Daniel Willard Fiske (1831-1904) was born in Ellisburg, New York. He studied at Cazenovia Seminary, Hamilton College, and Uppsala University in Sweden, where he developed an interest in Old Norse sagas. He also studied medieval manuscripts for several weeks in Wolfenbüttel at the Herzog August Bibliothek, which, he said, was “a sort of Mecca to me.” In Sweden and Denmark, Fiske acquired the first volumes of what would become a large collection of Icelandic books and manuscripts which, down to the present, is surpassed only by the collections of the Royal Library in Copenhagen and the National Library in Reykjavík. Fiske went on to serve as Assistant Librarian at the Astor Library in New York (1852-59); General Secretary and Archivist to the American Geographical Society (1859-60); attaché to the U.S. Legation in Vienna (1861-62); editor of the Syracuse Daily Journal (1863-65); a book-dealer in Syracuse (1866); and correspondent for the Hartford Courant — in which capacity he covered the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.
In 1868, A.D. White appointed Fiske as Cornell’s first University Librarian and as Professor of German and Northern European Languages. In 1880, Fiske married Jennie McGraw, daughter of John McGraw, millionaire philanthropist. Ms. McGraw suffered from tuberculosis and she died in 1881 shortly after the wedding. Fiske used his inheritance to purchase an elegant villa in Fiesole, Italy (near Florence) and to build a first-class collection of manuscripts and books by and about Dante and Petrarch. The collection included the first printed edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Foligno, 1472); a lovely illuminated manuscript of Petrarch’s Trionfi and Sonnetti (ca. 1465), with the coat of arms of the Albanian/Venetian Skënderbeu/Scanderbeg family; a copy (on vellum) of the 1501 Aldine edition of the Cose volgari di Messer Francesco Petrarca, acquired from the collection of the Churchill family in Blenheim Castle; and a second edition of De remediis utriusque fortunae (Heidelberg, ca. 1490), which subsequently would be characterized by Cornell Professor Morris Bishop as “the most medieval of Petrarch’s works.”