in 1931. Miller attributes his decision to study seventeenth-century New England Puritanism—despite his professor’s warnings that the field had been exhausted—to an “epiphany” he experienced as a young man while hunting adventure on the banks of the Congo River. “It was given to me, equally disconsolate on the edge of a jungle in central Africa,” Miller wrote in 1956, “to have thrust upon me the mission of expounding what I took to be the innermost propulsion of the United States….”1 Back in graduate school, Miller began his search for the “drums of case oil flowing out of the inexhaustible wilderness of America,” in the Puritan migration from Europe to North America.2

Miller challenged the dominant view of Puritans as repressive and reactionary, portraying New England’s founders as emotional individuals who struggled to balance the overwhelming experience of migration with absolute piety and the belief that the future of mankind depended on the success of their settlement. Thus, New England Puritans shared a profound sense of mission that informed the establishment and guided the development of Massachusetts Bay Colony. How Puritans grappled with, explained, and justified that mission—or, as the title of Miller’s 1956 book suggests, Errand into the Wilderness—in light of the extreme challenges and obstacles preventing its success provides the foundation for subsequent American intellectual life.

Miller filled his extensive library with the works of Puritan theologians and seventeenth-century intellectuals who profoundly influenced New England colonial leaders. Among Miller’s books is a 1634 edition of John Preston’s The New Covenant, or The Saints Portion. Miller considered this work, originally published in 1630, a “prerequisite to any understanding of thought and theology in seventeenth-century New England.”3 In it, Preston, an English Puritan minister and master of Emanuel College, laid out the philosophy of the covenant—the idea of a mutual obligation between God and the individual—which, he argued constituted “one of the main points in Divinitie.”4

In addition to Preston, Miller also managed to find and purchase a first edition of Samuel Willard’s A Compleat Body of Divinity, which at the time of its publication in Boston, 1726, represented the largest volume produced by a colonial press.5 The tome consists of weekly lectures delivered by Willard from 1688 until his death in 1707 in which he attempted to “clarify and explicate” Puritanism in light of Anglican attacks. Two of Willard’s students at the Old South Church in Boston, where he had been pastor since 1678, published A Compleat Body of Divinity posthumously.6 Nearly 250 years after its publication, Miller wrote that the book continued to serve as “a landmark in American publishing and a magnificent summation of the Puritan intellect.”7

Although famous for his contribution to the scholarship on Puritan thought and American intellectual history, Miller also taught American literature, including “an unforgettable course” on American Romanticism.8 The Harvard professor thus filled his library with several works by important Romantic authors, including James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving. Cooper, whose Last of the Mohicans earned him recognition as a first-class novelist, also wrote travel literature. Miller’s collection includes an original copy of Cooper’s two-volume Sketches of Switzerland, published in 1836 as the first part of his travel series, Gleanings in Europe. Miller explained the success and appeal of Cooper’s work, writing that the author “more than any other single figure held up the mirror in which several generations of Americans saw the image of themselves they most wished to see—a free-ranging individualist.”9

The wide range of subjects covered in Miller’s library supports the notion that the professor viewed himself as free-thinking. In addition to his immense collection of books on history and literature, Miller also acquired rare and first editions on science and law. These include tracts by Hugo Grotius and Matthew Hale, as well as Henry Pemberton’s A View of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy. Pemberton, an English physician, served as Newton’s “collaborator and disciple,” and indicated in the preface that he tried to convey Newton’s philosophy in simple and non-mathematical terms.10

Miller’s library also sustains his strong belief that “the mind of man is the basic factor in human history.”11 From seventeenth-century Christian theology to nineteenth-century transcendental literature, Miller acquired works that impressed American intellectual development. Additionally, these important works of religion, history, law, science, and literature reveal Miller’s steadfast commitment to uncovering the motor of the American experience.

See a catalog of the Perry Miller collection here.

description by Alexandra Wagner Lough, Archives & Special Collections Assistant and PhD candidate in History


1. Perry Miller. Errand Into the Wilderness. Cambridge, Mass.: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1956, viii.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., 59.

4. Preston, The New Covenant, quoted in Miller, Errand Into the Wilderness, 59.

5. Richard P. Gildrie, “Willard, Samuel.” American National Biography Online. Accessed October 20, 2010.

6. “Samuel Willard.” Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936. Accessed online at Gale Biography in Context, October 20, 2010.

