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  • Dante Politico: An Introduction
  • Dennis Looney

Writing around 1436, Leonardo Bruni pointedly took Giovanni Boccaccio to task for his romanticized biography of Dante, the first substantial study of the poet’s life,1 composed sometime after 1351. In his Life of Dante (1436), Bruni criticized Boccaccio for writing a work of fiction instead of providing an accurate historical account of Dante’s life:

Mi parve che il nostro Boccaccio…così scrivesse la vita e i costumi di tanto sublime poeta, come se a scrivere avesse il Filocolo, o il Filostrato, o la Fiammetta.… Io adunque mi posi in cuore, per mio spasso, scriver di nuovo la vita di Dante con maggior notizia delle cose estimabili. Né questo faccio per derogare al Boccaccio, ma perché lo scriver mio sia quasi in supplimento allo scriver di lui.

[I thought that our Boccaccio…had nonetheless written the life and customs of the sublime poet as if he had been writing the Filocolo, or the Filostrato, or the Fiammetta.…I then proposed for my recreation to write the life of Dante anew, with greater notice given to more valuable things. I do not do this to detract from Boccaccio, but in order as it were that my writings should supplement his.]2

The Florentine humanist and chancellor took it upon himself to balance Boccaccio’s version by emphasizing Dante’s political activity—he calls this emphasis a focus on “delle cose estimabili [more valuable things]”—in the period leading up to and just after his exile from Florence. To validate his approach, Bruni points to the archival record, informing his reader that he has seen one of Dante’s letters (83) and other documents to which Dante refers (88). The glimpse into the archive provides Bruni with the authority necessary [End Page 1] to present his new and improved reading of Dante’s life, a biography that includes political action and writing that was consistently attentive to the machinations of politics.

Bruni’s hyperbolic correction marks the start of the long career of Dante politico, the ongoing reception of Dante as a political thinker and actor, and the reception of the vast array of politicized interpretations of Dante’s life and works over the centuries. As Bruni continues his biography, he emphasizes “la cacciata di Dante, e per che cagione e per che modo [the cause and circumstances of Dante’s banishment]” and he dwells on the poet’s life in exile, “delli affanni suoi publici [his public troubles],” before finally shifting to talk about Dante’s art.3 The focus is first and foremost on Dante as a political actor. Bruni and other humanists of the 1430s and 1440s—Filelfo, Palmieri, and Alberti, among them—began to use Dante to promote political and civic causes linked to Florence, thus overcoming the reservations about his work articulated first by Petrarch and sharpened by intervening humanists such as Niccolò Niccoli. This set the stage for the full-scale revalorization of Dante as a linguistic and civic model in Medicean Florence at the end of the fifteenth century, as seen in the contributions of Lorenzo, Poliziano, Ficino, and Cristoforo Landino. Landino’s chauvinistic commentary on the Commedia (1481) reinterprets the poem in a contemporary civic setting that emphasizes the classical underpinning of the vernacular literary culture embodied in it, and in so doing subtly recuperates Dante for Medicean political culture. Even if the Florentines could not literally bring home the bones of their poet who had died in exile in Ravenna in 1321—as they repeatedly tried to do—they could claim him through their carefully orchestrated interpretive work.

Less subtle were the Protestant readings of Dante’s works between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries that cast him as a reformer on a par with none less than Martin Luther. Dante’s political career and exile, his criticism of the papacy for its extensive involvement in foreign policy, his steadfast support of the Holy Roman Emperor, and his belief that the two powers, spiritual and temporal, should be separated and distinct, made him into an unexpected symbol of liberty and gave him currency as a radical political thinker among English Protestants as early as the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2161-8046
Print ISSN
0361-946x
Pages
pp. 1-12
Launched on MUSE
2017-12-28
Open Access
No
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