Marco Santagata. Dante: The Story of His Life. Trans. Richard Dixon. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Harvard, 2016. 485pp. $35.00 / £25.00 / €30.00
review by Claudio Sansone
Tim Parks and other reviewers have already made clear the merits of Santagata’s new biography of Dante in the LRB, and praised it for striking an important balance between academic and creative approaches. This is especially true given the unambiguous attempt to provide a biography that may also enrich the reading of Dante’s literary output. The subtitle draws our attention to this layered approach without apology (the subtitle ‘The Story of His Life’ is a translation of the Italian Il romanzo della sua vita that might be more literally translated “the novel of his life”). Santagata’s subtle psychologizing and his narratives of the wider contexts are accompanied by substantial endnotes; these small case studies ably insert the reader into the middle of still-raging academic debates.
One of the benefits of this combination is that we are given a readable and lucid introduction to the very complicated life and times of one of literature’s most mysterious men. The archive that Santagata is navigating is often difficult and fragmentary, but he presents his work meticulously, outlining difficult problems with great ease. His discussions of the attribution of works and letters to Dante and of the compositional timelines of the canonical works are particularly well-presented. For each of these, Santagata presents multiple perspectives before giving his informed opinion—taking care to highlight the shakier assumptions that underlie even his own conclusions. Santagata’s work is also to be praised for not stopping at the more traditional (and simplest) sources—giving well-measured space to more specialized pieces of evidence. The outlining of Dante’s character over the course of his life benefits greatly from this approach, especially as he is able to show the contrast between how Dante wished to be seen and how his contemporaries perceived him.
Through his comprehensive study, Santagata gives us a chance to re-enter the Dantean corpus with “fresh” eyes, making him accessible to modern (non-specialist) scholars. His book also presents an invitation to new and old readers alike, and its aims to aid literary studies of Dante are best achieved in this respect. Practically all of Dante’s output receives attention, forming an excellent introduction to the entire corpus of poetry, letters, and prose works. Discussions of the poems that formed parts of Dante’s epistolary exchanges are of particular value. It is in this dimension of his work that Santagata may be most useful to Pound scholars. This biography can serve Poundians well precisely because its holistic introduction can help round-out the more limited knowledge of Dante’s works Pound exposes his readers to.
Delving into Dante’s life provides a number of interesting points of comparison that have gone unexplored. I have indicated a few of these in my summary below. The fact that Santagata’s Dante is not Pound’s Dante, can help scholars note the subtler aspects of Pound’s idiosyncratic interpretations. We will see that Pound diverges in important respects from the orthodox reading of Dante’s life (namely in the interpretation of mysticism), but he also converges upon absolutely salient points of aesthetics. Some of these are the language debate, the aesthetics created by exile, and the development of a historical depth to the literary act.
Note: I have worked through Santagata’s biography page-by-page to create this running summary, with some comments on Santagata’s work and with occasional pointers for Poundians and first-time reader of Dante. I have often used Santagata’s phrasing and wording to give a sense of his style, even though I have had to forego much rich detail. Any inaccuracies and misrepresentations are my own.
PART ONE: Youth in Florence
Santagata’s first chapter, “Childhood (1265-1283),” collects important anecdotes about Dante’s early life alongside important testimonia by his contemporaries. It reveals an early as well as posthumous mythicization of Dante’s life and persona, including speculations on Dante’s zodiac sign (Gemini), and the folk etymologization of his name. “Dante” is a shortened form of his given name, Durante, but it was read as a name that derived from the Italian verb dare, “to give,” highlighting Dante’s intellectual generosity, and his (self-given) joint missions as entertainer and teacher. This first chapter also engages in a careful reconstruction of Dante’s private and family life that he himself stylized to appear more aristocratic—or, at least, aristocratic enough to pursue the high offices he wanted to assume as a public writer. Dante’s family, while well to do, was certainly not of the caliber that we might have believed from his writings alone. An interesting example of Dante’s self-stylization as more wealthy than he really was comes from his statement that he had a room of his own, in his house, where he could think and write. Such a room was unlikely to ever have existed, but the idea of such a room would have conferred an air of luxury to his intellectual pursuits.
This chapter also tackles the extremely difficult question of Florentine politics (and the broader “Italian” and “European” contexts) of Dante’s early life. Santagata presents a vigorous version of events that is most certainly useful to the non-specialist. This summary of the politics has been quietly critiqued in previous reviews because it is perhaps too reductive from the perspective of a specialist historian, chiefly because it does not treat the discrepancy between group struggle and individual motivations in sufficient detail, but the fact remains that the specialists on this subject are truly very few—and Santagata’s approach is laudable precisely because he relegates the contentious arguments to his end-notes, and therefore presents one of the few readable introductions to this subject (and now that the biography has been translated into English, this is particularly important). What emerges (and the details are too many to repeat here) is that the political instability of Florence that Dante experienced manifested itself on the political plane as a nominal division between papal (Guelf) and imperial (Ghibelline) allegiances, but it translated itself onto the level of city, neighborhood, family and individual as constant feuding—replete with propaganda and mercantile alliances—such that political and mundane life seemed hardly separable, especially for Dante, who found himself progressively in the minority as the years went by. Guelfs and Ghibellines are explored, therefore, as political categories that help give a more concrete shape to a social structure that is already quite divisive internally—and the sway of their physical and intellectual conflicts are reported in enough complexity for us to see them in the manner Dante’s contemporaries might have seen them: of extreme importance, but also too difficult and confusing to constantly keep straight.
