“Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third,” T.S. Eliot said. James Joyce called Dante Alighieri “my spiritual food,” and Russian poet Anna Akhmatova learned Italian just to read him. The influence of Dante and his Divine Comedy permeates Western history and, clearly, the consciousness of even the most modern writers. And yet the 700th anniversary of his death in September 2021 went largely unmarked, at least in the United States. Just a few months tardy, Alessandro Barbero’s Dante: A Life arrives on these shores, translated from the Italian by Allan Cameron. Surprisingly, this is the first book by Barbero, a highly regarded historian and novelist in his native country, to be published in America.
Seven hundred years after Dante Alighieri’s death, a new biography parses the elusive life of one of civilization’s greatest poets.
Many of the details of Dante’s life, even the date of his birth, are lost to time, but Barbero is an indefatigable detective when it comes to piecing together a narrative from the historical record. His mission is not merely to sketch the possibilities of Dante’s private life but, perhaps even more so, to place Dante within the context of his times. The turn of the 14th century was a turbulent age on the Italian peninsula, and Dante was a native son of Florence, that most powerful city-state. Though likely of humble origins, the Alighieri clan had high aspirations, and Dante ambitiously immersed himself in the politics of the day. He aligned himself with the Guelphs, who supported the Pope, against the emperor-supporting Ghibellines. This divisiveness further fractured as the Guelphs themselves split into warring factions, which eventually led to Dante being banished from his beloved city. He lost his land, social status and wife and spent the last 20 years of his life in exile.
Dante’s literary legend has long been tied to his muse, Beatrice—a young woman whom he only encountered on two occasions, nine years apart. Again, Barbero plumbs the historical record to flesh out Beatrice’s story and discern how her veritable non-relationship with Dante nonetheless inspired some of the world’s great love poetry. In what might be viewed as an early form of metafiction, Dante made himself a character in the Divine Comedy, and so Barbero seeks clues to his familial and political relationships from within the pages of the epic poem, as well.
Still, given the gaps in the record, Barbero’s Dante is less biography or literary study than medieval history as seen through the foggy lens of one seminal man’s life. It raises the inevitable question that always surrounds genius: From where did this ordinary man spring, only to go on to create one of humanity’s masterpieces? Despite his erudition, Barbero is no better equipped to answer that question than his predecessors, but his well-timed work reminds us of Dante’s greatness and, perhaps, will send us back to the original source material to puzzle out the answer for ourselves.