Rose E. Selfe

Rose E. Selfe, an English scholar in love with Dante and Florence, is the very first person who had the idea of ​​publishing an abbreviated version of the Divine Comedy dedicated to children. We don’t know much about her. We know that in 1906 her English translation of Giovanni Villani’s Chronicles of Florence appeared in London, but Rose Selfe was probably originally from central England, given that her presentation of Dante’s poem to children (How Dante Climbed the Mountain) appeared nearly twenty years earlier, in 1887, in the form of “Sunday Readings“, with a preface signed by the Bishop of Ripon, a small town in Yorkshire not far from Leeds.[1]

The bishop had enthusiastically welcomed Rose Selfe’s choice to accompany the children through the scenes of Purgatory: “One would not familiarise childhood too early with the weird and terrible scenes of the Inferno, while the Paradise would be beyond their powers; but the story of the Purgatory is within their grasp and, used correctly, it becomes a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress, full of deep truth and lessons about life”.[2]

Anyone who has read Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer knows how important Sunday School lessons were for the education of nineteenth-century Anglo-Saxon youth. The same frequent references to Pilgrim’s Progress, not only in the preface, but also in Rose Selfe’s text, show that the purpose of her work was not only civil and literary education, but also religious education. In fact, the novel Pilgrim’s Progress is an English religious allegory of the seventeenth century, written by the preacher John Bunyan, and was still popular in the nineteenth century: a sort of spiritual guide offered to young people of England and America as an aid in their “pilgrimage through life”.[3]

Here is how Rose Selfe narrates the meeting of Dante and Virgil with Cato at the beginning of Purgatory:


Or ti piaccia gradir la sua venuta:
libertà va cercando, ch’è sì cara,
come sa chi per lei vita rifiuta.
Purg. I, 70-72

Now may it please you to approve his coming;
he goes in search of liberty—so precious,
as he who gives his life for it must know.

Click here to see the title page and the first pages of How Dante Climbed the Mountain, by Rose E. Selfe.



Elizabeth Harrison

Five years after the work of Rose Selfe, another adaptation of the Commedia, dedicated to children, was published in the United States, by Elizabeth Harrison (1849-1927), an important pedagogist, scholar of the Montessori method and founder in 1886 of the National Louis University in Chicago, then called Chicago Kindergarten College. Her translation dedicated to childhood is entitled The Vision of Dante and appeared in Chicago in 1892, illustrated with some black and white plates by the English artist Walter Crane (1845-1915).[4]

Elizabeth Harrison contributed to the history of women’s emancipation and is remembered by her friend and colleague Jane Addams, the first American woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1931, with these words: “Elizabeth has done more good than any woman I know. She has brought light and power to all the educational world”. [5]

Harrison also dwells more on the canticle of Purgatory. Here is how she describes the Valley of the Princes, where Dante and Virgil spend the night after their meeting with Sordello:


Non avea pur natura ivi dipinto,
ma di soavità di mille odori
vi facea uno incognito e indistinto.
Purg. VII, 79-81

And nature there not only was a painter,
but from the sweetness of a thousand odors,
she had derived an unknown, mingled scent.

Click here to see the title page, the first pages and some illustrations taken from The Vision of Dante, by Elizabeth Harrison.



Ettore Janni

In Italy, the first to try his hand at the idea of introducing Dante Alighieri to children was the journalist Ettore Janni (1875-1956), the author of In piccioletta barca. Libro della prima conoscenza di Dante (“In a little boat. The book for first acquaintance with Dante”), published in Milan in 1921. At that time Janni was carrying out his profession as a literary critic at the Corriere della Sera, a newspaper that he had to leave a few years later, together with his colleague and friend Luigi Albertini, because both of them were unwelcome to the fascist regime. His narrative is patriotic and celebratory about the figure of Dante, who is considered as a “glorious son” of the nation, “never shrouded in the shadow” of forgetfulness, due to “the wings of Poetry that carried him”. [6]

Here is how Janni tells of Sordello accompanying Dante and Virgil to the Valley of the Princes:


Sordello was a gentle knight and a noble poet. So, his joy was great and his words were full of admiration and respect, when he heard that his fellow citizen was Virgil, one of the greatest poets in the world. He guided him and Dante, suggesting that they stop in a nearby small valley where there were other souls waiting to enter Purgatory. The sun was setting and he warned the two poets that on the whole mountain no one could take a step after sunset. They hurried therefore towards the valley, which was a beautiful flowery meadow from which a thousand very sweet smells emanated, mixed together, and where the souls sang “Salve Regina”. They were the souls of emperors, kings and princes. Sordello indicated some of them by name.

«Colà», disse quell’ombra, «n’anderemo
dove la costa face di sé grembo;
e là il novo giorno attenderemo».
Purg. VII, 67-69

That shade said: “It is there that we shall go—
to where the slope forms, of itself, a lap;
at that place we’ll await the new day’s coming.”

