A new biography explores Dante as public intellectual.
In his posthumously published Shakespeare on Love and Friendship, the critic Allan Bloom ruefully observed that, by contrast with the Bard, certain great canonical writers hold little attraction for most young American readers today. Those writers include such giants of their respective national literary traditions as Molière, Goethe, and Dante. If Bloom’s point was partly an indictment of modern youth culture, it was also a comment on the relative accessibility of Shakespeare and those other writers to what Bloom called a “common consciousness.” In addition to the obvious fact that he wrote in Italian, Dante indulged in a playful obscurantism that makes unraveling the cryptograms in the Commedia or identifying the invalids in the Inferno all but impossible for the unguided reader. As a result, few contemporary Americans readers have any understanding of the motives or vision behind the great poet’s luminous imaginings of the spiritual afterlife.
To begin with, the facts of Dante Alighieri’s life (1265–1321) are not well known. What we do know of the Florentine poet comes to us mainly by way of certain gossips who wrote a generation after his death. But that is gossip, and no matter how often Dante’s biography is told, the same pesky gaps in our knowledge of the poet’s personal life remain. So historians must embellish, or, as Marco Santagata does in his contextually rich account, adorn their findings with bold conjecture.