Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) is the great mystery man of Western literature. Like a vagabond, which he was forced to become, or a saint, which he practically became for some Christian readers, he left behind a fragmentary record of himself: a dozen or so letters, called epistles, displaying extremely disparate moods; a scattering of some fifty lyrical poems composed on various occasions, collected by others; and a variety of documents bearing his name and attesting to his participation in government, one of which banishes him from his native Florence in 1302 and another which sentences him to death at the stake. Three of his large non-fictional works are riddled with problems and left unfinished: IL CONVIVIO ("The Banquet"), DE VULGARI ELOQUENTIA ("On the Eloquence of the Vernacular") and DE MONARCHIA ("On the Monarchy"). The first biographies devoted to him, beginning with that of Giovanni Boccaccio, were written after his death and rely on legend, hearsay and imagination to fill in the gaps. Were all of this material the sum of his heritage, he would be one among many curious figures of the remote past left to dissolve in the corrosive mists of time.
But Dante, of course, wrote two other works--his first and his last--that established him as a classic. Both are supremely autobiographical. The first, LA VITA NUOVA ("The New Life"), tells of his youthful love for a fair lady named Beatrice. The last, LA COMMEDIA, called LA DIVINA COMMEDIA by later generations, tells of his imaginary journey with the classical poet Virgil as his guide through hell and purgatory, where he meets people he knew or knew about, and presents Beatrice as his guide into paradise, where he will behold the radiance of God. These two works, taken together, but especially the second, exerted an influence on the Western mind that has rarely if ever been equalled. When Christians talk about heaven and hell, and to a certain extent about divine love between man and woman, they are usually talking about Dante, not the Bible.
The task for the biographer of this great figure is therefore monumental. It is to link him to all the persons and events indicated by the fragmentary historical record--the usual task of a scholar; and also to all the persons and events in his autobiographical literary works--possibly a unique task. These persons and events, which have their own histories, form as it were a mould around Dante and place him in a well-defined society. His thoughts and feelings within this mould, or historical context, can be guessed from what his literary persona says or does in these works. In other words, the biography of Dante is worked out backwards; the people around him, known only piecemeal, or largely by his literary treatment of them, are treated as historical material and used to shape the author into a flesh-and-blood man. Overall, the histories of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries coalesce around him to form the largest, most important man of the period.
No wonder that to be a Dante scholar is a lifetime profession; no wonder that nearly seven centuries of scholarship have gone into the process of piecing Dante together. To be a Dante scholar means to know classical philosophy (Aristotle and numerous other works that Dante read), medieval theology (St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas), church history (the popes and their doctrines), medieval history (the wars between emperors and popes, the battles between the Guelphs and the Ghibillines), the history of Florence, the Italian language, a bit of linguistics, ancient and medieval poetics, all Dante's works and everything written about him.
At the beginning of his biography, DANTE IN LOVE, A.N. Wilson confesses himself unworthy of the task, not an expert, but merely an amateur since his teenage years. He tells how he grabbed old books in used-book stores, took classes, learned Italian, built up his notes over the years while pursuing other goals. Then, of course, he unfurls a scroll of seemingly universal knowledge, which obviously exceeds that of thousands of ordinary Dantephiles and millions of casual Dante readers who haven't a clue. It's a good way to persuade the novice reader that he is a worthy guide, someone who understands the difficulty of the journey and will make the going easy, which he proceeds to do.
His first chapter of the biography proper begins in spectacular fashion at Easter time in the year 1300. Tens of thousands of believers, Dante among them, are making a pilgrimage to Rome at the turn of the century--the first Holy Year in the Catholic church's history. The auspicious occasion gives Wilson the opportunity to explain that the Christian holy places in the Middle East were now under Muslim control, the preceding century of technical progress in Europe had produced the windmill and the mechanical clock, the doctrine of purgatory had been codified less than three decades before and would be enshrined in Western consciousness by Dante himself, who accepted it, the Vatican had declared that pilgrims who visited the shrines of Peter and Paul would enjoy a remission of sins, and clerics at the second shrine were literally raking in the cash, described by one witness as "pecuniam infinitam." From these matters Wilson turns to the powerful new pope, Boniface VIII, his legal background and his sinister character, and recounts Dante's mission as a city official to bring the pope a message from Florence. The meeting between poet and pope will have monumental consequences for the former and will cause such a break in his life that he will make the three days of Easter 1300 the time of his literary journey through the DIVINE COMEDY.
It's a wonderful chapter that thrusts us into the middle of the late Middle Ages, or early Renaissance, acquaints us with its people, places and things, and prepares us for the multilinear progress of Dante's life: the factual events, their literary representation and Dante's allegorical interpretation. At the same time it makes us, like Dante in the COMEDY, an Everyman who journeys through an unfamiliar terrain seeking knowledge, self-knowledge and possible redemption, with Wilson serving as Virgil. He explains that the term "comedy" signified for Dante the opposite of tragedy, a work that would move toward a happy ending.
Succeeding chapters take us through Dante's Florence, acquaint us with his family, his beloved Beatrice and his wife Gemma. We learn of his education, his politics, his military battles, his love of falconry, his interest in art, his poetic ambition. Wilson peppers his account with dashes of modern slang, disputes the views of other choice scholars, dares to reconstruct the genesis of Dante's masterpiece and even reconstructs the process of his thought. At times his prose sweeps up to the heights with swells of inspiration. Describing Dante's state after a painful falling in love, he writes:
"After this trauma, Dante is 'turned inside out.' He discovers a way of writing finely wrought verse which both dramatizes his own emotional and spiritual crisis, and allows him to reflect on what had interested him all along--namely, the Nature of Everything--the crisis in the Church, the crisis in the Empire, the recent history of Italy, the destiny of the human race in general, and of each and every human soul in particular as, made in the image and likeness of God, soiled, wrecked and ruined, we each turn towards Him for healing, or away from Him to our own damnation."
He teaches you Dante and makes you feel Dante's crises, at the same time enriching your understanding of the present by comparing it to a remarkable and largely unsuspected past. DANTE IN LOVE is constantly informative and does not have a single boring page. Nevertheless, at the end, Dante remains mysterious--a brooding, dark man you have met who goes off wandering in the mist. Perhaps it is good that no one has the minutiae, the details of his daily round, so that he can remain aloof, an exile, a hero and in many ways an ideal.