Monday, November 21, 2016

Book Review - Dante: The Story of His Life by Marco Santagata

Dante Alighieri. Poet. Politican. Philosopher. Exile.

Dante lived this multifaceted life while producing the greatest poetry in world literature. He definitely wasn't an Essentialist.

His life has been the topic of countless biographies, essays, talks, and lectures over the last seven centuries. The latest, Marco Santagata's Dante: The Story of His Life, translated by Richard Dixon, continues in this tradition.

Santagata brings a wealth of erudition and study to the task of writing an interesting biography of Dante. Indeed, he manages to break into new ground, which is always impressive when writing about a man written about as frequently and for so long as Dante.  His mastery and clear elucidation of the complex political history engulfing Dante's Florence and Italy is the highlight of the book and alone makes it worth the money.

Not only does he vividly describe the troubled times our poet navigated, but he contemplates into under-explored possibilities. Nothing less would be expected of Santagata, professor of Italian Literature at the University of Pisa.

Some of these theories are more compelling than others. Let us, briefly, examine a few.

Corso Donati
One interesting possibility explored by Santagata is an alleged attempt by Dante to return to Florence, something dear to the poet's heart, through the means of Corso Donati.

Anyone who has spent anytime studying Dante knows that Corso, condemned to Hell according to the prediction of his brother Forese in Purgatorio was one of Dante's prime enemies.
I see him... dragged behind a beast toward the valley where there is no absolution. The beast goes faster with each step, and faster, until it hurls him to the ground and leaves his body horribly disfigured. (24.82-87)
It was Corso Donati, leader of the Black Guelfs, whose ascendancy would prove the proximate cause of Dante's lifelong exile. It would seem odd, then, that Dante would pin his hopes for return on the very man who led the party that exiled and sentence him to death. Santagata sees Dante's marriage to a distant relative of Corso's, Gemma Donati, as a possible bridge between the two.
In my view, Dante and his supporters would first have played the family card. Gemma was a Donati, a third cousin of Corso, and her readmission to the city would have done no harm to the family prestige: indeed, if anything, it would have increased it. By allowing considerations of kinship to prevail, Corso would have shown himself to be the true man of strength in Florence. (p. 191)
This might be too tenuous and hard to swallow. Corso would have "shown himself to be the true man of strength in Florence" without calling back a man he helped exile. In fact, that just as likely would have shown Corso to be a man of great weakness. It could even have contaminated him to association. The time in which Santagata thinks Dante could have used Corso's help was when Corso was losing influence in the Black Party to Rosso della Tosa. While highly unlikely this is an interesting possibility to contemplate.

Another interesting theory explored in the book is the possibility of Dante having been an epileptic. Santagata admits his debt here to Cesare Lombroso and his school of psychiatry's diagnosis of Dante, a disgnosis Santagata readily admits "has never been accepted by Dante scholars." (p. 31)

Despite this, reading Dante's poems has helped Santagata 'rediscover' Dante's illness. He points to the poem E' m'incresce di me sì duramente as evidence. In the poem, Dante relates an experience from the first few months of his life.
"so suddenly... I fell to the ground" as if struck by lightning." (p. 30)
Dante's Amor, da che convien pur ch'io mi doglia is another exhibit as Dante tells us the mere sight of his lady caused him to fall "lifeless" to the ground.

This is certainly a literalist interpretation of these poems, which sounds a bit odd coming from a man who questions whether Beatrice really inspired Dante's writings. Admittedly, Santagata avoids the common error of reading Beatrice as only an allegory of "Theology" to the point where her name could be dropped for the subject, but his suspicion here could call into question his reading into these poems a disease. If Dante attributed inspiration to Beatrice as a poetic device, why ought he not to have used fainting poetically as well?

Nonetheless, Santagata is right on the money when he says this is
an hypothesis to explore with caution, but nevertheless (is) preferable to the idea suggested by one scholar that (Dante) used stimulants or narcotics. (p. 33)
I couldn't agree more.

Dante's Sense of Self
Santagata contends that Dante had a very unique sense of himself and his life.
The most remarkable aspect of Dante's personality is, in fact, his feeling of being different and predestined. In whatever he saw, did or said... he glimpsed some sign of destiny, the shadow of an unavoidable fate, the mark of a higher will.... How can we avoid asking, then, what kind of self-image such an egocentric man, so sure of his exceptional nature, must have possessed in daily life? (p. 4)
Whether this is an accurate description of the inner workings of Dante's personality is, as all such "remote psychoanalysis" must be, highly questionable. No psychologist worth his salt would seek to describe the inner psyche of a man who never laid upon his couch, that, however, doesn't stop (some) historians. Santagata has fallen into this trap. This is particularly jarring as he readily admits,
His contemporaries offer little help to anyone wishing to reconstruct the true Dante. Almost none of those who knew him wrote about him; only a few of the next generation had anything reliable to say about him. (p. 5)
Apparently, eight hundred years after the poet's death, Sanatagata can, based off what he sees as less than credible historical accounts, have something "reliable to say about him."

