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

By Wilson, An | The Spectator, May 21, 2016 | Go to article overview

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


Wilson, An, The Spectator


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.