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Still Going Strong: Dante Now.

Understanding Dante. By John A. Scott. The WiLliam and Katherine Devers Series in Dante Studies. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005. ISBN 0-268-04451-1. Pp. 466. $35.00

Experiencing the Afterlife: Soul and Body in Dante and Medieval Culture. By Manuele Gragnolati. The William and Katherine Devers Series in Dante Studies. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005. ISBN 0-26802965-2. Pp. 279. $25.00

Florence and Its Church in the Age of Dante. By George W. Dameron. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. ISBN 0-8122- 3823-0. Pp. 374. $65.00

Dante & The Unorthdox: The Aesthetics of Transfiguration. Edited by James Miller. Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-88920-457-8. Pp. 566. $85.00

Dante's Commedia has been with us a long time and in various forms. After Guttenberg's invention of moveable type, the Commedia first appeared in print in 1472. Dante himself, however, belonged to the earlier manuscript era of book production and therefore released his text in installments during his own lifetime. (1) Giovanni Boccaccio says that the poet made his work available to copyists in fasicles or quadernetti, little unbound booklets of between six to eight cantos. According to John Ahem, a scholar who has done much to help us understand the material production of the Commedia, Dante seems to have circulated installments of his work so as to achieve a rapid, economical reproduction. "Although friends and family may have assisted him in producing such copies, given his relative poverty and isolation from major centers of book production, it is likely that he himself produced most of the copies that he sent out--on parchment (not paper) and in a double column format that would present, on two sides of a page, an entire canto" (Ahern, "What Did the First Copies of the Comedy Look Like?" 12).

By late 1314, the whole of the Inferno was available; by autumn of 1315, the Purgatorio. The Paradiso was only just finished at the time of Dante's death in 1321, and most probably the first complete, bound edition of all hundred cantos was either the one made immediately by the poet's sons or the volume they sent to Dante's last patron, the lord of Ravenna, in 1322. Bound copies of the entire Commedia would have been very expensive and therefore quite rare. For this reason, the extraordinarily large number of early fourteenth-century book manuscripts that survive--827 by one count--were most likely the work of enthusiastic readers who copied successive quadernetti for themselves. (2)

The Commedia was an immediate hit, and not only among the seven percent of the total population who were the literati. These latter would have included judges, notaries, lawyers, civic administrators, doctors, and upper-level teachers; yet we also have indications that merchants without much formal schooling not only knew the poem but could quote from it. (3) So too the Italian Jewish community: from Emmanuel of Rome we have a sonnet on Dante's death and a Hebrew account, the Mabberet ha-Tofet weha-Eden, that tells of a journey through Hell and Paradise, revealing the Commedia's strong influence.

It was to assist this diverse group of readers that the commentary tradition came into being, starting almost immediately with the poet's sons after his death. Jacopo wrote a commentary on the Inferno in Italian (perhaps as early as 1321-22) and Pietro a commentary in Latin on the entire Commedia (1340). More skillful interpreters were quick to join in on the task of explication, to shed light on the poems amalgam of philosophical and religious tradition, politics, and literature. They were also keen to defend Dante's decision to write a narrative poem aimed toward the widest possible audience. And popular it was. Interest in the Commedia transcended the boundaries separating partisan Guelphs and partisan Ghibelline, laymen and clergy, those with impressive education and those with little at all.

Not that everyone was pleased with Dante's mass appeal. Giovanni del Virgilio, an admiring scholar in Bologna, was particularly fierce in this regard, as we know from an exchange of Latin verse letters written between 1319 and 1320. Why should someone of Dante's mettle waste his talent on a lay (or popular) song--carmine laico--that was written in a vulgar language that had thousands of idioms but no standards? The Florentine dialect certainly had no credibility among the learned (like del Virgilio) who believed that Latin was the only conceivable vehicle for such an enterprise and that Latinists should be the Commedia's intended audience. They alone were sufficiently erudite to meet its demands. In the opening volley of a poetic debate carried on with Dante, del Virgilio implores, "Cast not in prodigality thy pearls before the swine, or load the Muses with garb unworthy of them" (qtd. in Caesar 106).

