Dante : a life in works /
Robert Hollander.
New Haven : Yale University Press, 2001.
xiv, 222 p.
0300084943 (alk. paper)
More Details
New Haven : Yale University Press, 2001.
0300084943 (alk. paper)
general note
An Italian version of this study was published by Editalia, Rome, 2000; this English text is longer and differs in format.
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
About the Author
Author Affiliation
Robert Hollander is Professor in European Literature in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at Princeton University.
First Chapter

This is an attempt to delineate the intellectual biography of the greatest narrative poet of the modern era, and perhaps of all time. The difficulty of such a task will be apparent to anyone who has begun to study the subject. Despite recent noteworthy efforts, we know relatively little about the composition and dating of the works of Dante, a writer who left us no work in his own hand. Our ignorance reflects not only problems of interpretation, which is always subject to doubt and second-guessing, but also the lack of historical detail.

For his first readers, Dante was essentially, as he is for most of his public today, a "one-book author." Scholars are aware, as they read the Comedy , of its intimate (and sometimes puzzling) relations with Dante's other extended works- Vita nuova (the only one to receive significant attention from its earliest readers-among them Boccaccio), Convivio, De vulgari Eloquentia, Monarchia . As for the Rime, Epistole, Egloghe , and the Questio , they tend, with significant exceptions, to be studied less in relation to the Comedy than as things in themselves. The same may be said for Il Fiore and Il Detto d'Amore , the authenticity of which remains questionable.

It is a curious fact that all the greatest literary figures of the fourteenth century in Europe-Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Chaucer-eventually almost sacrificed the viability of their other writings by producing works nearly immediately recognized as masterpieces-the Comedy , the Canzoniere , the Decameron , and the Canterbury Tales , respectively. It is probably fair to say that, had Dante not written his Comedy , he would be known to scholars and to few others; it is the Comedy that directs our attention to all the rest. And yet, if we try to reconstruct Dante's intellectual development, it is clear that when he undertook them, the other works were in his eyes not "minor" in any sense at all. All of them are marked by the signs of his considerable excitement at assuming a new role in the nascent history of Italian letters, whether as poet or as commentator, apologist or polemicist. And each of them begins either with an unblushing announcement of its importance ( Convivio, De vulgari Eloquentia, Monarchia ) or with an absorbed self-awareness that has a similar effect ( Vita nuova ). It is also clear that these works were never far from his mind as he wrote beyond them (the telling presence in Inferno I of phrases found in Convivio IV offering but one example). And thus the central task of this study is to examine the course of this writer's development from work to work, while also considering each work on its own terms.

One of the striking aspects of almost all Dante's extended writings is their autobiographical character. Vita nuova, Convivio , and the Comedy are written as part of an unfolding autobiography in its changeful development. And as he moves forward, we continually witness his backward glances to review the paths taken and abandoned. There is so much objectivity in Dante's visionary gaze that we tend to forget the extraordinary amount and degree of subjectivity informing his texts. His obsessive telling and retelling of his own narrative is one clear indication of that subjectivity.

Chapter One

Dante's Life

One cannot overstate the importance of the fact that we have little certain knowledge of Dante's life, as is reflected in the numerous biographies that are such a significant feature in the study of his work, especially those written from the last third of the fourteenth century into the Renaissance (the main names are those of Giovanni Villani, Boccaccio, Filippo Villani, and Leonardo Bruni). For all the impact that Dante has had on literary history, he left few traces in actual history, and not a single autograph of any kind. We may want to keep in mind the clamorous difference, in this respect, between him and the other two "crowns" of Florence, Petrarch and Boccaccio, from whom we have so much precious autograph material.

The central figure in the second half of the twentieth century in two major aspects of Dante studies is Giorgio Petrocchi. It was he who single-handedly established the current standard text of the Comedy . And while some, most notably Antonio Lanza, now call for major revision of Petrocchi's criteria and results, it is clear that, until further work helps to establish still better criteria, Petrocchi's apparatus remains the best that we have ever had. The same can be said with respect to Dante's biography. Petrocchi, whose iter in plotting Dante's itinerarium began in 1964, spent much of the last quarter-century of his life on this task. His contribution remains the best available. Nonetheless, like Heraditus' river, Dante studies are always in motion-one can never step a second time into the same current. One day we may well know more than we do today, but that day, too, shall have to yield-as long as these studies continue.

The brief summary of the main events and activities of Dante's life in the chronological table at the beginning of the book is essentially based on the chronology supplied by Petrocchi. (Discussion of the dates of individual works will be found in the discussions of those works.) In broad outline, Dante's life followed a difficult path, his initial promising steps as poet and politician turning to a march through abandoned experiments and enforced exile, until that very exile, with its removal from the day-to-day concerns of Florentine reality, gave him the unwanted liberty to think on a grander scale.

