Dante’s Dictionary (Uguccione da Pisa, Derivationes)

by Laura Banella

Derivationes, Magnae Derivationes, Liber Derivationum, Vocabolarium – Uguccione da Pisa / Huguccio / Hugutio / Hugh of Pisa

Ms. BML, 27 sin. 5, c. 20v.
Ms. BML, 27 sin. 5, c. 20v. The folio contains the final section of letter C and the beginning of letter D. In the top part of the right column there is the end of the lemma crisis, but the entries for “crisma –tis” and “cristus” appear as if they are part the same entry. This confusion suggests the difficulty of consulting the work, which lacks a clear system of organization.

The Derivationes are the most important and widely-circulated lexicographical encyclopedia of the Middle Ages. It is a Latin lexicon alphabetically ordered by principal lemmas of the simple words, from which all the derivatives and the compound words are deduced. The title of the work, Derivationes, comes from this method. The Derivationes were written by Uguccione da Pisa in the middle of the twelfth century. The Derivationes served as a dictionary also for those who wrote in vernacular, among whom we find Dante, who used them throughout his whole life, and cites them in the Convivio (IV 6 5).

The author. Canonist and lexicographer, Uguccione was born in Pisa probably around 1130. He died in Ferrara in 1210. He studied law in Bologna before 1156. There, he was professor of canon law from 1178 to at the latest 1190, when he became bishop of Ferrara. As a bishop, he undertook important religious and political roles. As a canonist, Uguccione wrote a Summa on Gratian’s Decretum (1188-90): for its extent and depth, it is considered the major commentary on Gratian. In this work Uguccione claims the parallel autonomy of papacy and empire, preceding Dante’s political thought as it is expressed especially in the Monarchia.

Doubts have been raised on the identity of the Uguccione da Pisa author of the Derivationes with the Uguccione bishop and canonist. There is, however, no certain evidence that they are two distinct authors.

The work. The Derivationes are a Latin dictionary where the method of derivational lexicography (disciplina derivationis) is applied. Uguccione’s major source was the Liber Derivationum by Osbern Pinnock of Gloucester (1123-1200), whom however he never cites. The Derivationes are written by compiling previous materials that in turn were at least partially made by compilation: this results in a considerable stratification of knowledge. The Derivationes place themselves in continuity with Classical and Late Antique culture: one of the their most important precedent are Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae. Uguccione directly cites some of his sources (there are ca. 2500 quotations), such as the Bible, Plautus, Horace, Giovenale, Virgil, Martianus Capella, Persius, Ovid, Terence, Lucan, Macrobius, Prudence, Josephus, Augustine, Statius, Ambrose, Jerome, Servius, Priscian, Rabanus Maurus, and the Disticha Catonis.

In the Derivationes there is a strong tendency towards the hierarchization of the lexicon: Uguccione strives to isolate a certain number of root-words, deducing from them almost the whole Latin lexicon by the process of derivation and composition.

Lemmas are not ordered in a precise sequence. There is a generic alphabetical order based on the first two or three letters of the words, but more often only the first letter is taken into account. This makes the dictionary very hard to use (some manuscripts solve this by adding marginal notes indicating the lemmas, see image). For this reason the Derivationes will be replaced by Giovanni Balbi’s Catholicon (1286), almost a modern dictionary in which lemmas are ordered in a more rigorously alphabetical, and thus easier, system.

Despite their complexity, the Derivationes are the dictionary par excellence of the Middle Ages. They are found at the center of medieval culture, and had a vast diffusion until the fifteenth century. Today there are ca. 190 extant manuscript copies of the Derivationes.


