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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


Dante Santagata

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.