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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography



Marco Santagata

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To purchase Dante

Title: Dante
Author: Marco Santagata
Genre: Biography
Written: 2013 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 340 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: Dante - US
Dante - UK
Dante - Canada
Dante - Italia
  • The Story of His Life
  • Italian title: Dante
  • Translated by Richard Dixon

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Our Assessment:

B : useful companion piece to the Divine Comedy

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
London Rev. of Books . 14/7/2016 Tim Parks
The Spectator A+ 21/5/2016 A.N.Wilson
Times Higher Ed. A 12/5/2016 Prue Shaw

  From the Reviews:
  • "Elegantly translated by Richard Dixon, Santagata’s biography avoids the quarrels among critics that sometimes dominate Dante studies, relegating its references and accounts of diverging opinions to a hundred pages of useful notes. Yet a book like this obliges us to reflect on the vast distance between the meaning of a work to its author, to the readers of the time and to us now." - Tim Parks, London Review of Books

  • "(T)his substantial work incorporates all the most recent Dantean scholarship. There is much to chew upon (.....) Santagata explores all the old questions of Dantean biography and comes up with some surprisingly old-fashioned conclusions, which I found attractive. (...) This is a wonderful book. Even if you have not read Dante you will be gripped by its account of one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of literature, and one of the most dramatic periods of European history. If you are a Dantean, it will be your invaluable companion for ever." - A.N.Wilson, The Spectator

  • "Santagata’s narrative and organisational skills guarantee that complex historical information is introduced seamlessly into the story and brought vividly to life. (...) This approach gives a strong sense of Dante as an intellectual and political animal, but little sense of the creative writer and poet. (...) English readers must take the imaginative power and linguistic brilliance of the Commedia on trust; but with their well-known fondness for literary biography, they will surely be grateful for this bold, vigorous and invigorating account of Dante’s life and times." - Prue Shaw, Times Higher Education

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) is yet another of the best-known authors of the past thousand years whose work is still a part of everyday contemporary life and yet about whose own life relatively little is known. Biographers have a great deal of material to work with -- from and about his times, as well as his own large output -- but, as with Shakespeare and others, much (indeed, practically all) personal detail is elusive.
       Exactly midway through his biography -- and with the writing of some of Dante's greatest work (notably the Commedia), still ahead of him -- Santagata basically throws up his hands and admits:

     Once Dante has parted company with his companions in exile, the already scarce documentation thins to the point of almost disappearing. From now on, we can fill in the details of his life only through circumstantial reconstruction. Even the first stop on his wanderings, after leaving his companions in the middle of 1304, can be worked out only by conjecture.
       Santagata offers a good deal of (careful) 'circumstantial reconstruction' -- but clearly much of this does remain conjecture. Beyond that, even as far as reconstruction gets him, it really doesn't reveal very much about the man. Santagata does, however, connect Dante's work and the (historical) circumstances well. with Dante a detailed history of Dante's times and the tumultuous history of Florence and, for example, Henry VII's foray into Italy to get crowned.
       Santagata goes all-in with his approach, of finding the man in his work and its context -- so even with Dante's Monarchia, convinced by that point that:
     Monarchia is perhaps Dante's only book with no obvious autobiographical passages. But since there is not a single book in which Dante resists the need to talk about himself, the autobiographical elements have to be searched out, sought in the recesses of his ideological arguments, in the same way that references to current events have to be unearthed from beneath his detached legal and philosophical reasoning.
       It's an interesting exercise, and arguably does provide insight into the man -- but, at least here, also feels rather a (too speculative) stretch.
       The approach is more straightforward and successful with the Commedia, in which Dante sent many of his contemporaries to hell (and a few to purgatory and to paradise). Here Santagata provides a useful gloss to much of the book that was contemporary -- 'instant', even, as he notes:
The Commedia is therefore a poem with two fronts: it talks about human destinies from an eschatological point of view and, at the same time, is a detailed and insistent interpretation of what was actually happening around him. It is a work of fiction, but no other works of fiction in the medieval period record facts of contemporary history, politics, and intellectual and social life in such a systematic, immediate, and detailed manner -- and, moreover, without being afraid to use background details heard only through rumor or what today we would call political and social gossip.
       In his glosses of many of these bits (especially from the Inferno), Santagata helpfully ties the work into the history of the times. As he also notes, given the time it took to complete the work, circumstances -- and Dante's opinions -- changed, and so:
the objects of Dante's condemnation and praise varied with the alteration in his patrons, enemies, or political views; at times he even completely repudiates his earlier opinions.
       Santagata's focus -- on placing-in (and explaining) context, rather than the actual-personal -- is perhaps best exemplified in his casual treatment of Dante's love of Beatrice -- specifically when he gets around to noting:
     Beatrice died on June 8, 1290. This was perhaps a sad event for Dante the man, but it was certainly a great opportunity for Dante the poet and man of letters. It was the death of Beatrice that prompted the idea of writing a completely new kind of book that would become the Vita Nova; and Dante's fame was established by several lyric compositions, such as the canzone Donne ch'avete intelletto d'amore
       Beyond the historical-political -- in which Dante was also personally involved to some extent, even if his role(s) also remain frustratingly largely unascertainable -- Santagata does offer helpful commentary on aspects of Dante's life, work, and personality, including his interest in and attempts to write in the vernacular (a subject both of political and artistic significance).
       Yet overall, Dante is anything but The Story of His Life -- it is much more the story of his times, and the reflection of those times in Dante's work. Arguably, of course, there's hardly more one could say about Dante himself, given the lack of information and documentation about the poet's life, and so Santagata does all he can with what's available -- admirably and thoroughly mining it for connections. But it might not be what people hope or look for in a biography -- and indeed Dante would seem to serve much better as a companion-volume to the Divine Comedy than stand-alone biographical work.
       The scholarship on display is impressive, and more than a hundred pages of endnotes usefully elaborate on many of the claims and observations in the text proper. As a work of history, Dante impresses, the bizarre back-and-forth battles and the shifting clans that dominated city-politics of the day, as well as the larger European geo-politics (in the form of claims to the Roman throne, and the role of the Church) are well-related; Henry VII's not-quite-so crowning coronation and quick demise, for example, are nicely handled. But as far as Dante goes, he largely remains a mystery-man -- revealing and revealed as commentator, but little else.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 August 2016

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Dante: Reviews: Marco Santagata: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author Marco Santagata was born in 1947.

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