Exhibit showcases Dante’s work

By Whitney Blair Wyckoff

“Dante at Illinois” celebrates the history and contributions of the famous Italian poet through a 31-piece exhibition, currently displayed in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library in Urbana.

Christopher Cook, curator for the exhibition and Rare Book cataloging project manager, said that his decision to feature Dante in an exhibition stems from his own studies. Cook, who did his undergraduate work in Italian, fell in love with Dante in college.

“Part of the thrill of the Divine Comedy is that it is encyclopedic,” said Cook, explaining his passion for the poet’s most famous work. The book allows readers to get an insider’s view of what was happening during Dante’s life. Cook owns his own 300-piece Dante collection.

He said this exhibition is dedicated to the memory of Anthony K. Cassell, an Italian professor at the University who died a year ago.

Also, this September marked the 685th anniversary of Dante’s death.

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Cook’s favorite item in the exhibition is a book of Dante poems with written commentary that was illustrated by Sandro Botticelli, the renowned painter, from 1481.

Also of note, he said, is a 1578 Dante relic. There is evidence that the book was owned by Francisco de Quevedo, an Italian poet who lived during the late 1500 and early 1600s. It was also acquired by the Catholic Church, who blocked out passages in the book that were deemed offensive. The book is open to a page where large blocks of text were blocked out.

The exhibit is comprised not only works of Dante, but also of other writers who have been influenced by him, such as Geoffrey Chaucer, whose “Canterbury Tales” is on display.

Valerie Hotchkiss, head of the Rare Books Library, prefers the 1498 copy of “Canterbury Tales”. It is included because one of the tales refers directly to Dante as “the wise poet of Florence.” The book is very rare, Cook said. Only six original copies of the “Canterbury Tales” still exist – and some only consist of a few leaves of paper.

“It’s practically priceless,” Cook said.

The Rare Books Library, which is located on the third floor of the main library building, just finished extensive remodeling. This is the first exhibition since the remodeling ended this summer. However, because the library had not received all of the display cases it ordered, it can only display 11 pieces of the exhibition at a time. The librarians will bring out any other piece of the exhibition by request.

“We always want to have an exhibition so we can show people what a rare book is,” Hotchkiss said. “We strive for four exhibitions a year.”

She said that in the past the exhibitions have been “intellectually good but aesthetically yucky.” To combat that, Cook worked with the Krannert Art Museum to create new book holders for the display. Hotchkiss also said that new granite display cases greatly improve the look of the exhibition, which will be open until Dec. 14 and is free.

Exhibition books are available for $10.