I like to style myself a literary omnivore, but one genre I’ll admit I seldom touch is biography. I’ve read one on Robert E. Lee, and back in high school and college I read some biographies of various rock bands, but I preferred those that focused primarily on their music and secondarily on the musicians’ personal lives. A recent review, of The Printed Homer, included some biographical speculation, but ultimately one can’t really write a biography of a man about whom we know so little for certain that we’re not even sure if he was one dude or multiple dudes.
Marco Santagata stands on firmer ground in his biography of Dante Alighieri (translated from Italian by Richard Dixon), titled simply Dante: The Story of His Life, though he did run into some difficulties of his own. Typically I like to start reviews on a positive note, but any biography of Dante will have two significant problems to deal with, and though Santagata’s book is quite good overall one does need to be aware of them.
First, Dante’s life is inextricably tied up with Florentine politics. Readers of his Divine Comedy will undoubtedly have noticed how many contemporary political figures appear, and multiple works after La Vita Nuova, such as Convivio and Monarchia, at least touch on political theory or practice in some way. This means that a huge portion of Santagata’s book is spent discussing the ins and outs of Florentine political theatre and that of Italy more broadly. For those keenly interested in Italian history or who are just political junkies this won’t be a problem at all, but anyone expecting a sort of “real life novel” style of biography will find themselves skimming pages at a time of explanations of shifting alliances, ideologies, and political manoeuvring.
My primary reading goal for 2019, if I can find time to read at all, is to greatly deepen my knowledge of Dante Alighieri. I’ve written briefly of La Vita Nuova and extensively of Monarchia, and have previously read the Divine Comedy, but this constitutes the mere highlight reel of his career. Though not terribly prolific, Dante did write more than many people realise and besides, the Comedy itself has such depths that it deserves careful study even on its own. That said, I’d like to begin with by setting the stage with a friend of Dante’s, fellow Florentine and poet Guido Cavalcanti.
It’s a testament to Dante’s excellence that a poet of Cavalcanti’s calibre is only the second-greatest poet of his era. Though obscure to Americans, he is an important figure in Italian poetry and well-respected among those who study Italian and Medieval literature. Some readers may be aware that among his admirers were Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Ezra Pound, who each translated a volume of Cavalcanti’s poems. Let’s take a look at one of them, numbered 45 in Marc Cirigliano’s edition, “Se non ti caggia la tua santalena.”
may you not drop your little jewel
between the plowed clumps
so it is picked up by a farmer
who fondles and keeps it
tell me if the earth’s fruit
is born from dryness, heat, or moisture
and which wind blows it
and what fog fills the storm
and if you like the morning
that hears the workman’s voice
and family cacophany
i certainly know that if Bettina’s
heart has a sweet spirit
you’ll get rid of your young acquisition…
Back in 2015, I wrote a commentary on Dante Alighieri’s political treatise Monarchia, in which he argues in favour of a universal monarchy. Though Dante’s ideal has never been attainable, his basic arguments are interesting and applicable to monarchism in general, which is why I believe it’s worth reading and was worth writing about. My commentary is undoubtedly the longest and most involved thing I’ve ever written, and because of this I occasionally get questions about it on ask.fm and Curious Cat. In particular, on CC I received this question a little while back asking about James Burnham’s interpretation of Monarchia, given in The Macchiavellians and reproduced at the blog Unqualified Reservations.
I was aware of Burnham’s essay while writing my commentary, but after some consideration decided not to bother even addressing it because, frankly, Burnham’s interpretation sucks. However, since Burnham and Unqualified Reservations are well-known in Right-wing circles, there are probably more people around this part of the world who’ve read Burnham’s essay than have read Monarchia, and so may have an inaccurate impression of Dante’s book. Several people in the UR comments do point out the essay’s flaws, but there’s more to say and not everyone reads comments. So, since I was directly asked about it and to offer a defense of Dante, I’ll go ahead and expand on my previous answer here. Note that I will assume that you’ve read the essay.