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Follow your star

In these straitened times it looks as if a great many more hours of most people’s days will have to be spent waiting in queues.

20 November 2010

12:00 AM

20 November 2010

12:00 AM

Dante's Invention James Burge

History Press, pp.252, 18.99

In these straitened times it looks as if a great many more hours of most people’s days will have to be spent waiting in queues.

In these straitened times it looks as if a great many more hours of most people’s days will have to be spent waiting in queues. The perfect companion for such a penitential exercise is the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Should you be able to read Italian, get hold of the pocket version known as the Dante Minuscolo Hoepliano, originally issued in 1904 by the enterprising Milanese publisher Ulrico Hoepli, with excellent notes by Professor Raffaello Fornaciari of Florence University and now in its umpteenth printing. The complete text, together with a biography of the poet and some professorial wisdom cencerning the ‘senso allegoric-morale del Poema’, comes in at just under 600 pages and offers a snugly fitting antidote to the gloom and fretfulness induced by underground platforms, hospital reception areas and airport lounges.

Mooching about occupied much of Dante’s time in the course of a generally unsatisfying existence. One of the most poignant utterances in the ‘Paradiso’ section of the Divine Comedy is the prophecy of an ancestor regarding the poet’s long period of exile. ‘You will learn how wretched it is to go up and down other people’s staircases, and how tough and salty their bread tastes.’ In view of this, not the least among the poem’s delights is how often it manages to raise a smile. Dante’s laughter may be sardonic, but its phosphorescent gleam plays around even his most tragic episodes. Behind the whole complex achievement we feel a triumphant joy, resilient under the hard knocks.


As James Burge’s Dante’s Invention points out, everything began so promisingly for this sprig of medieval Florence’s lesser nobility. He had an excellent schoolmaster in Brunetto Latini, who taught him ‘how a man may make himself eternal’ as a writer and nourished his republican political idealism. The fact that Brunetto was homosexual dooms him, in the ‘Inferno’, to that circle of hell where sodomites must forever plod to and fro across a scorching sandpit under fiery rain, but the poet, where this particular sin is concerned, remains what is nowadays called ‘non- judgmental’.

‘If you follow your star,’ said Brunetto to his pupil, ‘you cannot fail to reach a glorious gateway.’ Following one’s star in the political snakepit of 14th-century Florence was something of a problem. James Burge is particularly acute in relating the city’s physical essence, with its cavernous streets and general air of shuttered, crenellated defensiveness, to its medieval role as a theatre full of continual dramas of grudge and retribution. Far removed from today’s serene art city, Florence was much more like modern Baghdad, riven by demarcation lines, gang warfare and botched experiments in governance. The petty nobles jostled the grand old families for power, while the merchant class challenged them both. Dante, raised to the exalted civic office of ‘prior’, made the fatal mistake of trying to bang heads together and exiling factional ringleaders. This episode forms the background to the grisly tale in the ‘Inferno’ of Ugolino della Gherardesca, forced to eat his own children while being starved on the orders of his erstwhile partner in rebellion. Dante bundles them together in the same dismal pit, to munch one another’s brains.

Political reality was not quite so gratifying. As the street battles resumed, Dante was banished from Florence, to begin 20 years’ wandering between Arezzo, Verona, Venice and Ravenna. The bread of exile tasted more bitter for the memory of Beatrice Portinari, the girl he had adored since they met at a children’s party. Aged 18, he had watched her walking beside the Arno, a moment which induced a hypnagogic vision where, dressed in a diaphanous red robe, she ate his flaming heart. The result was the bizarrely free-flowing erotic autobiography, La Vita Nuova, mixing prose narrative and sonnets in an effort to rationalise the supremely random nature of his passion.

Neither here nor in discussing Beatrice’s role as the Divine Comedy’s ultimate spiritual guide does Dante’s Invention romanticise the poet’s overwhelming obsession with a girl he hardly ever met and whom some commentators believe never actually existed. The notion of a beautiful woman holding the key to divine revelation was probably suggested by the work of the Spanish Muslim writer Ibn Arabi. Burge convincingly implies, in any case, that the name ‘Beatrice’, ‘the blessed lady’, may simply have been part of what he calls Dante’s ‘paraphernalia of concealment’.

This book clearly does not aim at rivaling the work of Danteans such as Barbara Reynolds, George Holmes or Robert Hollander, but its directness of approach makes it a worthy companion to all these. Burge’s distinctiveness lies in writing about Dante’s magnificent entertainment as if he were encountering it for the first time. He dedicates Dante’s Invention to Gemma Donati, the wife whom the poet never bothered to mention. Some of us, supposing we are lucky enough to pass beyond purgatory to the blissful regions, will have a few questions to ask her, not a few of them concerning Beatrice.


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