7. Miller, Nature’s Nation. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967, 121.

8. “Perry Miller.” The Harvard Crimson. December 10, 1963. Accessed September 16, 2010.

9. Miller, Nature’s Nation, 10.

10. I. Bernard Cohen, “Pemberton’s Translation of Newton’s Principia, With Notes on Motte’s Translation.” ISIS 54: 177 (1963): 319.

11 Miller, Errand Into the Wilderness, ix.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Nuremberg Chronicle (Liber Chronicarum)

The Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections possesses two rare editions of Dr. Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle: the original Latin first edition of 1493 (given by the Bibliophiles of Brandeis University), and the vernacular edition published in German several months later (the gift of Lewis K. and Elizabeth Land). Composed in the fifteenth century in the city of Nuremberg—for which the book is named—the Chronicle is “the first humanistic and scholastic world history in Germany.”1 Encompassing religious, secular, and mythical themes, this work is essentially a recompilation of ancient histories and medieval chronicles. The Chronicle illustrates the strengths and limitations of early modern history, Renaissance learning, and fifteenth-century understanding of the world.

The most impressive aspect of the Chronicle is its exquisite printing and finely detailed woodcuts, which took over two years to complete. It was revolutionary for its incorporation of text with related images—virtually unheard-of prior to the sixteenth century. The creation of the book required an artist to draw an image before turning it over to be carved into a woodcut to be used for future printings. Designed and illustrated by Michael Wohlgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, the book contains over 1,800 images that are made from over six hundred individual woodcuts—more than any other previously printed volume.2 A teenaged Albrecht Dürer, who would go on to become a famed Renaissance painter, apprenticed under Wohlgemut during the initial phases of the illustration of the Chronicle, leading to strong indications that some of the designs can be attributed directly to his hand, or at least to his influence.3

The Nuremberg Chronicle was first published by Anton Koberger, Europe’s largest printer, in Latin in June of 1493 for the elite and religious readership, with a subsequent German edition released in December for the literate upper-middle class. The German version, translated by the Nuremberg’s Treasury writer, George Alt, is slightly shorter and omits more esoteric detail than its Latin counterpart. Another small difference lies in the typeset employed by Koberger. The German edition features Schwabacher type, derived from a semi-Gothic form, while the Latin edition features the Italian Rotunda common to similar texts of the era.4 While eight hundred Latin editions and only four hundred and eight German editions were printed, it was the later, smaller-run vernacular translation that enjoyed a higher proportionate degree of success after publication. Today, only three hundred German editions exist throughout the world, and about four hundred Latin editions.

Among other images, the massive collection of woodcuts prominently features European cityscapes, Biblical scenes, and royal and papal portraits, as well as depictions of legendary scenes and figures. For instance, a portrait of Merlin, the sorcerer of Arthurian fame, can be found displayed among those of true historical figures, such as Attila the Hun or the crown heads of Europe.

Perhaps the most controversial and incendiary aspect of the book, defaced in numerous copies but intact in both Brandeis copies, is the image of Pope Joan. The Nuremberg Chronicle perpetuated a legend that was supported by men such as Martin Luther and even promulgated by some authors and filmmakers well into the twenty-first century.5 The tale claimed that a woman disguised as a man was elected as a pope of the Catholic Church in the ninth century, only to be exposed when she gave birth to a child during a service. The image of Joan, depicted with her newborn child, can be found discreetly among the portraits of actual Catholic popes. The Chronicle “breaks with conventional narratives, in which the beginning of Joan’s motherhood marks the end of her pontificate, to portray her as simultaneously pope and mother.”6 Once again, it is through imagery that Schedel’s work most clearly presents the blending of fact and lore as history.

The Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections’ editions of the Nuremberg Chronicle provide researchers with access to a scarce historical text still vibrant in its original bold black ink, virtually unaltered since leaving a Nuremberg printer over six centuries ago. The Chronicle can provide an understanding not only of Renaissance knowledge, but also of art, culture, and the development of printing.

description by Craig Bruce Smith, Archives & Special Collections Assistant and PhD candidate in History

1. Wilson, Adrian. The Making of the Nuremberg Chronicle. Amsterdam: Nico Israel, 1976, p. 21.

2. Ibid., p. 42.

3. Ibid., p. 60.

4. Ibid., p. 184.

5. Stanford, Peter. The Legend of Pope Joan: In Search of the Truth. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998, p. 104.