From this kind of analysis, Santagata moves to reading Dante’s “relationship” to two the two most important women of his youth: the famous Beatrice and his future wife Gemma Donati. Santagata provides an orthodox retelling of Dante’s first sighting of the young Beatrice, whom he perhaps saw only a few more times in his life, but who so emphatically stands at the center of his aesthetic and religious inspiration. We are given to see precisely the allegorizing dimension in the contrast between the bare facts (i.e. that Dante only saw her a few times) and the manner he himself sets her at the center of an artistic program that would span his entire lifetime. Somewhat similarly, Gemma Donati, thanks to a marriage propitiously arranged by Dante’s father, is able to become—for Dante, but probably for none of his contemporaries—a sign of aristocratic union, of an ascension into a higher social caste in which Dante believes he can more actively begin to accomplish his artistic ambitions. Gemma is never mentioned in his work, even though Dante’s conceit of her importance is occasionally articulated in his noble posturing.
Santagata’s second chapter, “A Strange Florentine (1283-195),” begins with a summary of the political evolution of the Florentine tensions—namely, the more vigorous opposition against the Ghibelline minority and the (salience of the) political divide between White and Black Guelfs. Again, Santagata points to a social history within which the individual costs of broader political affiliation were not necessarily felt in uniform ways—that is, Florence remained the stage for public and personal vendettas, and the oppression of minorities along family and neighborhood-by-neighborhood groupings. Many individuals would later make their way into Dante’s works, chiefly appearing in various stages of the Commedia. What Santagata focuses on is precisely the Dantean concern with how Florence is becoming a mercantile political economy that lost its “golden age” in which patrons of the arts and the public good had ruled. Santagata is critical of Dante’s stance, considering that such a stability is mostly imagined, and a convenient retrospective myth, but he highlights how Dante reformulates this historical dimension as a melancholy lament for the past, epitomized in the role of his grandfather Cacciaguida, who would hold an important place in the Paradiso, lamenting precisely the change in the economic role of Florence within broader Italian and European politics.
Most interesting to Poundians might be the discussion of the growing importance of banks that signals the move from an aristocratic society to a proto-capitalist one. Santagata’s history of the Ghibbeline uprising that challenged the Guelf superiority in Tuscany is extremely detailed and valuable, not least because it creates a context for understanding two extremely important figures of the Inferno: Count Ugolino and Guido da Montefeltro, both of whom were insurrectionist military strategists who favored what turned out to be doomed cause. Ugolino rose in the Ghibelline ranks and managed to seize control of Pisa with a substantial amount of violence. While he held off an attempted coup that was stirred by papal sympathizers, he ultimately led the city into decline, and this was later interpreted as an act of high treason. Guido (also a Ghibelline) had advised Boniface to make a false amnesty of the Colonna family that had challenged his election to the papacy. After the amnesty had been made, Boniface followed Guido’s alleged advice and turned against the Colonnas who had meanwhile returned to Rome. These readings problematize the complicated manner in which Dante consigned people to hell, showing that in certain decisions he was as much making personal evaluations as well as following the official historical lines of thought. Indeed, both the figures just mentioned report that they felt compelled to act as they did by forces greater than them, and if the parts of the poem are given a generous reading, Dante can be seen to partly justify these men at the very same time that he placed them in two of the more atrocious sections of the Inferno.
Santagata continues the chapter by underlining that by 1283 Dante had become, practically speaking, the head of his household. It is also in this year that the marriage, arranged since about 1277, was finally celebrated (Dante was 18 at this stage and Gemma around 14). In an attempt to tell the history of this marriage, once again the lacunae of the archive make themselves sharply felt. It is not clear, for example, whether three or four children were born from this union. His sons were able to lead prominent literary lives (one was even a student of Petrarch) and they highly admired their father, writing commentaries on his poems. In this period of Dante’s life, however, political life and public affairs in Florence remained extremely turbulent and bloody. While Dante seemed to slowly give himself to his literary pursuits, he remained ingrained in Florentine high-society, and especially felt the loss of many friends and acquaintances. Again, many of these violent dead would make it into his works: one of them, Paolo Malatesta, would be remembered alongside Francesca da Polenta di Rimini in the Inferno, and his later relative, Sigismondo, would fascinate Ezra Pound.
But more importantly for Dante is the murder of Geri del Bello, first cousin of his father, whose death went unavenged until the turn of the century—a black mark of shame on Dante’s family. Geri is to be found in the Inferno as well, amongst the sowers of discord, perhaps due to his penchant for violent outbursts. What matters most is that Dante gave himself to vengeance—and this should not surprise us given the feuding culture of the times. However, Dante did not author the vendetta, which only came around in 1317. Santagata brings out another less-known feature of Dante’s life, his military services as a mounted cavalier. Fighting in at least two Tuscan battles in 1289 he was able to make his first real travels in that region. This service as a mounted soldier brought Dante great honor, no doubt, and a mark of aristocracy. Santagata also notes that it is strange that Dante seems to not have had a job in this period, a fact that (along with the costs of being in the army) may have slowly led to the financial ruin of the Alighieri brothers after the mid-1280s, a ruin that was catastrophically compounded by Dante’s eventual exile.
