Dante in Love, By A. N. Wilson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 400 pp., $28
The English novelist and historian A. N. Wilson, convinced that our age needs Dante, has written him a long, loving letter of introduction, complete with illustrations from Giotto and Botticelli, and a wealth of manuscripts of the Divine Comedy. This Dante for our time, he suggests, will be a different Dante than the real man who straddled the 13th and 14th centuries, or the more austere figure who has inspired recent generations: he will be neither the lovestruck hero who beguiled the Victorian era, nor the paladin of a united Italy who pointed the way to the founders of that modern state exactly 150 years ago, nor the authoritarian beacon who guided Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot in their pursuits, respectively, of fascism and Christianity.
A contemporary Dante, he supposes, might speak to the extreme fragmentation of a culture that has been divided as much as linked by the peculiar webs of modern life. It is an unusual intuition, but it seems profoundly right. We citizens of the 21st century are, in many respects, as subject to feudalism in its various forms as Dante ever was: to the rule of riches and violence that passes for the rule of law, to the warring fiefdoms, to the bitter feuds between creeds and factions. We are also stirred by the same hopes for a better way to govern the world; Dante took part, after all, in the early formation of the Florentine commune, one of the first and most successful republics to emerge from the long breakup of the Roman Empire.
It seems likely, as well, that the visual brilliance and the extremity of Dante’s imagination may resonate in new ways with a generation reared on graphic novels and comic books. Dante’s own sources of inspiration included similarly phantasmagoric visions of Heaven and Hell, painted and sculpted on local churches. If Italy, where the comedian Roberto Benigni has dazzled audiences for the past few years with his recitations of Dante—sprinkled liberally with his own manic commentary—is any indication, this singularly majestic poet provides something we desperately need. Dante’s firmness, his majesty, his wild fantasy, and his implacable judgments seem to fulfill some universal longing.
For Wilson himself, Dante has been a lifelong solace—and a lifelong challenge: as he notes, it is fairly easy to get the general drift of the poet’s early 14th-century Italian, but pinning down the details is another matter altogether.
Wilson writes passionately about the ways that Dante faced his own difficult, disappointing life, made endurable above all by writing: poetry, prose, letters, their ideas often changing as swiftly as Dante himself was forced to change his circumstances. The son of a wealthy Florentine banker, Dante Alighieri earned fame early for his poetry and his quick intelligence. His spoken eloquence seems to have been equal to his skill with the pen, and the combination of the two enabled him, as a son of the nouveau-riche, to enter into the rapidly democratizing world of Florentine politics. But late-13th-century Florence was not only caught between the greater powers of the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, it was also treacherous on its own. Italian city-states were always notorious for their internal feuds (a fact that should give pause to anyone who fancies that living “under the Tuscan sun” will solve all the problems of human existence). Dante found himself embroiled in the machinations of his aristocratic in-laws and the suave, unscrupulous Pope Boniface VIII, who received him on a diplomatic mission from Florence in 1300 and then held him as a virtual hostage until news came from Tuscany that Dante had been banished. In the next 20 years, the exile, through his writings, turned Florence into the universe, one man’s wanderings into everyman’s pilgrimage, a pretty Florentine girl, Bice Portinari, into the beneficent, heaven-dwelling Beatrice, and a human tragedy into the Divine Comedy. These are the mysteries that Wilson explores in his compelling book.
Most of all, he puts the poet into a wide context of social webs, political striving, poetry, art, and an Italian landscape that, he argues convincingly, was often the inspiration behind the strange, magnificent architecture of Dante’s Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. It detracts not at all from the universality of Dante, Ovid, or Virgil to see their specific haunts any more than the quarries of Syracuse can anchor Plato’s Allegory of the Cave exclusively to earth. Wilson’s Dante is an earthy man who swaps innuendos with his friends, lusts after women (all too enthusiastically, as his friend Boccaccio lamented—and anyone who was a friend of Boccaccio’s must have had a ribald side), and may have been more than just a student to Brunetto Latini, the beloved mentor he nonetheless relegates to the Inferno among the sodomites.
Wilson has spent his own life writing about a bewildering variety of subjects (the 37 books listed on the flyleaf of Dante in Love include novels, biographies, and studies of religion, landscape, London, and poetry). Like Dante, he is also an omnivorous reader. He may not be a Dante scholar per se, but he and Dante belong, surely, to the same guild, and his decision to write as nothing more than a reader gives him the freedom to talk about what other potential readers of Dante will truly want to know: about the man’s life, his settings, how the specifics of his existence led to, if they never quite explain, the great wonder of his poetry.
Does Dante in Love leave its reader longing to read Dante? Expecting an affirmative, Wilson wisely devotes space in his final chapter to the recent translations of the poet that have suddenly become available in abundance (a sign, perhaps, that the times really are ready here, as in Italy, for a new resurgence of the Divine Comedy). For this reader, Wilson’s loving, human Dante, a Dante immersed in the Italian landscape, will be a new Dante entirely: my most vivid memory to date is reading the Inferno in the depths of a particularly bitter Chicago winter and feeling perfect sympathy with the great poet’s conviction that Hell does indeed freeze over.