6. Rustici, Craig M. The Afterlife of Pope Joan: Deploying the Popess Legend in Early Modern England. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2006, p. 27.

Secondary sources:

Boureau, Alain. The Myth of Pope Joan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

“Nuremberg Chronicle,” Morse Library, Beloit College.

“Nuremberg Chronicle,” Special Collections, University of Maryland.

Rustici, Craig M. The Afterlife of Pope Joan: Deploying the Popess Legend in Early Modern England. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2006.

Stanford, Peter. The Legend of Pope Joan: In Search of the Truth. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998.

Wilson, Adrian. The Making of the Nuremberg Chronicle. Amsterdam: Nico Israel, 1976.

Wood, Clement. The Woman Who Was Pope: A Biography of Pope Joan, 853-855 AD. New York: William Faro, Inc., 1931.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Dante's Divine Comedy, censored by Spanish Inquisition

The Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections Department at Brandeis houses a number of rare works by Dante Alighieri, such as the Aldine Press’s first edition of Le terze rime di Dante (1502), Henry Longfellow’s translation of the Divine Comedy (1867), and Dante col sito, et forma dell’inferno tratta dalla istessa descrittione del poeta (1515). A 1564 edition of La Divina Comedia from Arévalo, Spain, however, is particularly noteworthy for several reasons.

In the 1564 edition held by Brandeis, the poem is encircled by commentaries from Christoforo Landino, Allesandro Vellutello, and Francesco Sansovino, all of whom were well-known Dante critics of their respective times. A consideration of the historical context of the poem and its criticisms is also interesting, in light of Spain’s treatment of Dante and other libri vulgari during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Last, and perhaps most fascinating of all, specific passages of the critics’ commentaries, along with verses of the poem, were expurgated by a Spanish Inquisition cleric. Fortunately for the reader, the cleric’s ink faded over the years, allowing one to read the poem’s redacted portions.

This edition of the Divine Comedy is the first of three published by the Sessa family of Venetian printers. The title page is adorned with a portrait by Giorgio Vasari of Dante caricatured with an enlarged nose (because of the exaggerated nose, this edition in Italy is referred to as the Edizioni del gran naso), and the last page contains the Sessa family’s printer mark: a cat, seated on a pillow with a mouse in its mouth. Throughout the book, scenes from the Divine Comedy are shown in beautiful woodcuts.

Editor Francesco Sansovino (1521-1583) beautifully combined his own commentaries with those of two other well-known critics, Alessandro Vellutello (1473-?) and Cristoforo Landino (1424-1498) in one book, to create an innovative hybrid. Sansovino, a versatile Roman publisher and man of letters, often wrote on Boccaccio, Dante, and the city of Venice. The Florentine Humanist Landino was a prolific writer and Chair of Poetry and Rhetoric at Florentine’s Studio who advocated the use of vernacular Italian, wrote commentaries on the Aeneid, and lectured on Petrarch. Vellutello, a Lucchese academic active in Venice during the early 1500s, not only wrote on Dante but also was a Petrarch enthusiast.

The commentaries by these three renowned writers are an excellent find for early modern historians, Italian linguists, or dantisti. Comparatively, the commentaries suffered a great deal more redaction than the poem. Specifically, the commentaries of Landino and Vellutello, and a few versus of the Inferno and Paradiso, were condemned. Why the cleric chose to completely ignore Sansovino’s commentary is unknown, yet one particular variable may shed light on the matter: the Florentine editor dedicated his edition of the poem to Pope Pius IV.

The Divine Comedy is written in the first person and tells of Dante’s journey through the three realms of the dead—Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise)—with his guides: the Roman poet Virgil, and, subsequently, Dante’s courtly love, Beatrice. Hell is described as an inverted cone with the point being Lucifer’s land at the center of the world. The pilgrimage from Hell is a climb to the foot of, and then up to the top of, the Mountain of Purgatory. Along the way Dante passes warriors, kings and emperors, fellow poets, popes, and citizens of Florence, amending the sins of their life on Earth. On the summit is the Earthly Paradise, where the two meet Beatrice, and Virgil subsequently departs. Dante is led through the various spheres of heaven, and the poem ends with a vision of the deity.