Dante wrote his first poem around 1283 and spent most of the next ten years as a striving lyric poet. The first moment, one has a certain sense, in which he himself knew that the effort was worthwhile is reflected in the completion, possibly in 1293, of the carefully developed text of Vita nuova . The next ten years are less linear in their movement, marked by poetic experiment and involvement in the political life of Florence. As the financial and military center of Tuscany, the city was at that time one of the most important of European cities, swollen with new wealth and consequent political activity. In 1300, at a time when there were only six priors, Dante served the customary two-month term in the priorate, the highest political office in the city. By 1302, having inherited the wrong political identity, he lost practically everything when his party, the White Guelph faction, was outfoxed by the Black Guelphs, supported by the allied forces of Pope Boniface VIII and the French king. He was exiled in 1302 and never came home again. He then lived a mainly itinerant life in northern Italy, with two longish stays in Verona and a final one in Ravenna, where he died of malarial fever in September 1321 at the age of fifty-six.

The political situation of northern Italy during his lifetime was distinguished by factionalism. The emperors who were nominally supposed to govern all of Europe had, for centuries, mainly avoided their Italian responsibilities. The last of them to have ruled in Italy was Frederick II (we hear of him in Inferno X and XIII), and he, while one of the greatest figures in Europe, was not a leader to Dante's liking. Frederick, who died in 1250, was the last emperor to govern from Italy. Dante hoped for an imperial restoration of the proper kind, and, to everyone's amazement, including his own, found his hopes rewarded when the newly crowned Henry VII, a compromise candidate from Luxembourg (allowed to become emperor primarily because of the machinations of Pope Clement V), descended into the peninsula to rule Europe from Italy in 1310. When his military expedition eventually failed (it had not been following a propitious course, in any case) because of his death in 1313, Dante's imperial hopes were dealt a terrible blow, but not finally dashed. To the end of his days (and in the text of Paradiso XXVII and XXX) he insisted on believing that a new "Augustus" would fulfill God's design for Italy and Europe.

On the local level, late thirteenth-century northern Italy was in constant turmoil. (Milan, to the north, and Rome, to the south, are barely on Dante's personal political map; rather, we hear, in addition to Florence, of such cities as Genoa, Lucca, Pisa, Pistoia, and Siena.) The two main "parties" were the Guelphs (essentially allied with the papacy) and the Ghibellines (aligned with the emperor-when there was one to be aligned with-or at least with imperial hopes). But most politics were local, as they are in our own time. And there labels did not count so much as family. In Florence the Ghibellines had been defeated and banished in 1266, a year after Dante's birth, leaving the city entirely Guelph. But that hardly betokened an era of unity. The Guelphs themselves were already divided (as they were in many northern cities) into two factions, the "Blacks," led by the Donati family (into which Dante married), and the "Whites," led by the Cerchi. (It is probably correct to say that the Whites were more devoted to a republican notion of governance, while the Blacks were more authoritarian in their attitudes.) The first impetus toward political division in the city had occurred early in the century, when a young man, a member of the Ghibelline Buondelmonti family, broke off his engagement to a young woman of the Amidei family and married a Guelph Donati. The result was a bloody feud that divided the city into warring factions. Even after the Ghibellines were no longer around to play the antagonists, there was enough hostility among the Guelphs themselves to guarantee turmoil in the city. As a member of a White Guelph family, and even if he had married into a lesser branch of the most important Black family, Dante was tied to the interests of the White faction. If he was a Guelph, how do we explain his patent allegiance, in the Comedy , to the imperial cause? In 1306 or so he seems, on rereading the Latin classics, to have reformulated his own political vision (as is first evident in the fourth and fifth chapters of the last treatise of the Convivio , before which there is not a clear imperialist sentiment to be found in his writing). And so, nominally a Guelph, Dante was far more in accord with Ghibelline ideas, except that, in practice, he found Ghibellines lacking in the religious vision that he personally saw as the foundation of any imperialist program. Nonetheless, politics are everywhere in the poem, which is far from being the purely religious text that some of its readers take it to be.

The first ten years of his exile, 1302-12, were marked by frequent movement, so much so that his biographers are often at a loss to account for his whereabouts, mainly around Tuscany, with the sure exception only of a stay in Verona, 1303-4. This is the period in which he somehow managed to write Convivio, De vulgari Eloquentia , and just about all of the first two cantiche of the Commedia . In short, it is the crucial period in Dante's intellectual development, and the one of which we know the least. The final period of his life, 1312-21, was perhaps the happiest. He enjoys his longest settled existence (1312-18) at the court of Cangrande della Scala at Verona and then in Ravenna, where, as the guest of Guido Novello da Polenta, he finished the Commedia .

