There is an inarguable ephemerality about Dante Alighieri, the author of the Divine Comedy (in Italian, Commedia—the “Divine” was a publisher’s later addition). C.S. Lewis put it well in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature (1966):
“There is a curious feeling that [the Commedia] is writing itself, or at most, that the tiny figure of the poet is merely giving the gentlest guiding touch, here and there, to energies which, for the most part, spontaneously group themselves and perform the delicate evolutions.”
The paucity of historical information about the Florentine certainly contributes to this authorial ghostliness, this aesthetic, perhaps arguable self-effacement along Eliotean lines (“The progress of the artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”). To wrest the available data from dusty archives, breathe life into them, and extract some kind of uber-Christian soul for post-modern sensibilities becomes, therefore, the near-impossible task of the Dante biographer.
Alessandro Barbero, Italian historian, novelist, and essayist, in his new book, Dante, takes a different tack. He too, of course, works the documentation, but at the outset he insists that:
“[Dante’s] world—the medieval world—was full of institutions and regulations whose names in themselves tell us nothing, […] yet we need to be introduced to them if we are to share the journey Dante undertook or was obliged to follow amid the temptations and dangers of his times.”
Not unlike Virgil, Barbero takes us on a well-guided tour through Dante’s beloved Florence and Italian city-states beyond, pointing out local customs, laws, religion, traditions, politics, wars, feuds, even marriage obligations in one concerted sweep. He establishes Dante within a firm medieval context that, along with our meager facts and figures, puts a bit more rouge in the spirit’s cheek. If Dante cannot emerge for us in fulsome personality like a more thoroughly documented Petrarch or Chaucer, there is still room for him to come from the shadows. Alessandro Barbero, a Chevalier de L’ordre des Arts et des Lettres, has brought him more into the light. Glaswegian Allan Cameron is the translator from the original Italian. This interview was conducted by email.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Dante the author of La Vita Nuova is an intriguing Dante. Prone to visions, he is at once spiritually empowered as well as cruelly diminished by his love for Beatrice. How much of his dizzying narration should we take as truth and how much as artistry?
Historians are trained to treat all written sources with a measure of distrust, so I am ashamed to admit that my first reaction upon reading the Vita Nuova was like, “Now this is wonderful! Where else will I find a man from the Middle Ages telling how, when he was nine, he fell desperately in love with a young girl in a scarlet gown, how at eighteen he met her in the street and was so shocked when she greeted him by his name that he ran home, locked himself in his own room, fell asleep and dreamed of her naked? Great stuff!” Fortunately, reading literary critics’ commentaries sobered me, and I became aware that nothing of this needs really to have happened. And yet, the Vita Nuova is full of small-scale episodes, like the so-called nuptial banquet, or Beatrice’s father’s funeral, which to the historian are extremely revealing as firsthand descriptions of the social life at that time.
How would Florence have understood the adult, pre-exile Dante as a citizen? What official designation, as such, would he have been given in its socio-economic world?
The official separation in Florentine society was between the landed, knightly nobility, the “magnates,” and who they called “the people,” which meant broadly everybody else. Society as a political force included the entire range of businessmen, from wealthy merchants down to small artisans and shopkeepers. In this sense, Dante was undoubtedly a man of the people, since his relatives were middle-level businessmen and moneylenders.
But, this was also a society with a high level of social mobility, and Dante was upwardly mobile. He was the first in his family to inherit land, but he showed no interest in pursuing his father’s business affairs, mingling instead with young people—fellow poets like Guido Cavalcanti and Forese Donati—who came from the nobility. He was also the first in his family to fight on horseback when called into the army, as happened at The Battle of Campaldino when he was 24. Not enough status here to be confused with noble knights, since the government required anybody rich enough to own horses to mount them into battle, but nevertheless a sure sign of social advancement.
Dante’s time in the heated world of Florentine politics, during disputes between Guelph and Ghibelline magnates—between even White Guelph and Black Guelph factions—turned out to be critical to his development as the poet of the Commedia. Will you give us a short lesson about why ultimately Dante was exiled from Florence?
Dante was a party man, which meant in his time he was a Guelph. You had to be a Guelph if you were interested in taking part in city politics because the Ghibellines had been thoroughly beaten in Florence, and the city was under strict Guelph control. Dante chose the White faction which was briefly in power around 1300 but was later violently overturned by their rivals, the Blacks, who lost no time in expelling hundreds of Whites from the city. Among them was Dante, who by that time had risen to be one of the faction’s leaders.
And the impact exile had upon him was, of course, profound. He was never able to return to his beloved city. But, of course, he wrote one of the most brilliant, profound works of literature we have, the Commedia. How does he go from being a creditable sonneteer, author of the Vita, and political commentator to this mighty transformer of Western culture?
This is a million-dollar question! How can you explain genius? Boccaccio has a story that, after Dante had been exiled for several years, his wife needed some papers she had saved from the turmoil of the coup d’état. She sent somebody to look for those papers, and this man found what looked to be the first cantos of a poem, written in Italian vernacular, that apparently Dante had begun writing at the beginning of his catastrophe. Those papers were sent on to Dante, who decided to resume work on this poem he had forgotten about.
Now, while the story itself is not necessarily true, today critics would agree that the first four cantos of Inferno are quite different from the rest of the poem—more traditional in conception, more stilted, far less shocking in originality—so that it may be that Dante actually began writing Commedia when still in Florence, but that exile changed his approach and was therefore critical in the creation of the masterpiece we know.
Would you tell us Boccaccio’s perhaps tall tale of Dante’s sons and their search for the last thirteen cantos of Paradiso, after their father’s death?
It looks like after Dante’s death it was very easy to meet people who would assure you they had known him very well, indeed had been among his best friends, and had fabulous stories to tell about him. This is very interesting in itself, because it shows that at the time of his death Dante was something of a celebrity, not only among literates, but also those in power circles. That being said, it is not clear at all whether at his death the last thirteen cantos of Paradise had been published. It is a fact that they were very soon in the care of Dante’s sons, who either had been in Ravenna at their father’s deathbed or had arrived there as soon as they received the tragic news. The in-between is not known, but it is not likely that Iacopo, Dante’s son, had to wait for his father to appear to him in a dream in order to unearth a manuscript that had been laying somewhere in Dante’s lodgings!
There are so many Dante stories that are, sadly, very likely apocryphal! Do you have a favorite?
His meeting with Beatrice is definitely my favorite story. You see, they were both eighteen but with a difference. He was still a clumsy teenager, unable to manage his emotions, while she was a married lady, wife to a wealthy knight and bank shareholder. The way he tells the story is exceptionally interesting, what with him admitting he was so shocked by this unexpected meeting that he hoped not to be seen, and then him running home and dreaming that disquieting dream of her naked under a thin veil, in the arms of a monstrous figure, and that monster being Love itself! Here you can see how human emotions are often the same throughout the centuries, and at the same time how different cultures elaborate them differently. Who would ever, in our culture, describe Love as a scary monster?
By Alessandro Barbero
Published January 4, 2022
RYAN ASMUSSEN is a writer/educator who works as a Visiting Lecturer in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has published criticism, journalism, fiction, and poetry. Having earned a BLS and MAT from Boston University, he has just completed a Master's of Liberal Arts in Creative Writing and Literature from Harvard Extension School. His Twitter handle is @RyanAsmussen.