The poet's response might well have been that he wanted a much larger audience than the literati could provide. He hoped his work would touch the blacksmiths and donkey drivers, fishwives, and merchants who might come to know the Commedia second-hand. It did not matter that so many of them could not actually read the text; after all, poems were songs--cantos and canzoni--and therefore meant to be sung or performed in dramatic recitation. Of a different mind, the poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) complained to Boccaccio about how the "unskilled tongues of [Dante's] admirers defiled the poem" when they sang or declaimed it. Observing how familiar the ignorant marketplace masses [idiotae] were with Dante, Petrarch proclaimed himself free of any personal envy at his distinguished predecessor's success with the crowd. With highbrow contempt for the medieval equivalent of a bestseller, however, he dismissed "the applause and hoarse murmuring of dyers, drapers, shopkeepers, thugs, and their ilk" (qtd. in Caesar 156).

The public, however, could not get enough of Dante. In 1373, Florentines of all sorts and conditions asked for an open reading of the poem to be followed by detailed commentary. Pace Petrarch, they obviously wanted to applaud it all the more and knew they needed help in doing so with the understanding they coveted. The commune complied with their wishes, and Boccaccio (1313-1375) was the obvious choice for the task. Many of the stories in his renowned vernacular collection, the Decameron, owed their origins to characters and episodes that first appeared in the Commedia. Furthermore, he had written the Tratatello in laude di Dante (1360), the first full biography, and even put together an anthology of his poetry. By popular demand, therefore, Boccaccio began a cycle of performance and exegesis of the Commedia at the church of San Stefano in Badia. Although he covered only about half of the Inferno, his effort became an institution.

Thus began the lectura Dantis tradition that continues until this day, not only in Florence and other cities in Italy but indeed throughout the world. In New England, for instance, there are several long-standing groups, usually led by local academics, now working their way through Purgatorio and Paradiso. So, too, in California: according to the website of San Francisco's venerable Church of Saint Francis, "The Lectura Dantis group meets Wednesday at 7:30 in the basement of the church for informal discussion. There are no written assignments or tests. All are welcome:' Elsewhere in town, the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul even heralds the Commedia on its facade: the opening lines of the Paradiso--"La gloria di colui che tutto move/per runiverso penetra e risplende"--limn the main portal as if they were the words of scripture.

Not everyone, to be sure, acclaimed the poet as "divine" in Dante's early fourteenth century. Some clerics thundered from their pulpits against his flights of fancy. In his "reprobation" of the Monarchia, the Dominican Guido Vernani, for instance, went so far as to condemn Dante as a "vessel of the Devil" and "a man who wrote many fantastic things in poetry, a verbose solipsist [who] fraudulently seduces not only sickly minds but even zealous ones to the distraction of salutary truth" (265-66). The Commedia's vivid presentation of the life to come apparently threatened to supersede authorized versions of the same. Certainly few in ecclesiastical authority would take kindly to Dante's withering portrayal of the church and its hierarchy.

Nonetheless, I think it significant that the first public exposition of the Commedia took place in a church. In its day, the poem was the only vernacular work to be given the kind of commentary treatment otherwise reserved for the Bible and such "canonical" classical authors as Virgil. It was second only to the Bible in its fourteenth-century proliferation, as we can tell by the number of early extant manuscripts and the sheer volume of Commedia citation in other works. Many of these manuscripts, like the printed editions that soon followed them, are gorgeously illustrated and embellished; others, like the 1502 "portable Dante,' presented the printed text in a format similar to the compact, one-volume Bible produced in Paris in the early thirteenth century and used throughout Europe by students and preachers alike. By the mid-sixteenth century, these associations with Holy Writ had their effect: in 1555, the one-word title that Dante gave his poem was emended with the adjective "Divina" and it has been customary ever since to refer to Dante's Comedy as Divine. No doubt the poet would be very pleased.

