Put real people in a work of fiction these days and you immediately face libel and privacy issues. The publishers will demand a legal report; every correspondence between your story and reality will be scrutinised. It won’t be enough simply to change names or avoid unpleasant aspersions; the mere idea that someone might recognise themselves and feel aggrieved will set alarm bells ringing and have editors demanding revisions. How would Dante’s Divine Comedy have fared in an environment like this? Large numbers of his fellow citizens are named and shamed. It’s true that most of them were dead, but by no means all. Two living characters are pronounced so evil that the devil has carried their souls off to hell leaving demons in their bodies to perpetuate a zombie life up above. Others are declared by the damned to be ‘expected shortly’.
Add to this that Dante places the prophet Muhammad in hell, launches violent insults against various cities and political and religious groupings, in many cases evidently motivated by personal resentment or self-interest, and it’s hard to imagine that The Divine Comedy would be an easy book to publish today. Reading Marco Santagata’s fascinating new biography, the reader is soon forced to acknowledge that one of the cornerstones of Western literature, a poem considered sublime and universal, is the product of vicious factionalism and packed with local scandal, much of it deployed in the hope of accruing benefits to the author.
Aside from his published writings, 11 surviving letters, a scattering of official records and one or two brief personal testimonies, we have so little information about the life of Dante Alighieri that Santagata is obliged to proceed deductively and speculatively, counterpointing the history of Florence and Italy in Dante’s lifetime (1265-1320) with references and allusions in The Divine Comedy and Dante’s other works. What we know about Dante we know largely because he was embroiled in public life and because his writing always took a position on the political situation of the moment. What makes the going hard is how complicated the politics were, how much they depended on an intricate network of family relationships, and how ambiguous and mobile Dante’s loyalties were within the general mayhem. The payoff for keeping track of all this comes when we finally set aside the biography and reread the Commedia, and find it at once more urgent and more beautiful than we remembered.
Santagata tells us about the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, two parties with competing claims to the allegiance of Italy’s numerous feudal lords and city states in the 13th and 14th centuries. The Guelfs, the church party, dominated where people felt they had more to fear from the German-based emperor than from the Roman pope. It was the party of the nouveaux riches, the bankers and traders, anyone who had an interest in the formation of a looser, less rigidly controlled society. The Ghibellines, siding with the Holy Roman Empire, were largely made up of those who had an investment in the hierarchical structures of feudalism, or simply felt themselves uncomfortably close to a papal state bent on territorial expansion.
This is perhaps too neat. Any party or grouping was as much tribal as ideological. Families, corporations, even whole cities tended to show their allegiance collectively. If a large city was Guelf, the smaller cities around it were likely to be Ghibelline, implicitly appealing for protection from afar. And vice versa. Neither party had a stable hold on people’s identity. Divisions over commercial, religious and family issues were always on the cards. When decades of conflict between Guelfs and Ghibellines in Florence finally came to an end in 1289 (when Dante was 24), with the defeat and mass expulsion of the Ghibellines, the victorious Guelfs, now in complete control of one of Europe’s most populous and wealthy cities, lost little time in dividing themselves into Black Guelfs and White Guelfs, who would then fight each other with the same intensity and ferocity as they had previously fought the Ghibellines. Santagata’s account of how this schism came about and how the terms ‘black’ and ‘white’ (with no more content or significance, as it turns out, than the letters a or b, x or y) were borrowed from a similar schism in Pistoia – a town which, precisely in order to overcome the impasse caused by internal division, had taken the drastic course of handing over control of its affairs to Florence – requires maximum attention on the part of the reader. But it’s worth the effort. Factionalism spread like a virus and Dante wasn’t immune.
These conflicts were unspeakably cruel. Enemies were imprisoned and tortured. If they were exiled, their property was confiscated, their houses, even in the centre of town, razed to the ground. Tongues were cut out and hands amputated. People were left in dungeons to starve, or disembowelled and dragged through the streets, or burned at the stake in front of jeering crowds. Imaginative though Dante’s infernal punishments may be, the spirit behind them was familiar. It would be hard to miss the continuity between history and the Inferno.
