Dante In Love

  • A. N. Wilson
  • Farrar Straus and Giroux
  • 386 pp.

Changing notions of love drive this book that should reawaken an interest in Italy’s greatest poet among 21st-century readers.

Reviewed by John Morogiello

I was first exposed to Dante at the age of 14. I had just seen Disney’s execrable live-action feature “The Black Hole” and could make neither head nor tail of the ending. When a friend informed me that all would become clear after a cursory perusal of Dante’s Inferno, I pored through the only copy my high school library possessed, searching vainly for an answer to the eternal question: “Why did I waste my money on “The Black Hole?” The question soon vanished as I encountered for the first time the ferocity of Dante’s voice, the logic of his structure and the breadth of his creativity. Until that moment no other book had affected me so profoundly.

And I maintain the anxiety of Dante’s influence to this day, continually quoting, referencing or outright adapting portions of the Inferno in many of my plays. Yet I am ashamed to admit that I have never been able to get through the entire Divine Comedy. Once Dante sees his shadow in Purgatory, my dedication flags.

This makes me the perfect audience for A. N. Wilson’s Dante in Love, a smart and entertaining examination of the social and historical context surrounding the life and work of Italy’s greatest poet. Wilson guides us, Virgil-like, through all of Dante’s major works, from the early love poems through his treatise on monarchy, providing fascinating and necessary insights into the religious, economic and family politics of 14th-century Florence. The book is less a Dante biography than it is footnotes, annotations and critical appreciations of his work organized into narrative form. It is designed to reawaken an interest in Dante among 21st-century readers.

Woven throughout Wilson’s fabric is the thread of love and its variant meanings to Dante. His courtly obsession with Beatrice Portinari, a girl to whom he spoke no more than a handful of times, is often mistaken by modern readers. Wilson does an admirable job placing Beatrice in her proper context. He details the origins of courtly love as understood by the troubadours of southern France, and how their ideas were viewed as a threat by the medieval church. Over the course of the book we see Dante’s notion of love change from the sacred to the courtly to the sensual, until a series of political disappointments, beginning with his banishment from Florence, compel Dante to distill all three forms of love into his epic Divine Comedy, the love poem as autobiography.

Wilson’s research is exhaustive but his style is not; he employs a relaxed, conversational prose that readily communicates his passion for the subject matter. From Pope Boniface VIII to P. G. Wodehouse, from Oxford philosophical discussions to 19th-century American slang, Wilson leaps from crag to referential crag with, for the most part, sureness of foot.

Occasionally, though, there are moments when Wilson’s concise style could be expanded to provide clarity. As he turns from Dante the writer to Dante the man to Dante the character of his own poetry, it is difficult to discern exactly to whom Wilson is referring. At times, Wilson’s subordinate clauses offer context at the expense of meaning. For example:

“You cannot have any doubt, standing in front of this exceptional mosaic, that Dante, who resided for the last years of his life in Ravenna while he was writing the Paradiso, did not think of it as he composed the central passages in which, in the Heaven of Mercury, the Lawgiver expounds the story and significance of Rome.”

That’s a long way to go for a double negative. And in one instance the author, or his editor, leaves out key information:

“Mastino della Scala was the first in the family to be appointed podestá of Verona in 1260. He was murdered in 1277 and his brother succeeded to the captaincy. This lasted for a quarter of a century, during which time Verona was at peace. Such was the prosperity, and increase of population, that for the first time since the days of Charlemagne it was necessary to expand the city walls. Alberto’s illegitimate son, Giuseppe, was a monster of ugliness and deformity. Alberto had him made into the Abbot of San Zeno, the great Benedictine monastery at Verona.”

Who is Alberto? Mastino’s brother? In the interest of conciseness, Wilson resorts to familial subtext. However, Dante in Love is successful in its principle aims. The book makes a compelling argument for a Dantean revival, both exciting and preparing the reader for the journey. Hope need not be abandoned.

John Morogiello is a playwright-in-residence with the Maryland State Arts Council. His play “Blame It on Beckett” was recently produced at Abingdon Theatre Company in Manhattan. “Engaging Shaw” will be produced at Vienna’s English Theatre in Austria in March.

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