He would also be gratified by the unabated interest in his work that characterizes our own period and language. Recovered by the English Romantics at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Dante has been alive and well ever since in the Anglophone world, and not only among literary scholars but also among poets, visual artists, composers, and filmmakers. (4) Variously "constructed" over the years, he has in many ways become all things to all men: lover, statesman, neo-Platonist, proto-Protestant, Romantic visionary, Byronic hero, pre-Raphaelite, father of his country, scholastic theologian in verse, precursor of the modern novel, and, finally, "altissimo poeta"--the consummate poet for T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound as well as for many who follow their Modernist footsteps, not only subsequent "high art" but in this post-modern age of cartoon Purgatorios and Inferno puppet movies. (5) More than twenty English translations have appeared since World War II on both sides of the Atlantic, many of them impressively annotated. There has also been a plethora of critical writing, more than a few Commedia-inflected movies and plays, plus Matthew Pearl's recent best-selling novel, The Dante Club, with its re-creation of the Longfellow "Dante Club" in mid-nineteenth-century Boston.

With the exception of some of the essays in James Miller's collection of work on the "unorthodox" Dante, the four books under review are not concerned with the poet's reception history or with his impact on contemporary culture. They are the efforts of scholars concerned to see the poet in context, as a medieval figure whose time-transcending genius is thoroughly embedded in history. For the reader looking for an all-purpose guide that takes account of just about everything, John A. Scott's magisterial Understanding Dante is the clear choice. (The only other work like it is William Anderson's superb Dante the Maker, published in 1982 and now sadly out of print.) Scott's book is the fruit of lengthy labor in the vineyard: "After over fifty years of studying Dante and forty of teaching and writing about the poet ... I have done my best to provide my readers with a close analysis of his writings" (xv). What he has in fact produced is a one-volume handbook that may be helpful to someone trying to "understand Dante" for the first time--a college student, for instance, or the "general educated reader" we all still hope is out there-- but even more useful to the advanced reader or even the Dante professional (like myself). I am particularly grateful for Scott's detailed synopses of the so-called "minor works" his handy summation of "Dante and his contemporary world" in chapter 11, his lucidity on matters technical (in his chapters on Dante's lyric poetry and on his lexicon, as well as in the very handy glossary), and for his exemplary endnotes and bibliography.

As we know from the opening line of Scott's preface, he aims to provide a "close analysis of Dante writings." He attains this goal in two ways. First, he summarizes the prose treatises and lyric poetry that most readers ignore but that Dante constantly makes use of in the Commedia. One of the pleasures of the poem is observing the way Dante continually refashions his literary self: he is always a work in progress. Scott lets us in on the fun and provides incentive for considering Dante's work as a whole. Secondly, he gives nuanced, always clearly-expressed, and indeed often eloquent readings of the Commedia itself. These are arranged topically and offered sequentially so that, whatever may be their particular focus, they each follow the course of the pilgrim's journey through the afterlife. Chapter 6 is devoted to the Prologue scene that occupies Inferno 1-2; chapter 7 to the moral order of Dante's other world, explored in each of the three canticles; chapter 8 follows a similar plan with the "topography and demography" of the three kingdoms. In these treatments, we revisit the whole poem again and again, each time considering a different aspect or set of issues. The benefit of such an approach is incremental: your understanding of the poem grows as you keep on going back to the beginning and moving forward (with a new purpose) through hell, purgatory, and heaven.

Chapter 9 largely stays within the Inferno with a look at "Dante and classical antiquity"; chapter 11 establishes the political context so essential to Dante's vision and often so opaque to the contemporary reader. Ideally, these two chapters will make experience of the footnotes in an annotated text more coherent: the big picture will already be there, in mind, before attention is called to this or that detail.

