Book Review - Dante in Love

Never having read Dante, I was interested to see if A.N. Wilson’s homage to the “pilgrim poet” would succeed in persuading me to do so. In his introduction, Wilson explains that his intention is to give the uninitiated an historical and cultural context to Dante’s work. It is a formidable task and, as he admits himself, to study Dante one needs a thorough “knowledge of medieval theology, astronomy, linguistics, poetics, mathematics and history.” He does not claim to be an expert, but nevertheless manages to offer a rigorous analysis of many of these subjects.

According to Wilson, reading Dante is “one of the superb aesthetic, imaginative, emotional and intellectual experiences on offer.”  As well as providing an excellent summary of the “courtly love” tradition and how this influenced Dante’s early work, he illustrates how his muse, Beatrice, was “the Unobtainable Beauty of Courtly Love…a figure of Grace, of Divine Love.” This treatment of idealised women as allegory was a direct influence of the troubadours of twelfth-century Provence. Marriage, in Dante’s time, was a far more prosaic affair. When Dante was just 11-years old, he became engaged to Gemma di Manetto Donati, with whom he had four children.

Italy, at the time, was irretrievably divided into factions and parties, led by the wealthiest families, and marriage between clans was common. Dante’s father, like the Donatis, was aligned with the Guelfs and marrying his son into this powerful family-faction would have been a shrewd political move. The Guelfs allied themselves with the Pope whilst the Ghibellines were supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor.

It was the poet’s controversial involvement in politics that led to his banishment from his native Florence but, Wilson suggests, had he not been exiled, his greatest work, the Comedy, may not have materialised. In 1300 Florence (the year in which the Comedy is set) the Guelf party split into two factions, the Blacks and the Whites. In supporting the Whites, and their opposition to the influence of Pope Boniface VIII, Dante sealed his own fate when the Black Guelfs gained control of Florence. But, as Wilson is quick to point out, this abrupt severance from political life allowed Dante the opportunity to concentrate on his poetry.

Wilson argues that Dante’s greatness lay in his ability to summarise in one narrative poem not only his personal story, but also the theological and political background of the time, and the tremendous cultural changes taking place in Europe. Dante departed from the common practice of writing in Latin, to become “the father of Italian”. This was made possible by his enforced wandering through Italy, giving him an invaluable insight into its rich vernacular.

Throughout, Wilson fixes his steady gaze on Dante’s lyrics and eloquently illustrates the skill with which the poet dramatised his own emotional and spiritual crisis about religion and expressed his disapproval of the corruption and greed of the church.

Dante in Love will surely delight fans of classics and theology. Wilson amply demonstrates how an understanding of the political infighting, rivalries and jostling for power between the city’s major families is crucial to understanding Dante’s work.  In providing this cultural and historical context to thirteenth century Florence, Wilson ensures that there is plenty to sustain the interest of us godless mortals. He certainly inspired this reader to take the plunge into Dante’s greatest work.

A shortened version of this review was originally published in Tribune Magazine