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Tackling the Enduring Mysteries of Dante’s Life

A Life
By Alessandro Barbero
Translated by Allan Cameron

You have to pity Dante’s biographers. On the one hand, they face an archival abyss when it comes to the poet’s actual life, as even basic facts like the day he was born or the number of his children — let alone the chaotic itinerary of his two decades of exile — remain shrouded in mystery. On the other hand, the autobiographical details and dramas offered by Dante himself in numerous works, especially his epic “The Divine Comedy,” have mesmerized biographers beginning with Boccaccio for centuries, leading them down literary rabbit holes devoid of real-world certainty and inviting endless speculation that tends to burnish the legend of this ever-elusive subject. So the biographer must ultimately choose: Either hew to the evidence and ferret out whatever rare nugget about Dante’s life remains uncovered, or surrender to the genius of the work he called his “Comedìa” and try to broker a fragile peace between literary interpretation and life writing.

In a new biography timed (in its original Italian publication) to the 700th anniversary of the poet’s death in 1321 and translated fluidly by Allan Cameron, the Italian historian and novelist Alessandro Barbero chooses the first option. His vita, or life, of Dante revisits some of the perennial riddles in Dante studies: Did the poet make it to Paris during his exile? (Barbero believes yes, contrary to most.) What was Dante’s socioeconomic class? (In Barbero’s view, higher than many think.) While still in Florence before his exile, did Dante conceive the project that would later become his “Comedy”? (Perhaps so, Barbero argues, once again against the grain.) In all cases, his reasoning is cogent, his research impressive and his answers set in earnest dialogue with the historical record. I don’t always agree, but can find no fault with his methods.

Barbero is equally precise and ordered in tracing the chronology of Dante’s life and back story, as he follows it from the times of the poet’s ancestors all the way to his death as a celebrated literary exile in Ravenna. The book is written in the spirit of another richly detailed biography, Marco Santagata’s “Dante: The Story of His Life” (2016), though with not as much depth as Santagata’s more scholarly work. Barbero is surprisingly light on sustained reflections on Dante’s writings, bringing in “The Divine Comedy” only to illustrate or gloss the various biographical issues or themes he develops. Ultimately, he seeks to avoid falling prey to the kind of Dante mania that seduced a biographer even as brilliant as Boccaccio into rhapsodic — and often entirely invented — musings on Dante, who Boccaccio claimed was sent by God “to clear the way for the return of the muses who had been banished from Italy.” More in line with the sober historicism of the Renaissance humanist and early Dante biographer Leonardo Bruni, Barbero’s Dante is a carefully built-up figure insulated from the extravagant fancies that have led more starry-eyed chroniclers astray.

Yet Barbero’s sobriety comes at a cost. In Italy, Dante is a cultural monument of almost incalculable prestige: He is a fixture of high school curriculums, his statues fill the piazzas of many Italian cities and his honorifics include “father of the Italian language” and Sommo Poeta, Supreme Poet. So Barbero’s fact-finding mission into the life of an omnipresent national figure makes eminent sense for Italian readers, much in the same way that biographies of famous Americans like Abraham Lincoln and studies of key events like the Civil War continue to appear with astonishing frequency in the United States.

A life of Dante faces a different set of challenges outside of Italy. American readers have long been enthralled by Dante’s name and his work: The Dante Society of America was founded in 1881 by luminaries including Dante’s great translator Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and the study of Dante has become an academic cottage industry in American colleges and universities. There’s even a “Dante’s Inferno” video game featuring an implausibly muscled Dante who looks more like an angry killing machine than the “holy father and founder of modern poetry,” as the German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schlegel once called him. For a biography of Dante to capture the attention of an American readership, it has to address substantively the source that accounts for Dante’s foreign appeal: the words on his pages rather than the facts of his life.

Barbero’s otherwise impeccably written and researched book misses two key opportunities that would have made his work translate better for readers in the Anglophone world. The first is a more narrative-based approach. The initial chapter begins marvelously, on St. Barnabas’s Day of 1289, with the young cavalryman Dante clad in his military gear and ready to engage in hand-to-hand combat at the Battle of Campaldino that would prove so decisive for Dante’s victorious Guelph party. Unfortunately, there are few other vivid set pieces in the book, as it focuses on the lingering questions surrounding the poet’s life, exploring these in the form of hypotheses and deductions rather than stories. An award-winning novelist, Barbero clearly has the chops to convert these Dante conundrums into storytelling that would have pulled the reader in more forcefully.

The second missed chance is “The Divine Comedy” itself. It serves merely an ancillary role in Barbero’s book, when in fact it could have helped shape its narrative arc. In “Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare” (2004), Stephen Greenblatt seamlessly connects the life of the playwright with the life of the work. Haunting passages in “Macbeth” are linked to that most haunted of kings, Shakespeare’s patron King James I — probably the only monarch in history to write a work as provocatively titled as his “Daemonologie” — and the surging rhetoric of grief in “Hamlet” draws on what Greenblatt calls Shakespeare’s desire to “speak with the dead,” including his son, Hamnet, who died tragically at 11. Greenblatt’s strategy works because of his skill in anchoring speculations on Shakespeare’s life in insightful interpretations of his texts. More intellectual risk-taking of this nature, more willingness to infuse the sparseness of the historical record with the creative possibilities of literary analysis, would have augmented the energy and appeal of Barbero’s Dante.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “Shakespeare is the only biographer of Shakespeare; and even he can tell nothing, except to the Shakespeare in us.” The same might be said of Dante. We can be grateful to Barbero for this richly informative biography of a man who can seem so reticent and aloof that at times it feels as if he’s hiding behind the 14,233 verses of “The Divine Comedy” rather than revealing himself. But for those who are looking to learn more about the Dante in us, a biography has to do more than deliver the plausible facts. And so the quest for a vita of Dante in English will likely lead us right back to where Emerson suggested: the poetry from Dante’s own hand.

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