Yet my guess is that all of these intelligent, insightful readings will make most sense after the reader has made his or her way through the poem under someone's (let's hope Virgilian) guidance. You have to love Dante already to benefit from the riches Scott has to offer. His somewhat schematic handbook approach follows the arch of the poet's career--beginning with the early Vita nuova and ending with the late Latin epistles and treatise on geography--but without first offering the reader an incentive for such study. Scott does not extend an invitation to a voyage into Dante's "other" world or give a reason for setting out. There is nothing seductive about this book, nor does one have a sense from reading it of why Scott himself was drawn to the poet and held fast for fifty years. Rather, this impressive volume is a superb resource for anyone who already knows Dante and wants to become savvier about the territory already discovered. I can imagine turning to it often for specific reasons, as one might to an encyclopedia--for information, for further reading (the footnotes are excellent). On the other hand, there is no reason to read it through, no story line that compels you from start to finish as there is, for instance, in the Commedia itself. Ibis is a book to consult. Understanding Dante, therefore, is likely to be most rewarding for those who already appreciate how exciting the poet is and crave more than they already know.

Manuele Gragnolati's Experiencing the Afterlife: Soul and Body in Dante and Medieval Culture is as particular a study as Scott's is general. He takes as his starting point a trend that begins in the twelfth century, a turn from preoccupation with the End Time--the universal last judgment and the general resurrection of the body--to a concern with the near future, the fate of the individual at the time of his or her personal ending. Specifically, he is interested in attitudes about what our interim life will be in the period between the body's death and the soul's reunion with flesh at the end of time. How did people imagine themselves, separate from the body but nonetheless as an ongoing, individual self?

Here Dante provides a perfect case in point, for in the Commedia he provides a universe of souls, all of whom have fictive or "aerial" bodies that enable them, before the general resurrection, to experience pain in hell, joy in heaven, and (most interestingly) a mixture of the two in purgatory. Gragnolati offers a meditation of medieval notions of the body, at least as Dante represents them, from the very beginning of a person's existence (the divine formation of the human soul in the fetus just before birth, discussed in Purgatorio 25) to a person's resurrection reunion of soul with body at the end of time (on display in the Empyrean "preview" offered in Paradiso 31-33).

What comes across by the end of the study is how radically embodied we were once thought to be. Whereas Christianity is often blamed for inculcating a hatred of the body, Gragnolati argues--again primarily through Dante--that belief in Christ's full incarnation as a man, not to mention the Creed's insistence on the resurrection of the body and in the life to come, made the redeemed person ultimately unthinkable as "pure" soul. Even in their present afterlife bliss, therefore, the saints still yearn for the flesh they discarded in their mortality, and not only for their own bodies but also "per le mamme, / per li padri e per li altri che fuor cari / anzi che fosser sempiterne fiamme" (for their mothers, for their fathers, and for the others who were dear to them before they became eternal flames [Par. 14. 64-66]).

Although fully aware that Dante knew the "official" theological authorities who theorized on such matters--Augustine and Albertus Magnus, Aquinas and Bonaventure--Gragnolati is determined to enrich our understanding of the poet's resources. He wants dantisti to balance the "learned tradition" that the poet openly drew upon with the rich popular Catholic culture that expressed itself (as did the author of the Commedia) in the vernacular. Looking for fellow travelers rather than for authors Dante may have actually consulted, he investigates a trio of early to mid-thirteenth century North Italian writers who constituted a didactic tradition, to quote Francesco Zambon, "obsessed with the afterlife" (cited xiii): Uguccione da Lodi, Giacommino da Verona, and Bonvesin de la Riva. At the core of Experiencing the Afterlife is an analysis of Bonsevin's Book of the Three Scriptures, written just a few decades before the Cornmedia and showing "remarkable parallels" (xiv) with Dante's own tripartite work. The Black Scripture describes hell, the Gold heaven, and the middle text, the Red Scripture--in the middle space occupied in the Cornmedia by the Purgatorio--offers a meditation on Christ's Passion. Gragnolati gives a reading of the second canticle in chapter 3 that is enriched by the notion that purgatorial pain, like the Passion itself, offers an ideal of productive suffering. Physical suffering in the afterlife makes for a spiritual transformation that leads to beatitude. No pain, no gain. It was such in the Redeemer's life, and so it is meant to be in the afterlife of the redeemed if they (like the mass of faithful departed) die with spiritual work left to be done.

