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Guy P. Raffa, The Complete Danteworlds. A Reader's Guide to the Divine Comedy.

Guy P. Raffa, The Complete Danteworlds. A Reader's Guide to the Divine Comedy. Chicago and London: the University of Chicago Press, 2009. Pp. 371.

In recent times, the appearance of fictional texts, interactive computer games and contemporary music inspired by the Divine Comedy--or, most often, by its first canticle--, together with an impressive array of translations, conferences, seminars, courses, public performance, visual artwork and a vast assortment of publications, should leave us in no doubt as to the current fascination with the exiled Dante and his poetic output. In an era characterized by a burgeoning industry of Dante scholarship, Guy Raffa's lively and informative volume, The Complete Danteworlds, aids the reader in constructing a Dantean cartography of the imagination. As the author observes: "we are in the midst of a mini renaissance in the cultural appreciation of Dante's poetic masterpiece, the Divine Comedy" (ix).

Raffa's volume, whose apt title captures the panoramic nature of his enterprise, makes comprehensible the nexus between the topographical journey undertaken by the poem's protagonist, who finds himself lost in the dark wood, and the diverse landscapes, characters, themes, experiences and concepts explored during the fictional visit to the otherworldly realms in the form of the descending and ascending journeys of the protagonist Dante and his various guides. At the same time, Raffa does not ignore the poet's sources, and the overview of precursorial visions of the afterlife provided at the commencement of the volume help to elucidate the original features of the Comedy's conceptual framework.

Not surprisingly, the book is divided into chapters whose overall structure reflects the poem's tripartite composition of three canticles corresponding to Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, respectively, with an inner division of nine infernal circles (with sub-circles), purgatorial terraces, the Terrestrial Paradise and seven heavenly spheres. However, Raffa's innovation is to configure detailed mental maps of interconnected, cross-referenced signs and markers, thereby elucidating the multi-faceted nature of each canticle, and, in so doing, ensuring the reader's secure navigation through the text. Following each introductory essay, an original illustration of the otherworldly realm facilitates one's understanding of the overall schema of the canticle.

Delving into biblical, philosophical, historical, literary, classical and medieval sources, as well as commentaries, notable reference works and the electronic resources at our disposal today, Raffa's balanced and sustained control of his material illuminates the symmetrical architecture of the poem and its constituent interdisciplinary components, noting Dante's unique contribution, for example, when he states about the first canticle that "[t]he seamless blend of adaptation and innovation is the hallmark of Dante's Inferno" (1). In addition, the author has sourced popular culture and texts that are often less commonly cited in Dante scholarship, for example, Cicero, Macrobius and Anselm of Canterbury. The volume's rich illustration of the Dantean otherworld provides a smooth, accessible entry and guided tour of the text, with each physical feature of the geographical layout of the poem explored alongside the characters, allusions and allegorical significance that Dante has mapped out for the reader to discover. In this respect, the informed reader's own discovery tour proceeds in tandem with the experiential learning of the wayfarer who must, however, shed his fearful and sinful self, in order to grow lighter and thereby undertake the final ascent to the celestial spheres. Thus, the poetic journey is revealing of, and revelatory for, the protagonist who, by degrees, acquires an inner fortitude and enhanced spiritual understanding, sharing equally with the reader moments of awe-inspiring horror or the blissful music and light of the heavens.

At each juncture of The Complete Danteworlds, the author has mapped entries about the denizens of each descending terrace of infernal woe, ascending cornice of redemptive hope or planetary sphere of ineffable delight. To take Inferno V as an example, the format for the reader is that of a precis, followed by a description of Dante's encounters with the major characters in the canto, such as Minos, and the famous lovers, Francesca and Paolo. There follows an explanation of the sin of lust in this context, the tale of Lancelot and Guinevere, a selection of significant verses and, in conclusion, a series of study questions for students.

At the conclusion of each canticle, the author presents questions about current issues in relation to Dante's treatment of cultural values, political advocacy or his interdisciplinarity. The selection of pertinent questions extends and helps to consolidate the reader's knowledge and appreciation of the poem. Moreover, in order to provoke reflections on the poet's methodology--for example, Dante's use of a multiplicity of fields of knowledge--the volume poses questions such as "What do you sec as the pros or cons of interdisciplinarity?" (327) or those that elicit a worldview on the part of the student/reader--for example, "What role do contemplation and action play in your own life and in the world today?" (298).

While the volume is intended primarily for a college-based audience, the author's approach offers perspectives that are appealing to a wide variety of readers, providing a practical and valuable resource for students and teachers alike. By constructing a pedagogical framework underpinned by a research-based approach--one that eschews a strictly canto-by-canto structure and adopts, instead, a clustered approach linked to the poem's regional divisions--the resulting guide through the salient points in Dante's oeuvre incorporates stimulating commentary to satisfy a broad range of readers, both seasoned and beginners.

Stylistically, the prose is very accessible, as are the explanations of thematic strands, for example, the two suns theory (172-174). The author is also keen to make digestible Dante's unique "visual poetics" (x). To help realize this objective, the accompanying Danteworlds Web site (created by the Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services at the University of Texas at Austin and found at http:// is replete with audio recordings and a gallery of visual images to enhance what Raffa terms the "growing fascination with the man and his poem" (ix). Under the author's skillful guidance, the world of Dante's creative output is lucidly explored and engagingly presented.


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Author:Glenn, Diana
Publication:Forum Italicum
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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