Dante 1491

Dante Alighieri, Divina Commedia, Venezia: Benali & Capcasa, 1491 © Joan Porcel
Dante Alighieri, Divina Commedia, Venezia: Benali & Capcasa, 1491 © Joan Porcel
First illustrated editions © Joan Porcel

2022 – 2023

The Dante 1491 project examines the surviving copies of the first illustrated Venetian edition of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, printed on 3 March 1491 by the printers Bernardino Benali and Matteo Capcasa.


  • Martyna Grzesiak | University of Oxford
  • Ilenia Maschietto | Fondazione Giorgio Cini

The project

The Dante 1491 project, born within a collaboration with CERL (Consortium European Research Libraries), follows the operational method implemented for the Dante 1481 project.

Following a survey of data available in online and printed catalogues and the verification of the presence of the Divine Comedy of March 1491 in the libraries and cultural institutions surveyed, a letter was sent to the librarians of the rare book collections, together with a form with precise fields to be filled in to collect detailed information about each copy.

Coats of arms, decorations, bindings, ex-libris, stamps, manuscript notes, early shelfmarks: these and other elements, if well analysed, provide valuable information on the previous owners of a given volume and can recount some moments of the journey that that book has travelled, starting from Venice, when it was printed in 1491, to be read and continue its existence in another part of the world, to the library that preserves it today.

The data collected have been included in two digital projects, MEI (Material Evidence in Incunabula) and PDA (Provenance Digital Archive): one collects information on the use and provenance of incunabula in a structured and orderly manner, identifying the previous owners or locating them as precisely as possible in time and space; the second collects and publishes images of signs (such as bindings, ex-libris, manuscript notes…) that testify the use or possession of a volume.

Among the results obtained, the interactive map proposed on this page, which illustrates the current distribution of single copies; for each of them the link to the corresponding record in the MEI database has been created.


The overall aim of the project is to systematically collect specific data on the signs of use and ownership present in each copy surveyed in the catalogues, helping to describe who Dante’s readers were over the last five centuries.

First illustrated editions

Since the introduction of movable type, various attempts have been made to present Dante’s poem to the public, with the text accompanied by illustrations.

The first example is the Florentine edition printed in 1481 (see Dante 1481 Project) for which a complete set of illustrations was planned. It consists of a copperplate engraving for each canto, printed separately on sheets to be inserted at a later date (with the exception of the first two cantos where the image was printed together with the text). In reality, due to various complications, the iconographic cycle was interrupted at canto 19 of the Inferno; only one of the copies surviving today presents all the 19 images (John Rylands University Library).

In 1487, a second attempt was made in Brescia by the printer Bonino Bonini; in this case, the result led to an iconographic set of woodcuts up to Canto I of Paradise where it was interrupted.

In Venice, which was already asserting itself on the European scene as the capital of printing with movable type, two editions of the Divine Comedy were printed in 1491, the first ever fully illustrated, one by the printers Bernardino Benali and Matteo Capcasa (3 March 1491), and one by Piero de’ Piasi, signed in the colophon on 18 November 1491.

The Benali-Capcasa edition

The comparison of the colophon page sent by the libraries participating in the project made it possible to verify (as already reported by the Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke) the existence of 3 colophon variants for the Benali-Capcasa edition (ISTC id00032000 – GW 7969); all three inform that the work was “reuista & emendata diligentemente” by the Franciscan friar Pietro da Figino. In the second variant it is added that Figino himself places in the margin “tutte le historie notande & li nomi proprii che si trouano in ditta opera fornita de stampar del .MCCCCLXXXXI. adi .iii. marzo”. This specification is also reiterated in the third variant which however ends with the expression “che si trouano in ditta opera del .MCCCCLXXXXI. adi .iii. marzo”. Thanks to this census it was possible to attribute to each copy its precise variant of the colophon and it was possible to deduce that the third draft of the colophon is very rare indeed (currently only 3 copies).

Colophon variant 1
Colophon variant 2

100 woodcuts

Benali and Capcasa are thus the first to use a complete iconographic cycle, which Lilian Armstrong (1936-2021), authoritative scholar of illuminated manuscripts and early Italian printed books, called a ‘masterpiece of 15th-century Venetian printing’. The results of this project are dedicated to her.

