Was Dante happily married? Maybe so…

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Was Dante Alighieri happily married? Tradition has it that he was not. Gemma Donati is regularly made the butt of jokes, so Marco Santagata’s Dante: The Story of His Life (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press) is a refreshing reconsideration of her role in his life. It’s refreshing in other ways, too: over at The Spectator, reviewer A.N. Wilson, author of Dante in Love, concludes: “This is a wonderful book. Even if you have not read Dante you will be gripped by its account of one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of literature, and one of the most dramatic periods of European history. If you are a Dantean, it will be your invaluable companion for ever.”

An excerpt on Gemma:

santagataThe strange mystery surrounding Dante’s marriage is also seen from a genial and old-fashioned point of view. Boccaccio made Gemma, Dante’s wife, into one of the shrews about whom he liked to tell funny stories in the Decameron. So, when Dante was exiled, Boccaccio has her remaining in Florence, with the marriage effectively at an end. Santagata shows how Dante holds back, in the Commedia, from attacking Gemma’s family, the Donati, until Corso is dead. He does not directly place Corso Donati in Hell, leaving it for his brother Forese Donati, in the Purgatorio, to describe Corso’s grisly death. In Paradise, we find Corso and Forese’s sister Piccarda, who is given one of the best lines in the entire poem. So, while the poet was ruined by his wife’s family, Santagata thinks that Dante made every effort to be pardoned by the city of Florence and to be allowed back. Gemma, Santagata speculates, might well have later joined Dante in his exile. Perhaps one of the most moving Canzone might even have been addressed to her.

The usual wisdom is that Dante never alluded to his wife in his writings, though sentimental Victorian scholars liked to imagine that the ‘donna gentile’, the lady seen smiling at him from a window after he had lost Beatrice, might have been Gemma. Santagata does not go along with this, but he thinks that the lines about Dante being set on fire by a woman’s eyes, though she is removed from his sight (‘per lontananza m’è tolto dal viso’) is an allusion to Gemma being stuck in Florence while he is in the first shock of exile.

Read the whole thing here


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One Response to “Was Dante happily married? Maybe so…”

  1. Emilio Says:

    Strangely (or not?), one gets the impression while reading the article that, for Santagata, “what (actually) qualifies Dante as an intellectual in the modern sense of the word” is… his “egomania”! 🙂

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