Marco Santagata, Dante: The Story of His Life (2016)

“Unlike Shakespeare, whose corpus one searches in vain for insight into the author’s selfhood, we have abundant access to Dante’s psyche, thanks to the self-editorializing drive in all his major works, from the Vita Nuova to the Convivio to The Divine Comedy. Dante funneled everything—history, truth, cosmos, salvation—through his first-person singular, the famous “I” who finds himself “in the middle of our life’s way” as the poem opens. Yet despite his bold self-exposure, the writing of the Comedy remains a mystery. How did the vision come to him, and how much of it did he have inside his mind when he began writing?

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“Marco Santagata, a professor of Italian literature at the University of Pisa, has written an impressive new biography that takes into consideration every bit of reliable and semireliable information available to us about Dante’s life, from his birth in Florence in 1265 to his death in Ravenna in 1321, yet you reach the end of its 485 pages without getting one step closer to understanding how an electrician joined the ranks of Einstein and Fermi. That is because little in Dante’s life story helps us understand how he conceived, composed, and completed the Comedy, this despite the fact that much of what was going on around him at the time found its way into his poem.” — Robert Pogue Harrison, “Dante: He Went Mad in His Hell. Review of Marco Santagata, Dante: The Story of His Life,” New York Review of Books, Oct. 27, 2016

Contributed by Pamela Montanaro