‘Dante: The Story of His Life’ by Marco Santagata

DanteTim Parks at The London Review of Books:

The Alighieri family was Guelf by tradition, but obscure enough to have avoided exile with other Guelfs when the Ghibellines were in the ascendant shortly before Dante’s birth. Of his education we know only that his family wasn’t rich enough to provide him with a private tutor. Dante’s father died when his son was ten, leaving him, as Leonardo Bruni would put it, ‘not greatly rich … but with moderate and sufficient wealth to live honourably’. The problem, as Santagata construes it, was that Dante’s notions of honourable living were not Bruni’s. He was ambitious, had the highest possible opinion of himself and aspired to the life of a noble, or at least to a noble life, a life dedicated to writing. Which brings us to one of the core themes of this biography: Dante’s self-image, the way it dominated his writings and conditioned his every move.

Giovanni Villani, almost the only person to write about Dante who actually knew him, thought him a ‘great poet and philosopher’ but ‘presumptuous, contemptuous and disdainful’ as a person. A generation later, Boccaccio, whose biography of Dante is based on conversations with people who had known him, describes him as ‘proud and disdainful’ and prone to losing his temper. Around these meagre testimonies, Santagata gathers a quantity of detail, largely drawn from Dante’s writing, to suggest a man intent on constructing a myth of himself as both nobly born and destined to greatness. All three of his major works, the Vita nova (1295), the Convivio (1307) and the Commedia (1321), were, for their time, remarkably autobiographical. ‘

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