While the reader accompanies Dante on his journey, it quickly becomes apparent that the number 3—the Trinity—is prominent in the work. The author’s entire journey lasts from the evening of Maundy Thursday to the Wednesday after Easter of 1300. The poem is composed of over 14,000 lines divided into three cantiche (canticas), which make up the deceased’s realms: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise each consisting of 33 canti (cantos). The Poet uses the scheme terza rima, a hendecasyllabic (lines of eleven syllables), with the lines composing tercets based on the rhyming scheme aba, bcb, cdc, ded....

The poem recognizes several historical incidents and people, but the primary influence is the Florentine politics of Dante’s time. During central Italy’s political struggle between Guelphs and Ghibellines, Dante sided with the Guelphs, who favored the papacy over the Holy Roman Emperor. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, Florence’s Guelphs divided into the White Guelphs and the Black Guelphs. Dante supported the Whites, who were exiled in 1302 after troops under Charles of Valois entered the city at the request of Pope Boniface VIII, who supported the Blacks. The exile lasted the rest of Dante’s life, and its influence on the Divine Comedy is evident in his views of politics on the peninsula and prophecies of his exile and of the eternal damnation of some of his opponents; some of these views and criticisms of the church were seen as heretical by the Spanish Inquisitors.

The Spanish Inquisition was the tribunal court system used by both the Catholic Church and Spanish Catholic monarchs. Founded in 1478 by Ferdinand II and Isabella to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in their kingdoms, the Inquisition was under the direct control of the Spanish monarchy. The Spanish Church worked actively to curb the spread of heretical ideas in Spain by using the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Forbidden Books) over the course of several years. The Index’s purpose was to stop the contamination of the faith or the corruption of beliefs and morals of Roman Catholics according to canon law through the reading of immoral or theologically erroneous texts. The Index included books of all genres, yet particular attention was dedicated to religious works, specifically vernacular translations of the bible.

At the outset, inclusion in the Index meant complete censure of a text; however, this proved not only impractical, but contrary to the goal of maintaining a well-educated, literate clergy. In time, a compromise was agreed upon in which trained Inquisition officials inked out words, or entire passages, of unacceptable texts, allowing the expurgated editions to circulate. The readings, including the Divine Comedy, were regarded as books that no good Catholic might read until they had been redacted by the Holy Office. A cleric would expurgate those passages of text deemed offensive. Fortunately, the 1564 copy of the Divine Comedy at Brandeis contains an original document pasted on the back of the title page, signed by one of the Inquisitors, that states that the necessary cancellations have been made in this copy. The message, in Spanish, reads: “Arévalo, Spain, on April 16, 1614, this book has been purged in accordance with the Expurgatory Catalogue of Don Fernando de Riezas, Head Inquisitor; so empowered by the Commission of the Holy Office....” The redacted passages can easily be found upon examination of the book; the ink used in the cancellation has essentially faded out, and the printed words underneath have reappeared, enabling one to read the entirety of the incriminated passages without difficulty.

The Divine Comedy is best described as an allegory: that is, each canto can contain many alternative meanings. Dante’s allegory is complex and multilayered, showing the moral, the historical, the anagogical, the political, and the literal. Below are the three excerpts from the poem that were once hidden, but are now visible again, coupled with commentaries that may help the reader understand what exactly the intentions were of the Supreme Poet.


d’un grand’ avello, ov’io vidi una scritta

che dicea: “Anastasio papa guardo,

lo qual trasse Fotin de la vita dritta.”

On a great tomb, I saw that it was inscribed:

“Pope Anastasius I contain, the Pope

Photinus lured away from the correct path.”

A rather amusing medieval tradition has confused Anastasius II, pope from 496 to 498, and his namesake and contemporary Anastasius I, emperor from 491 to 518. For many centuries, Anastasius II was widely believed to be a heretic because he supposedly allowed Photinus, a deacon of Thessalonica who followed the heresy of Acacius (Byzantine Emperor, patriarch of Constantinople), to take communion. Acacius denied the divine origin of Christ, holding that Christ was naturally begotten and conceived in the same way as mankind. Dante was simply following the accepted tradition of the time concerning Pope Anastasius’s heretical persuasion.


