Rare Book of the Month: No one Expects the Spanish Inquisition in Danthe alighieri fiorentino

During the last week of September we participated in the annual Banned Books Week by offering a Blind date with a Banned Book from our regular collection. We thought we would take the opportunity to highlight a more historical example of book censorship in our 1497 copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Library Citation information: Dante Alighieri, 1497. Danthe Alighieri fiorentino. Impressa in Venetia: Per Piero de Zuanne di Quarengii da Palazago Bergamasco. Upjohn-Waldie 1497 D36 fol.

Depiction of engraved frontispiece and borders from Graham Library's copy

Full page woodcut from the first Canto in Danthe alighieri fiorentino. Select image to enlarge.

From the mid 15th century until the end of the 16th century, the Divine Comedy was printed in a large number of editions and formats, indicating its sustained popularity among printers and their customers. One notable innovation was the inclusion of illustrations–the first was published in 1481 and featured designs by Botticelli and engraved by Baccio Baldini. Later illustrated editions of the influential narrative poem continued to be in demand, including the one we hold at Graham Library published in 1497 by Pietro Quarangi, which is a reprint of an edition published in 1491.1

Besides being a beautiful example of an illustrated incunabulum, at some point during its existence the copy in our collection ended up in the hands of the Spanish Inquisition. Part of the Inquisition’s mandate included producing indexes of prohibited books to inhibit the spread of heretical ideas as the printing press increased the availability of books. Initially this meant banning entire texts; however, allowances were made to redact only portions of certain titles that were otherwise considered essential reading for educated clergy. In the case of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the 1612 Spanish Index Librorum Prohibitorum prohibited three main passages rather than the entire text.2

Annotations of the Expurgation Committee

Image is a close up of the annotations by Inquisition committee members

Annotations on title page by members of the Expurgation Committee. Select image to enlarge.

There are a number of post-publication modifications to our copy of Dante’s work that show it was censored by Inquisition committee members. On the title page of our copy, it bears two signed manuscript annotations dated from 1614 confirming that the book was reviewed by the Expurgation Commission at Toledo (as an aside, if anyone can transcribe the signatures, drop us a line).

At various points throughout the book, you can see where the offending passages were redacted with ink leaving the rest of the book intact for readers. A number of pages also have marginal notes likely made by the members of the committee who reviewed this title. For the most part, it was Christoforo Landino’s critical commentary surrounding the poem that the Inquisitors took issue with rather than Dante’s work itself.


The likelihood that this type of book censorship actually prevented readers from accessing controversial content in Spain is debatable and did very little to hinder the spread of intellectual ideas there. And in our copy, some industrious reader has washed away the ink that covered a redacted section, exemplifying the idea that restricting certain information only increases its appeal.

Shows two pages of Canto XIX; areas blacked out with ink removed

Large sections of the commentary by Landino were redacted. Some past reader has attempted to remove the ink to view the text beneath it.

Other libraries with copies of Dante redacted by the Spanish Inquisition

Works consulted

1. Parker, Deborah. Commentary and Ideology: Dante in the Renaissance. Duke University Press, 1993.

2. Bald, Margaret, and Ken Wachsberger. 2006. Literature suppressed on religious grounds. New York: Facts On File.

3. Vose, Robin. “Introduction to inquisition censorship documents.” Hesburgh Libraries of Notre Dame, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. University of Notre Dame, 2010. <http://www.library.nd.edu/rarebooks/digital_projects/inquisition/collections/RBSC-INQ:COLLECTION/essays/RBSC-INQ:ESSAY_Censorship&gt;

Contributed by Kate MacDonald, Cataloguing & Digital Services Librarian, Graham Library


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