Dante’s Bones: How a Poet Invented Italy

Belknap: Harvard Univ. May 2020. 370p. ISBN 9780674980839. $35. LIT
Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) exists for us as two bodies, the spiritual, expressed in the Commedia, but also the material, expressed in his image, tomb, and physical remains. This material body has exercised an influence almost as significant as the spiritual. Raffa (Italian, Univ. of Texas, Austin; The Complete Danteworlds; Divine Dialectic) traces the history and influence of Dante’s corporeal existence. Ravenna, Italy, was Dante’s refuge in exile and resting place after his death in 1321. Thereafter, it protected his earthly remains, “stealing” them on several occasions to protect them from church authorities who would have them burned, Florentine officials who would have them repatriated to Florence, fascist fanatics who would destroy them in an apocalyptic gesture. Over the years, Dante’s identity shifted from heretic and cultural hero to symbol of liberty and national hero to nationalist and even fascist icon, each accompanied by various modifications to his sepulcher. In turn, his image shifted from the hatchet-face described by fellow poet Giovanni Boccaccio to softer features reconstructed from his skull by forensic anthropologists.
VERDICT Pulling together many threads of the Dante’s story, Raffa offers an engaging, informative, and original account of the material culture of the poet’s epic body of work. Highly recommended.
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