Article Index



PART ONE:  Youth in Florence 




Dantes house



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.

rossetti danteDante 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.