Click here to see the cover and the first pages of the book In piccioletta barca by Ettore Janni.



Dino Provenzal

Il Dante dei Piccoli (“Dante for children”), by Dino Provenzal (1877-1972), was published in 1922 in Florence and had good success, so that the first edition ran out in a few months and the book was re-published in 1924. Dino Provenzal dedicated his life to education, he was a professor and headmaster in several high schools, but he was also a journalist and wrote for the Corriere dei Piccoli. His idea of ​​having an uncle explain the Divine Comedy to three nephews (a girl and two boys) was a winner.

Provenzal was particularly appreciated for the skill and witty clarity of his narrative and for his capability to adopt new expressions “warm but not superficial”, as when he defined the Guelphs and Ghibellines respectively as “partisans of the Pope” and “partisans of the Emperor”, thus allowing young people to penetrate its meaning with greater immediacy.[7]

The freshness and immediacy of Dino Provenzal’s approach is particularly appreciable from the way the author presents to his young readers the encounter between Dante and the Emperor Justinian in Paradise.

Provenzal does not dwell so much on the events of the Roman Empire, but he does emphasize the work of Justinian as a great legislator. Even more particularly, Provenzal dwells on the fact that Justinian indicates to Dante only one “blessed spirit” among all those who are present with him in the Heaven of Mercury: the spirit of Romeo of Villanova, who had been the prime minister of Raimondo Berengario IV, Count of Provence. Justinian indicates him to Dante as an example of great institutional fidelity – as we would say today – represented by an honest servant of the state who, having always worked for the good of the res publica, had to succumb to its enemies. Here is how Dino Provenzal tells the story:


One of the souls of this Heaven wants to speak to Dante, but he is so enveloped in light that Dante, dazzled, cannot see him:
he is the soul of the emperor Justinian, famous for the great code of laws that takes its name from him.

He says that those laws, full of wisdom and inspired by supreme justice, were suggested to him by God.
Then he tells a quick history of Roman greatness during the Kingdom, the Republic and the Empire.
“So much glory and so many victories”, he says,  “were wanted by God and made Rome the mistress of the world”.
Justinian bitterly regrets that men, united for centuries and centuries under the flag of the Empire,
are now divided into Guelphs and Ghibellines, wearing themselves out in bloody and useless fights.

In the same Heaven is Romeo di Villanova, a poor pilgrim who, in the early 13th century, one day asked for and received hospitality in the palace of Raimondo Berlinghieri, Count of Provence. The Count liked him so much that he was asked to remain. Romeo was able to give such wise advice and was found to be so sensible, prudent and trustworthy, that the Count needed him, never let him leave and appointed him minister.
Having reached that high rank, Romeo administered his lord’s assets with greater care than if they had been his own property, managed to marry the four daughters of the Count to four kings and devoted himself entirely to the good of the state. But the envious ones began to murmur: “Could it be that Count Raimondo trusts so blindly a stranger whom no one knows? And will this stranger’s zeal be really disinterested? ”.
In short, they denigrated him so skilfully that they sowed the seed of doubt even into the soul of Raimondo,
who called Romeo one day and invited him to show the accounts.

 – The accounts? –
Romeo did not hesitate for a moment. Wounded in the heart by such unjust suspicion, by such black ingratitude, he showed the accounts from the day he took over the administration and Raimondo, who could see the scrupulous honesty of his minister, asked his forgiveness.
But Romeo did not want to remain in the court .
Taking back the staff and the poor habit with which he had come to Provence many years before,
he went away into the world, living on the alms of the compassionate: no one ever saw him again.

Indi partissi povero e vetusto;
e se ‘l mondo sapesse il cor ch’elli ebbe
mendicando sua vita a frusto a frusto,
assai lo loda, e più lo loderebbe».
Par. VI, 139-142

And Romeo, the poor, the old, departed;
and were the world to know the heart he had
while begging, crust by crust, for his life—bread,
it—though it praise him now—would praise him more.”


Click here to see the title page and the first pages of the book Il Dante dei piccoli by Dino Provenzal.



Gherardo Ugolini

The last adaptation for children of the Divine Comedy that appeared before the Second World War was Il piccolo Dante, published in Brescia by the publishing company “La Scuola” in 1928. The author is Gherardo Ugolini (1885-1960), elementary school teacher and author of several children’s books, including some adaptations of Homeric poems. Il piccolo Dante (“Little Dante”), illustrated by Francesco Carlo Salodini (1903-1950), went into many reprints and was republished in 1954 with the new title Dante, il mistico Pellegrino (“Dante, the mystic pilgrim”), with the addition of some colour plates by Anna Maria Coccoli (1929- 2014).

