Sunday, August 23, 2020

A.N. Wilson : Dante in Love

Gustave Doré, the ninth circle of hell, 1861

A recent newspaper article reminded me of the English writer-biographer A.N. Wilson. His name was not unfamiliar, so I looked him up in my library and yes, I had one of his books on my stacks: “Dante in Love”. It is a nice - looking illustrated hardcover, first edition and it seems that I purchased or received it immediately after its publication, in 2011. As I did not remember to have read it from front to back, I must have probably just dipped in, got bored and shelved it away. I gave it a 2 and 1/2 stars’ appreciation on LT. Not very generous and not fair, as I now understand after a second reading. 

For there was a second reading. While leafing through it, I got captivated and read it again, this time from the first to the last page. Finishing books nowadays, is in my case already a pretty sure sign of quality. As I grow older, I get impatient with books. 

Dante in Love is in fact a huge gloss on Dante Alighieri masterpiece Commedia. In his book, a long narrative poem, now rechristened as the ‘Divine Commedy’, Dante describes his wandering through the Catholic sceneries of afterlife - Hell, Purgatory, Paradise. He is not walking alone, he has guides who walk by his side: Virgil, Beatrice and (surprisingly nowadays) Bernard de Clairvaux. During his journey, Dante meets and interacts with people he once knew (personally or from reputation) and who are now trapped in one of the stages of the afterlife. The end of his journey and his book brings him in the blinding and blessing light of the Lord himself. 

It is generally agreed that Dante’s Commedia is a masterpiece; just like the paintings of Giotto or Cimabue are masterpieces. As Dante judges indirectly all the people he knew by positioning them in different parts of the afterlife, his Commedy is in fact a window on the mentality, the thoughts and the reasoning’s of the Medieval and Christian world. Unfortunately, with each generation that passes, the comprehension of what exactly is written down and how we are to understand it all fades away. Dante’s Commedia’s original was a manuscript, it was written and finished between 1308 and 1320. Books and printing did not even exist back then. 

Because it is so old, and because our understanding of the world Dante describes fades away, we need books as the one Wilson wrote. A detailed, step by step recreation of Dante’s life and the world in which he lived.  The Florence, Rome and Venice of Dante are not yet the cities we now recognize, not even from old paintings. Artists did not do realistic paintings of cities in the time of the Commedia. The countries Italy, Germany and France hardly exist, their borders constantly changing. Cities are dominant and the cities are brutally ruled and mismanaged by families. The mob and the bully rule. The worldview is impregnated by the church and by a dream of an imperial Christian Europe. But neither the Church nor the Christian Emperor have full control and rebellions and heresies flare up at any moment. When the Pope resists Philips the Fair, the King of France sends a handful of thugs to the Papal palace for an iron - fisted slap in the face. 

Wilson describes it all with enthusiasm. He has been reading and studying the Commedia all his life and he now shares generously all his acquired knowledge. With him, we follow Dante’s life-path, his rise and fall, his banishment from Florence, his wanderings, his meetings, his doings, his…Loves. For there is Beatrice too, that beautiful girl Dante first sees at the age of eleven and whose platonic love will still charm readers seven hundred years later. 

Not all chapters captivated me fully along the pages, but I really enjoyed the rereading this time and I have corrected my initial appreciation to four stars. 

An interesting and good read.