Was Dante prideful? Without a doubt. This is a man who, based off the Vita Nuova and a few canti of the Comedy, claimed poetic equality with the greatest poets in history: Virgil, Homer, Ovid, Horace, and Lucan when he tells us "I became a sixth amidst such wisdom" (Inferno 4.102) and who feels the heavy weights the penitents on the terrace of pride must bear already.

Can we extrapolate out of his work all Santagata does? That is a bit more questionable, but worth reading his theory in full to decide for yourself.

Dante: The Story of His (Political) Life, Revenge and Patronage
This might well have been a more apropos title to this biography. Santagata tells the story of Dante almost exclusively through a political lens leaving unmentioned or marginalized Dante's relationship with the Church as an institution, with Christian belief, with philosophy as expounded by the Scholastics, with his poetic rivals and predecessors, and with his intellectual development from a servant of "the god of Love" to the supreme poet of the Christian God.

This narrow focus spills over into his interpretation of the Commedia, which is viewed as if it was only a political work. Each event examined by Santagata is seen as either an attempt to gain favor with a potential or current patron or as an act of revenge on those who rebuffed the poet in life.

He calls the first canticle of the Comedy "The Guelf Inferno" (p. 219) contending Inferno is entirely Guelf without a hint of pro-Imperial sentiments. This, according to Santagata, is because Inferno was largely written to assert Dante's loyalty to the Guelf cause as a means to return to Guelf Florence.

He fails, however, to convincingly explain the condemnation of the leading Guelfs in the cantica. Tegghiaio Aldobrandini, Jacopo Rusticucci, Calvacante Calvacanti, the great Guido Guerra and Brunetto Latini are all inexplicably (if we accept Santagata's thesis) met in the "Guelf Inferno". Nor does he address why, if the canticle is stressing Dante's loyalty to the Church Party, we meet Pope Celestine V as soon as we enter the realm of the dead. Hardly an auspicious start to a poem dedicated to prove Dante's loyalty to the Guelf-Papal cause. Celestine is only the first pontiff we meet in Hell. Popes are among the innumerable sinners in the "dismal round" (Inferno 7.31) shouting "Why do you squander" (Inferno 7.30) as they crash into other sinners.
These were clerics who have no lid of hair
upon their heads, and popes and cardinals,
in whom avarice achieves its excess. (Inferno 7.46-48)
And, of course, we meet Pope Nicholas in Malebolgie who predicts that he will soon be joined by Pope Boniface VIII and Pope Clement V, both supports of the Parte Guelfa, especially in Florence, and of the Guelf-Angevin alliance responsible for destroying Ghibelline hopes of ultimate victory. These condemnations hardly would have endeared Dante to the Guelfs back in Florence.

Santagata's claim that there is no mention of a pro-imperial position in Inferno is even weaker. Not only do we meet Julius Caesar, the first Roman Emperor (as Dante's day considered him), among the virtuous pagans, but Brutus and Cassius (traitors to the founder of the Empire) are co-sufferers with Judas Iscariot in the three mouths of Satan. This puts traitors to God's divinely established Empire on par with betrayers of God's divinely established Church. Can we imagine a more pro-Imperial (i.e. Ghibelline) sentiment?

Santagata's go to response to this counter-evidence is to explain away the inconvenient facts as "later rewritings." He doesn't present early manuscripts that lack these passages or other historical or textual evidence to support this claim. Instead he concludes these passages must be rewrites solely on the basis that these episodes put the lie to his theory! This is (historical) pseudo-science at its worst. The theory ought to be disproven or supported by the facts; here we see the facts manipulated to fit the theory. This is a move beneath the dignity of Santagata.

That is not to say Dante's work wasn't at all influenced by the kindness or rejection he met in exile. Nor is it to say that Dante's politics never shifted nor that these shifts are present in the work (as we'd expect them to be). Santagata doesn't get this all wrong. He does overemphasize this element of the work and ignores other, more important, influences on the poem.

Perhaps this is because of his mastery of the politics of Dante's day. Rather, I suspect, it is an effect of the unfortunate "drift" of the humanities in seeking to emulate the hard sciences by emphasizing "new discoveries" over the passing on of accurate, time-tested, dare I say somewhat "traditional" and even "conservative" understandings of the great books.

Professors of the liberal arts are, or ought to be, guardians and transmitters of tradition - critiquing that tradition where necessary and adding new information when possible. When these professors are lauded only when presenting novel theories of interpretation (e.g. a feminist reading of the Comedy) things go astray and can quickly descend into absurdity.

Incredible Historical Vision
Despite this understandable tendency, Santagata proves himself an able historian with a firm grasp on the very complex historical events of Dante's Italy. His explanations of the history and politics of Dante's Florence makes the book well worth reading. This is especially true of the first half of the book in which Santagata's learning shines. When he stays away from postulating theories of interpretation of Dante's works based exclusively on political events and sticks to relating the facts and in exploring various theories based on those facts, Santagata is at his finest.

Final Verdict
The book might be a bit uneven, but it is, in the end, worth picking up and reading. If you are interested in the poet, his life, and his times this is well worth the money. With the reservations noted above, I recommend Dante: The Story of His Life.

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