Ugolini too, like Provenzal, highlights the figure of a faithful servant of the public interest who fell from grace following slander suffered by other envious courtiers and enemies of the res publica. This is the jurist Pier delle Vigne, much more famous than the humble Romeo of Villanova and valued advisor to Emperor Frederick II of Swabia. He was the architect of the important imperial legislative reforms of the thirteenth century, known as the Constitutions of Melfi, and he committed suicide in 1249. Dante meets him, transformed into a tree, in the seventh circle of Hell specifically where suicides are punished. At the suggestion of Virgil, Dante breaks a small branch of the tree, but from that wound comes blood and also the resentful lament of the tree itself.

Here is how Gherardo Ugolini narrates the episode:

Virgil calmly pointed out to the offended soul that he himself had led the pupil to that experiment:
otherwise, Dante would never have been able to believe that, when a tree was cut off, the tree would suffer like a person.

“Tell him who you are instead,” continued the sage. – He will make amends for the harm he has done to you, by remembering you up there!
Then the tree, with the mouth of the wound open, told his whole story. His name was Pier delle Vigne.
Thanks to his ingenuity, he became notary of the Crown for the great Emperor Frederick
and lived in the midst of the honours and splendours of the Court.
But the envy of the other courtiers who wanted to get rid of him meant that soon the emperor, his lord and master, got tired of him.
Indeed he imprisoned and blinded him. Poor Pier delle Vigne, who loved Federico very much,
could not bear the disaster and killed himself.

Per le nove radici d’esto legno
vi giuro che già mai non ruppi fede
al mio segnor, che fu d’onor sì degno.
E se di voi alcun nel mondo riede,
conforti la memoria mia, che giace
ancor del colpo che ’nvidia le diede.
Inf. XIII, 73-78

I swear to you by the peculiar roots
of this thornbush, I never broke my faith
with him who was so worthy—with my lord.
If one of you returns into the world,
then let him help my memory, which still
lies prone beneath the battering of envy.”

Click here to see the title page, the first pages and some illustrations taken from Il piccolo Dante by Gherardo Ugolini.



“Mickey Mouse’s Hell”

After the dark years of the Fascist regime and the last world war, a new way of presenting Dante’s poem to the world of children emerges: a way less close to research into infantile learning that is immediately “serious” about the original text, and more inclined to alternative research into possible “preparatory forms of mediation”, in order to create around the text of the Divine Comedy “tales suitable for being reworked” which in their turn can produce awareness by means of “an emblematic example of reading for entertainment”. This is how Mickey Mouse’s Inferno was born in Milan in October 1949, and was published in instalments by the publisher Mondadori in the weekly comic “Topolino.[8]

Mickey Mouse’s Inferno is an entirely Italian creation taken from the Walt Disney productions, created by Guido Martina (1906-1991), designed by Angelo Bioletto (1906-1986) and built up by paraphrasing Dante’s Inferno. The triplets of hendecasyllables are preserved to create the narrative fabric.

“There is no lack of detailed references to Dante’s poem, but the work is full of paradoxical and parodic ideas, such as that of using the bicycle to embark on the journey into the afterlife”. [9] All this produces enjoyable and funny verses and scenes, such as those that mark the meeting between Dante-Mickey and Virgil-Goofy, with whose original strips it seems right to conclude this article.

Click here to see the rest of the story




[1] Rose E. Selfe, How Dante Climbed the Mountain. Sunday Readings with the Children from the ‘Purgatorio’, London 1887, ristampato s.d. da Leopold Classic Library. Per un commento all’opera di Rose Selfe si veda Virginia Jewiss, Hell for kids: translating Dante’s Divine Comedy for children, in Susana Bayó Belenguer e altri, Translation Right or Wrong, Four Courts Press, Dublin and Portland, 2013, pp. 79-82.

[2] “One would not too early familiarise childhood with the weird and terrible scenes of the Inferno, while the Paradiso would be beyond their powers; but the story of the Purgatory is within their grasp and, rightly used, it becomes a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress, full of deep truth and life-lessons”.

[3] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which is to Come: Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream, London 1678, ristampato più volte da Penguin Classics.

[4] Elizabeth Harrison, The vision of Dante, ‘A story for little children and a talk to their mothers’, Chicago 1892, 2a edizione 1894. Cfr. Virginia Jewiss, Hell for kids, cit., pp. 81-83.

[5] Grazia Gotti, in IBBY, International Board on Book for Young people,

[6] Sabrina Fava, Dante per i bambini: percorsi tra riduzioni e riscritture nella prima metà del Novecento, in “Ricerche di Pedagogia e Didattica – Journal of Theories and Research in Education”, 9, 3 (2014).

[7] Sabrina Fava, cit.

[8] Ibidem

[9] Ibidem