In the spring of 1283 a crucial event took place. Dante met Beatrice walking in the streets of Florence—and he records that she recognized and greeted him. Santagata claims that Dante interprets this as a sure sign of her love for him, which had finally been reciprocated. That being said, Santagata pokes fun at this notion, highlighting the fact that Dante had written love lyrics to other women in the intervening years, and pointing out that Dante had an answer for this too: he claimed the other women had formed a veil through which to express his constant love for Beatrice. While it is likely she may have said hello, we can see here the lengths to which Dante could rewrite his own biography to suit the view of himself and the world around him that would help him excel as a poet—and, indeed, this encounter spells the beginning of a poetic phase that will lead to many poems and eventually to the Vita Nova (1295), which blends fact and fiction to repurpose this story as a mythic beginning of the poet’s sentimental and adult life.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The Salutation of Beatrice, 1859.
Santagata’s reading of the Vita Nova (that he will take up a few more times section after section) highlights the development of Dante’s thoughts on emotion in a very nuanced manner, alongside the different ways he puts parts of his education to use in this unique, unclassifiable text. Most importantly for Poundians, it is in this stage of development that Guido Cavalcanti (and his poems) begin to take a center stage in Dante’s life and works, inspiring his approach to love lyrics. But by 1295 Dante was an established lyrical poet in Florence and the surrounding region—and he knew it. Indeed, Dante began to style himself as someone who had surpassed Cavalcanti—and Santagata’s final remarks to this sub-section make the massive import of this fact to Dante extremely clear: “if Cavalcanti was John the Baptist, then he was the Messiah” (71). The following sub-section tackles another extremely important figure in Dante’s life and education, his mentor Brunetto Latini. Santagata draws a picture of Latini that is lucid—showing his staunch Guelf allegiances and his academic fixation on the art of Latinate rhetoric—although Santagata does not dwell overmuch on the important question of why Dante placed Latini in hell (and, more specifically, what evidence there actually is for Latini’s homosexual tendencies outside of Dante’s implication that this is the case). In pointing out that Latini’s library lacked in poetry, Santagata moves into an excellent excursus on the Tower of Garisenda in Bologna—subject of one of Dante’s more famous short poems, whose textual history Santagata illuminates as a further example of the difficulty of the Dantean archive. This poem (and a few others) are a testament to the fact that Dante had been attracted to Bologna, and it is there that Santagata suggests Dante sought out further educational instruction at the university, perhaps in 1286-7. Santagata then returns to the Vita Nova by pointing out that the year 1290, in which Beatrice dies, inaugurating for Dante the writer a new poetic phase that would culminate in 1295. This organizational structure makes the biography somewhat harder to use as a literary aide, but Santagata is clearly interested in introducing the more difficult questions stage-by-stage, and it is worth the readers patience to review this section carefully to understand the complexity of formational forces that were acting on Dante in this period.
Santagata follows up this set of questions with an interesting and lengthy aside on Dante’s musical talent—that stands to reason, given many lyrics would be accompanied by songs—but also his talent as a visual artist. Santagata extracts some interesting information from an anecdote told by Dante of a time that he was drawing angels and was visited by a vision angels. In this moment Dante recalls drawing on tavolette, small tablets—and Santagata uses his philological skill to discover that this was a method of training for visual artists, who would use plastered tablets to practice their hand before moving on to other materials. The emphasis of this research is that Dante seems to describe himself peculiarly able to concentrate, and shut himself off from the external world as he worked, even in the art of drawing in which he was but an amateur.
The next phase of Dante’s intellectual development is to be found in his “move” towards philosophy. In about ten years he would be writing the unfinished Convivio, the philosophical language of which is well-developed. His examples were both philosophers in the more modern sense, but also the poets like Cavalcanti whose poems had been read as philosophical allegories. It is a peculiar feature of Dante’s turn to philosophy, however, that he did not seek out (like many of his models) analogies to the medical arts—but instead pursued interests in “pure” philosophical speculation, arriving for example at allegorizing the figure of philosophy as a donna gentile or pietosa. The mix of interests in rhetoric and metaphysics certainly made Dante stand out as a thinker in the Florentine context. This uniqueness was further enhanced when as Dante began to attend schools of religious philosophy and theological disputation, something we can describe as the final phase in the preparation for the Vita Nova.
The third chapter of Santagata’s biography is an extensive analysis of Dante’s turn to political life, appropriately entitled “Municipal Man (1295-1301).” In the Vita Nova, there had been mention of a book to come that never appeared, which Santagata reads as a symptom of new preoccupations encroaching on Dante’s time. There are reports that Dante began a long Latin poem he later abandoned, maybe a first attempt at the Commedia, but Santagata ably dismisses the available evidence as somewhat confused—even though Boccaccio had taken it to be correct and therefore compounded a level of confusion into the archive on the weight of his authority alone. What is clear is that Dante moved from a mystical love lyric and eschatological poetics towards a set of secular, moral themes in his poetry, abandoning much of his work on the myth of Beatrice he had worked so long to construct.