Although Gragnolati is keen to show Dante's connections to contemporary texts and the schools of thought and piety they represent, he is ready to admit that Dante's synthesis is always ultimately his own. The poet negotiates the afterlife vision of Virgil's Aeneid 6, of the vernacular vision literature inherited from the centuries before him, and of the most contemporary and sophisticated Scholastic theories of the soul/body so as to present in the Commedia something new under the sun: "an original concept of personhood that allows for the perseverance of embodied identity in the afterlife and, at the same time, affirms the significance of the body's materiality" (xv). This originality or novita is celebrated as well as explored in the book's final and--to me--most pleasurable chapter, "Now, Then, and Beyond: Air, Flesh, and Fullness in the Comedy."

Perhaps Dante's greatest contribution to a Christian vision of the "present" afterlife that precedes the last judgment and general resurrection is purgatory. What previously had been imagined as a place of horror--a combination prison house and torture chamber--becomes in the Commedia something radically different: a hospital for the cure of souls, a school, a museum, a theater, a prolonged liturgy, a naturalization center set up to help the penitents learn how to become members incorporate in the City of God. At a time when purgatory was coming into focus, as Jacques Le Goff shows in The Birth of Purgatory, Dante offered the medieval imagination a still more excellent way of imagining how glorious productive pain could be. But if his vision was unique, it was also very much part of a larger cultural obsession with the afterlife's middle space--the "place" where most believers might expect to find themselves upon death.

In his exploration of church, state, and economics in the poet's era, George W. Dameron argues in Florence and Its Church in the Age of Dante that there were specific conditions in the Middle Ages that gave rise to the new interest in Purgatory--especially in affluent Florence. The commune grew by leaps and bounds during the thirteenth century: outgrowing its ancient walls not once but twice; surging in population to more than 100,000 souls and thus becoming the second city in Europe after Paris; witnessing what has been described in our own time as "sudden wealth syndrome" for some, with a parallel rise in poverty for many more. The gold florin became the premier currency of Europe, and Florentine bankers (as the commune's ties to the Vatican became ever closer) the essential allies of the papacy's financial establishment.

Grown rich on its export of cloth, luxury goods, and the richly productive agriculture of its outlying farmlands, the commune had everything to rejoice in but its good conscience. Usury was a sin, and those who made money without working--made money while they slept, the accusation went--were liable to the punishment Dante's Inferno reserves for such offenders. Among those whose transgression was against art (that is, human productivity), the usurers appear like beasts, their snouts weighed down by pouches bearing the insignia of their family banking houses:
 Misery was bursting from their eyes,
 This way and that, they ward off with their hands
 One time the flames and next the burning sands,
 Not differently do dogs in summertime,
 Now with muzzles, now with paws, when they are
 Bitten by fleas or gnats or by horseflies.

 (Inf. 17. 49-54. Trans. James Finn Cotter)

Among the sorry pack of this "branded." group Dante notices representatives of the Florentine houses of the Gianfigliazzi and Ubbriachi, as well as a member of the Scrovegni family of Padua. In order to do penance for the dirty money amassed by his father Reginaldo, Enrico Scrovegni in 1300 commissioned the building of a chapel that was soon decorated with the magnificent frescoes of Giotto (completed in 1305). A Last Judgment dominates the entire west wall of the church, with its vivid proclamation of the inevitable end-time division of the dead into sheep and goats, saved and damned. In order to counteract a lifetime of very successful Reginaldo money-making, the family created an engine of redemption: the masses said and the prayers offered up in the Capella degli Scrovegni would speed their patriarch through the terrible purgatorial flames that certainly awaited so notorious a usurer. Help was on the way, in other words, through liturgical acts as well as through private acts of "suffrage" performed by family members. These good deeds, the Church promised, would benefit the repentant deceased, no matter how weighty their sins.

