20.04.12 Santagata/Dixon, Dante

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Brian Jeffrey Maxson

The Medieval Review 20.04.12

Santagata, Marco. Dante: The Story of His Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016. pp. 485. ISBN: 978-0-674-98406-6 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Brian Jeffrey Maxson
East Tennessee State University

Marco Santagata's Dante: The Story of His Life presents a measured, interdisciplinary study covering both Dante's biography and his works. Alongside established historical and literary details, Santagata pieces together additional, plausible hypotheses for many evidentiary gaps. Richard Dixon's translation of the original Italian edition is lively, while the accessible narrative masks deep scholarship and at times fascinating digressions encompassing over one hundred pages of endnotes. The paperback edition reviewed here touts a number of prestigious prizes and praise that Santagata's book has already received, and it is easy to join that chorus. This book should become the standard introductory work for students and the interested public, even as it offers scholars a model for wearing erudition lightly, conducting an even-handed analysis, and synthesizing a huge historiography.

The book is broken into two parts: In "Florence," the four narrative chapters trace the first forty years of Dante's life from his birth in 1265 until his expulsion from Florence in 1302. Much of the first chapter on childbirth establishes the familial and social context into which Dante was born and speculates about a sparsely documented childhood. Santagata argues for the economic modesty of the Alighieri family and how those slim resources could have affected Dante's education. He provides evidence that Dante may have suffered from epilepsy, which, in Dante's view, simply provided additional evidence that he was "exceptional" (33). The author attempts to piece together the historical basis for the initial relationship between Dante and Beatrice before turning to the implications for Dante's arranged marriage to Gemma, a member of the powerful Donati family.

The book then turns to the 1280s and early 1290s, a period to which Dante's earliest works date. After more social context, Santagata argues that Dante was the head of his household by 1283 and that he and Gemma had three, possibly four children. Santagata claims that Dante kept aloof from politics probably until the mid 1290s, even as evidence suggests that he possessed the financial means to project an increasing social status in the city. Meanwhile, Dante began composing vernacular love poetry aimed at Beatrice and other women. Already by the late 1280s he was known even beyond Florence for the quality of his verse. By the mid 1290s he had established his own literary path, different from teachers and influencers like Brunetto Latini and Guido Cavalcanti, and focused on Latin, Italian, and poetry, rather than civic affairs or one language or the other. Dante's writings turned to more philosophical topics. This change continued him on a unique literary path, and into this context fit the Vita nova, a work that defies genre and combined Dante's philosophical, Latin, and vernacular interests.

After 1295 Santagata argues that a fundamental shift occurred in Dante's writings. Previously Dante had argued the vernacular was suitable only for writings about "love," but after that date his vernacular works began exploring "moral and secular themes" (93). Through this change Dante sought to emulate his teacher Brunetto Latini. The book traces Dante's attempts to help define the qualities of Florentine aristocrats, particularly how his arguments began to be at odds with his contemporary and former friend Guido Cavalcanti. Also like Latini had done, Dante sought to join Florentine civic life. After a brief note on Dante's potential financial troubles in those years, the book sets the context for Dante's rise to Florentine prior--the highest government office in the city--in 1300. Despite his relation by marriage to the Donati family, Dante seems to have followed the politics of their rivals, the Cerchi family. Tensions in the city were high, and further exacerbated by papal support for the Donati. However, Dante largely disappears from the historical record until April 1301. Santagata relies upon internal evidence to suggest that Dante may have begun drafting an early version of the Inferno during this time, perhaps up to around canto X, even as only the faintest of remnants may remain from this early draft.

A shorter chapter, focused on the pivotal years of 1301-2, concludes this first section. Santagata briefly summarizes the political complexities of the competing White and Black Guelf factions in Florence. In the fall of 1301 Dante was a part of a diplomatic delegation from the White faction to the pope in Rome to discuss the approach of Charles of Valois and papal support of the Black faction. While away, the White Guelf-controlled Florentine government decided to allow Charles of Valois into their city. Charles, in turn, helped the Black Guelfs to overthrow the city. Hundreds of death sentences were issued, even as most of those individuals were, like Dante, not in Florence. Santagata argues that the exodus of money and cultural talent removed Florence from the ranks of Italy's leading and most innovative cultural cities. Additionally, the White Guelfs, for the first time, began exploring alliances with Ghibelline factions on the peninsula.

The second half of the book focuses on Dante's years in exile. In chapter five the emphasis is on Dante's political activities with the Florentine exiles between 1302 and 1304. Santagata traces Dante's involvement as a prominent player in the organization of the White Guelfs as well as their negotiations to consolidate new and reinforce old alliances. In 1303 Dante was sent to Verona to ensure support from the city's Ghibelline leader. Santagata argues that Dante stayed in the city long after his official business had ended, possibly because of the exceptional quality of Veronese libraries. He suggests that the outcome of this time and research was probably the foundation for the Convivio. Meanwhile the White Guelf exiles were leading an army of allies against Florence. In July 1304 they were defeated at La Lastra and, after that, "their prospects of success diminished almost to the point of vanishing" (168). Dante, meanwhile, appears to have broken with the White Guelfs and not participated in the attack.

The last seventeen years of Dante's life are encompassed by chapters six through ten of the book, which focus on a period that Santagata openly states can only be gleaned through "circumstantial reconstruction" (174). But the analysis and narrative of these chapters is just as measured and plausible as that offered for the comparatively better documented earlier years of Dante's life. Santagata argues that Dante went to Bologna where he worked on his unfinished Convivio. In that text, Dante moved past the proto-mercantile mentality of a city like Florence and instead embraced a feudal view of the world, which was centered upon an inherited nobility organized within an imperial hierarchy. This emphasis on the quality and unity of this nobility spread to other works. For example, in Dante's unfinished De vulgari eloquentia, Dante sought to defend, unify, and co-opt the vernacular language of the cities towards this cause. The most direct audience was probably the university faculty at Bologna, with whom, Santagata argues, Cino da Pistoia served as an intermediary.

After probably two years of relative quiet, Chapter Seven covers Dante's movements and writings after political changes forced him to leave Bologna most likely by May of 1306. At first Dante appears to have attempted a return to Florence and requested a pardon. From the hills of Lunigiana Dante both did tasks for the ruling Malaspina family and wrote a poem, most likely aimed at influencing Corso Donati, his relative by marriage, to intercede for him in Florence. However, by 1308 Donati had died, and with him went "all hope of obtaining a personal amnesty" (211) for Dante. Dante's next moves are speculative, although he probably traveled north to Provence or perhaps Avignon. During this period Dante restarted his Commedia. Santagata argues that both the Inferno and the Purgatorio were written in real-time relation to specific historical events. Written mostly at Lunigiana between 1306 and 1308, the Inferno reveals an underlying Guelf point of view and rejection of the Ghibellines, while Dante attempts to tie himself to the heritage of Brunetto Latini. Yet, the Purgatorio, begun in late 1308 or early 1309 while Dante was in Lucca, reverses these former positions. With his hopes of returning to Florence in tatters, Dante embraced an overt promotion of the Empire. He worked on the text until probably mid-1310, at which point political events intervened once again.

The impending arrival of the Emperor Henry VII moved Dante to Forlì where he reunited with his old political allies and again offered his pen for their political causes. Soon after, he probably attended Henry's coronation as King of Italy in Milan. Henry at first tried to mediate between the factions of the Italian peninsula, but he progressively abandoned that tack and instead focused more on the reestablishment of direct imperial rule. In this context Dante sent a heated letter denouncing the Florentines and calling for them to return to the imperial fold, and then a second letter to Henry urging him to conquer Florence. Not surprisingly, therefore, in an amnesty granted in the fall of 1311, the Florentines explicitly excluded Dante (and 200 other families) from their offer. By that time Dante had probably joined the imperial court at Genoa, where he could find both political haven and better access to books. He may have accompanied the court to Pisa in early 1312 but does not seem to have been present at the imperial coronation in Rome, at Henry's failed siege of Florence, or when Henry died in the late summer of 1313. Instead, Dante probably remained in Pisa writing his De Monarchia, which uses philosophy to systematically argue for the righteousness of imperial rule.

The unexpected death of the emperor shocked the people of the Italian peninsula, including Dante. Santagata argues that Dante began writing things on his own rather than serving as a spokesperson for a wider group. In that capacity he wrote a letter to the cardinals, after the death of Pope Clement V, urging them to elect an Italian pope. Dante's writings took on a more prophetic character in which Dante claimed to speak from divine inspiration. He resumed writing his Purgatorio, but now the text was laced with allegories about the reform of the church at imperial hands. It is impossible to tell from where Dante wrote, although Santagata argues he was probably in western Tuscany until the summer of 1314. Dante's movements in 1315 are even less documented. It is known, however, that during that year Dante and other exiles were offered an amnesty to return to Florence. Dante refused the offer. Consequently, on October 15, 1315 he was condemned to death in absentia, and then on November 6 the sentence was expanded to offer impunity to those who might "offend [Dante and his sons] in property and in person" (301).

Dante divided the last five years of his life between Verona and Ravenna. In Verona from mid-1316, Santagata argues that Dante maintained a relatively isolated existence. Particularly, he seems to have interacted very little with early Italian humanists like Albertino Mussato. Santagata rejects the argument that Dante dedicated his Paradiso to Verona's ruler Cangrande della Scala and argues that the two men may not even have been particularly close. In late 1318 or early 1319 Dante may have followed family members to Ravenna. There, he continued to write, including more work on the Paradiso, despite the lack of references in the work to Ravenna's rulers. In Ravenna Dante probably enjoyed greater financial security and was reunited with his family. He also appears to have been surrounded by a group of literary followers, even as Santagata argues he continued to lack a "cultural context that he could regard as his own" (329). The last cantos of the Paradiso continued Dante's prophetic turn, along with his conviction that God would enact his justice upon the world and that the Commedia would be Dante's path towards a laurel crown and a triumphant return to Florence. But the picture Santagata paints is of a man imprisoned in the past. Dante's cultural contemporaries were enamored with the new humanism and were not able to fully appreciate a vernacular work like the Commedia. Meanwhile, Dante's visions of Florence were of a past rather than a present city, a fascinating point developed by Dante's focus on the Baptistery in Florence, rather than the new cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore that had started to rise since his exile. In September 1321 Dante died, probably from malaria contracted while serving as a diplomat to Venice.

This is an enviably well constructed book full of measured historical analysis and a prose that masks its impressive erudition. For specialists it provides a key synthesis, while for students and even the general population it can serve as a good introduction to the life and writings of Dante. There are, of course, areas where readers may disagree with the book's interpretations. Many seemingly logical readings of specific events or passages suffer, as the author frequently admits, from the lack of any direct documentation to prove or reject the claims made. The narrative is compelling, but without new evidence it will not end debates on specific texts or periods in Dante's life. A dichotomy (described as a "conflict between...two worlds" [195]) frequently appears in the book and shapes some interpretations. On the one side was an older society characterized by feudalism, imperial or Ghibelline sympathies, inherited nobility, and vernacular writings. On the other side was a new society made up of the urban, mercantile cities characterized by earned nobility and, increasingly at the end of Dante's life, early humanist writers and scholars. Yet, this dichotomy may not fit the nuanced portrait painted throughout this book. In addition, much recent scholarship has sought to re-examine Dante's ties to various early humanists active in the early trecento, and thus he may not have been as isolated from these figures as Santagata claims. But these points are quibbles on a book that all readers interested in historical biographies will both benefit from and enjoy.

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