    Dante and the Derivationes. The Derivationes are a Latin dictionary, but they were used also by vernacular writers: being an encyclopedia, it was useful not only in order to understand the meaning of words, but especially as an erudite source of knowledge. Being an ever-present and diffused intertext, which refers to a pervasive and shared knowledge in the Middle Ages, the Derivationes are one of the fundamental works for interpreting Dante’s oeuvre. Dante uses the Derivationes to enrich his vocabulary (for instance for Greek words), but he also draws inspiration from the etymologies and the interpretations given in the Derivationes: some of the images and the scenes of his works correspond to Uguccione’s definitions, and indeed they become clear in the light of Uguccione’s work (Toynbee and Picone). There are various instances throughout Dante’s works, among which two of the most significant are Virgil’s actions in Inf. VI and the representation of the hypocrites in Inf. XXIII:

  • Dante represents the hypocrites as wearing mantles brilliantly gilded on the outside, but of lead within (Inf. XXIII 61-65). This image seems to come from Uguccione’s etymology of hypocrita, which was commonly accepted in the Middle Ages, and repeated by the early Dante commentators: an hypocrite is a deceiver, so that the word hypocrita is composed of two parts, that is ipo which means over, and crisis that in Greek means gold, so that hypocrita means someone who is golden on the outside (Toynbee 548-549).
  • Another scene that seems to come from Uguccione is Virgil’s intervention on Cerberus (Inf. VI). Whereas the Sybil in the Aeneid appeases the monster with drugged honeycakes, Virgil silences Cerberus by throwing a handful of earth in its mouth (vv. 25-31). Uguccione’s definition elucidates the scene: in the Derivationes Cerberus is interpreted as the symbol of the earth that consumes, eats buried corpses (“[…] Cerberus est terra que carnes mortuorum consumit sed ossa consumere non potest,” Derivationes II 283), so that the monster itself becomes earth and it is natural that it is appeased by swallowing earth (Picone 270). This seems also related to the condition of the souls in this canto, the gluttonous, who are almost buried in earth.


    Ms. BML, 27 sin. 5, c. 20v. Parchment, 1236 (scribal colophon, c. 90rb: “anno domini MCCXXXVI indictione nona die iouis .v. exeunte iunio / hec in (!) pagina fin<i>ta est scrib(i) et in mense marcii, ut credo, anno domini 1234 ince / ptum fuit opus istud”), cc. III (paper) + 90 + I (parchment) + III (paper), mm. 360×258 (270×182). Gothic Italian script, maybe by more than one hand. Major capital letters alternately red and blue introduce the beginning of the new sections; smaller capitals alternately red and blue introduce the pricipal lemmas. Red paragraph marks highlight the words, and some lemmas. The word item and other simple capitals in the text are touched in red (for the complete description of the ms. see Derivationes I xxxvi-xxxviii). This Italian manuscript from 1236 is the oldest dated copy of the Derivationes and a good example of how Dante’s copy of the Derivationes might have looked like.


Uguccione da Pisa, Derivationes, edizione critica princeps a cura di E. Cecchini e di G. Arbizzoni, S. Lanciotti, G. Nonni, M.G. Sassi, A. Tontini, Firenze: SISMEL – Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2004 (Edizione Nazionale dei testi Mediolatini, 11).


Ascoli, Albert. Ascoli, Albert Russell. Dante and the Making of a Modern Author. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Picone, Michelangelo. “Dante e Uguccione,” in “Le ‘Derivazioni’ di Uguccione da Pisa. Atti dell’incontro di studi all’Università di Zurigo 10 febbraio 2006.” Archivum Latinitatis Medii Aevi – Bulletin du Cange 64 (2006): 241-276 (268-275).

Schizzerotto, Giancarlo. “Uguccione (Uguiccione) da Pisa,” in Enciclopledia Dantesca, diretta da U. Bosco, Roma, Istituto dell’Enciclopedia Italiana fondata da Giovanni Treccani, 19842, V: 800-802. (http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/uguccione-da-pisa_%28Enciclopedia-Dantesca%29/)

Toynbee, Paget Jackson. “Dante’s Obligations to the Magnae Derivationes of Uguccione da Pisa,” Romania 26 (1897): 537-554.

—. “Dante’s Latin Dictionary,” in Dante Studies and Researches, Methuen: London, 1902: 97-114.