Magazine article The Spectator

'Dante: The Story of His Life', by Marco Santagata - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Dante: The Story of His Life', by Marco Santagata - Review

Article excerpt

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 disputes between the 'Whites' (Guelphs) and the 'Blacks' (Ghibellines) -- 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. …

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