by James Burge
History Press HK$240
Dante Alighieri is tantalising because he is just beyond reach. Parts of his life are well-documented but much that is important is hidden. Although Dante was celebrated in his last years, the first biography of him, by Giovanni Boccaccio, was written more than three decades after his death. Boccaccio was eight years old when Dante died in 1321. Much had already been lost when Boccaccio wrote: nothing handwritten by Dante survived.
He wrote copiously without giving much away. The most salient features of The Divine Comedy were his audacious imagination, his encyclopedic knowledge, his religious convictions and his vehemence. It recounts his journey through hell and purgatory to heaven inspired by Beatrice whom he loved from the time he first saw her, when she was nine years old.
He did not give away much about Beatrice either. As James Burge writes pithily, he 'spends a great deal of time telling us what he saw through her but not what he saw in her'. They apparently met only twice, she married another and died at the age of 25. He said even less - nothing in fact - about his wife, Gemma Donati, who gave him four children.
Yet Burge, an English television documentary producer, attempts to trace the connections between Dante's life story and his poetic journey though the afterlife. This is sometimes awkward to handle but he does it scrupulously and avoids too many complexities.
He is informative about Dante's Florence, a boom town bigger than Rome, riven by conflicts between the aristocratic families and a new merchant class, and also between supporters of the papacy and the Holy Roman emperor. Dante, from a minor aristocratic family, was critical of both arrogant aristocrats and the new money-grubbers. He also showed a talent for picking losers: in a pro-papal city he opposed the pope's political aims. These might have been idealistic choices but in later exile even he admitted he made a further mistake by allying with a gang of 'bumblers' who made an abortive attempt to oust the Florentine regime.
He tried to earn a recall to the city by completing The Divine Comedy. After his disappointments in love and his political misadventures it was a work of great tenacity which conveyed both a dying world and a new one. It was a towering achievement but he remained in exile, dying in Ravenna.
After Italian unity was achieved, Florence tried to make up for his exile by installing a pompous memorial in the Santa Croce church and plaques citing his poem on the sites they referred to throughout the city.
The Divine Comedy made Tuscany speak for the first time in the vernacular and his presence can still be traced around the region. Burge's book is a meticulous introduction to Dante and his world.