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Oct/Nov 2011 Reviews & Interviews

Dante in Love

Dante in Love
A. N. Wilson.
Atlantic Books. 2011. 386 pp.
ISBN 978 1 84887 948 5.

Review by Ann Skea


Buy now from Amazon! A. N. Wilson's stated aim in Dante in Love is to act as a travel-guide in the unfamiliar terrain of Dante's poetry. He tells us that after much research he is "still looking for a book which is a life of Dante set against the background of his times" and which acts as an introduction to Dante's Divine Comedy (the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso). Unsurprisingly, since he also wants the book to inspire in him "a sense that there is a connection between fancying women, wanting to understand poetry and answering the deepest questions about life and the deepest needs of the human heart", he has never found such a book. So, in Dante in Love, he aims to supply that book himself. Sadly, for me, he does not succeed.

Dante in Love is handsomely presented and beautifully illustrated, but I finished reading it almost as confused about Dante's world and about the often obscure references in his poetry as I ever was. Partly, this is because Dante lived in very confusing times. Mostly, I think, it is because A.N. Wilson (who describes himself as "no Dante scholar") has tried to pack too much into this book. He also jumps around in time and strives to make his book relevant to a modern reader, so I was often lost in a long modern digression when I needed to be in 13th century Italy.

Wilson begins in Rome in Easter 1300, the time Dante chose as the setting for his Comedy. Purgatory had just been invented (defined in 1274 by the Council of Lyons), so, too, it seems had buttons in Germany, spinning wheels in France and windmills in England. Quite what these last three inventions had to do with Dante's Comedy is a puzzle, although other things that Wilson mentions, such as the growth of mercantile trade, the creation of banks and the minting of Florins in Florence, where Dante grew up, were understandably important to the views on usury and power which are expressed in the Comedy.

From 14th century Rome, we move to present-day Florence which, as Wilson tells us, is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. At the time of Dante's birth in the 13th century, however, Florence had none of the features which are now so well-known. Instead, like Rome, it was "infested with towers built by rival gangs." Iceland, Wilson tells us irrelevantly, was like this, too. He then takes us back to the eleven-hundreds, when "Mafia-style thuggery" was rampant in Florence between the supporters of the French backed Pope - the Guelphs - and the Ghibellines, who supported the Holy Roman Emperor, the German-born head of the Hohenstaufen dynasty. And finally we learn that this was still the same when Dante was born in 1265, and Dante's family were Guelphs. But the Guelphs themselves were divided between those who supported the powerful merchant, Corso Donati (the 'Blacks') and those who favoured the banker Vieri de Cerchi (the 'Whites').

To complicate matters further, the other great power in Italy was the Church, and Popes supported by, and supporting, different factions changed frequently. There were fifteen Popes during Dante's lifetime (1265-1321) and, confusingly for readers, each changed his name on enthronement. The most important Pope in Dante's life was Boniface VIII (Benedetto Caetani), whose influential rule lasted nine years, from 1294 to 1303. It was he who was responsible for Dante's banishment from Florence in 1301 after Dante, who by then was politically active and well-respected in Florence, failed to support the Pope's plans. The Pope wanted Dante out of Florence whilst he negotiated with the French and Dante, in Wilson's words, was "stitched up." Dante, in return, damned Pope Boniface VIII to the Hell of his Inferno and vilified him as one of the most greedy, licentious and brutal of men.

I read with interest of Dante's political skills and ambitions, of his interest in philosophy and about some of his mentors and his closest friends. In particular, I enjoyed reading of his close friendship with Giotto. I don't put much faith in Wilson's suggestion that Giotto's painted Hell in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua was a major influence on Dante's poetic version of Hell in the Comedy, but it is interesting to compare the two.

So where is Love in all this? Wilson's book, after all, is called Dante in Love and he did not intend it to be just a history or biography. Wilson's approach to love in Dante's life is not romantic but philosophical, although he allows for the physical expression of love in Dante's life, too. He argues, and I think correctly, that the status of Beatrice Portinari in Dante's life and, especially, in his work, was that of a Platonic Idea. It was shaped by Dante's exposure to French and Provencal poetry, the tradition of the troubadours and the dictates of Courtly Love. This was reinforced by Dante's study of Platonism, by his immersion in Franciscan and Dominican philosophy, and, especially, by the influence of the mystics, Thomas Aquinas, Saint Bonaventure and the former troubadour and monk, St Bernard of Clairvaux. Controversially, Wilson identifies the Donna Gentile, the woman of whom Dante wrote passionately in his Vita Nova, with Dante's wife, Gemma. But she, too, became a Platonic Idea and Dante later identified her as 'Philosophy'.

My guess is that Wilson's book will infuriate Dante scholars and that it will do little to enlighten readers like me who think they should know Dante and his work better. I was dismayed and frustrated when Wilson, summing up an important argument, suddenly chose not to translate the final four lines of the Paradiso from Dante's Italian on the basis the 'everyone knows' them. I for one do not. Perhaps Wikipedia will rescue me, as it did when Wilson's book bogged me down in historical complexities or in long and irrelevant asides.

 

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