This shift makes a lot of sense if we interpret it with the new political opportunities that faced Dante. Up to this period he had barely been involved in politics, not least because he did not belong to a guild. While the rule that politicians should belong to a guild did not become official until after 1295, already long before that date guilds formed the backbone of Florentine politics. When political intrigues limited the potential candidates for political office even further, Dante took advantage of the situation. He joined the guild of doctors and apothecaries, and began to take part in various council meetings (there were a varied set of councils that operated on relatively local scales). He famously spoke in at least two such meetings, often being invoked as a sort of expert witness or “wise man.” This gives us a sense that although Dante had not participated in political affairs up to this time in any substantial way, he was still recognized as a valuable adviser and a critical political thinker. Dante’s contribution to the first (and best recorded) meeting at which he spoke was “procedural” or methodological. His speech concerned the definition of nobility, which he took to be an internal characteristic that need not be tied to wealth or certain other attendant circumstances. When we realize that this kind of activity is what Dante’s mind had turned towards, the “literary” shift onto a moralizing and secular plain starts to make a lot more sense. Indeed, Dante picks up these very issues in a number of his rime and specifically in those opening the sections of his Convivio.
The greater part of this chapter then deals with political struggles too detailed to report on here—but it ends with a reading of Boniface VIII’s institution of a jubilee year for the forgiveness of sins in 1300 as a key moment in Dante’s life, during which he decided to set the Commedia. Dante was amongst the pilgrims that visited Rome that year, and Santagata gives a compelling reading of Dante’s reports of this experience in his poems. The final sections of the chapter remain centered on Dante’s literary life—first, with an excursus on Boccaccio’s thesis that the Commedia was started long before it is usually believed, and second, with a look into the Commedia as a “Florentine Poem.” This Florentine poem, combining elements of the mystical and moral poetry of Dante’s career, was transformed as a result of imminent events into what might finally be called an anti-Florentine poem.
Santagata’s fourth chapter, “Condemned to the Stake (1301-1302),” opens with a formal analysis of the enmities within the Guelf faction that led to a formal split between White and Black Guelfs and to a state of civil war. Nominally, Ghibellines are distinguished from Guelfs in that the former supported the Holy Roman Empire attempting to assert itself on the emergent Italian signorie, and the latter supported the temporal power of the papacy. However, a schism within the Guelf organization complicated matters. Briefly put, the White Guelfs, to whom Dante belonged, sought an alignment of Florence with the papacy, but a relative economic and political autonomy. The Black Guelfs, primarily of aristocratic character, desired that the papacy have a fuller control of Florentine politics and trade. A period of a few months in 1300-1301, in which Dante may have rightly been satisfied with his political progress, devolved when the ruling Cerchi family made a series of “brazen” decisions that upset the brief political stability, revealing their White Guelf bias in an all-too-obvious fashion. Inter-city alliances began to be played out on the Florentine arena. Santagata delves into these debates with the aim of showing how the levels of public and private politics once again came to the fore; he showed how friable the notional political “parties” actually were, and how much they tended to private interests by assuming what were prima facie public stances. As French power descended into Italy, hoping to seize territory in Sicily that Charles de Valois wanted to secure for his cousin, Charles II of Naples, the balance of forces was upset irreparably and the Black Guelfs took over the city (in November 1301, when Charles entered the city and at a time when Dante was in Rome on political embassy to Boniface VIII). The Blacks began to purge the Whites from all positions of power in the city—at first that was done through fines and property seizures (January 27, 1302), but eventually some fifteen sentences were transformed into death sentences in June, and Dante’s exile began when his own sentence was issued. In the closing stages of this conflict, the White Guelfs tied first alliances with the Ghibellines, their old enemies, making themselves appear as traitors to the Black Guelfs, and substantial skirmishes continued to be fought around the Florentine territories until 1303.
PART TWO: Exile
Dante’s monument in the Piazza della Signoria, Verona
In the opening chapter to this second part “At War with Florence (1302-1304),” Santagata continues to describe the civil war, and the White Guelfs’ movements and consolidations in Pistoia and Arezzo. In the latter city, the anti-Florentine block was unifying and creating alliances with the feudal families of the Apennines, whom they took to be their natural allies. Meanwhile, the Blacks pressed hard, winning victories on Pistoia. In October 1303 Boniface VIII died in Rome, to be replaced by Benedict XI, who attempted to reconcile the Guelf parties—to no avail. He raised many hopes, but more bloody turns to the war were yet to come.
At this stage, Santagata traces the movements of Dante, who may have left Florence before January 1302 and moved to Arezzo to join his allies. It is not clear if he went alone or with his family, as the first set of sentences against him did not affect, for example, his brother. Boccaccio is sure that Gemma went with her husband, but Santagata points out that to leave her in Florence would have made more sense—especially as Gemma was still a Donati, and the Donati were one of the families at the head of the Black Guelf contingent. But as the sentences changed into death sentences, this would have become all the more problematic, and at this stage Gemma would likely have joined Dante in Arezzo or some of the smaller Tuscan towns he was moving between. Throughout this period Dante remained politically active and took part in important embassies, and consequently he moved around Tuscany frequently. But by the beginning of 1303 the coalition in Arezzo moved to Forlì, and Dante surely went with them.
