Prophetic Charisma by Diana Glenn

DANTE: THE STORY OF HIS LIFE by Marco Santagata, translated by Richard Dixon

This sumptuous volume by Marco Santagata, professor of Italian Literature at the University of Pisa, offers the reader a richly documented and often gripping account of the development, peregrinations, and shifting fortunes of the celebrated poet Durante (Dante) Alighieri. Comprising ten chapters, the volume has an internal division in two parts, with the first covering Dante’s life in Florence and the second exploring the remaining period of Dante’s political exile (under pain of death if he re-entered Florence) and the poet’s activity until his untimely death in Ravenna in 1321. By means of Richard Dixon’s fluid and sparkling translation of the original volume (published in 2012 as Dante: Il romanzo della sua vita), English-speaking readers can enjoy Santagata’s evocation of the tensions, complex alliances, betrayals, class struggles, and internecine strife taking place not only in a ‘divided’ Florence (la città partita, Inf. VI, 61) and elsewhere throughout the peninsula, but also in the violent and treacherous landscape of imperial and ecclesiastical allegiances beyond Italian borders, with all parties vying for dominion and bent on the wholesale destruction of their mutual enemies.

The reader follows the poet’s trajectory, from his birth in Florence in 1265 under the star sign Gemini, to his early years and adolescence growing up in the sestiere of San Pier Maggiore, through to his emergence as a formidable literary talent, and thence to his turbulent years as a former man of political action cast out forever from the ‘fair fold’ (bello ovile, Para. XXVI, 5) of his beloved city. Santagata convincingly shows how, at the local level in Florence, the rising mercantile class was in fierce competition with the feudal nobility. His exhaustive investigation of the documented evidence is frank and probing in its efforts to uncover the truth about Dante’s life and aspirations. Indeed, the author is unsparing in portraying the undertow of tensions and brutal reprisals that were an integral component of the political machinations of the day, especially betweenthe Ghibelline and Guelf factions. A wealth of detailed insights and scholarship are also provided in the copious endnotes, together with genealogical tables about the Alighieri, Donati, Guidi, and Malaspina families. Santagata elucidates the influence and connections of the Guidi and Malaspina families during Dante’s early years of exile when his peripatetic journeying led him to their strongholds in the Casentino and Lunigiana respectively. Elsewhere, there are bold assertions by Santagata about Dante’s emotional pilgrimage, the quickening of his political mindset, the conjecture that he suffered from bouts of epilepsy (an idea proposed by Cesare Lombroso’s school of psychiatry), and speculation about Dante’s reputation as a necromancer, the possible identity of a son named Giovanni Alighieri, and Dante’s relationship with his wife, Gemma Donati, after the condemnation of 1302. Even when the evidence proves inconclusive, Santagata’s speculations are solidly buttressed by archival documentation, which in turn is augmented by close textual readings of the poet’s writings.

Santagata’s exploration illuminates how the tangled network of Dante’s connections and alliances over the years, whether familial in origin or the result of political patronage, played a decisive part in his ability to respond to the changing secular and ecclesiastical order of the day. The author traces the influence on Dante of figures such as Bono Giamboni and Brunetto Latini, as well as Dante’s ‘first friend’, the poet Guido Cavalcanti, whose tragic fate is sensitively drawn, as well as granting the reader glimpses of the friendship with Manetto Portinari, brother of Beatrice Portinari. In his later years, Dante became embroiled in the imperialist campaign for the restoration of an emperor to bring about unity. In this regard, chapter eight, dealing with Henry VII of Luxembourg and entitled ‘An Emperor Arrives (1310–1313)’, is compelling. Here the author conveys with brilliant clarity the poet’s fervent hope for a political solution to the power vacuum in existence since the death of Emperor Frederick II in 1250. However, the goal of a united Italian peninsula following Henry’s coronation as seventh emperor of the Romans is irrevocably destroyed following Henry’s sudden demise at Buonconvento in August 1313. Never one to control his lacerating tongue, Dante vents his spleen on Pope Clement V who had sided with Robert of Anjou. In exploring these tumultuous events, Santagata brings forth Dante’s admirable reputation in Latin prose as an expert epistolographer.

Ultimately, the author contends that in spite of the incubus of his state as an exul immeritus, Dante forged an unusual and solitary path as a poet–philosopher whose output evidences his manifest destiny as a prophetically charged voice for the benefit of humanity in need of reform, good government, and exemplars of virtue; a self-belief that he was ‘invested by God with a prophetic mission of saving humanity’. Santagata’s monumental work conveys, in a highly original manner, the imperatives of Dante’s ‘prophetic mission’ and ‘ethical need to bear witness to the truth’, while as a writer he ‘strove to be new and original’. According to Santagata, the Commedia demonstrates ‘the construction of an autobiographical character endowed with prophetic charisma’. A laudable aspect of the volume is the author’s lucid demonstration of Dante’s success in the Commedia in combining universal themes with the exigencies of his daily life.

Diana Glenn is Dean of Humanities and Creative Arts at Flinders University.