Friday, October 20, 2006

Book Review: "Dante"

Prominent Dante scholar Barbara Reynolds has penned a revealing new biography of her subject in Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man. While some of her conclusions will almost certainly be controversial, Reynolds' close studies of Dante's works taken as a whole as well as her clear grasp of current Dante scholarship form what seems a fairly solid base. I certainly am not nearly expert enough to dispute her.

This was not an easy book to read, largely because it is hardly a conventional biography at all. While some chapters focus on Dante's life and its events, Reynolds is largely concerned with interpreting those events and Dante's works. It is at its best in the center portion, where Reynolds discusses the early poems and essays followed by Dante's magnum opus, the Commedia. In a fascinating tour through the cantos of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso Reynolds dissects those works, drawing out the various real-world events and people which feature, as well as analyzing the relationship(s) between Dante and his guides along the journey. Reynolds seeks a unifying theme in Dante's works, and finds one in his support for secular authority (in the form of the Holy Roman Emperor) rather than ecclesiastical preeminence (i.e. the Pope).

In the more biographical sections, this book would have benefited from some editorial oversight. Many chapters end with some form of "and we will take up [topic x] in the next chapter", which is rather jarring in a book like this and disrupted the narrative unecessarily. It's not a light read either, and I can't say I recommend it unless you happen to be a very serious Dante aficionado (or aspire to be such, I suppose). It was interesting, but I can't help but think there must be a more standard biography out there that would be more useful for most purposes (including, it should be said, my own).

One important note (and what partly prompted me to get this book): the jacket illustration - which shows Dante as depicted in a Luca Signorelli fresco in Orvieto - is quite lovely, and I happen to have a framed print of it hanging on my wall. I must say, it's pretty weird to be walking through a bookstore and suddenly seeing a picture from your wall on a book jacket!

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