In June 1303, while the coalition leaders were meeting in Forlì, Dante was on a mission to Verona that would substantially alter the course of his own life. He was sent to meet members of the Della Scala, a Ghibelline family with great power. The relationship with the Della Scala family seems rather tense—and, indeed, Dante attacks various members of his host family in the Inferno. But the fact of the matter is that Dante remained in Verona longer than we would otherwise expect, perhaps drawn to stay by the “irresistible charm of a library,” namely the Capitolare that would have contained many volumes inaccessible to him in Florence and Bologna.
From other data, such as Dante’s detailed knowledge of the Veneto region, Santagata concludes that Dante may have been hired by the Della Scala family in some small capacity as a way to repay his stay—allowing him to travel on diplomatic missions. This is an important detail because as an exiled individual under penalty of death, Dante could not count on his wealth or on the protection of Florence, especially in the anti-White regions of the Veneto he appears to have visited, but the protection of the Della Scala name might have allowed him relative autonomy. However, this employment did not last too long. In February of 1304 Dante was still in Verona, but later in the year he was back in Arezzo and not earning any money at all, in a period that Santagata labels “sad poverty.” The historian underlines Dante’s literary and epistolary efforts to connect his poverty with his state of exile. Dante insisted in these years on styling himself as a wanderer and almost a beggar. By the middle of 1304, Dante made moves away from the political arena and distanced himself from the theatre of war.
This opened a period of study and writing that would last at least two years. Santagata’s chapter “Return to Study and Writing (1304-1306)” speculates that Dante moved to Bologna again, where political and employment prospects were much better. The past four or five years provided him with the material that led to the composition of the Convivio, a book designed to (re)educate the Italian nobility. Dante found in the feudal societies outside Florence the values of the lost Florentine golden age, namely a pre-mercantile social organization that still favored the arts and virtuous study over profit-making and a more purely secular morality. In the year that preceded the writing of the Convivio, Dante had been trying to teach Florentine nobles precisely the values they had forgotten, and this book’s explicit aim is to protect the existing nobles under the protection of the Empire and to guarantee “the existence of a civilitas that is human, cohesive and peaceful.” But the Empire had long been inactive and distant, and the institutional forces Dante saw as necessary were by now a mere memory.
The Convivio, which was never finished, was to consist of fourteen books, each preceded by a canzone followed by a commentary in vernacular prose. Work stopped, however, at the end of the fourth of these books, even though in the period 1303-4, he had written most of the songs already. These songs can be read, and Santagata gives various examples, among biographical reflections on the recent years of Dante’s life. But the “language debate” intervened in this processes—especially as he had come to important realizations in the past five years. Dante realized, with self-admitted surprise, that the Italian language varied from city-state to city-state, and that therefore the Italian ruling classes had no one language to tie them together. It is, in brief, this discovery that leads Dante to work on his now famous De vulgari eloquentia, in which he pioneered much of the abstract theory behind the relatively more modern field of historical linguistics. Pound scholars may find useful a comparison between Dante’s discovery of the hidden depth of language and Pound’s own work on Fenollosa. The two explorations are so different in their particulars, but rather similar in their authors’ fascination with what they perceive to be secrets of languages they had already encountered—and, importantly, both authors approach the linguistic questions from incredibly creative and generative angles (rather than from a more rigorous scientific perspective—even if the semblance of scientism is an essential posture in both). Interestingly, if Cavalcanti has served as a model in the Vita Nova, the object of scrutiny in De vulgari eloquentia is Cino da Pistoia—to whom Pound himself paid homage in his poem “Cino.” [More on Pound and Cino will appear in upcoming issues of MIN.]
All that being said, Santagata’s next chapter “The Penitent (1306-1310)” makes clear that Dante would not be able to stay in Bologna to see if his book would have the desired effect on the professors at the local university. Internal opposition to the White Guelf-sympathizing ruling class led him to flee Bologna by the end of April 1306. The White Guelfs remained active, and even sent embassies to the Pope in an attempt to stabilize relations. These emissaries’ valiant efforts failed, and we must assume that by this time Dante left Bologna, and began to seek out a personal resolution in the form of a pardon. Dante still had some support in Florence he could count on, especially as his wife was a Donati. The plan seems to have worked, initially, as Gemma was re-admitted to the city and seized control of some of the previously confiscated properties as Dante made ready his public request for an official pardon. The Florentine historian Leonardo Bruni reports that Dante made this request with great humility, hoping that good deeds might restore his reputation. The letter requesting the pardon is unfortunately lost, but it is possible to reconstruct some of its generalities, including an important phrase “my people, what have I done to you?” (a quotation from the book of the prophet Micah). Dante’s letter places his own blame in the alliance with the Ghibellines, emphasizing his own role in what had been perceived as one of the greatest acts of treason that the Florentine elite could remember. This perceived treason is grounded in the fact that even though the White Guelfs were oppressed by the Blacks, an alliance with the Ghibellines (who rejected papal interference on nearly all levels) was seen as intolerable.
