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‘A book full of anxieties’: The Nonesuch Press edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy

ErikaDelbecque3 May 2019

Our copy of the 1928 Nonesuch Press edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy

The production of the 1928 Nonesuch Press edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy was beset with difficulties. The handmade paper from Italy that had been ordered was so defective that it was unusable, and the stained orange calfskin that was used for the binding, which naturally shrinks and extends in reaction to changes in temperature and humidity, made the boards warp. Francis Meynell, one of the founders of the Press, wrote that ‘it has been a book more full of anxieties than any I have ever tackled’ (Quoted in Dreyfus, p. 46). Nevertheless, the book became an unprecedented success for the Nonesuch Press; it was the most oversubscribed of all of their publications.

The beginning of Dante’s famous work

Meynell founded the Nonesuch Press imprint in 1923 with his wife, Vera Mendel, and the writer David Garnett, with the aim of applying advances in mechanical book production to fine book printing. As opposed to the private presses of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which according to Meynell produced prohibitively expensive books intended to grace library shelves rather than to be read, the aim of the Nonesuch Press was to produce well-made appealing books that were available at relatively low prices. They specialised in carefully designed editions of established literary works, often illustrated by contemporary artists.

Their edition of the Divine Comedy, of which 1,475 copies were printed, presents Dante’s Italian text alongside an English translation. The italic type and the use of roman capitals to mark the start of each line was inspired by the page design of Venetian books from the early sixteenth century. Meynell preferred to use italic fonts for poetry as he felt that it encouraged the reader to slow down. The volume includes 42 illustrations after the famous Renaissance painter and fellow Florentine Botticelli. He designed 19 engravings for Nicholo di Lorenzo della Magna’s 1481 edition of the Divine Comedy, of which we also hold a copy (INCUNABULA FOLIO 6 b ), and he illustrated a late 15th-century manuscript of the work with 92 drawings.

One of the reproductions of Botticelli’s illustrations

The book will be added to our unrivalled Dante collection, which comprises of over 4,000 editions of Dante’s work from the fifteenth century to the present day. When the Nonesuch Press edition was published, a reviewer wrote in the Spectator that he hoped that the copies would not go to ‘those perverse bibliophiles who thwart the holy intention of books by locking them uncut upon their jealous shelves’ (Quoted in Dreyfus, p. 46). He can rest assured when it comes to copy number 868 – it has joined fellow Dante editions on our shelves, waiting to be requested by eager readers.

Further reading

Dreyfus, John. A history of the Nonesuch Press. London: Nonesuch Press, 1981.

Dante display and other events

Christopher JFripp15 May 2018

Last week saw the launch of a new UCL Special Collections display outside the Donaldson Reading Room entrance on the 1st floor of the Main Library. Dante’s Divine Comedy: Modern Visual Representations features a selection of printed materials inspired by the great medieval Italian poet’s literary masterpiece. Produced over 700 years ago, the Divine Comedy is still celebrated today for its incredible imagery of the afterlife. The twentieth-century publications chosen for the display contain their own distinctive illustrative depictions of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, but are united in the way they seek to capture elements of Dante’s extraordinary imagination. The display is scheduled to run until Tuesday 26th June.

Detail from Gyabo Szebó Belá’s untitled woodcut, in La divina commedia: XX stampe in legno – xilogravuri – fametszet – Holzschnitte [Bucharest?]: Dacia, 1976. UCL Special Collections, DANTE FOLIOS DD95 SZA

Running alongside this display and throughout the summer term are two public programmes dedicated to Dante. Weekly readings of the Divine Comedy take place on Monday evenings at the Warburg Institute, Woburn Square (6:00 – 7:30 pm), while talks about Dante, his life and works take place on alternate Tuesday evenings at the Italian Cultural Institute, Belgrave Square (7:00-8:30 pm). Both programmes are free and open to all. On Tuesday 29th May, UCL Special Collections will be at the Italian Cultural Institute to present a selection of highlights from the Dante Collection from 18:00-19:15 pm. In addition, Tabitha Tuckett (Rare-Books Librarian) will be providing expert insights on the Collection in a public talk at 18:30 pm. We hope to see you there.

