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EARLY BIOGKAFHEU8—LIFE—THE 'CONV1VIO '—THE 'DE MONARCH1A' —THE'DE VULOAKI ELOQUENTIA '—EPISTLES, ECLOGUE8, ETC.— THE 'COMMEDIA.'
"His biography is, as it were, irrecoverably lost for us." This was Carlyle's dictum several decades ago, and nothing has happened since to necessitate a revision of the sentence. Rather, the effect of much toilsome research and anxious sifting of evidence, instead of adding to our knowledge, has been, at least in some directions, to take away that little which we nattered ourselves we possessed. As in other departments of history, so here beliefs which have entered, so to speak, into the very marrow of our consciousness—have become almost articles of faith with us—must be yielded up before the powerful search-light which is being turned on so many dark coigns of the Middle Ages. The final result may be happy. The process may end in an authentic biography of Dante not devoid, let us hope, of that warmth, that colour, that particularity which lend so great, however spurious, a charm to the "romances" that served our predecessors in lieu of genuine fact. But for this the time is not ripe; and, with regard to many statements, the most that can be claimed for them is that they are provisionally correct.
Things being in this predicament, it is natural to
ask—What are our sources of information? At first
these might seem ample. A multiplicity
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of "Lives is found to exist, some of them quite early, and one going back to the generation following that of Dante. Assured of this fact, we might well suppose it a simple and satisfactory expedient to procure the biographies, read them, and digest them at our leisure. Nobody could be blamed for this illusion; however, it is an illusion. These "Lives," most of them, are not independent works. They are to be traced with hardly an exception to one original — Boccaccio's famous Little Treatise in Praise of Dante. Its very title is enough to render this composition suspected. If it was wished to learn the truth about such-and-such, the last place in which to seek it would be a speech delivered at his funeral, when the force of the adage "Nothing but good of the dead" is most felt and appreciated. The Trattatello is not actually a funeral oration, but it is conceived in the spirit, and executed in the style, of a funeral oration; and therefore its authority cannot be received as final.
Boccaccio's general character and achievements will be dealt with later. Meanwhile, it is requisite to assume an acquaintance with this writer as the author of the Decameron. That Boccaccio was a novelist is not an irrelevancy—a circumstance that can be rightly ignored. While it would be unjust to affirm that a novelist is incapable as such of treating historical subjects seriously, it must be evident to the least reflecting that he is exposed to peculiar temptations, and trammelled by predilections from which other, less fanciful, beings are exempt. If we find him devoting disproportionate space to the romantic elements of the story—that is no more than we should expect; nor ought it to be much of a surprise, if the habitual and irresponsible exercise of the inventive faculty should disgust him at times with a mutilated and imperfect presentation, and cause him to substitute for the rude, the simple, and sadly stupid truth the rainbow hues of a glowing imagination.
Considerations like these addressed themselves in the fifteenth century to the sober inquiring mind of A critical Leonardo Bruni, who wrote in sarcastic "We." terms of the "love, and sighs, and scalding tears," which formed the staple of Boccaccio's contribution. Instead of the showy rhetoric and trivial subject-matter of the Little Treatise, Bruni proposes to himself an historical relation of "the weighty and substantial parts" of Dante's life, nor, all things considered, does this Aretine secretary of the Republic of Florence disappoint. It was obvious at the first that, coming when he did, he would have to forgo many of the advantages open to his predecessor. Nobody who could remember Dante, or who could furnish accounts drawn from personal knowledge or the disclosures of trustworthy informants, was any longer in existence. On the other hand, Bruni, from his official position, had full access to documentary evidence still obtainable; and this he professes to have used.
If we could be sure, as he more than once asserts,
that he had inspected Dante's letters, the testimony of
Bruni would be of priceless value. It
would assume the character of a reprint, a literary testament, a posthumous autobiography, at least in part. But what security is there that Bruni was not, like so many others before and since, the victim of imposture? Another consideration which impairs the worth of this witness is the spirit of contradiction he displays to Boccaccio, who, daring as he may have been, cannot have invented always and everywhere. This antagonism declares itself in things which it was idiotic to affirm, and only less idiotic to deny—for example, Boccaccio's solemn intimation that Dante, austere even in infancy, despised the caresses of his mamma. This fortunate conjecture might well have been left to refute itself; but when Bruni proceeds to emphasise the matter by announcing that the youthful Dante, for all the warmth of his studies, bated not a jot of social intercourse and enjoyment, instinctively we pause. Truly, "love, and sighs, and scalding tears" are much more in accord with the tenor of Dante's juvenilia than the festal scenes in which Bruni would depict him as moving.
Besides these "Lives," what have we? First there is the all too brief notice—the rubrica dantesea-—of Giovanni Villani. Villani's sincerity is above suspicion; but since it is human to err, good intentions are not everything, and on the score of accuracy even Villani may be impeached. For all that his few words are extremely precious, for —let us not forget—they are the words of a contemporary.1 Something also may be gleaned from the old commentators, who, however, commit all the bad actions proper to the tribe, such as purloining from the text, eschewing real problems, and furnishing needless explanations. Again, there are the public archives, whence, at the present time, the chief additions to our knowledge may be looked for; and, lastly, there remain, as a test and touchstone of imagined discoveries, the works of Dante himself.
With materials so sparse, so heterogeneous, so divergent, prediction becomes easy; around this carcass of contention the eagles of debate will gather together. There is indeed hardly a circumstance of Dante's life, including the incident of his birth, which has not at some time formed the battlefield of controversy. He was born, it is now generally admitted, in the year 1265; and probably in the month of May. It is conceded also that he was of Florentine parentage; but inasmuch as his father's party—the Guelf—was then in exile, it is not absolutely certain that he was born at Florence. He came of a family which was at least respectable; to assess its exact importance is a task of some difficulty. Villani says, " This Dante was an honourable and ancient
1 The " Life " by Filippo Villani, which is only mentioned to avoid possible confusion, is a worthless abridgment of Boccaccio's.