Dante's Early Illustrations Unveiled by Harvard Scholar

Francesca Mignosa, collaboratrice de La Gazzetta Italiana, ha recentemente avuto l’opportunità di intervistare Matthew Collins, accademico e docente presso la prestigiosa Harvard University per parlare della sua tesi dedicata al testo ed alle immagini nel capolavoro Divina Commedia di Dante e alle sue prime illustrazioni moderne del XV e XVI secolo. 

Recently, La Gazzetta Italiana contributor Francesca Mignosa had the opportunity to talk with Harvard Scholar and Harvard faculty member, Matthew Collins about his dissertation on the Text and Images in Dante’s “Commedia” and its Early Modern Illustrations (1481-1596).

FM: When did your love and interest for the Italian language begin and how?
MC: I began to study Italian when I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin. Because I was an art history major, I thought that taking Italian courses was a natural choice given how regularly the art of Italy is featured in museums, survey courses and the like. The language itself is, of course, absolutely lovely, so it was not too hard to stick with it. Actually, about 10 years ago, I did some writing, editing and translation for La Gazzetta Italiana!

FM: How have your studies at Harvard University enhanced your understanding of the language and culture?
MC: I have been very lucky as I’ve had many wonderful colleagues and professors, at Harvard and beyond, whose intellectual interests and multifaceted fields of research have broadened my knowledge and enriched my ways of thinking. Beyond medieval and Renaissance Italian topics, I have become engaged in several digital humanities projects, I co-curated an exhibit on Italian colonialism in the Horn of Africa and I’ve studied the wonderful tradition of Italian film. I’ve also enjoyed teaching introductory language courses, as well as more advanced courses in Italian, such as a class I’m currently doing on Italian Disney adaptations of medieval literary works. And, there are many archives, special collections and museums on campus with Italian-related materials and I’ve had the opportunity to work with these collections for digital projects or exhibition work. Because I’ve been able to take up a variety of roles during my years at Harvard: student, teacher, researcher, colleague, collaborator, etc., my understanding of the cultural histories of Italy and beyond has been immeasurably enriched.

FM: Can you mention a few of the collaborations or research projects you worked in Italy?
MC: I am actively in touch with scholars living in quite a few Italian cities such as Florence, Rome, Naples, Pisa, and Brescia. I have participated in editorial work for a number of years now with a literary journal called La Nuova rivista di letteratura italiana. I have a chapter forthcoming in an edited volume that will be printed by the Florentine publisher Franco Cesati Editore and I have a piece forthcoming in an Italian journal published by Leo S. Olschki Editore, another publishing house based in Florence. I spent one memorable academic year at the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa as a visiting fellow. I had started my doctoral studies in art history at NYU and transferred to Harvard’s Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, so I mostly used that year in Pisa to solidify my foundations in the history of Italian literature. I interviewed Carlo Ginzburg while I was there which is available in English and has since been translated into Spanish. I also laid the foundations for several articles that I went on to publish, including one on the 20th century architecture and urban planning of Ivrea, Italy, where the headquarters of the Olivetti typewriter factory is located.

FM: How did your dissertation topic come about? Did you find there was a gap in the field and you wanted to fill in that gap?
MC: I did discover that there was a significant gap in the field, yes, though that came a bit after I had started homing in on my dissertation topic. In my later years of undergraduate study, late medieval Italy became fascinating to me for two fundamental reasons: the art of that time and place and Dante. Medieval Italian art and architecture struck me as mysterious and enigmatic, almost like a series of riddles, and Dante’s Commedia embodied that same spirit. I began my graduate studies in art history with the desire to do something that pulled together Dante and the visual arts and as Dante occupied an increasingly central role in my studies, I transferred to Harvard’s Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. I had the definitive intention to do something related to the illustrations of Dante’s Commedia—but that is a very broad topic. There were already illuminated manuscripts realized within decades after the poem was completed in 1321 and artists continue to take up the challenge of illustrating this work to the present day. My focus narrowed after acquainting myself with the collections in Houghton Library, which is Harvard’s primary rare book library. I was especially struck by the earliest printed illustrated renderings of Dante’s poem. Houghton has at least one copy of every single printed edition of the Commedia containing illustrations from the 15th and 16th centuries. My fascination for these early printed illustrations grew and I even began a digital project with Houghton to capture high resolution images of every one of the illustrations within these volumes. I noticed that there has never been a systematic study of these early printed illustrations of the Commedia and many of them, even individually, have received very little scholarly attention. So, I arrived at my dissertation topic.

FM: How long did it take you to research and expand the topic? Did you conduct some research in Italy?
MC: Considering my project with Houghton as an official starting point, I began in the summer of 2016, about two years before I defended my dissertation in September. Unfortunately, I had no opportunity to go to Italy during this time, though I did make extensive use of a digitized copy of one illuminated manuscript of the Commedia in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, which I discuss at some length in the dissertation. In several instances, late manuscript illuminators copied some of the printed illustrations that are my principal focus and this specific manuscript is one such instance. I hope to see it in person soon. There were also two French-produced illuminated manuscripts in which the illuminators did something similar which I got to see in person at the Bibliothèque nationale de France when I was there for a conference last year.

FM: What do you envision next in your academic or professional lives?
MC: Currently I am still teaching at Harvard, which I have been doing since 2015. I am also revising my dissertation and preparing it for publication as a book. I have several projects in mind that would both follow and continue my dissertation and first book, in one way or another. Also, at some point, I would like to return to a little project I started during my year in Pisa: visiting every landscape and/or architectural site that Dante references in his Commedia, capturing the space through photography in a way that illustrates the point he was making through the reference. Often, he uses these sites as similes to describe what he encounters in his imagined journey through the afterlife. I managed to visit more than 50 of them, some well off the beaten path. A return to this project, and its development, could potentially result to some degree in a new perspective on Dante’s life and work; a few people tried doing this in the 19th century, but I think results could be far different, and far better, thanks to advances in technology.

FM: How can our readers get in touch with you if they wish to do so?
MC: I’m always happy to talk Dante, or Italian art and culture! I can be reached by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..