At this time Dante was in the Lunigiana region, with the Malaspina family that might have helped execute the first phase of the plan (Gemma’s return to Florence). Santagata stresses that we should remember this partly-vagrant Dante who lived in the Apennine regions alongside the Dante of the famous cities like Verona and Florence, for the Apennine regions played an important part in his imagination. There Dante found that the Malaspina family held onto the noble courtly virtues whose loss he had so often lamented, and it was one of the few families he never found reason to repudiate. He seems to have been hired by them in tricky diplomatic tasks (mostly local), and this gave him a way to get to know the wider communities of this region. Meanwhile, no reply (or a negative one) was received from Florence. At a loss, he wished to turn to Corso Donati—but Corso’s own situation was complicated enough, and he was not able to give Dante any substantial help. Santagata reads into a selection of Dante’s rime from this period to give us a sense of how Dante might be responding to his longing to return home, or even registering his discontent towards a negative response. Indeed, Dante begins to style himself further as an exiled poet, and begins to bless his exile for its creative influence. The patronage of the Malaspina paradoxically allowed him to engage with Black Guelfs outside of Florence with increasing success, as if the pardon had been accepted everywhere but Florence. Given these more promising circumstances, it is difficult to understand why Dante left the Lunigiana valley in 1307 for the Casentino region.
The sources for this phase of his life are lacking, and Santagata speculates on various details of his stay there, which he supports with a number of literary readings that are too tangential to explain in detail here. What matters is that Dante was building his reputation as an exiled poet even in Florence where his rime were sometimes read, and by 1308 he had moved to Lucca, where biographical details start to emerge and the story of his life can be resumed with more certainty (even though proofs from the archives remain unclear). Throughout this period, it is unlikely that Dante would have been with his family (except for a mysterious son that appears in a legal document, Giovanni Alighieri). Gemma would likely have stayed in Florence, with Corso, but her brother’s power dwindled by the end of 1308 until he had retreated to Treviso and assumed power there. Corso’s move from Florence to this prestigious position is a sure sign of his weakened hold on Florence—and the results were soon felt as various plots to overthrow him were eventually successful. With his death, all hope of a personal amnesty faded for Dante, and soon he would be forced to leave Lucca as well.
On March 31, 1309, an edict forced Florentine refugees to leave Lucca. Biographers tend to agree that Dante went to study in Paris, but there is very little evidence to support this. Santagata instead proposes a speculative restoration of the biography, suggesting that Dante actually went to Avignon. All we know, in reality, is that in the spring of 1309 Dante left Italy for Paris or Provence, to Avignon, where Clement V had recently established himself, slowly turning the city into a cultural capital of Europe.
It is at this moment, also reading into the finesses of the German Empire, that Santagata begins to analyze Dante’s turn to writing the Commedia as a text about current affairs. This section of his biography may be too difficult to summarize profitably, but the main stages of his argument run as follows. The writing of the Inferno had appropriately been resumed when Dante was in the Lunigiana in 1306. This would have been completed in 1308-9 (published 1314). The Purgatorio was written in the following years and published in 1315 or 1316. The Inferno is read by Santagata as a text that casts Dante in a strongly Guelf position, such that he could also use in his attempts to persuade contemporaries to pardon him—distancing himself from the Ghibellines. We cannot know how much Dante re-worked what he had already written, but it is telling that he steers away from rehashing political problems that he had already raised in the Convivio and the De vulgari eloquentia—limiting himself to restating allegiances instead. Santagata also reads in the Inferno two models of Florentine history. The first is a postured impartiality through which Dante condemns members of all allegiances to hell, his friends as well as his enemies. But this impartiality is a fiction when read in the light of Dante’s current aims to distance himself from previous struggles by proclaiming himself the heir apparent to a series of radical leaders. As such Dante is extremely partial to some of those he damns, and his poetry allows the real disorders of Florentine politics to shine through on this level. Detailed information on his own exile is in fact excluded from the Commedia, and it is recast into a form of universal injustice. Considering much of the cantica had been written before some of the historical event had played out, we can speculate that revisions or additions were made in the early sections to align previous opinions to questions of current politics. In the Purgatorio, Dante appears to retract his “impartiality” and begins to argue in earnest for the Imperial projects. Santagata’s detailed readings are able to bring out that while Dante’s partiality is confusing, this partiality can be understood in direct relationship to his constantly shifting patronage, which forces him to realign enemies and allies at a breakneck pace—the same pace at which he wrote these first two Canticas. After 1316 Dante would return to Verona as the guest of (perhaps) his most famous patron Cangrande della Scala, where he would write some important sections of the Paradiso. Santagata notes here—and he should have done earlier—that the difficulty of navigating the genealogical maze of families is a difficult task, if essential to understanding the composition of Dante’s epic. One way of highlighting this is the emphasis Dante places on female characters who animate much of the poem. The hiatus between the composition of the second and third Canticas coincides—not coincidentally—with Henry VII’s visit to Italy.
Indeed, Santagata’s following section “An Emperor Arrives (1310-1313)” begins with a further political analysis of the central period of the Commedia’s composition. The Imperial history is too complicated and turbulent to report on briefly and linearly, but it is clear that 1310 signals a year of apparent resolution. For years, Dante had been examining the damage done by the papal secular power on Christianity, and the notion of a return to Empire seemed promising to him, to the extent that he saw the divine hand behind the appointment of Henry VII as Holy Roman Emperor in 1309. Henry was particularly appealing to Dante, who had sadly failed to achieve amnesty, in his promises to settle old discords and restore peace, by forcing local authorities to offer amnesties to exiles. Cangrande was, in his capacity as one of the Ghibelline leaders, one of the first to pay homage to Henry VII.
