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the Complete Review
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Dante's Bones

Guy P. Raffa

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To purchase Dante's Bones

Title: Dante's Bones
Author: Guy P. Raffa
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2020
Length: 301 pages
Availability: Dante's Bones - US
Dante's Bones - UK
Dante's Bones - Canada
  • How a Poet Invented Italy

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Our Assessment:

B : impressively thorough, with some fascinating details

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
London Rev. of Books . 15/7/2021 Barbara Newman
Publishers Weekly . 13/3/2020 .
Wall St. Journal . 29/5/2020 Dan Hofstadter

  From the Reviews:
  • "Guy Raffa tells the remarkable story of Dante's afterlife, by turns grotesque, lively and farcical, as the loss and recovery of his bones intertwines with the tempestuous fate of Italy." - Barbara Newman, London Review of Books

  • "Raffa (...) devotes this fascinating study to how the treatment of Dante's remains over the centuries has reflected his centrality to Italian history and culture." - Publishers Weekly

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's Bones is, indeed, a book about the mortal remains of the great Dante Alighieri, an interesting example of how the physically tangible remnant of a (dead) person remains highly valued and revered, even when it comes to a figure such as an author (whose work, one might imagine, would be the thing). Relics -- especially in the form of body-parts of saints -- and their display in reliquaries have long been a popular part of Christian practice (among other religions), and the burial places of both the famous and of family are places imbued with great meaning; it remains important to many people to have (or at least imagine) that personal connection with the past through the knowledge that what's left of a person is still and securely in some specific place. So too with Dante: his poetry might be immortal -- and readily accessible everywhere and to everyone -- but there's still considerable interest in those mortal remains.
       The story of Dante's Bones is also very much a tale of two cities. Born in Florence, Dante died in exile in Ravenna and was buried there -- and soon later the Florentines began to push for him (well, his remains) to be repatriated, a back-and-forth that was all back (Florence asking for (or occasionally demanding) the remains) and no forth (Ravenna declining to alter the status quo), with some odd consequences. Specifically, in the early sixteenth century, when it looked like Florence might make -- and have the means to be successful at -- a power-grab, the local Franciscans -- neighbors of the tomb -- surreptitiously broke into the marble sarcophagus in which Dante was interred and removed the contents, hiding them in another (rather flimsier) box nearby. And that's where they remained until 1865 when workers came across the box, hidden behind a wall.
       Dante's Bones naturally focuses a great deal on this odd twist -- that there was this: "stretch of nearly 350 years during which Dante's bones lay somewhere outside their tomb". It apparently wasn't entirely a secret -- some suspected as much, and of course the Franciscans knew, but even they seemed to have gotten sloppy passing down the information regarding the true whereabouts of the remains, leading to them eventually essentially being lost (until 1865). Among the amusing observations is how Byron noted that: "I pass each day where Dante's bones are laid", little knowing that he wasn't really (or rather that he was, but that they weren't quite in the place he thought they were).
       The tug-of-war between Ravenna and Florence continued, and is a particularly interesting part of Raffa's study. From Dante's time until relatively recently Italy wasn't a nation-state, and at various times the entities of Ravenna and Florence were more powerful and more vulnerable; meanwhile, Dante was always both a symbol of Italian unity but also a local figure that both cities wanted to claim as their own. Things changed in the nineteenth century, with the creation of the unified Italian state -- with Florence briefly serving as the capital, from 1865 to 1870, and Dante's remains attracting attention both because they were, sensationally, re-found but also their symbolic significance for the newly formed nation.
       (Florence never did get the remains (though Raffa notes that they've made yet another pitch, to borrow them for the seven-hundredth anniversary of Dante's death in 2021), and they remain a big tourist-draw in Ravenna.)
       Dante's Bones is a detailed chronicle of Dante's remains and how they have been handled -- physically, but also in the abstract. The Ravenna-Florence tug-of-war, and the curious circumstances of the remains spending over three centuries someplace other than where pretty much everyone thought they were are, unsurprisingly, what Raffa devotes the most attention to -- even beginning the account with the 1865 re-discovery of the remains -- but this thorough account also extends considerably beyond these. From an inventory -- the remains are not complete, with dozens of bones (including the lower jaw and a fibula, among other parts) and all his teeth missing -- to the odd other relics (notably some 'Dante dust' and a smear apparently taken by: "pressing the paper on Dante's skull after the patina -- the brownish surface film -- had been softened, most likely by wetting it"), Raffa carefully tracks all the physical traces. He also looks at various resting-places, actual and planned, and their histories, all the way to the grandiose plans for a 'Danteum' designed by Giuseppe Terragni for the (aborted) 1942 Rome world's fair.
       Raffa also does a fine job of showing Dante's enormous symbolic significance, and how it shifted over the centuries. While early on there were some who did not think him or his work quite so admirable -- he was exiled from Florence for a reason, after all, and his political views continued to be problematic for certain parties -- generally he was acclaimed and revered, especially as a national exemplar (even before the nation as such existed). Then especially around the time of the formation of the Italian state he was a convenient figure to rally around, and not just for his early use of the Italian language in (some of) his writing, and so, for example:

     Dante represented for Mazzini the perfect fusion of thought and action, the pen and the sword, the potent combination of theory and praxis needed to achieve the unity and liberty of Italy.
       And even if:
     With the addition of Rome to the Italian Republic in 1870, Dante's national significance had declined somewhat as unification gave rise to new heroes such as Giuseppe Garibaldi. The poet awoke with a vengeance in the early twentieth century, his symbolism bleeding into increasingly militant forms
       So too, of course, in darker times, the fascists embraced him and tried to use him for their own purposes. Amusing titbits from this time include the scientists who examined the bones and (of course): "created a fascist-friendly Dante, 'the most glorious and authentic representative of the Mediterranean race'". And an interesting twist is that:
     Despite Mussolini's own reverence for Dante, he distrusted foreigners who held the poet in the same high regard. Dante effectively functioned as a litmus test for the paranoid leader. If representatives of other nations displayed knowledge of Dante, Mussolini took this as a sign that "they wanted to screw us with poetry."
       The detailed book covers everything from the dedicated custodian who watched over the remains for nearly half a century -- "absent only fifteen days during forty-five years as custodian of Dante's tomb" -- to incidental mentions such as of Alessandro Pavolini's fascinating-sounding spectacular, 18 BL. Found along the way are also many of the famous figures who were (or tried to be) involved, in one way or another, with Dante's legacy and what happened to his remains, from various Medicis to Boccaccio to Michelangelo (one of those making the case for a: "worthy tomb for the divine poet" in Florence).
       Dante's Bones is a thorough study -- exhaustive, even. Well-researched and quite well presented, it covers the history of the remains, and the battles over them, well. The twist, of the unexpected rediscovery (in 1865) of something that most hadn't realized had been lost, is amusing, of course, and Raffa structures much of the account around that -- but it's impossible to get around the fact that not all that much happens to the remains themselves. This small disturbance is a good story -- so also in Raffa's telling of how the Franciscans seem to have gone about it -- but of course the rest of the time practically all of Dante's remains simply remained in one place or another, which isn't all that exciting. Some more interesting things did happen around them -- not least in the role they played as part of the greater Dante-veneration, including why physical possession was considered symbolically important -- and Raffa covers that quite well too, but with a focus on the remains Dante's Bones isn't (and doesn't mean to be) a larger study of all of Dante's legacy across the centuries.
       Mysteries remain -- where are the teeth ? the mandible ? etc. -- and the significance attributed to physical traces of the great man (or indeed any famous figure) is a question that probably deserves to be considered in greater detail, too, but Dante's Bones is a welcome addition to the large library of works on Dante, covering its territory very well.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 May 2020

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Dante's Bones: Reviews: Guy P. Raffa: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Guy P. Raffa was born in 1960.

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© 2020-2022 the complete review

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