A nostalgic yearning for an illusory past

July 21, 2006

It is commonly said that if all the editions of Dante and all the books that have been written about him were gathered together, it would be possible to rebuild the walls of Florence. Barbara Reynolds's book will prove its worth as a solid building block and as a contribution to our knowledge and understanding of Dante. Unlike some scholarly works that cover the same ground, this book offers a full and detailed discussion of practically every aspect of Dante. When treating the works of Dante it is like a tour guide, and the information given is ample and extensive. When going through the Commedia the book resembles a lecturer reading each canto with a class and commenting fully on every aspect. But instead of giving the whole text, Reynolds paraphrases most of it and quotes only parts of Dante's text, with her own translation rendered into groups of three ten-syllable lines but following Dante's own rhyme scheme, terza rima , a scheme with the pattern: A B A B C B C D C D and so on. (However, the exigencies of the rhyme scheme, chosen to make the translation as close to Dante's text as possible, do sometimes distort his meaning.) Dante used an 11-syllable line, which gives greater weight and fluidity than the ten-syllable line of the translation.

Reynolds must be congratulated on her attempt to give reality to Dante's life and works, in particular to the Vita Nuova, a work that deliberately gives few concrete details of individuals and settings. She follows in the footsteps of E. R. Vincent, who wrote: "All those donne che hanno intelletto d'amore , those enigmatic screen-ladies, that sympathic donna gentile , the gay group who mocked the love-sick young poet, Beatrice herself... were all just girls."

In the introduction, Reynolds makes bold claims to have resolved several enigmatic references and passages that have troubled commentators. For example, the Veltro , prophesied by Virgil in the first canto of the Inferno , and the un cinquecento dieci e cinque , prophesied by Beatrice in Paradiso . On another occasion, her claim of offering new insights, "of which one of the most important is my discovery of the source of (Dante's) story of the last journey of Ulysses", falls flat, since the source has been given by Italian commentators Natalino Sapegno and Siro A. Chimenz.

Making Dante and his works more accessible in this way requires suppositions for which firm evidence does not exist. On the first page, Reynolds quotes: "What is important is not proof... but what is most probable to the rational, informed mind" (Louise Baron), and proceeds to follow this statement to the letter, with the result that her text is dotted with phrases introducing suppositions: "this must have inspired in him..."; "it is not impossible that..."; "he had perhaps caught a cold... and may have succumbed to pleurisy or pneumonia".

This is a perfectly valid approach given that firm evidence is often lacking, but Reynolds's speculations are sometimes too bold. For example, when she writes that the conversation with Forese Donati in Purgatorio "suggests a homosexual relationship" or comments that "the filial relationship that Dante the character bears to several figures in the Commedia suggests... that he looked throughout his life for substitutes for [his father] in older men".

Mention of the walls of Florence leads to a major deficiency of the book: its failure to explore the historical, economic and sociological background of Florence. Before Dante's birth, there had existed two sets of walls round the city. According to tradition, the earliest, the cerchia antica , dates from the time of Charlemagne. A second, expanded set of walls was built in 1174 and a third, during Dante's lifetime, in 1284. The reason for building these more ample fortifications was that the population of Florence had been greatly increased by the vast number of immigrants from the surrounding countryside, attracted by the prospect of acquiring wealth in what had become a boom town.

Important changes were taking place in Italy and in Europe. The old international feudal structures were being replaced by the rise of nation-states, England and France in particular, which no longer wanted to submit to the authority of the Emperor. Feudal economy, based on the ownership of land, was being replaced in Florence, and in other communes, by a mercantile economy based on trade, banking and money-lending. These economic changes produced enormous shifts in people's behaviour and status, which Dante hated. So he harked back to a distant feudal past when people had less available cash and did not flaunt their wealth so conspicuously.

Throughout the Commedia , the values he cherishes and whose absence he laments are the values of feudal courts: liberality ( il pregio della borsa ), the right behaviour at court ( cortesia ) and those qualities of nature that confer nobility on a man ( valore ). These had been replaced in Florence by pride and vanity ( orgoglio ), unbridled consumption and displays of wealth (dismisura) and avarice ( avarizia ), devotion to the profit motive.

Thus, Dante's political solution to the troubled state of Italy (to re-establish an emperor, who would work hand in hand with the Pope, each in his own sphere) and his social and moral solution (to return to the manners and values of a past time)both look nostalgically to an era that could not be repeated and probably never existed in the way Dante imagined it. His philosophy of politics and ethics - comprehensively set out by Reynolds - forms a beautifully logical structure, but was, unfortunately, an illusion.

Norman Clare was formerly lecturer in Italian, Birkbeck, University of London.

Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man

Author - Barbara Reynolds
Publisher - Tauris
Pages - 466
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 1 84511 161 3

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