It was to these “old comrades” that Dante returns when he comes back to Italy from France, offering them his skills as an intellectual and political man. For a short time Dante was in Forlì, but he probably left in the second half of 1310 to the courts of Romagna and the Casentino. At that time Henry crossed the Alps into Italy, to be crowned emperor by Pope Clement V. As Henry moved south, the promises of reconciliation seemed realistically achievable. Henry was crowned in Milan, at a symbolic event attended by many ambassadors, but avoided by the Black Guelfs of Florence and their allies. Either at this time, or shortly after, Dante met with the king, presenting him with a manifesto he had written, addressed to all the nobility of Italy. Its message was clear: Dante condoned the reconciliation strategies put forward by Henry and defended the claim to empire to rule Italy in the strongest possible terms. Moving towards his coronation in Rome, Henry encountered resistance from the King of Naples and his allies. Attempts to make a show of force and end local points of resistance clearly demonstrated his favor for the Ghibellines, partly tarnishing his reputation as an impartial reconciliatory emperor. Dante was in the Casentino during the spring of 1311, having to avoid Forlì. From there he wrote two letters that were at once written with an apocalyptic and prophetic style, whilst also dealing with extremely concrete problems of Florentine politics and discussing the question of the inalienability of imperial rights. As northern cities expanded their independent holds on their estates through finance and power-plays, Henry’s reconciliation began to slip from view.
In 1311, and into 1312, Dante was in Genoa, where Henry’s imperial entourage also sojourned for a while. It is here, most likely, that Boccaccio (still a child) met Dante for the only time in his life. There, Dante was welcomed by fellow exiles, and he began to elaborate his political ideas into more developed theories that would later subtend his writing. But this was a difficult period for Henry, who had marched on Rome to find that barricades and defenses had been prepared, blocking him from arriving at St. Peter’s. As part of the following conflict, age-old rivalries between the Colonna and Orsini families, who sided with Henry and the Kingdom of Naples respectively, were fought out in the center of Rome. Henry lost, and decided to be crowned emperor in the basilica of St. John Lateran, controlled by the Colonna. Clement was not present, and Henry was crowned by three cardinals. From there, he made an alliance with the Kingdom of Sicily to enact a pincer movement on the Kingdom of Naples, and on August 1 the attacks began. They were short lived, however, as Henry died of a sudden sickness on August 24th, and the army fell apart. He was buried in Pisa, his Ghibelline stronghold, while all his forces returned to their home cities. Rumors began to spread that Henry had been poisoned by a Dominican priest, and Dante seems to have believed this along with many others—even though the imperial authorities denied it. Dominicans across the region (and their property) were attacked and harmed. The episode is remembered in an obscure passage of the Purgatorio (XXXIII 34-36).
Dante was likely present at the funeral, and was therefore in Pisa by 1312. It was the first time he had been in the city, even though almost twenty-five years earlier he had attacked its walls with the Florentine cavalry, but failed to seize it (it was defended by Guido da Montefeltro). It is here in Pisa that Dante began to write his philosophical and legal treatise, the De Monarchia. Santagata’s summary of the short book is extremely useful, concise, and indicative of his ability to synthesize information in context—especially considering how different this text is (at least in its conception) to much of Dante’s other works.
With this exegesis this important chapter of the biography comes to a close, and Santagata’s next is provocatively titled “The Prophet (1314-1315).” The transition picks up again from Henry’s death in 1312, reading into that moment the birth of a “mission” for Dante to continue to engage politically in the affairs of church and state, seeking out his persistent objectives. In 1313-5, Ghibelline activity was strong and Dante therefore remained highly committed to his politics. Santagata notes that in this period of (what we might expect to be) disillusionment Dante instead develops his personal sense of ambition into a “prophetic” voice, transforming his often intermediary role in politics into a personal and even egocentric role. “The more he is alone,” Santagata writes, “the more he claims to speak in the name of everyone. In the Commedia he goes as far as claiming to speak in the name of God” (282). The autobiographical character Dante constructs is therefore prophetic in the original sense too, not predicting the future but reporting from the afterlife experiences that underpin his Commedia. His fictio provides him with a self-investiture, going beyond his will as author.
The Purgatorio registers the vacant empire in its discussions of government; its political and historical pictures paint Italy in a time of great turmoil, but almost no part contains prophetic inspiration per se, until the prophetic vision of Beatrice in the closing canti. Santagata reads these tortuous and allegorical cantos with great finesse, highlighting the emphasis on the otherworldly and transcendental—connecting those images to the lament of an Empire in decline, a failed state of reconciliation. Santagata goes into various questions that cannot be repeated here but that are of major concern to Dantean scholars, each time evaluating positions held by the Dantean community. This section of the biography can provide a first lucid access to these difficult scenes for readers who have not approached the Commedia before.
Dante’s whereabouts in 1315 are unknown, although the political situation in Florence and his relationship to the city makes us wish we knew more. In 1316 the city offers an amnesty, but requires the payment of a fine. This is not a pardon—and Dante rejects the offer to return to Florence out of pride. Later, as the Montecatini take over Florence, a second amnesty is offered and those who had been sentenced to death by the Black Guelfs are asked to appear before the court so as to have their sentence commuted to internment. Dante does not appear before this court, and dramatically this leads to the issuing of a second death sentence. He is also banished anew from the city he did not return to, leaving his person, family and property at risk.