What was Dante’s position in all this? The third child of a mother who died when he was very young, he belonged to neither the old landed elite nor the successful new commercial community. Of the two, although his father was a small-time moneylender, he tended to favour the former. Always innovative and forward-looking when it came to writing and art, convinced that language and culture must be on the move, he was generally conservative on questions of society and government.
The Alighieri family was Guelf by tradition, but obscure enough to have avoided exile with other Guelfs when the Ghibellines were in the ascendant shortly before Dante’s birth. Of his education we know only that his family wasn’t rich enough to provide him with a private tutor. Dante’s father died when his son was ten, leaving him, as Leonardo Bruni would put it, ‘not greatly rich … but with moderate and sufficient wealth to live honourably’. The problem, as Santagata construes it, was that Dante’s notions of honourable living were not Bruni’s. He was ambitious, had the highest possible opinion of himself and aspired to the life of a noble, or at least to a noble life, a life dedicated to writing. Which brings us to one of the core themes of this biography: Dante’s self-image, the way it dominated his writings and conditioned his every move.
Giovanni Villani, almost the only person to write about Dante who actually knew him, thought him a ‘great poet and philosopher’ but ‘presumptuous, contemptuous and disdainful’ as a person. A generation later, Boccaccio, whose biography of Dante is based on conversations with people who had known him, describes him as ‘proud and disdainful’ and prone to losing his temper. Around these meagre testimonies, Santagata gathers a quantity of detail, largely drawn from Dante’s writing, to suggest a man intent on constructing a myth of himself as both nobly born and destined to greatness. All three of his major works, the Vita nova (1295), the Convivio (1307) and the Commedia (1321), were, for their time, remarkably autobiographical. ‘Dante seems incapable of imagining a book in which his person, or at least a person bearing his name, doesn’t play a significant role,’ Santagata writes. However, the Dante on the page is subtly transformed from the Dante seeking to overcome the limitations of a modest background.
There’s no hint of criticism here. Santagata isn’t arguing that Dante is a lesser poet than we thought, or in any way disreputable. But he’s not in the business of hagiography. His consideration of the Beatrice narrative is typical. Dante first presents the story in elaborate form in his late twenties in the Vita nova, which gathers together his poems of the previous years, linking them with an autobiographical prose narrative. The ideas of the so-called dolce stil nova, the ‘sweet new style’ of writing that had recently introduced elements of religious reflection into courtly love poetry, were thus tied to his personal development. This in itself was a remarkable innovation. Dante describes an early encounter with Beatrice when he was nine years old; he falls in love and remains faithful and devoted to her until their next meeting a full nine years later. At this encounter she acknowledges his presence, though no word passes between them. The fact, well known to his Florentine readers, that Dante had addressed love poems to other women is explained as a deliberate attempt to draw attention away from Beatrice, who, higher born than he was, had married in her early teens. After the second meeting, his love intensifies, but there are no further exchanges between the two, until Beatrice’s early death in 1290, at 24, triggers a shift in the poet’s interests from sentimental to divine love.
That the story is idealised and in a tradition of idealisation is evident. Any real relationship between the two, Santagata suggests, could only have occurred in the late 1280s, long after the two meetings described. But the way Dante hangs onto the story throughout his career, making it ‘one of the classic features of his intellectual and literary biography’, is unusual. The effect, Santagata insists, is always to make the real Dante appear ‘someone exceptional’ to whom exceptional things happen. In one poem, he speaks of having suffered a seizure at the age of nine months, on a day and hour corresponding to Beatrice’s birth and foreshadowing their love. In general, the seizures he experiences on meeting his beloved go far beyond conventional accounts of romantic fainting, and, along with similar episodes elsewhere in his work, could suggest epilepsy. But rather than consider these fits a mark of the devil, the standard interpretation at the time, Dante takes them as a sign of ‘a predestination decreed by a supreme power’. He had been chosen.
Various details in the Vita nova contribute to a false impression of his social status. ‘Dante,’ Santagata writes, ‘refers several times to a “room” of his own where he could go alone to think, to weep, and also to sleep.’ Since the Alighieri house was small and the family hardly of the aristocratic kind where a member might enjoy such a private space, this can only be ‘one of the many signs of distinction by which he was seeking to hide his lowly origins’. Another, years later, would be the reconstruction in the Paradiso, thanks to an imagined meeting with his great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida, of a supposedly noble lineage for the Alighieri family.
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