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Book Review The poet as dissident-in-exile

GORDON PARSONS appreciates a scholarly introduction to Dante’s life and times that illuminates the poet’s achievement as a pioneer of the common tongue

Dante’s New Lives
Elisa Brilli & Guiliano Milani, Reaktion Books, £25.00


THE question arises: why would anyone except scholars and the curious read yet another life of a medieval Florentine poet whose major work recounts the author-narrator’s  “experiences” in his visit to the afterlife — Hell (The Inferno), Purgatory and finally Paradise? 

After all, if not Italian or fluent in the language, the reader would need to read The Divine Comedy, a poem of over 14,000 lines, in translation, and poetry arguably is untranslatable.

Non-scholars who wish to learn more about the life and times of Dante Alighieri would be well advised to start this unconventional biography with the final short section entitled Epilogue: Legacies. 

Many would answer that as one of the supreme achievements of world literature which has profoundly influenced not only poetry and all the arts through subsequent ages but also our understanding of the progress of human thought, Dante’s work stands alongside Shakespeare’s. 

Both were main cultural voices of the great Renaissance humanism that still has a tenuous hold on our contemporary world’s values.

Dante specialists, the Italian authors of these “lives” (note the plural) claim that other biographers have indulged in “‘biographical truths’ that, in response to the comparative dearth of archival sources, are highly varied if not contradictory.” Their approach here is to combine the actual knowledge we do have of Dante’s life, with the life or lives he constructed for himself through his works.

Dante himself claimed that life progresses through distinct stages: adolescence, youth, old age and finally senility, and this “experimental” and “interdisciplinary” treatment is divided accordingly into four sections, Adolescence, Youth in Florence, Youth in Exile and Old Age. His lifelong banishment from Florence aged 36 created a hugely significant juncture in his life. He died aged 56 in 1321.

The book progresses through these stages with meticulous and erudite detail, as a kind of commentary on his life and work, supplemented by 45 pages of textual references with a 39-page bibliography. Hence the advice to read the final summary chapter first. 

This is not to ignore the main content of the book which provides a rich tapestry, weaving Dante’s middling class standing within Florentine society, his unusual choice to avoid one of the professional careers open to him to concentrate on his writing ambitions, and his political positioning within the warring Italian commune cities, “rocked as they were by cyclical regime changes.”

Apart from introducing numerous characters, from poets to popes, who played important roles in Dante’s life, the book takes the determined reader through the history of 14th-century Northern Italy. With its class conflicts between the Magnati (aristocratic families) and the Popolo (made up largely of mercantile and business interests), and the international power-play between the Papal and imperial powers, this was a key area in the emergence of post-medieval Europe. 

In the process it explores how Dante’s poetry, political and social as well as personal, to his great world-famous achievement the Commedia was, from the outset, designed to establish his voice and his identity in a society that had exiled him. His major achievement was to establish the vernacular as a fit vehicle in which “to treat the most elevated subjects” and to make the language of the people available for more than common exchange.

The authors claim that it is in Dante’s Commedia “that the sum total of the philosophical, theological, historical, political, literary, mythological, scientific, cosmographical and existential knowledge gained by this incorrigible, curious author finds its place.”

Like so many of the world’s celebrated and acknowledged works of literary genius The Divine Comedy is read today by relatively few. Reading Dante’s New Lives could well provide an encouraging context for many, who have hitherto taken too literally the poet’s own well-known quotation: “abandon hope all ye who enter here” and instead to venture forth.

Dante, The Divine Comedy, Hell XXIV, Thieves, by William Blake
Dante and Virgil in Hell, Divine Comedy, Inferno, canto 8, by Eugene Delacroix, 1822
Pics: Public domain


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