Divine Comedian: Sandro Botticelli's 1495 portrait of Dante
Boccaccio had a keen eye for the foibles of the great. In his otherwise reverential Life of Dante, written some 50 years after the poet's death in 1321, the author of the Decameron noted that "in the midst of all the virtue, and all the knowledge, that has been shown to have belonged to this marvellous poet, lust found an ample place not only in the years of his youth but also of his maturity." Boccaccio withheld judgment (as the father of five illegitimate children, he was hardly in a position to judge). What surprises us, as gossipy Boccaccio no doubt intended, is the mention of Dante's lechery in later years at a time when he was in full thrall to the transfigured image of the long-dead Beatrice. Certainly as a young man Dante belonged to a randy crowd of fellow poets. When he circulated a sonnet describing a dream in which love, "lord of us all," fed his "blazing heart" to his lady, his friend Dante da Maiano replied with a joshing sonnet in which he urged Dante not only to see a doctor at once but to "wash his balls". The cult of love, of amor cortese, which Dante and his circle cultivated, had its ribald side and Dante shared it. Lust and love were not in opposition; they formed a continuum. The "love that moves the sun and the other stars" extended from the highest heaven down to the beast — or for that matter, the poet — in rut. The great English dantista Barbara Reynolds has even argued (in her wonderful Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man of 2006) that when Dante finally encounters Beatrice at the approach to paradise, the sight of her in glory gives him the stirrings of an erection. As far as I can tell, the only thing Beatrice stiffens in Dante is his resolve. But Reynolds is right to draw attention to the "overtly sexual imagery" of Il Paradiso. His ascent is impelled throughout by a desire as fierce as it is rarefied.
Dante's conception of love poses the central riddle of A.N. Wilson's compendious account of the poet's life and works. It lies behind his unexpected title. To understand Dante means understanding what he meant by "love". As Wilson notes, an answer to the riddle may be found in the canzone which Dante included in his early work, La Vita Nuova, and which begins, "Ladies that have intelligence of love" — Donne ch'avete l'intelletto d'amore. For Dante, love is a way of knowing, the ultimate way; at the highest stage of cognition, love and the intellect are one. Wilson never really gets to grips with this "loving intelligence" but in pursuing it, he follows Dante from his birth and upbringing in Florence through his years of apprenticeship as poet and philosopher, his disastrous involvement in Florentine politics, and his bitter exile, cut off from family and friends, a virtual mendicant living at the sufferance of various patrons and potentates in Verona, Venice and Ravenna. Wilson has written his book for "non-readers of Dante", for those intimidated by the sheer extent of the historical, political, philosophical and theological knowledge needed for a comprehension of La Commedia (it was Boccaccio who called it The Divine Comedy and the name has stuck). In this Wilson succeeds very well. But he also aims to "retain the excitement" which Dante's great work offers and here he is distinctly less successful.
Wilson's account of the bewildering power-struggles in Dante's Florence — whether between the Guelphs defending the primacy of the papacy or the Ghibellines who advanced the cause of the Holy Roman Emperor or, even more confusingly, the feuds between Black Guelphs, led by the ruthless Corso Donati, and White Guelphs, whom Dante supported though he was related by marriage to the "Big Baron" Corso Donati — is admirably lucid. From his description of such violent clashes we get a strong sense of the venomous milieu in which Dante lived. Wilson also brings his skills as a novelist to the story, especially in his vivid cameos of individuals. His portrait of the much-hated Pope Boniface VIII, for whom Dante kept a niche warm in hell, is both nuanced and strangely compelling; for Boniface wasn't only the domineering pontiff who exclaimed to the envoys of the Holy Roman Emperor, "It is I who am Emperor!" He was also a man of great refinement and cultivated tastes, an aesthete whose "long beautiful hands" were much admired. Sometimes Wilson captures a personality in a pungent phrase. Thus, he characterises the "flea-ridden" Pope Celestine V (whom Dante condemned for his "great refusal" of the papacy) as an "octogenarian bumpkin". Or he sheds a homely light on Dante by noting that he "was wonderfully observant of dogs" and then provides a tally of his "doggy references" throughout La Commedia. His final chapter on Dante's "afterlife" is particularly fine. He pays moving tribute to the 19th-century translator Henry Francis Cary, plagued by mental illness and continually disappointed in his ambition to become a keeper at the British Museum. Thanks to a chance meeting with Coleridge on the Sussex coast, Cary's translation of The Divine Comedy became hugely popular and inspired not only Coleridge but Keats, Ruskin and Tennyson as well as thousands of other 19th-century readers. Wilson gives a charming account of Gladstone's lifelong study of Dante and is particularly amusing on the great Victorian's ingenious attempts, only half in jest, to prove that Dante had sojourned in Oxford.