Di voi pastor s’accorse’l Vangelista;

quando colei che siede soura l’acque

puttaneggiar co i regi a lui fu vista;

quella, che con le sette teste nacque,

et da la diece corna hebb’argomento,

fin che virtute al suo marito piacque.

Fatto v’havete dio d’oro e d’argento;

et che altro è da voi a l’idolatre,

senon ch’egli uno, e voi n’orate centro?

Ahi, Constantin, di quanto mal fu matre,

non la tua conversion, ma quella dote

che da te prese il primo ricco patre!

You shepherds the Evangelist envisioned

when he was witness to She who sits

on the waters playing whore with kings:

She the one who was born with seven heads

and from her ten horns that could draw strength

as long as virtue and love pleased her spouse.

Gold and silver are gods you praise!

how do you differ from the idolator,

only he worships one, you all a score?

Oh, Constantine, what evil marked the hour,

not by your conversion, but of that fee

the first wealthy Father took from you in gift!

In this excerpt, John the Evangelist describes his vision of corrupt Rome. To Dante, the one who “sits upon the waters” represents the Vatican, which has been corrupted by the simoniacal activities of previous popes, or the “shepherds” of the church. The seven heads represent the seven sacraments, while the ten horns represent the 10 commandments that allowed the Church its strength as long as the pope “suo marito” ruled justly. The verb puttaneggiare is reminiscent of the verb simoneggiare, which appears in Nicholas’s speech and was actually invented by Dante. The linguistic link shows the reader evidence of the creative relationship between simony and prostitution. In fact, simony was defined as a type of prostitution of the Church motivated by greed. The significance of this verse is debatable and could be viewed as “For every idol they worship, you worship a hundred.” More likely, however, is that this verse contains a reference to the golden calf of the Israelites and therefore could be construed to mean “You worship not just one idol, but everything that is of gold.” According to a legend universally accepted in the Middle Ages as historical fact, Constantine the Great (Roman Emperor 306-336), before he removed his government to Byzantium in 330, abandoned to the Church his temporal power in the West. The move, according to a document known as the Donation of Constantine, stemmed from Constantine’s decision to place the western part of the empire under the jurisdiction of the Church in order to repay Pope Sylvester for healing him of leprosy. The Donation of Constantine was proved to be a forgery by Lorenzo Valla in the fifteenth century, yet was accepted as truth in the Middle Ages. Dante did not doubt the authenticity of a document so widely accepted as genuine in his day, but he did deny that it had any juridical value. The author reflects this tradition in his statement to Constantine, the man who would ultimately be responsible for the present corruption of the Church.


A questo intende’l papa e’cardinali;

non vanno I lor pensieri a Nazarette,

là dove Gabrïello aperse l’ali.

Ma Vaticano e l’altre parti elette

di Roma che son state cimitero

a la milizia che Pietro seguette,

tosto libere fien de l’adultero. So Pope and Cardinals mind no other things;

their thoughts do not go out to Nazareth

where Gabriel once opened his wings wide.

But the Vatican and other chosen parts,

of Rome that you all have been, from the first,

the cemetery of those faithful men

that followed Peter and were his soldiers,

shall soon be free of this adultery.

Nazareth is the scene of the Annunciation, where Gabriel “opened his wings” before Mary. The Vatican hill in Rome is the location of both St. Peter’s basilica and the Vatican palace. The papal residence, during Dante’s life, was the Lateran Palace. The Vatican has been the usual residence of the popes since their return from Avignon in the latter half of the fourteenth century. Additionally, the Vatican hill, the location of Peter’s and other early Christians’ martyrdom, is considered to be the most sacred area in Rome. The meaning of these closing verses is widely disputed, and they may refer to the removal of the Papal Court to Avignon in 1305, or perhaps to the death of Boniface VIII. More obvious, however, are the final lines. The influence of money, greed, and corruption from Florence produced corruption that stretched all the way to the Vatican. Thus, evangelical purpose died with the martyrs. Once again the reader sees a greedy Church government perpetuated by corrupt pontiffs, and the prostitution of things holy for personal gain.

The 1564 Brandeis copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy thus acquires a very special interest and importance, particularly as a document of Inquisitorial censure. This edition was made the object of severe excises, many more of which can be found in the commentaries.

description and translations by Aaron Wirth, Archives & Special Collections Assistant and PhD candidate in the Comparative History Program