The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1944)
Sandglass Number XIII:23
Artwork: Hither-to Unpublished Drawings by William Blake
Translated and with notes by Melville Best Anderson, Introduced by Arthur Livingston
Heritage Press Exclusive; the LEC printed their own edition of The Divine Comedy in 1933. This edition borrows the textual design from that edition.
Click images for larger views.
Front Binding – I recently asked my fellow Devotees to select a Heritage book from the lot I have remaining for this particular post, and the consensus settled upon the Heritage Divine Comedy. This is quite a lovely book, especially from the outside. But we’ll dive into that in a moment; let’s talk about Dante. Dante Alighieri is best known for this particular work, and the George Macy Company and its successors agreed on that front; this was the only work from the poet issued by the Club, but it was issued in its own unique edition for the LEC and for the Heritage Press. The LEC came out in 1933, and was printed by Officina Bodoni, the famed printing house in Verona, Italy run by Hans Mardersteig. It lacked any illustrations from my understanding (and quick research). The Heritage Press, a little over a decade later, decided to print their own edition based in part on Mardersteig’s LEC design, but with an addition: the previously unpublished drawings of Dante’s imaginative world done by the British artist and poet, William Blake.
Blake has been discussed here before, way back in 2011 when I shared a frankly shoddy copy of the Heritage The Pilgrim’s Progress with you. I failed in those heady times to properly document his bibliography in the Clubs, so I’ll do that now:
1941, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, illustrator (available as a Heritage)
1954, L’Allegro and Il Penseroso by John Milton, illustrator (available as a Heritage)
1973, Poems of William Blake, author/illustrator (seemingly available as a 1990s Heritage…which essentially means an Easton Press book)
1940, Paradise Lost by John Milton, illustrator (Carlotta Petrina did the LEC edition)
1944, The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, illustrator
Blake was, to put it modestly, a fairly surreal illustrator, and the Club chose to avoid some of the “grisly surrealist suggestiveness” of many of the one hundred and two drawings left to John Linnell, the person who commissioned Blake to conduct this project back in 1824. Blake intended to engrave all of them, but his passing in 1827 left only seven finished engravings and the bunch of sketches. Linnell paid Blake a fairly nice sum of two to three pounds a week while he worked on these illustrations, but they ultimately came to naught, as Linnell chose not to use the unfinished artwork and merely retained the pieces in his collection. His family managed to keep these treasured sketches and engravings safe, and in 1918 the family sold off the assortment of Blake’s work to a multitude of scholarly institutions. Reproductions were made for subscribers, and George Macy (or one of his associates) happened to be one of those subscribers. Wanting to avoid comparisons to Gustave Dore’s Bible, which Macy describes as a child experiencing “nightmare after nightmare as a result of looking at the grisly pictures in the Dore Bible!“, Macy narrowed the selections down to 32 drawings and one engraving for the Heritage Divine Comedy — none of which he deemed too “grisly”. Macy also chose to tint the artwork for each section: a “hot red” for Inferno, a “warm brown” for Purgatory, and a “cool blue” for Paradise. The engraving is reproduced exactly as it was in the print from the original reproduced book.
Production details are lacking in…well, detail. I can tell you the font (Bembo), the binding (a dynamic red cloth with a sharp black design mimicking the ecclesiastics from Dante’s period, featuring a pomegranate motif popular in that time), and that Sir Emery Walker was the original reproducer of the Blake illustrations before they were subsequently reproduced in a smaller scale via photogravure for this edition. I can also tell you that the text design is pretty much borrowed from the LEC edition, as best as I can tell, making Mardersteig the partial designer of this book. Beyond that, unless someone has some other piece of paraphernalia, I can’t tell you much more about it.
Title Page – The text utilizes Dr. Melville Best Anderson’s translation, which the Sandglass notes was also used by the LEC to create their Divine Comedy. Anderson apparently revisited it for the Heritage version with some emendations, if I’m reading Macy’s words properly. Notes were also provided by Anderson. Arthur Livingston was called upon to write an Introduction to the text, and as the title page proclaims, this is the first public printing of William Blake’s Divine Comedy sketches.
Examples of the Illustrations by Blake (right click and open in new tab for full size):
Front Endpaper – The sole engraving in the work, this embodies Blake’s surrealism beautifully.
Page 120 – As you can see, the sketches are not quite as impactful or awe-inspiring as the engraving, but still, it’s intriguing to see the creative process in action.
Personal Notes – I’ve had this book since 2012 I believe. I got it at Carpe Diem Rare Books in Monterey, alongside my lovely Penguin Island starring Frank C. Pape’s artwork. Lovely shop with very kind owners. The binding won me over; what a lovely cloth this is! Blake’s style is not really my cup of tea, but it’s certainly unique and bizarre and fascinating to look at, so I’m quite happy to have this edition in my collection.
Sandglass (right click and select Open in New Tab to see full size):