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Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the…
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Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man (2006)

by Barbara Reynolds

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Barbara Reynolds has been a Dante scholar for much of her life (she is 92 this year); she famously completed the translation of the Commedia that Dorothy L. Sayers left unfinished at her death. Here, she socially and politically contextualizes Dante’s work and proposes some new interpretations of some of the oldest questions, even challenging the long-accepted consensus view of the identity of Beatrice. I would like this to get a second look, from someone who is more familiar with Dante. It is certainly an excellent book, fascinating and beautifully written; and the first full-length biography of Dante in over twenty years. My only hesitation in recommending it for the short list is that it may not be accessible to anyone outside literary academia. ('reader's review' for 2007 James Tait Black prize).
  arielgm | Mar 31, 2008 |
Barbara Reynolds has been a Dante scholar for much of her life (she is 92 this year); she famously completed the translation of the Commedia that Dorothy L. Sayers left unfinished at her death. Here, she socially and politically contextualizes Dante’s work and proposes some new interpretations of some of the oldest questions, even challenging the long-accepted consensus view of the identity of Beatrice. I would like this to get a second look, from someone who is more familiar with Dante. It is certainly an excellent book, fascinating and beautifully written; and the first full-length biography of Dante in over twenty years.
  arielgm | Mar 14, 2008 |
Prominent Dante scholar Barbara Reynolds has penned a revealing new biography of her subject in Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man. While some of her conclusions will almost certainly be controversial, Reynolds' close studies of Dante's works taken as a whole as well as her clear grasp of current Dante scholarship form what seems a fairly solid base. I certainly am not nearly expert enough to dispute her.

This was not an easy book to read, largely because it is hardly a conventional biography at all. While some chapters focus on Dante's life and its events, Reynolds is largely concerned with interpreting those events and Dante's works. It is at its best in the center portion, where Reynolds discusses the early poems and essays followed by Dante's magnum opus, the Commedia. In a fascinating tour through the cantos of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso Reynolds dissects those works, drawing out the various real-world events and people which feature, as well as analyzing the relationship(s) between Dante and his guides along the journey. Reynolds seeks a unifying theme in Dante's works, and finds one in his support for secular authority (in the form of the Holy Roman Emperor) rather than ecclesiastical preeminence (i.e. the Pope).

In the more biographical sections, this book would have benefited from some editorial oversight. Many chapters end with some form of "and we will take up [topic x] in the next chapter", which is rather jarring in a book like this and disrupted the narrative unecessarily. It's not a light read either, and I can't say I recommend it unless you happen to be a very serious Dante aficionado (or aspire to be such, I suppose). It was interesting, but I can't help but think there must be a more standard biography out there that would be more useful for most purposes (including, it should be said, my own).

One important note (and what partly prompted me to get this book): the jacket illustration - which shows Dante as depicted in a Luca Signorelli fresco in Orvieto - is quite lovely, and I happen to have a framed print of it hanging on my wall. I must say, it's pretty weird to be walking through a bookstore and suddenly seeing a picture from your wall on a book jacket!

http://philobiblos.blogspot.com/2006/10/book-review-dante.html ( )
  JBD1 | Oct 20, 2006 |
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"Dante is one of the towering figures in world literature, and yet many riddles and questions about his life and work persist. In the first full-length biography of him in more than twenty years, Barbara Reynolds offers remarkable discoveries and unlocks previously hidden secrets. For instance, a fundamental enigma has tantalised readers of the Commedia for seven centuries. Who was the leader prophesied by Virgil and Beatrice to bring peace to the world? Many attempts have been made to identify him, but none has seemed conclusive - until now. As well as proposing a solution to the famous prophecies, this biography contains a new idea in every chapter." "Dr. Reynolds' research suggests: that Beatrice, Dante's great love, was not who most scholars think she was; that Dante may have smoked cannabis to reach new heights of creativity; that Dante was a talented public speaker who created a new form of poetic art, holding his audiences spellbound. But above all, Dr. Reynolds views Dante as one of the greatest radicals of all time. His aim was not to preach an interesting parable about punishments for sin and rewards for virtue. It was to use poetry to change the politics of the age, and unite Europe around the secular authority of an Emperor. To promote this idea, which dominated his writings from his exile onwards, Dante combined it with a dramatic presentation of the Christian belief in Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Vividly told in the first person, with a colour and immediacy derived from the pop art of street narrators - now made to seem respectable by its use of classical predecessors like Virgil - this extraordinary journey through the three realms was always profoundly political in intent." "Dante here comes alive as never before: irate, opinionated, settling scores - a man of mutifaceted gifts and extraordinary genius, whose role as an interpreter of world history makes him more than ever relevant to the new millennium."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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