IF YOU have found a way into the labyrinth of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and developed a taste for the inspired richness of the Florentine poet, The Oxford Handbook of Dante will be worth getting out of the library (given the recommended retail price).
The handsome tome contains 45 remarkably diverse essays covering multiple aspects of Dante Studies. Scholars from across Europe and America examine everything from the transmission of texts and their making, through the knowledge and traditions of Dante’s own times, to his afterlife in politics and the arts up to today. It is sobering to read, for example, that Primo Levi found the Inferno an antidote to the horror of the Nazi camp, while conscious that the same Dante had been exploited by the Italian Fascists. The tone is scholarly, which does not stop some contributors from being passionate and playful, and there is much to be enjoyed and learned.
That said, the editors are explicitly committed to reading Dante’s texts with post-modern eyes. They regard his writings as ones “that perform their meaning, do things and become ‘true’ through repetition and relying on cultural convention”.
They rightly want to avoid the temptation of “celebrating a triumphant Dante”, as if he were the author of a perfect oeuvre, but fail to see that his imperfections, which Dante himself routinely underlines, are cracks that let the divine light in. They say that they want to liberate Dante from canonical and uncritical readings, and thereby present him “unbound”. But their own doctrine risks binding him to the flatland that his work sought to understand and transcend.
Thankfully, many contributors do not follow the editors’ line. A careful chapter by Bernard McGinn considers the ways in which Dante’s mysticism is not literal and, precisely because of that, is an embodiment of the beatific vision. Another fascinating essay by Pasquale Porro underlines Dante’s Averroism and the Islamic confidence that it is possible to know God’s life and so find the ultimate happiness in this life.
There is also the contribution of Alessandro Vettori. It considers Dante’s combination of originality and unorthodoxy that, like the Franciscan movement of his times, sought to recover the spirit of Jesus’s message.
The post-modern approach brings spiritual illumination in other chapters. For instance, it alerts writers to the powerfully feminine nature of Dante’s voice. Take his insistence on writing in vernacular Italian rather than Latin. It may be a recollection of the individuals who first transmitted the great gift of language to him, his mother and nurse. Writing in the Florentine dialect would be, therefore, an implicit rejection of the disciplining, masculine authority of the medieval Church.
The feminine aura is also an affirmation of one of Dante’s key theological insights, that God’s action in the world is marked, above all else, by continual, unhindered creativity. The maternal affection, which ideally offers unconditional sustenance, is but a mirror of divine-human relations.
Similarly, the figures of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St Lucy, and Beatrice are pivotal in Dante’s journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise. In her chapter, dryly titled “A Decolonial Feminist Dante: Imperial Historiography and Gender”, Marguerite Waller dwells on the possibility that Dante was drawn to early Christian traditions.
For instance, he would have known the striking mosaic in the Basilica of Santa Prassede in Rome, which is dedicated to a second-century female church leader, Praxedes. The basilica’s triumphal arch shows Praxedes being presented to Christ by Peter, alongside her sister, Pudentiana, by Paul. Christ is clearly bestowing co-equal blessings on men and women. This directly chimes with Dante’s own sentiments, as well as his often breathtaking attacks on the Church from the time of Constantine to his own, in which Pope Boniface VIII undermined the rights of women by requiring the claustration of nuns and restricting the episcopal privileges of abbesses.
Dante is a man for all seasons, not because he can be uncoupled from the quest for God and reread freely, as the post-modern doctrine emphasises, but because in free readings are found riotous, delightful pathways to eternity.
Dr Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and writer. His latest book is Dante’s “Divine Comedy”: A guide for the spiritual journey (Angelico Press, 2021).
The Oxford Handbook of Dante
Manuele Gragnolati, Elena Lombardi, and Francesca Southerden, editors
Church Times Bookshop £112.50