Unlike Shakespeare, who kept himself out of all his works, except the Sonnets, Dante was endlessly reworking his autobiography, even when supposedly writing on politics or arranging love poems to his dream-women. The core of this new book about him can be found in a sentence following Dante’s banishment from Florence, and his setting out as a poverty-stricken exile, deprived of all power, separated from his wife and family and stripped of his wealth. Marco Santagata writes:
One of the typical features of Dante’s personality, which qualifies him as an ‘intellectual’ in the modern sense of the word, is his endless reflection on what he is doing, both as an author and as a man.
Santagata is Professor of Italian Literature at the University of Pisa, and this substantial work incorporates all the most recent Dantean scholarship. There is much to chew upon, since Dante lived at the very centre of his city’s political life. After his exile he became embroiled in the drama of the French Pope (Clement V, Bertrand de Got), and in November 1308 endorsed the candidature of Henry of Luxembourg as Holy Roman Emperor. Santagata, thoroughly steeped in the politics and genealogies of the period, gives the best account I have ever read of Dante in his historical context. We follow him as an enthusiastic Guelph, in the battle of Campaldino in 1289 against the Ghibellines of Arezzo, and on through his political and religious journey as a would-be politician. He falls foul of the bitter feuding between the ‘White’ Guelphs and the ‘Blacks’ — chief of whom in Florence was Dante’s wife’s terrifying and thuggish relation Corso Donati.
Feuding between medieval Florentines never makes for easy reading, and it does help to make notes as you go along, even if you think you know which family is a White and which a Black, and which is supported, and which shafted, by the wily Pope Boniface VIII. But you will never read an account clearer than Santagata’s. Nor will you read a more convincing description of how Dante changed his mind, quite fundamentally, about the political issues which confronted him (Pope vs Emperor) and the deep religious questions which underpin his work.
The central story, after all, is not the complexity of 13th- and 14th-century Italian politics. It is the extraordinary poet, with his endless ‘reflection on what he was doing’. Santagata teases out the many ways in which Dante was not merely self-obsessed, but also self-inventive. He came from relatively modest origins: his father was a moneylender. In Paradise, however, when Dante meets his crusading ancestor Cacciaguida, they both agree that Florence has been wrecked by mercantile shyster-bankers and money-men and that the world will only come to its senses when it is once again ruled by noblemen. So, though not himself an aristocrat, Dante writes as though he were one.
Santagata makes an interesting point about the exile, too, in this context. We think of it being spent in great cities: Lucca (which Dante abominated), Verona (where he was patronised by Can Grande) and — at last — Ravenna. But in fact he spent more time in castles in the country, as the dependant of great lords. Cacciaguida’s prophecy came true, and Dante learnt how salt was the taste of another’s bread, how hard the path up another’s stair (‘e duro calle/ lo scendere e il salir per l’altrui scale’). The staircases in question, how-ever, were more often in castles in the Apennines than in your humble B&B. The Malaspina family, Dante’s greatest patrons in his exile, were famously praised for being covered with honour both in their commercial and their chivalric dealings — ‘del pregio della borsa e della spade’ — the glory of the purse and sword.
Santagata is particularly funny about the extent to which Dante, even after he had started writing his Commedia, changed his mind about which individuals were good and which were bad. In 1304, he wrote to Oberto and Guido di Aghinolfo di Romena, saying how desolated he was not to attend the funeral of their uncle Alessandro, which would take place in one of the castles of the Casentino. Alessandro was one of the great lords — the ‘highest nobility of Tuscany was made resplendent’ by him. Dante’s reason was that he was now too poor to travel. But clearly the brothers did not take the hint. By the time Dante had dipped his pen in acid and started to write the Inferno, he placed their uncle Alessandro — who in Dante’s letter had been the resplendent ‘sun’ of Tuscany — in the circle of Hell reserved for falsifiers, besmirched by his association with dodgy currency, bribing Master Adam to mint counterfeit gold florins.
Santagata chronicles the phases of Dante’s egomania in the early love poems, and in the two great disquisitions he wrote in his early exile: Convivio (on what constituted true nobility) and the prodigiously original and clever essay on language, De vulgari eloquentia, which anticipates much modern linguistics. Dante was the first person in history to realise that languages themselves change and have histories.
Santagata explores all the old questions of Dantean biography and comes up with some surprisingly old-fashioned conclusions, which I found attractive. The claim by Dante’s early medieval biographers that he had visited France was pooh-poohed for much of the 20th century, but Santagata thinks he certainly reached Provence and might even have attended philosophy lectures in Paris. Sadly, Santagata does not go so far as Gladstone, who claimed that Dante achieved the ultimate ambition of all intellectual exploration by visiting Oxford.
The strange mystery surrounding Dante’s marriage is also seen from a genial and old-fashioned point of view. Boccaccio made Gemma, Dante’s wife, into one of the shrews about whom he liked to tell funny stories in the Decameron. So, when Dante was exiled, Boccaccio has her remaining in Florence, with the marriage effectively at an end. Santagata shows how Dante holds back, in the Commedia, from attacking Gemma’s family, the Donati, until Corso is dead. He does not directly place Corso Donati in Hell, leaving it for his brother Forese Donati, in the Purgatorio, to describe Corso’s grisly death. In Paradise, we find Corso and Forese’s sister Piccarda, who is given one of the best lines in the entire poem. So, while the poet was ruined by his wife’s family, Santagata thinks that Dante made every effort to be pardoned by the city of Florence and to be allowed back. Gemma, Santagata speculates, might well have later joined Dante in his exile. Perhaps one of the most moving Canzone might even have been addressed to her.
The usual wisdom is that Dante never alluded to his wife in his writings, though sentimental Victorian scholars liked to imagine that the ‘donna gentile’, the lady seen smiling at him from a window after he had lost Beatrice, might have been Gemma. Santagata does not go along with this, but he thinks that the lines about Dante being set on fire by a woman’s eyes, though she is removed from his sight (‘per lontananza m’è tolto dal viso’) is an allusion to Gemma being stuck in Florence while he is in the first shock of exile.
This is a wonderful book. Even if you have not read Dante you will be gripped by its account of one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of literature, and one of the most dramatic periods of European history. If you are a Dantean, it will be your invaluable companion for ever.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £21.00. Tel: 08430 600033. A.N. Wilson is a former literary editor of The Spectator; his many books include Dante in Love.