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Medievalist meets his hero

A legend commonly exchanged among employees of the ASM is that German dictator Benito Mussolini had made a £1-million bid for their rare 14th century manuscript of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, which the ASM then had the privilege of denying to the Duce (duke) of Fascism.

india Updated: Apr 05, 2009 00:46 IST
Purva Mehra

A legend commonly exchanged among employees of the Asiatic Society of Mumbai (ASM) is that German dictator Benito Mussolini had made a £1-million bid for their rare 14th century manuscript of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, which the ASM then had the privilege of denying to the Duce (duke) of Fascism.

Presented to the ASM in 1820 by Mountstuart Elphinstone, ASM’s then president and governor of Bombay, the manuscript is stirring up the dust this time as an Indian scholar specialising in Medieval Italian devotional literature, Manu
Radhakrishnan will share his expertise and observations on this copy.

“The text remains relevant because of Dante’s extraordinary imagination. He has documented every conceivable human emotion in the poem,” said Radhakrishnan. “For me reading Dante in Italian occasioned an academic rehabilitation. He is why I chose to be a Medievalist.”

A former fund collector at Columbia, Radhakrishnan gave up his job to pursue a PhD at Princeton University. Born in Delhi, he completed his undergraduate studies in economics at Harvard University.

“My dissertation is on Domenico Cavalca, an author who lived in the same time as Dante,” he said. “The Asiatic also has in its possession a 14th century text of Cavalca’s Mirror of The Cross, a prose devotional text also in the vernacular. It’s likely that both manuscripts may either be copied by the same scribe or scriptorian or are close together by way of time and space. This is an exciting possibility.”

This stroke of providence has accompanied the text long before Radhakrishnan came upon it. “It was rediscovered in 1890 by Sir George Birdwood, a former secretary of the society, in an attic in the Town Hall. We are looking at a major research project in an attempt to make parts of it accessible while preserving intellectual property rights,” said Vidya Vencatesan, ASM’s honorary secretary.

In a lecture, Radhakrishnan will discuss an episode in Dante’s Inferno 27, examine textual variations between the modern text and ASM’s manuscript and expound on the possible connections between Cavalca and Dante.