Goodreads: Dante in Love
Wilson offers the general reader an introduction to the world of Dante, covering topics ranging from the political and religious scenes of his day to medieval biography, the influence of Beatrice Portinari, and Dante’s lasting legacy.
Wilson begins his work by assuring his audience that they do not need to understand everything about Dante, theology, Florentine politics, and classical literature to approach the Commedia, but that the general reader can and should try to engage with this remarkable poem. To help them feel more at ease with Dante, he writes a lively introduction to Dante’s world, organized somewhat thematically, covering such topics as the political landscape, the papacy in politics, and the literature that influenced the Commedia. His tone is casual and conversational, making it seem as if a good friend has come to discuss his favorite book, rather than overwhelm one with a scholarly work.
This is the fourth time I have read Wilson’s book; I always do so before beginning a reread of The Divine Comedy. I find Wilson’s style light and his topic engrossing; the weird politics of medieval Europe often prove more strange than anything I have found in a work of fiction. Reading Wilson’s work proves interesting on its own. Combining it with The Divine Comedy, however makes it even more powerful. It makes reading that book feel more comfortable. It is true one does not need to understand the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, or Boniface VIII, or medieval autobiography, fully to appreciate it–but it definitely makes me appreciate the breadth and power of the poem even more.
Sometimes Wilson seems to promise discussions of topics he never delivers and there a few typos and grammatical errors. These issues I can overlook. I am more troubled by Wilson’s apparent personal bias against Catholicism, which is subtle but manifests sometimes in asides about the modern Church. These seem a little out of place in a discussion of Dante; reading an author’s work usually begins by reading generously and sympathetically. Dante, even though he critiques the Church, remained an orthodox Catholic. I do expect an author writing about Dante to remain more unbiased. I will admit, though, that some of Wilson’s other personal asides are pointed and funny, such as his line about divine wrath and Dante’s wrath perhaps being the same thing (in Dante’s mind).
These are minor criticisms. More importantly, sometimes the whirlwind of politics seems overwhelming even in this accessible volume. I rather wish Wilson would provide more dates and maybe even a timeline of events so I can keep track of emperors, kings, and popes more easily. I realize Wilson says one doesn’t need to be an expert in the politics of the day–and I agree. And yet I still wish I could gain a better grasp of those politics.
Despite these issues, however, I thoroughly enjoy Wilson’s work. He makes Dane and Dante’s world seem exciting and accessible. I love The Divine Comedy and anything that encourages more readers to try it is something I can’t help but approve.