Dameron shows how the Florentine building boom among the Franciscans at Santa Croce and Dominicans at Santa Maria Novella included numerous side chapels established to offer prayer power for the wealthy:
 In a world that was producing more and more material goods
 and luxury items, the idea of purgatory appealed in particular
 to upwardly mobile men and women who were benefiting from
 this expansion but who did not wish to be condemned to hell for it.
 Belief in purgatory enabled them to continue to grow rich while
 simultaneously never losing hope in their own salvation or in that
 of their loved ones. As such, paradoxically (since its focus was on
 the life to come), the idea of purgatory helped sustain a culture of
 money-making in an industrializing society. (172)

Worry about one's afterlife future but not wanting to seriously disrupt business as usual in the here and now could inspire well-off Florentines to endow a chapel, a side altar and chantry priest, a program of charitable giving, or the restitution of ill-gotten gains after one's final breath--with the will signed just before, while such an act of virtue might still count for eternity! It was precisely this spiritual banking that Dante fulminated against in his poem.

The essays collected by James Miller in Dante & the Unorthodox: The Aesthetics of Transgression are intent on taking a walk on the wild side--off the "straight ways" of traditional Dante studies and toward quite another notion of the poet as outrageous and transgressive, freewheeling and revolutionary. This Dante is no Aquinas in verse, let alone the laurel-crowned poet-theologian depicted in the crowd scene of Raphael's Vatican "Disputa"--tucked in behind Pope Sixtus IV and "posing with various haloed advocates for a distinctly papal fantasy of orthodoxy" (30). Rather, he is an anti-priestly prophet with a penchant for the margins, whose ostensible accord with the theological hierarchies of Paradiso, for instance, masks his penchant for error, for refusing to color within the lines. Indeed, Miller proposes in his introduction, Dante is the navigator of never traveled seas, of "a disorienting new 'beyonditude'" (4); he is always trumping officially sanctioned Catholic beliefs with his own personally attested revelations. Furthermore, Dante is an evangelist, and hence more than the "pure" poet that formalists would have us admire (be they Croce, Eliot, or Teodolinda Barolina in her Undivine Comedy). His religion is not, however, traditional Roman Catholicism. Rather, his gospel is as strange as Blake's, as artful as it is ardent, and as peculiar in its synthesis as one can imagine a "classic" being. The position is very much like Harold Bloom's in his many discussions of Dante in Ruin the Sacred Truths (1989), The Western Canon (1994) and elsewhere; yet Bloom, though mentioned, is scanted in the volume of his fellow travelers. Miller and his fellow essayists have a powerful comrade in arms.

After summarizing Dante's innovations in a breathtaking listing of his breakthroughs at the end of the substantial introduction of the volume, Miller sums up what he and his contributors understand the poet's religion to be:
 Dante's Credo is opposed at its aesthetic core to any belief system
 that extinguishes the fiamma vivace of creativity, however
 acceptable that system might be to the intellectual leaders of the
 Church. If an earthly faith constrains the artistic will and reduces
 the aesthetic sightlines of humanity, then it kills the spirit of
 all believers who follow it to the letter. The Dantean expansion of
 spark to flame to star to universe ablaze with creative love must
 be what Catholic orthodoxy feels like to the Blessed in their
 galactic dance--aesthetically scintillating, intellectually
 energizing, charismatically flashing forth and spreading freely
 across the universe like wildfire. Compared with this paradisial
 broadening of faith, the clerical reduction of orthodoxy to a set of
 creedal formulations is closer than its defenders might suppose to
 the claustrophobic coffins of the Heretics smouldering away forever
 inside the walls of Dis. (56)

