Mumbai’s The Divine Comedy – the treasure for which Mussolini offered £1m

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

Deep in the vaults of a Mumbai bank is one of the world’s greatest treasures. Every few years this priceless artefact is transferred to Mumbai’s Asiatic Society, under armed guard, where it is put on display, to be marvelled at by the public and experts alike. The treasure in question? A copy of Dante Alighieri’s La Divina Commedia – The Divine Comedy – one the two oldest in the world, purported to be over six hundred years old.

The work features in my latest novel, The Dying Day. In this second instalment of the Malabar House series (the first was Midnight at Malabar House, recent winner of the Crime Writers Association Historical Dagger), Persis Wadia is summoned to the Asiatic Society and informed that the Dante manuscript is missing, together with the Society’s curator, Englishman, John Healy. As she investigates, together with Archie Blackfinch, a forensic scientist from London’s Metropolitan Police, they uncover a trail of cryptic clues, including riddles written in verse… And then they find the first body.

The Bombay Branch of the Royal Society of Great Britain and Ireland has been around in one form or another in India’s ‘city of dreams’ since 1804 when James Mackintosh, a chief justice of the Bombay High Court, established a literary society in the port city. In the two centuries since, the society has grown, evolving into both an impressive storehouse of rare books and manuscripts, and a hub of intellectual endeavour. Today it is called, simply, the Asiatic Society, Mumbai.

The society houses a multitude of treasures: a five-tola coin from Emperor Akbar’s reign; a wooden bowl reputed to belong to Gautama Buddha; ancient maps from around the world, manuscripts so old they are written on palm leaves. And, of course, a priceless collection of books. A Shakespeare First Folio dated 1623 – there are only about 200 known copies in the world; a copy of both volumes of Voyages to the South Pole and Round the World by James Cook dated 1777; a two hundred-year-old History of the World by Sir Walter Raleigh. In the Classics section, you can find a book on Greek grammar dating to 1495. An 1859 first edition of Darwin’s On The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection is another rare treasure, as is Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a fully-illustrated work printed in Venice in 1553.

But undoubtedly the most valuable artefact owned by the society is Dante’s masterpiece. 

The manuscript was (purportedly) brought to the Society by a Scotsman – Mountstuart Elphinstone, former Governor of Bombay. In a 2008 Telegraph article Rahul Jayaram informs us that the manuscript “weighs around 400 grams, is of almost 450 pages, and was bound twice during the course of its stay”. 

For the uninitiated, Dante’s epic poem deals with the passage of a man’s soul through the three stages after death – Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradiso (Heaven). Historically, the work is important because it established the Tuscan dialect as Italy’s national language. In modern times the work has achieved newfound fame through Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon novel Inferno, later turned into a blockbuster movie starring Tom Hanks.

Such was the fame of the manuscript stored at the Asiatic Society in Bombay that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini is reputed to have offered £1m for its return in the 1930s, perhaps to Milan where the other oldest copy of The Divine Comedy is held. (Mussolini was a huge Dante fan, so much so that he encouraged a cult of Dante as national poet in Italy.) 

The mythology that surrounds the manuscript – and the undimmed global passion for Dante – as evidenced by the hundreds of Società Dante Alighieri that have been established around the world- is enough to ensure the ongoing popularity of La Divina Commedia

As for the Asiatic Society… Today the historical treasures stored at the Society continue to attract visitors, demonstrating the dual feelings many modern Indians maintain towards the British era – abhorrence at some of the cruelties of empire, as well as fondness for a people whose presence impacted every aspect of their lives for three centuries.

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, The Dying Day, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the disappearance of one of the world’s great treasures, a 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy stored at Bombay’s Asiatic Society. Soon bodies begin to pile up… Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here. 

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