By Alessandro Barbero
Translated by Allan Cameron
You must feel sorry for Dante’s biographers. On the one hand, they face an archival abyss when it comes to the poet’s actual life, as even basic facts such as the day he was born or the number of children – let alone the chaotic itinerary of his two decades of exile – remaining hidden in mystery. On the other hand, the autobiographical details and dramas that Dante himself offered in numerous works, especially his epic “The Divine Comedy,” has mesmerized biographers who started with Boccaccio for centuries, leading them down literary rabbit holes with no real certainty and inviting. endless speculations polishing the legend of this ever elusive subject. So the biographer must ultimately choose: either carve out the evidence and find out what rare nugget about Dante’s life has not yet been discovered, or surrender to the genius of the work he called his ‘Comedìa’ and try to forge a fragile peace between literary interpretation and life writing.
In a new biography, timed (in the original Italian publication) to the 700th anniversary of the poet’s death in 1321 and fluently translated by Allan Cameron, Italian historian and novelist Alessandro Barbero chooses the former option. Are vita, or life, van Dante goes back to some of the eternal riddles in Dante studies: Did the poet reach Paris during his exile? (Barbero believes so, unlike most.) What was Dante’s socioeconomic class? (According to Barbero, higher than many think.) While still in Florence before his exile, did Dante conceive the project that would later become his “Comedy”? (Maybe, Barbero argues, going against the grain again.) In all cases, his reasoning is compelling, his research impressive, and his responses in heartfelt dialogue with the historical record. I don’t always agree, but can’t fault his methods.
Barbero is equally accurate and ordered in tracing the chronology of Dante’s life and backstory, as he traces it from the time of the poet’s ancestors to his death as a celebrated literary exile in Ravenna. The book is written in the spirit of another richly detailed biography, Marco Santagata’s “Dante: The Story of His Life” (2016), but with not as much depth as Santagata’s more scholarly work. Barbero is surprisingly light on lingering reflections on Dante’s writings, bringing in “The Divine Comedy” to illustrate or clarify the various biographical issues or themes he develops. Ultimately, he tries to avoid falling prey to the kind of Dante mania that tricked a biographer, even as brilliant as Boccaccio, into rhapsodic — and often completely fabricated — musings about Dante, whom Boccaccio says was sent by God “to lead the way.” for the return of the muses exiled from Italy.” More in line with the sober historicism of the Renaissance humanist and early Dante biographer Leonardo Bruni, Barbero’s Dante is a carefully constructed figure, isolated from the extravagant fantasies that have led more star-eyed chroniclers astray.
But Barbero’s sobriety comes at a price. In Italy, Dante is a cultural monument of almost incalculable prestige: he is a fixture in secondary school curricula, his statues fill the squares of many Italian cities, and his honorific titles include “father of the Italian language” and Supreme Poet, Supreme Poet. So Barbero’s research mission into the life of a ubiquitous national figure makes eminent sense for Italian readers, just as biographies of famous Americans such as Abraham Lincoln and studies of key events such as the Civil War continue to appear in the United States with astonishing frequency.
A life of Dante faces a different set of challenges outside of Italy. American readers have long been captivated by Dante’s name and his work: The Dante Society of America was founded in 1881 by celebrities, including Dante’s great translator Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Dante’s study has become an academic cottage industry in American colleges and universities. There’s even a video game “Dante’s Inferno” featuring an impossibly muscular Dante who looks more like an angry killing machine than the “holy father and founder of modern poetry,” as German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schlegel once called him. For a Dante biography to capture the attention of an American readership, it must substantively address the source that explains Dante’s foreign appeal: the words on his pages rather than the facts of his life.
Barbero’s otherwise impeccably written and researched book misses two important opportunities that would have better translated his work for readers in the Anglophone world. The first is a more story-based approach. The first chapter opens miraculously, on St. Barnabas’s Day of 1289, with the young cavalryman Dante dressed in his military gear and ready to engage in the close combat at the Battle of Campaldino that would prove so decisive. are for Dante’s victorious Guelph Party. Unfortunately, there are few other lively set pieces in the book, as it focuses on the lingering questions surrounding the poet’s life, examining them in the form of hypotheses and deductions rather than narratives. Barbero, an award-winning novelist, clearly has the tricks of turning these Dante riddles into stories that would have attracted the reader more powerfully.
The second missed opportunity is “The Divine Comedy” itself. It only plays a minor part in Barbero’s book, when in fact it could have helped shape the storyline. In “Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare” (2004), Stephen Greenblatt seamlessly connects the playwright’s life with the life of the work. Ghostly passages in “Macbeth” are linked to that king’s most haunted, Shakespeare’s patron King James I—probably the only monarch in history to write a work as provocatively titled as his “Daemonology”—and the soaring rhetoric of grief in ” Hamlet” is based on what Greenblatt calls Shakespeare’s desire to “talk to the dead,” including his son Hamnet, who died tragically at age 11. Greenblatt’s strategy works because of his skill at anchoring speculations about Shakespeare’s life into insightful interpretations of his lyrics. More intellectual risk of this nature, more willingness to imbue the scarcity of the historical record with the creative possibilities of literary analysis, would have increased the energy and appeal of Barbero’s Dante.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “Shakespeare is Shakespeare’s only biographer; and even he can tell nothing except to the Shakespeare in us.” The same can be said of Dante. We can thank Barbero for this very informative biography of a man who can seem so reserved and aloof that it sometimes feels like he’s hiding behind the 14,233 verses of “The Divine Comedy” rather than revealing himself. But for those who want to learn more about the Dante in us, a biography should do more than provide the plausible facts. And so the search for a vita by Dante in English will probably take us right back to where Emerson suggested: the poetry of Dante’s own hand.