Like a Book out of Hell: Boccaccio's Life of Dante

Translated by J. G. Nichols
Foreword by A. N. Wilson

ISBN: 9781843910060 / Pub Date: July 2002 / Pages: 112 / Hesperus Press

Reviewed by Philippe Viellard


Boccaccio's Trattatello in laude di Dante (Treatise in Praise of Dante) has been characterised, in English, as a 'Life'. In fact, the 'life' part of it takes up the first third, and then the chapters vary wildly in their focus, taking in such things a classicizing poetics, a Christian interpretation of Greek myth, a long reproach to the city of Florence, a defence of the vernacular, anecdotes relating to the writing of the Commedia. Boccaccio probably wrote this treatise as an introduction to Dante's work, though the idea of it as a 'life' prompts A. N. Wilson in his foreword to the reflection that Boccaccio traces the emblems and allegories of Dante's autobiography as they can be seen in the Commedia.

The biographical chapters begin with a family history and then the relation of a dream that Dante's mother had when pregnant (these hagiographic omens burlesqued in the Scriblerus life also reviewed on this site). Boccaccio's own interpretation of the dream isn't given until the end of the book, creating a circular transformation of its images so that the whole treatise is swirled into the dream's cluster: it involves a laurel tree, berries and a shepherd who turns into a peacock. This latter change gives rise to the longest piece of literary criticism in the treatise, as Boccaccio argues (at some length) that the Commedia is the peacock:

Among other characteristics the peacock apparently has four that are notable. The first is that he has angelic plumage, in which he has a hundred eyes. The second is that he has ugly feet and a noiseless tread. The third is that he has a very horrible voice. The fourth and last is that his flesh is fragrant and incorruptible. These four things our poet's Comedy clearly has in itself.

Obvious, really, those peacocks that are like Divine Comedies - the horrible cry is the cry of hell and of exile. The chapter taken up with a reproach to Florence for exiling their greatest son is also cheering, almost reading like a Thomas Bernhard narrator ranting against Salzburg. "Start to be ashamed of having acted contrary to your ancient humanity. . . Will you always persist in your iniquity?"

The treatise was composed somewhere between 1350 and 1355, a dating not for some reason in J. G. Nichols' rather vague introduction. His translation, however, is itself fluid, and resourceful in the solutions found to various problems in the Italian. A poem (possibly) by Boccaccio, 'Dante Speaks', and a small part of the Decameron accompany the main attraction, though it would have been better (though out of the scope of the '100 Pages' of the Hesperus series) to pair the treatise with Boccaccio's other piece of Dante appreciation, the lectures he gave from October 1373 to January 1374 in the church of Santo Stefano in Badia on the Inferno, known as the Esposizioni. Nichols' translation is, I think, the fourth into English. The first translation was in 1898; a scholarly edition translated by Vincenzo Zin Bollettino was published in 1990. Nichols, however, provides a contrast to academic strictures, deciding that his English will vary, for example, the punctuation of Boccaccio's longer sentences.

The anecdotes and 'telling details' which a modern biography - even an impeccably critical one - might be expected to touch on, are given a chapter of their own by Boccaccio. (It is as if, Nichols suggests, Ben Jonson had written a life of Shakespeare.) The revelations come thick and fast: apparently, Dante often had a distant and melancholy air; he was sometimes struck by ideas in the middle of conversations; he liked to be alone; he ate ordinary food and wore good but always appropriate clothes; he liked music; he was studious; he had large eyes; a long face; a beard; a large jaw; an aquiline nose; a dark complexion. Then there is this anecdote, from a time when Dante's fame had spread:

[It happened that as Dante was] passing before a door where many women were sitting, one of them said softly to the others (but not so softly that she was not clearly heard by him and by his companions), 'Do you see the man who goes to hell, and returns when he pleases, and brings back news of those who are below?' To this one of the others responded naively, 'Indeed, you must be speaking the truth. Don't you see how his beard is crisped and his complexion browned by the heat and smoke that is below?'

A chapter on Beatrice gives us a description of their meeting - not the first meeting but the moment when Dante fell in love, though we are at a remove. Boccaccio knew Dante's daughter, his nephew, his friends, and a relative of Beatrice, but he never met Dante himself. The stories about the opening cantos of the Divine Comedy being saved during the Florentine political upheaval (Boccaccio argues that there is a recognisable 'join' at the beginning of the eighth canto, a sort of cough and 'where was I before I was rudely interrupted?'), and the closing ones being hidden and thought lost after his death then found by his son after he dreamt of their location, are both sourced from this treatise.

As this book closes round in its dream spiral, we come to see that we've been reading one ring of a legend as it first forms - no time for the details of Florentine politics which later biographers would reconstruct, no desire to 'contextualise a life', literary friendships, rivals. Instead, this is an invitation by romance.

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