Book Review: Dante – The Story of His Life
by Marco Santagata
translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon
The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 2016
To the ranks of the best popular biographies of the great Florentine poet Dante Alighieri, works like William Anderson’s powerfully evocative 1980 book Dante the Maker and of course Thomas Chubb’s magisterial 1966 book Dante and His World is added Marco Santagata’s Dante. Il romanzo della sua vita. The book was published in Italy in 2013 and is now in an English-language translation (by Richard Dixon) from the Belknap Press as Dante: The Story of His Life.
Santagata is a literature professor at the University of Pisa, and his approach is carefully, invitingly pedagogical, taking readers in a steady, straightforward pacing through the events of Dante’s life – his marriage, his pining for his idealized romantic idol Beatrice, his family life, his famously vexed political career, and of course the genesis of his literary works, ranging from the lesser-known treatises like De vulgari eloquentia and Monarchia to his masterpieces, the Vita Nova and the Divine Comedy.
This is very familiar territory, covered at a gallop in the introductory essays preceding every paperback reprint of the Inferno, and although Santagata makes some interesting speculative elaborations to it (particularly on the sub-headings of family life and the poet’s physical health), he sticks mainly to an accepted narrative and tells it with a fiercely learned calm and energy throughout – to the extent that he’s able, that is; despite the intensely personal sprawl of Dante’s written brilliance, the patchy nature of actual specific biographical information raises challenges no biographer can quite overcome. Santagata is often driven back onto standard filler-patter like “Young Dante would have felt honored to be fighting next to Florence’s most illustrious citizens,” or “Dante must have wondered many times what place he held in Florentine society.”
But Santagata balances the predictable nature of such generalizations with some very interesting swoops of insight into the nature of Dante’s art, for instance the quintessentially Florentine chatty nature of most of it:
The need to talk to people face to face or, at least, to a close relationship, is one of the main characteristics of Dante’s writing. Each of his works, in the first instance, defines a particular environment: in the Vita Nova it is that of his contemporaries in Florence who shared his way of life and his idea about literature; in the Commedia it is the families of his patrons and the political parties he encountered from time to time along his path as an exile. And the two treatises are no exception, as we shall see. It should be added that he sometimes seems to be seeking the support, if not the collaboration, of a specific interlocutor: in the Vita Nova it was Cavalcanti; in De vulgaris it is Cino da Pistoria.
Santagata follows up the main text of his book with dozens of exuberant point-by-point discussions in his End Notes, so Dante: The Story of His Life leaves its readers with a very appropriate sense of many complex and fascinating ongoing debates on everything from the precise matrimonial links between powerful families to the inner workings of great literature. And as with all first-rate author biographies, the book will propel readers straight back to Dante’s own works, which is right where they should end up in any case.