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Gifted in 1820,Mumbai library to exhibit manuscript of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’

Legend has it that Mussolini offered to pay £1 million for the manuscript of The Divine Comedy by Dante at the Asiatic Society of Mumbai....

Written by Anjuly Mathai | Mumbai |
October 15, 2009 3:54:04 am

Legend has it that Mussolini offered to pay £1 million for the manuscript of The Divine Comedy by Dante at the Asiatic Society of Mumbai. The Society refused point-blank. Now for the first time,it is being displayed at the exhibition of Italian treasures at the Asiatic Society of Mumbai from October 31 to November 5. 

The 14th century manuscript was gifted to the Society,which was then called the Literary Society of Bombay by Mountstuart Elphinstone,Governor of Bombay Presidency,in 1820. “Elphinstone had started a library in Pune which was burnt down during the Maratha Wars. This must have been one of the manuscripts he was able to salvage and since he probably didn’t want to carry it overseas,he must have gifted it to the Society,” conjectures Dr Vidya Vencatesan,Former Honorary Secretary of Asiatic Society who has been actively involved in organising the exhibition. 

The Divine Comedy,nestling in the secure vault of a bank has not seen the light of day in a long time due to the security arrangements that will need to be made to guard the centuries-old treasure.

Along with The Divine Comedy,two other rare manuscripts — Cavalca’s Speccio de Croce and Cicero’s Be Officis will be showcased. Among the 20 books on display will be Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi and Galileo’s Dialogo de due massimi sistemi tolemico e Copernicano. 

Vencatesan,who teaches French at the Mumbai University,was taking her students on a trip of the Asiatic library when they pointed out the panoply of Italian treasures strewn around the shelves.

Although the seed of the exhibition was sown,Vencatesan in dilemma. “Who would be mad enough to comb the musty corridors and sift through the dusty books to assemble the exhibition?” 

The answer appeared in the form of Dr Roberto Bertilaccio who joined the University as the Attache Cultural and Italian lecturer and will be curating the exhibition.

“I enjoyed this beautiful experience of working closely with Italian masterpieces in such a lovely Indian library,” said Bertilaccio.

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