I quote Miller at length, not only because he is the animating spirit behind this collection of essays by literary scholars as well as artists of various sorts, but also because his own work is so amply represented here: he has not only written the lengthy introduction but also three additional essays. All of them are marked by freshness and exuberance, by elegance and spirit, if occasionally (especially in "Rainbow Bodies: The Erotics of Diversity in Dante's Catholicism") by a verbal playfulness that can, with puns and double entendres, too easily pass from witty to silly. However, he is never less than provocative and engaging. This or that of his observations may be "pushing it" at least in the lights of the Dante guild, but so what? The man is (to use his word for the Creator) "ablaze"; he also never writes a dull sentence.

In their own ruining of the sacred truths of the dantisti establishment, Miller and his colleagues, wittingly or not, have picked up the mantle of Osip Mandelstam, whose gorgeous, wildly idiosyncratic essay, "Conversation about Dante" also celebrates a divinely outrageous poet. (6) This genius is no patient (not to say pious) builder of a Gothic cathedral in terza rima, as some have imagined him, but the inventor of a rocket ready to launch in whatever time and place. He is the antithesis of the "sacred poet" subsequently constructed by church and academy, "not an allegory-framer up to his old didactic tricks in the middle of the journey, but a lyric woodcutter in the dark wood of the larynx." These latter words of Seamus Heaney channel the Russian poet-critic quite brilliantly but also speak from the heart about his own "take" on the writer who so clearly animates three of his books of verse: Field Work (1979), Station Island (1984), and Seeing Things (1991). "Mandelstam brings Dante back from the pantheon to the palette," writes Heaney, "subverts the age-old impression that his work was written on official paper, and locates his authority not in his cultural representativeness, his religious vision, or his sternly unremitting morality but rather in his status as an exemplar of the purely creative, intimate, experimental act of poetry itself" (95-96).

Miller and associates depart from this characterization in one important regard: they take Dante seriously as a religious (if heterodox) artist. Mandelstam and Heaney effectively dismiss Dante's religion, separating his creativity, intimacy, and delight in experimentation from his theology--as if religion could never be creative, intimate, or innovative. But for Miller and his contributors, the point is not to detheologize the author of the Commedia so as to free him from his supposed shackles; it is, rather, to retheologize him so that his true genius as poeta-theologus can be appreciated. The unorthodox Dante is neither the Voice of the Church nor that of a "pure" poet, neither an exemplar of belief nor of literature. Rather, he negotiates the "contested border between Literature and Belief" (36); he writes a radically personal hybrid for the reader, like the astonished soul in Purgatorio 7.12, "che crede e non, dicendo 'Ella e ... non e" (who believes and believes not, saying "It is, it is not").

Miller imagines that Dante faced a choice when he set out to write a "sacred poem" (Paradiso 1.1) to which both heaven and earth allegedly had set a hand: "Either he joins the ranks of the Unorthodox forever by abandoning the very concept of true belief, or he finds an aesthetic way through their elaborate deceptions by making a triumphantly orthodox poem out of his immediately transgressive experiences" (35). For Miller, Dante chose the latter and better part. He was able to seem central to his own Catholic culture but was actually able to enjoy the freedom of the margins. Or, as even humdrum scholars have long noted with a smile, he managed both to have his cake and eat it too.