If you wish to consult materials held by UCL Special Collections, please send enquiries to the following email address: spec.coll@ucl.ac.uk

Upcoming events at Special Collections

TabithaTuckett12 February 2018

Two upcoming events at Special Collections this week:

DANTE READING: Monday 12 February, 6-7.30pm, Warburg Institute, Woburn Square, WC1H 0AB (admission free)

Dante readings continue at 6pm tonight with Inferno Cantos 33 and 34 on Count Ugolino, the centre of Hell, and Lucifer (with images from library Dante collections across the world) before moving on to cheerier things as term progresses. More details here.

Lucifer from Dante La Commedia (Venice, 1491) UCL Special Collections INCUNABULA QUARTO 5 o

SMALL PRESS COLLECTIONS ON DISPLAY: Wednesday 14 February, 2-4.30pm, Special Collections Reading Room, South Junction, University College London, Gower Street, WC1E 6BT (admission free)

This year’s Slade Small Press Project on the theme of sound continues on Wednesday with a display of often surprising material from our Small Press Collections. Drop in any time between 2 and 4.30pm.

UCL SMALL PRESS COLLECTIONS

 

 

 

UCL SMALL PRESS COLLECTIONS

 

 

 

 

Looking forward to seeing you at these or future events.

Dante – weekly readings

TabithaTuckett29 January 2018

One of Doré’s illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy

Why is the Mediaeval Italian poet Dante important to us now? Can his work tell us anything about how to approach our own lives? And what does UCL Special Collections have to offer those interested in Dante?

To find out, or just to unwind at the end of the day with some beautiful poetry, try our weekly readings  from Dante’s Divine Comedy (in English and Italian), followed by discussion with UCL’s Professor John Took, every Monday, 6-7.30pm at the Warburg Institute, Woburn Square. More information here:

Weekly Dante readings at the Warburg Institute

Or, if you prefer an in-depth talk without the readings, we’re running these on Tuesdays every fortnight, 7-8.30pm, at the Italian Institute of Culture in Belgrave Square:

Dante talks at the Italian Institute of Culture, Belgrave Square

Tonight’s reading is from the Inferno, but tomorrow’s session is on love. Both courses are free and open to all.

Look out later in term for displays of selected items from our outstanding collection of rare and early editions of Dante’s works. Read more about UCL Special Collections’ Dante Collection, or search the library catalogue using ‘Dantecollection’ (without spaces between the words).

Rare editions of Dante from UCL Special Collections on display

Helen FBiggs17 March 2017

Rare editions of Dante from UCL Special Collections

Monday 27 March 5.30pm

The Warburg Institute, Woburn Square, WC1H 0AB

Admission free.

There will be an opportunity to see some of UCL’s rare editions of Dante’s works, and hear the Rare-Books Librarian talk about the history of the poet’s work in print, on Monday 27 March, 5.30-6.30pm, in the Common Room of the Warburg Institute in Woburn Square (immediately south of Gordon Square). The event will continue 6.30-7.45pm in the Institute’s Lecture Room with readings from the text and discussions from UCL’s Professor John Took and the Warburg’s Dr. Alessandro Scafi.

Want to know more about who Dante was and why his writings are important for us today? Try the weekly Dante readings on Monday evenings at the Warburg Institute or fortnightly talks on Tuesday evenings at the Italian Cultural Institute. The readings on Monday 27th will feature the moving passage in which Dante and Virgil emerge from the abyss of Hell on the shore of Mount Purgatory, leaving you, we hope, in an improved mood for the holidays, albeit on a cliff-hanger until readings recommence next term. The Tuesday talk on the 28th will be on the relation between Dante, Classical mythology and Islam.

Best wishes from the UCL Special Collections Team, UCL Italian and The Warburg Institute.

Text courtesy Tabitha Tuckett.