Dante’s response is chronicled by Santagata under the heading “Courtier (1316-1321).” As the rift with Florence grew wider, his political allegiances to Tuscany more generally began to dissipate. Lombardy could offer him support, in Milan and Verona, the latter controlled by Cangrande since Henry VII had appointed him the town’s ruler. It is not clear when Dante arrived in Verona, but we know he was unlikely to have known Cangrande well, who would only have been thirteen when Dante last stayed with the della Scala family in 1304. Santagata takes some time to investigate the (over-)emphasis laid on Cangrande in Dante’s life, concluding that while he was certainly an important patron from 1316, scholars tend to look for reasons to connect too much Dante’s work with the influence of Cangrande. Santagata considers the famous letter to Cangrande with Dante’s dedication of the Paradiso, a weak form of evidence, commenting acutely on its still-disputed authenticity. He close-reads the document to provide further commentaries and his effort to make the letter accessible is welcome given how little emphasis this letter receives in non-specialist scholarship. Santagata also delves into the speculations about Dante’s alleged career as sorcerer or necromancer—false anecdotes that are often overlooked in scholarship, but which Santagata explains as a natural result of contemporary perceptions of Dante’s astrological studies, and his claim to have lived the Inferno in the flesh, rather than as a mere vision.
Dante reached Ravenna around 1319, accompanied by his family. Here Santagata faces another problem of authenticity—the mysterious cosmological text Questio de aqua et terra attributed to Dante. He calmly looks at the problem from various angles before rejecting the attribution on practically all grounds. In Ravenna, Dante’s political interests seem to wane (something Santagata also notes about the last cantos of the Commedia). His move to the city seems to have been motivated less by political allegiances than by a desire to establish better conditions for his family, access to wider resources (libraries, chiefly), and to avoid distractions that would slow down progress on the Paradiso. He received kind treatment at the “court” of the lord of the city, Guido Novello da Polenta (the nephew of Francesca, Inferno V). His presence in Ravenna also conferred honor upon that small town, and the city allowed him to benefit from some church incomes in exchange for his son acting as a rector. As a result of all this, Dante (finally) achieved some calm and relative prosperity in his life. He was surrounded by his children, his wife, for the first time certainly all reunited (although this may have happened at earlier stages of his life, we have no evidence to prove it). He also had pupils and admirers of his work, and alongside these, he enjoyed the company of many intellectuals and literary men. It is peculiar—but not uncharacteristic, as we can recall from the opening of the biography—that Dante should depict himself, in this phase of his life, as a man alone and misunderstood.
He was not alone in fact, though his company would never rival his old Florentine companions like Cavalcanti or Cino. His interactions with Giovanni del Virgilio, with whom he discussed and corresponded at length, seem to revolve around questions of the vernacular. Interestingly, Dante defends all of his older work—but he does not feel the need to speak for the Commedia, perhaps thinking it naturally carried its own weight. The two would continue to exchange letters in the form of eclogues.
Santagata reads Dante’s “farewell to history” in the closing phases of Paradiso (that tend to no longer engage as strongly with current affairs) with the new city Dante is living in. After Canto XXI, Dante will return to secular matters to express a hope that his merit would be recognized in Florence (something already foreshadowed by Cacciaguida’s appearance in canto XVI). He longs for the “fair fold,” hoping the “cruel” hearts of the Florentines will recognize him as a master of the vernacular tongue. His picture of Florence in these cantos either willingly or accidentally avoids mentioning the changes in Florentine architecture, especially around the church complex, which creates the mirage that Dante is still conceiving of the city with an ancient loyalty and melancholy.
Giovanni di Virgilio invited Dante to Bologna—but he reluctantly refused this invitation, perhaps moved by the welcome he had received in Ravenna, but also moved by a mysterious fear of someone whom he terms “Polyphemus” in one of his eclogues. It was likely Fulcieri da Calboli, an old acquaintance of Dante’s from Florence, and a vicious attacker of the White Guelfs. Fulcieri had been assigned the captaincy of the city of Bologna in 1321. Once more, the past would not allow Dante to move on with his desire to seek out the learned company of Bologna. The exchange of eclogues continued, and later Giovanni di Virgilio would say that Dante was the first to revive that ancient genre—and indeed, these poems would later reach Petrarch and Boccaccio, and go even further.
In 1321 Dante went as an ambassador to Venice to avoid a war that might otherwise have destroyed Ravenna. On his return, he fell ill—probably with malaria—and died on September 13, after sunset. He was given a solemn funeral in the church of San Francesco, where the Polenta family was interred. Guido Novello (who had sent Dante north) oversaw all the proceedings and delivered a long sermon at Dante’s house, announcing that he would erect an ornate tomb for Dante. He seems to have organized a competition to find an epitaph, and many were submitted. But Guido was caught in political maneuvers and killed within a year, and the tomb remained unbuilt.
The last eclogue seems to have been forwarded to its destination by Dante’s son, and the question of the Paradiso remains an open one. Santagata is certain it was completed before Dante’s death. The last thirteen cantos, Boccaccio tells us, were not located for some time until Iacopo, his son, was told where they were in a dream. This anecdote certainly may have helped the early promotion of the Commedia, but other evidence suggests that Dante, having completed the poem, had given readings and circulated the final sections in Ravenna already. In the space of a few years, also thanks do Dante’s son, it would become the most widely read vernacular book of its time.
Dante’s tomb in Ravenna, 1781.