Dante & the Unorthodox is not likely to become an "approved text" which in any case its editor would no doubt consider (like Mandelstam before him) a fate worse than death. For those who take the poet's religion seriously, the insights provided here will not shake the foundations, no matter how robustly delivered. Orthodoxy was more a work in progress in Dante's day than has been acknowledged here, and vernacular writers who expressed themselves "creatively" in rhyme were given a wider berth than those who wrote in Latin. (Hence the placing of the Monarchia on the Index of Prohibited Books but not the Commedia.) Dante took his fair share of poetic license, to be sure. But a number of the heterodoxies that Miller names--from his reformulations of the Lord's Prayer and Creed to the creation of his "personal savior" (Beatrice) to his redemption of sodomites in Purgatorio--while they mark him as extraordinary and innovative, even one of a kind, do not make him "perilously unorthodox." On the edge, yes; out of the circle, I think not.

That an entire book full of essayists, however, should determine not to succumb to old formulations or received wisdom--should refuse to allow their poet to be tamed--is all to the good. So too is the collective work of the several scholars reviewed in this essay, who in their quite different ways demonstrate the truth of my title. Going on 700 years since his death, Dante is still going strong.

Boston University


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Hawkins, Peter S. Dante: A Brief Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.

--, and Rachel lacoff, eds. The Poets' Dante: Twentieth-Century

Reflections. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.

Heaney, Seamus. "The Government of the Tongue." The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose 1978-1987. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989. 91-108.

Le Goff, Jacques. The Birth of Purgatory. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.

Panter, Gary. limbo in Purgatory. San Francisco: Fantagraphics, 2005.

Petrucci, Giorgio. "Reading and Writing Volgare in Medieval Italy." Writers and Readers in Medieval Italy: Studies in the History of Written Culture. Ed. and trans. Charles M. Redding. New Haven: Yale UP, 1995. 169-235.

Pomaro, Gabriela. Dante Encyclopedia. Ed. Richard Lansing. New York: Garland, 2000. 198-201.

Toynbee, Paget. Introduction. Dante in English Literature from Chaucer to Cary (c. 1380-1844), Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan, 1909.

Wallace, David. "Dante in English," The Cambridge Companion to Dante. Ed. Rachel Jacoff. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. 237-58.

Vernani, Guido. Contro Dante (Contra Dantem): Guido Vernani tractatus de reprobatione 'Monarchiae' compositae a Dante Alighiero florentino. Ed. and Trans. Giulio Piccini. Vols. 1-2. English translation by James Miller. Florence: R. Bemporad, 1906.


(1) For the earliest production of the Commedia, see Ahern, "Binding the Book," 800-09; "Singing the Book," 214-39, and "What Did the First Copies of the Comedy Look Like?" 1-15.

(2) See Ahern, "Binding the Book," especially 800-01, and Gabriela Pomaro, 198-201 on the manuscript tradition.

(3) For the Commedia's probable audience, see Ahern, "SB," especially 217-18, and "WDFCCLL?" 8-9; Giorgio Petrucci, 169-235; and Dorothy Gillerman, 65-80.

(4) See Paget Toynbee's introduction to volume 1, xv-li, in his two-volume work. More recent explorations include those by David Wallace, 237-58, who moves from Chaucer to the present; essays collected in works edited by Nick Havely and by Eric Griffiths and Matthew Reynolds; and my Dante: A Brief Introduction, which includes Dante in the visual arts, as do several essays in James Miller's Dante & the Unorthodox, under review in this essay.

(5) Sandow Birk and Marcus Sanders have produced an "adaptation" and illustration of the entire poem in The Divine Comedy. Birk has followed up this effort with a film (for more information, see For a cartoonist's reinterpretation of the second canticle, see Gary Panter.

(6) "Conversation about Dante" was written in the 1930s but only appeared in print, and in an English translation, in the late 1960s. For the text, as translated by lane Gray Harris and Constance Link, see Peter S. Hawkins and Rachel Jacoff, 40-93.
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Title Annotation:Understanding Dante; Experiencing the Afterlife: Soul and Body in Dante and Medieval Culture; Florence and Its Church in the Age of Dante; Dante and the Unorthodox: The Aesthetics of Transfiguration
Author:Hawkins, Peter
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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