Dante's poem relating his heavenly ordained journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise enjoyed immediate success: more than 600 surviving manuscripts of the Divine Comedy produced during the 14th century attest to the work's popularity. Consequently, Dante's vernacular classic was among the first books to be printed when the new technology of moveable type was introduced into Italy from Germany during the 1460s and 1470s. Publishers and printers repeatedly turned to Dante for his proven marketability throughout the Renaissance. The editorial history of Dante's poem thus presents in concentrated form a history of the early modern book trade: that is, of the ways in which editions of the literary classics were prepared, produced, marketed and sold between the late 15th and early 17th centuries. This exhibition presents a panoramic perspective on the material history of the early modern printed book including a wide variety of book sizes, page designs, typography and iconographical programs. The Renaissance editorial history of the Divine Comedy vividly illustrates how the literary classic became an object of commercial exchange, subject to market forces in the age of print.

The editorial history of the Divine Comedy also reflects the critical reception of the poem during the Renaissance. The traditional competition between "Dante the theologian" and "Dante the poet" finds expression in the ongoing editorial rivalry between oversized editions overflowing with scholarly commentary and elegant portable volumes without commentary designed to appeal to both courtly and bourgeois readers of Dante, the vernacular poet. Most importantly, however, Dante's poem plays a central role in the Renaissance creation of a national Italian linguistic and literary identity. The establishment of an authoritative text of the Divine Comedy, and generally speaking, questions surrounding Dante's language, were the focus of a controversy between Florence and other Italian centers about the appropriate linguistic and rhetorical model for Italian literature. The process by which the Florentine Dante's poem came to be canonized as an "Italian" classic roughly parallels the process by which the Florentine vernacular came to be adopted as the literary language throughout the peninsula, thus reducing the regional languages of Italy to dialect status.

Finally however, the history of the critical reception of Dante's poem during the Renaissance is also a story about the poem's decline in popularity. The prophetic claims and religious fervor of the Divine Comedy, no less than the poem's unorthodox language and style, were incompatible with the neo-classicism of Renaissance literary culture, which preferred the lyric poetry of Petrarch. Dante in fact assumes a marginalized (albeit classic) status with respect to Petrarch in the Italian tradition at this time. As the Renaissance advanced and matured into Mannerism and the Baroque, the distance between "modern" cultural and literary sensibilities and the "medieval" poet grew larger. Significantly, only three editions of the Divine Comedy appeared during the 17th century. Indeed, Dante will not return to the fore until the 19th and 20th centuries, and only then will the Divine Comedy finally achieve its now familiar status as a classic of world literature.