Dante has suffered rather too much from his admirers. Barely was he cold in his grave at Ravenna than the process of reinventing him began. The Florentines, who had earlier driven into exile the man they dubbed an instrument of the Devil, hastened to claim him for their own, appointing Giovanni Boccaccio, his earliest biographer, as their city’s official public lecturer on the poet’s most famous work. First merely entitled Commedia, the visionary epic picked up its Divina from Boccaccio, and the process of literary canonisation began. The hook-nosed bard with his laurel wreath, tabard and floppy hat appeared as a numinous local patriarch in Tuscan frescoes, Renaissance and Baroque savants hailed him as the father of Italian literature (which he wasn’t) while the Risorgimento made him a spear-carrier for national unification (which in a way he was). Victorian Italophiles in England preferred to transmogrify him into something not unlike a Trollopean clergyman, combining the meekness of Septimus Harding with the gritty integrity of Josiah Crawley.
Barbara Reynolds, after a lifetime’s work on Dante, is blessedly unconcerned with foisting such dubious avatars on us. Her admiration, though profound, is not that of the groveller or the fantasist. Her book brings us nearer perhaps than any writer since Boccaccio to Dante as a plausible human being, the gentleman, warrior and lover, as opposed to the dispossessed dreamer on whom many commentators have preferred to dwell. The Divina Commedia, for all its allegorical intricacies and vast spiritual trajectory, is rooted in the worldly experience of a mediaeval Florentine, fond of music, hunting and fine women, keeping disreputable company here and there, and honing his poetic talents via an exchange of scabrous verses with a fellow sonneteer.
There is no reason to disbelieve Dante’s account of falling in love at the age of nine with eight-year-old Beatrice Portinari at a children’s party. The passion endured into adolescence, and the girl, married off in her early teens, was easily transformed into a kind of earthly angel, though she seems not to have shown the slightest interest in her adorer. Childbirth carried her off, leaving the inconsolable Dante to consecrate the Commedia to the cult of an immortal Beatrice. By now he had married Gemma Donati, his childhood betrothed. Records are silent on how she was able to cope with the dead rival whom, as a celestial being, her husband endowed with prophetic powers, a thorough acquaintance with the history of the Papacy and Augustinian theology, and an ability to expound complex theories of the soul’s spiritual gravitation.
Almost as traumatic as the loss of Beatrice was Dante’s banishment from Florence after his political allies in the city were rounded up and murdered. The poet was a champion hater, and some of the Inferno’s most unashamedly grisly episodes feature Florentines as thieves, usurers, sycophants and sodomites. The poem is, after all, as Reynolds shrewdly points out, ‘a vast sermon with visual aids and sound effects’, the more potent for being delivered by a layman without doctrinal scruples and ready to return blow for blow against his persecutors.
Reynolds is generous with her scholarship, peeling off the critical layers to reveal, among other aspects, the stylistic richness of the Paradiso, least reader-friendly of the Commedia’s three sections. She never loses sight of the fact, too often ignored by the more portentous species of Dantean, that the work, for all its gravity and impacted symbolism, is also an entertainment, its creator donning the guises of dramatist, pageant-master and masque-maker. When discussing the poet’s earlier works, such as the Vita Nuova and the Convivio, she offers comforting parallels between mediaeval literary culture and our own. 13th-century Italy, like 21st-century England, had the kind of ‘eagerly-awaited’ new book whose shelf-life is drastically shortened by a combination of dis- enchanted reviewers and mystified readers. Reynolds’s Dante on the other hand, in all its wisdom and clarity, is in the beg-steal-or-borrow class, indispensable.