The drawings of the 100 woodcuts accompanying the text have long been attributed to the Maestro di Pico, a miniaturist and designer active in Venice in the second half of the fifteenth century. Three full-page engravings are made for the first canto of each cantica and 97 more or less square-shaped vignettes for all the other cantos.
You can view the entire woodcut cycle in detail through the viewer below.


Capcasa's Will

At the State Archive in Venice, in the archival fund “Cancelleria inferiore” in the series “Miscellanea notai diversi”, folder no. 28 contains the will of Matteo Capcasa, a printer from Parma who, in partnership with Bernardino Benali, printed numerous editions in Venice, including the March 1491 Divine Comedy.

Thanks to this important document, dated 12 August 1491, we can learn a great deal of information; thanks to the accuracy of the text, we know that 1,504 copies of the Divine Comedy, came out of their presses (text line no. 29). Thus, the 113 surviving copies covered by this census represent 7.5% of the entire production.

For the transcription, edited by Franco Rossi and Eurigio Tonetti, see the Documents section below.

Capcasa's will, recto. Credits Archivio di Stato di Venezia
Capcasa's will, verso. Credits Archivio di Stato di Venezia

Dante's readers

Hundreds of signs of use and traces of hundreds of former owners were found on the 113 copies analysed on the occasion of this illustrated census.

The oldest one recorded refers to the copy conserved at the Ente Olivieri – Biblioteca e Musei Oliveriani in Pesaro (MEI 02149032). It bears the handwritten note of an owner, identifiable with Alessandro Veterani (c. 1460 -1513), a doctor from Urbino who was even famous in his profession abroad. The note states that the book was purchased by Veterani for 5 carloni (currency in use) on 17 September 1491 at the Recanati fair.

Family arms in gold (Biblioteca della Fondazione Giorgio Cini - Venice - IT)
Ex libris with noble coat of arms (Vatican Apostolic Library - Vatican City)
Notes of use (Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal - Lisbon - PT)
Old shelfmark on the back (Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria - Turin - IT)
Initial with illuminated decoration (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana - Vatican City)
Possession note by a contemporary hand (Biblioteca e Musei Oliveriani - Pesaro - IT)


A first important result of this project is the digitisation of the copy of Dante preserved by the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, now available in its Digital Library.
The second result is an interactive map of all the surveyed copies that allows for the visualisation of the edition’s distribution across the planet. Approximately, 80% of the copies are in libraries and institutions in Europe and the remaining 20% in the United States; only 2 copies are to be found in Japan.
The third result is the updating of databases with formalized and reusable data.

(M. Grzesiak – I. Maschietto, Il progetto “Dante 1491” alla Fondazione Giorgio Cini. Un censimento illustrato degli esemplari superstiti in “Dante, com’era nel 1472 (e come si lesse da allora). Prime edizioni, incunaboli, post-incunaboli e altro”, a cura di F. Ciabattoni e A. Scarsella, Venezia 2023)

Digitisation Project

The Fondazione Giorgio Cini holds a copy of the Divine Comedy dated March 1491. The copy was part of the library of Prince d’Essling (1836-1910), a famous French collector and scholar of illustrated editions, whose arms are gilded on the boards. The late 19th-century brown morocco binding is signed by the Parisian bookbinder Joly.

Unfortunately, this particularly invasive restoration work by Joly has led to the current situation, where the volume cannot be opened beyond a 90-degree angle and where, especially in the central part of the volume, the text near the inner margins is partly unreadable due to the very tight 19th-century rebinding.

Once it became clear that traditional techniques would only allow for imaging with partial loss of the text, the option of using a 17 mm off-centre lens was considered. The short focal length of the lens made it possible to get closer to the book while maintaining a sufficiently wide shooting angle, while the off-centre lens allowed the camera body to be positioned closer to the outer edge of the page but still parallel to it, capturing every millimetre of the inner margin with the furthest part of the circle of coverage.

The results of the digitisation, post-production and metadata processes can be viewed in Fondazione Giorgio Cini’s Digital Library.

Open book view © Fondazione Giorgio Cini
Photographic set © Francesca Occhi
Photographic capture process © Francesca Occhi
Handling the book © Francesca Occhi


By approaching each pointer, it will be possible to consult the detailed record of the volume published in the MEI database (Material Evidence in Incunabula) and find out who has read Dante from each specific copy during the last five centuries.


Reproduction Stand

The reproduction stand is a system for acquiring two-dimensional material in a small format (approx. 20x30 cm) created within Fondazione Cini. In response to the need to digitise photographic negat[...]