Verdi's Messa da Requiem on Monday, November 19, at 8 p.m., at Symphony Hall, presented by the Boston University Symphony Orchestra and Symphonic Chorus
Week of  9 November 2001 · Vol. V, No. 13


Search the Bridge

Contact Us


Priceless Waxman Collection radiates history of ideas

By David J. Craig

When Bastiano de Rossi and 37 other scholars from the Accademia della Crusca began work on what now is considered the first modern critical edition of the Divine Comedy in 1590, they weren't inspired purely by a passion for Dante Alighieri's poetry. The Accademia, or Crusca Academy as it is known today, consisted of Florentine intellectuals who were determined to make their city's dialect the national language of Italy. They believed publishing a definitive edition of the Divine Comedy was a prerequisite.

  Samuel M. Waxman, a professor of romance languages at BU from 1910 to 1955 and chairman of the department from 1937 to 1955, established a fund in 1980 for the purchase of rare books.

The academy's version was printed in Florence in 1595 by Domenico Manzani and featured Pietro Bembo's complete 1502 translation and 495 critical annotations drawn from nearly 100 other manuscripts. Critics at the time generally agreed it was sloppily edited, but the academy accomplished its goal. Its version of Dante's masterpiece quickly became the new standard and would remain the predominant text for more than two centuries. It set the stage for the publication in 1612 of the first Italian dictionary, Vocabolario, which was based on the Florentine dialect.

A first edition copy of the Accademia's Divine Comedy was purchased by BU's Department of Special Collections at an auction several years ago and currently is on display on the first floor of Mugar Memorial Library. The book is part of the department's Waxman Collection, which consists of about 300 titles acquired with a fund established in 1980 by Samuel M. Waxman (1885-1980), a professor of romance languages at BU from 1910 until 1955. Thirty-seven books from the Waxman collection are being displayed in Mugar through the end of December.

Pocket-sized treasure
According to Peter Hawkins, a CAS professor of religion and the director of the Luce Program in Scripture and Literary Arts, the popular success of the Accademia's Divine Comedy is attributable partly to its physical size, not simply to its critical offerings.

"There are many books from this period that are éditions de luxe, or very expensive luxury items made for an elite," says Hawkins, who often brings students to Mugar to view the text. "This particular edition, however, was not made for aristocrats, nor is it a scholarly version of the poem, such as the 1481 Cristofor Landino edition, with its learned, almost line-by-line commentary. This is a relatively inexpensive volume that could easily be transported and read. Its format shows how at the time there was a wide range of markets for popular books such as the Commedia, just as there was for the Bible."

The Waxman Collection focuses on books pertaining to the history of ideas and includes literature, history, science, social science, art, and architecture, as well as philosophy and religion titles. The literature books, including the Divine Comedy and a 1611 second edition copy of Cervantes' Don Quixote, are among the Special Collection items most frequently examined by BU professors and students, according to Howard Gotlieb, director of Special Collections.

"The objective of the collection is to obtain books that other institutions don't have, in order to attract scholars to BU and to support the University's curriculum" says Gotlieb. "Every title in the Waxman Collection was purchased for a very specific need in a specific field. Many are absolutely invaluable because there are so few in existence, and simply could not be replaced."

Waxie, bibliophile
Other titles from the collection now on display include the first Italian edition of Plato's Phaedrus, published in 1544; the second edition of Machiavelli's Discourses on the First Decade, published by Bernardo di Giunta in 1531, just three weeks after the first edition, which many scholars consider illegitimate; and the earliest edition of the complete Bible in Spanish, translated by Cassiodoro de Reina (1520-1594), who finished the work in Frankfurt-am-Main in 1569 after escaping the Spanish Inquisition in 1557 and fleeing London in 1563 under accusation of heresy. De Reina's translation became the favorite of the Spanish Reformation movement.
Waxman, or Waxie as he was known to his many friends and colleagues, also gave Special Collections about 400 books of 20th-century Spanish literature, which was his passion. He was chairman of the department of romance languages from 1937 until his retirement in 1955 and continued to lecture until 1970.

"The library uses the Waxman gift to purchase books of great rarity, but also to add to its general stacks, particularly in the area of Spanish literature," says Gotlieb, who was a close friend of Waxman's and describes him as "a tiny man with a booming voice" and a "gentleman of the old school," who always had a flower in his buttonhole. "We've created one of the best collections of rare Spanish literature in this country and have every major dealer looking for things for us. Waxman would have been delighted; he was especially keen on the Spanish writers. He always differentiated between the Spanish writers and those from Latin America who wrote in Spanish. He had a great affinity for the Iberian peninsula."

For more information about the exhibitions organized by the Department of Special Collections, visit Much of the information in this story came from a Web site run by ItalNet, an international consortium of Italian studies scholars. To learn more about editions of Dante's Divine Comedy published during the Renaissance, visit


9 November 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations