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22.02.10 Watt, Dante’s Golden Legend

22.02.10 Watt, Dante’s Golden Legend

One constant across Dante’s literary corpus is his emphasis on self-presentation. From the youthful Vita Nuova to his masterpiece the Divine Comedy, Dante continually inserts himself into his works, casting himself as a character in his own narratives. While much medieval poetry is in the first person, Dante employs his self-portrayal to underscore the all-encompassing nature of his observations, illustrating how universal truths were manifested at an individual level. In so doing, Dante eschews crafting his character as a vague “Everyman,” but instead, he includes specific personal information, opinions, and anecdotes. Indeed, as Mary Alexandra Watt argues in this study, Dante continuously mines his autobiography to produce a deeper meaning from the vicissitudes of his life. In this engrossing monograph, Watt interprets Dante’s works, and in particular his Divine Comedy, as autobiographical, exploring how the great author builds upon the medieval tradition of writing about the self to expound upon transcendent values. Composed in five chapters, Watt’s volume covers the major moments in Dante’s literary production, and demonstrates the different ways that Dante approached writing about himself during his lifetime.

The first chapter, “Life-Writing in the Middle Ages,” serves to ground the study in a historical and theoretical framework. In it, Watt studies the tradition of autobiographical and autohagiographical writings during the Middle Ages. At the outset, Watt needs to address an apparent contradiction in Dante’s autobiographical literature: in the Convivio Dante treats the type of allegory that poets engage in, which he defines as a truth clothed in a lie (sotto bella menzogna). Such type of allegory appears at odds with an autobiographical interpretation. Even the Divine Comedy, Watt acknowledges, is a fiction. The fictive nature of Dante’s works would seem to preclude their interpretation as autobiographical. In the twenty-first century, autobiographical truth indicates documentable, historical events; in other words, we modern readers interpret an event as autobiographically true only if it happened as the author depicts it. Conversely, during the Middle Ages, Watt stresses, truth was determined by God, and therefore events could be called true to the extent that they exemplified God’s greater purpose. Augustine, for example, related occurrences in his Confessions not merely because they took place, but because they illustrated God’s broader meaning. For a medieval autobiographer to borrow events from another person’s life was but a minor matter because the intent was not to narrate the unique circumstances of one’s individual life, but to investigate the greater picture for all humankind. Thus, for decades, scholars have shown that Dante’s first-person works are an amalgamation of different genres, from literary criticism to autohagiography, and as such are not necessarily the literal narratives of events he experienced. Nonetheless, that he borrowed them from other works does not negate Dante’s autobiographical intent. Like other medieval autobiographers, Dante does not want to narrate the course of his life, but rather, to seek out its broader meaning, and then to teach that meaning to his readers. In writing about his life, Dante did not want to portray his unique experiences, but rather he wanted to show that his circumstances pointed to a greater idea determined by God.

Having reconciled the autobiographical works and their fictive natures in the first chapter, Watt then turns to examples of autobiographical writings from Dante’s minor works in the following two chapters. The second chapter treats Dante’s first book, the Vita Nuova (ca. 1292-1294), and how it recounts his love for Beatrice. The work is based upon the metaphor comparing Beatrice to Christ, and it contains the secondary narrative of Dante maturing as a writer. Hence, Watt argues, it contains the distinguishing characteristic of medieval autobiography, namely the authorial intent to find meaning in the events of one’s life. In the third chapter, Watt discusses the incomplete treatise Convivio (ca. 1305), in which, as in the Vita Nuova, Dante explicates his poetry. In it, Dante offers a reinterpretation of the events from the Vita Nuova, this time presenting Beatrice as the personification of theology. The Convivio de-emphasizes the personal narrative of the Vita Nuova, underscoring instead Dante’s philosophical and allegorical ideas. Thus, he presents himself more fully as an exegete, perhaps in the attempt to redeem himself in the eyes of his detractors. Ironically, Watt asserts, Dante’s autobiographical impulse becomes more expansive, going beyond merely ordering and finding meaning in his own life, but doing so for other writers as well.

The last two chapters deal with Dante’s magnum opus, the Divine Comedy, in which Dante again reconfigures the meaning of his life. Both chapters build upon an observation by Amilcare Iannucci, whereby Dante constructed a cruciform narrative in the work: if Dante’s life is considered as a horizontal line, then intersecting it at its midpoint is the vertical journey descending to hell and then ascending to paradise. The first of the two chapters focuses on the thirtieth canto of Purgatorio where Dante will launch up from the earthly sphere and into the heavens. In this canto Beatrice arrives in the afterlife, rebuking Dante for his failings and in the process recapitulating the narrative of the Vita Nuova; thus, for a second time, he offers a new interpretation of the action of the previous work. It is at this point, Watt asserts, where the work turns from the temporal to the eternal, and where Beatrice transforms from an object of love to love itself. The final chapter deals with the sixteenth canto of Paradiso, in which Dante’s great-great-grandfather, Cacciaguida, prophesies the exile that awaits Dante. Cacciaguida’s statement transforms the poet’s perspective on his banishment, making it appear foreordained rather than random. At this point, the author’s autobiography includes his political evolution, coupling his personal tragedy with the universal view that all humankind has been in exile since the Fall in Eden. The autobiographical statements in the Divine Comedy, Watt concludes, function to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the Florentines who banished him, and to cast himself as an auctor to be obeyed.

In conclusion, Dante’s Golden Legend is a wide-ranging work that draws together three of Dante’s works via the frame of medieval autobiography. It examines Dante’s Vita Nuova, as well as his two revisions of the narrative of the Vita Nuova found in the Convivio and Purgatorio 30. It then analyzes Dante’s depiction of exile, a state that encompassed the last eighteen years of his life. This study offers much to scholars interested in Dante’s self-presentation, or indeed those interested in medieval autobiography in general. In short, Mary Alexandra Watt has made a significant contribution to Dante criticism with this work.