The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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A riddle wrapped in silk inside a vault

She speaks with the grace of an old-world librarian. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” whispers Vimal Shah, vice-president of the Asiatic Society, Mumbai, as if she were disclosing a secret. “And when you turn the pages in natural light, they take on a reddish-brown hue and the illustrations gleam,” she says.

Shah is talking about Dante’s Divine Comedy — one of the two oldest manuscripts of the work, dating back to the 1350s, and Asiatic Society’s most treasured possession. The document recently clocked 188 years with the Asiatic Society, nestled inside a safe deposit vault in a bank in south Mumbai, wrapped in red silk. If Asiatic Society functionaries are to be believed, it is in mint condition and is checked twice a year. “It weighs around 400 grams, is of almost 450 pages and was bound twice during the course of its stay here,” adds Shah. It was displayed to the public for the first time last year at a Society exhibition.

But the document, touted as an “original” and described by Asiatic Society as “priceless,” is being looked at very carefully by a British academic. Professor Nick Harley of the University of York, UK, is not so sure about it being Dante’s original. “I believed so initially, but we can’t speak of this manuscript as being ‘only one of two surviving original documents’. ‘Original’ would mean Dante wrote it himself. We don’t know about that. But yes, it is one of the two oldest surviving ones,” he says.

Then why does the perception of it being the “original” exist? “The manuscript has an Italian note in an 18th or early 19th-century hand pasted inside the cover which looks as if it could be a dealer’s description,” he says. Harley says it’s possible that the manuscript came from a dealer in Britain who had obtained it from an Italian source. “But its inscription on vellum and designing are from the 1300s”, Harley says.

Each page of Dante’s love poem, which deals with the passage of a man’s soul through the three stages after death — of Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradiso (Heaven), is illustrated.

Harley is perhaps the only scholar who is looking at the influence of Dante Alighieri on the British Raj. “The late 1700s and early 1800s in Europe was the era of the Romantics. The Greek and Latin Classics were extensively debated upon and re-interpreted. The debates went on to fashion the intellectual culture of that age. This document coming to India was a part of that historical-cultural process. The British carried on that conversation in India,” he says.

Having already written extensively on Dante, Harley worked with the document last year, and plans to revisit India soon. He had been looking for existing medieval copies of the poem, and the journey preceding Mumbai took him to Bonn, Berlin, Rome and Milan — where the other oldest copy of the Divine Comedy exists. In the process, he hit upon the idea of writing a book on Montstuart Elphinstone, then President of the Asiatic Society and Governor of Bombay, who donated the Dante manuscript to the Society in 1820.

Legend has it that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini wanted the document, and offered to pay a “million pounds” for it in the 1930s. “It’s very much possible. The minutes of the Society’s Guide, 2002, attest to that. We know that Mussolini encouraged a cult of Dante as national poet. And it would be an exemplary tale of a learned society resisting a dictator,” he says, referring to the Asiatic Society’s decision not to sell the document. “We do know that one of his early acts when he came to power was to order Italian embassies to display a bust of Dante,” he explains.

Other anecdotes and offers to buy the manuscript run thick and fast. In 2002, former World Bank chief Paul Wolfowitz came with his wife and read aloud from the document for an hour. “So impressed was he that he asked for Society membership, and how much it would cost to buy the manuscript. We laughed it off,” says Aroon Tikekar, president, Asiatic Society, Mumbai.

Then again, it was rumoured that the government of ex-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was “interested” in acquiring the document. Renato Ruggiero, Italian foreign minister in 2002, came visiting, compared it favourably to the one in Milan, and sent back a detailed proposal to the Italian ministry for cultural affairs. “He asked for a quotation, we said, ‘no’,” says another senior functionary. When contacted, Italian embassy officials in Delhi refused to comment.

What continues to baffle scholars is how the document came to Mumbai — a puzzle that Harley seeks to crack one day. Historian Bipan Chandra points out that documents are often found in the unlikeliest of places. “One of my PhD students in the 1970s actually found the diaries of Baba Ram Chandra (a major Kisan Sabha leader in the 1920s) inside a hut near Gaya,” he says. Art critic Girish Shahane concurs. “An abstract artist like Harold Shapinsky was discovered by literature professor Akumal Ramachander when the latter visited his house in New York in the 1980s. Shapinsky was unheard of then,” he says.

However, Asiatic Society officials do complain of the interest in the Dante document alone. High off the recent grant worth Rs 25 lakh given by the Mumbai Municipal Regional Development Association (MMRDA), Society functionaries emphasise their other holdings — which includes another 14th century manuscript — the Latin classic Ovid’s Metamorphosis. “We have many other riches too,” says Shah, while glinting over the brochure depicting a leaf off the Divine Comedy’s pages.

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