Had Dante reached the three score and ten years that the Bible and the first verse of the poem predicate as normative, what would have become of him? Would Florence finally have welcomed back its prodigal son, now one of the most famous writers of his time? And whether or not the life had had the happy ending that the poem does, what would Dante have done with the rest of it? What does a poet write after he has finished what surely even he recognized as a miracle of human contriving? The English historian Gibbon, having finished his Rise and Fall and being surprised to find himself with some leftover life to fill, wrote a slender and graceful autobiography. What would Dante have done? Would he have turned to more poetic composition in Latin? (We tend to forget how much of the work that accompanied the writing of Paradiso is, in fact, in Latin-the subject of the last section of this study.) Would he have done another turn as self-exegete, as he had in his letter to Cangrande, by supplying the glosses to his entire poem? Would he have extended his skills as the greatest vernacular poet of his day (or any day?) to other subjects? Our speculations remain moot. It was perhaps a mosquito from a swamp between Venice and Ravenna that put the final punctuation mark to the works of that great spirit.


Excerpted from DANTE by Robert Hollander Copyright © 2001 by Robert Hollander
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Choice on 2001-11-01:
Original in design and deft in execution, this short book makes a contribution to Dante studies out of all proportion to its length. Hollander (Princeton), arguably the dean of contemporary North American Dante scholars, offers an intellectual biography of the poet conceived as an introduction to the principal themes of his writing, with particular emphasis on the minor works, so important but so often neglected by readers of the Divine Comedy. He undertakes a comprehensive analysis of each work in turn, from the Vita nuova and the early lyrics through De vulgari eloquentia, Convivio, and the Comedy itself to Monarchia and the other Latin works of Dante's final years. Throughout, the argument is distinguished by close attention to the detail of Dante's texts and an ever-lively sense of both the effort and the rewards that reading those texts can entail. For students and other nonprofessional readers of Dante this book will be nothing less than indispensable; scholars will inevitably find points of detail from which they will wish to register a respectful dissent, but the book's learning, verve, and insight will make it valuable even for them. All collections. S. Botterill University of California, Berkeley
Appeared in Library Journal on 2001-04-15:
Many gaps still exist in the biography of Dante after 700 years; few contemporary documents chart the path of his exile from Florence. Rather than the physical Dante, we are left with the body of his works. While the Commedia and, to a lesser extent, the Vita Nuova overshadow the rest, there remain a number of additional poems, treatises, and letters. Hollander (European literature, Princeton Univ.; Justice and Poetry: Dante's Book of the Dead), one of the leading American Dante scholars, here offers an intellectual biography of the poet. Following the chronology established by Petrocchi, the author constructs Dante's intellectual and aesthetic itinerary through a close reading of his works, attempting to trace his development. Hollander writes with brevity, clarity, and a confidence that comes from his mastery of the vast scholarship and a lifetime of reflection. An important contribution to scholarship, yet readily accessible to the general reader, this is recommended to public and academic libraries. T.L. Cooksey, Armstrong Atlantic State Univ., Savannah, GA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
This item was reviewed in:
Library Journal, April 2001
Choice, November 2001
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Bowker Data Service Summary
How did Dante, a Florentine exile, come to create the masterpiece of the 'Comedy'? In this study, a Dante scholar turns to the poet's body of works to illuminate these questions. He suggests how the poet's other works relate to this poem.
Unpaid Annotation
The Divine Comedy, completed around 1320, is a supreme work of the imagination. None of Dante's other works, nor even all of his other works taken together, can rival the Comedy. How did the Florentine exile come to create this masterpiece? What steps in his development can explain the making of this extraordinary poem? In this book, a preeminent Dante scholar turns to the poet's body of works -- the only real biography of Dante that we have -- to illuminate these questions. Through an exposition of Dante's other writings, Robert Hollander provides a concise intellectual biography of the writer whom many consider the greatest narrative poet of the modern era.Hollander writes for those who have already encountered the Comedy, suggesting to these readers how Dante's other works relate to the great poem and inviting them to reread the Comedy with new interest and understanding.
Table of Contents
Prefacep. ix
Chronology of Dante's Lifep. xi
Introductionp. 1
Dante's Lifep. 2
First Lyricsp. 7
Vita nuovap. 12
Later Lyricsp. 40
Convivio Ip. 45
De vulgari Eloquentiap. 54
Convivio II and IIIp. 74
Convivio IVp. 81
Commediap. 90
Truth and Poetryp. 94
Allegoryp. 97
The Moral Situation of the Readerp. 104
The Moral Order of the Afterworldp. 109
Virgilp. 114
Beatricep. 121
Bernardp. 127
Politicsp. 129
The Poetry of the Comedyp. 144
Monarchiap. 148
Late Latin Worksp. 167
Notesp. 181
Bibliographical Notep. 211
Indexp. 213
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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