cover image Dante’s Bones: How a Poet Invented Italy

Dante’s Bones: How a Poet Invented Italy

Guy P. Raffa. Harvard Univ., $35 (370p) ISBN 978-0-674-98083-9

Raffa (The Complete Danteworlds), a UT Austin Italian studies associate professor, devotes this fascinating study to how the treatment of Dante’s remains over the centuries has reflected his centrality to Italian history and culture. Beginning with the long-running dispute between Florence, Dante’s birthplace, and Ravenna, his burial site, over the poet’s legacy, Raffa is meticulous in unearthing telling, and sometimes astonishing, details. These include how Franciscan monks broke into Dante’s tomb in the 16th century to steal his skeleton, and how it was displayed in a glass coffin to huge crowds in 1865, in a commemoration of Dante’s 600th birthday, which also reflected his symbolic importance for the newly formed Italian nation. No less fascinating is how Mussolini connected “Dante’s virility and intellectual capacity,” as supposedly deduced from his remains, to the Fascist Party’s racial-supremacist agenda, and how, during WWII’s later stages, the tomb’s watchmen protected it from both Nazi looters and Allied bombing raids. Italy’s fascination with Dante continues up to the present: a final chapter discusses the University of Bologna’s painstaking computer-generated 2006 reconstruction of what the poet’s head may have looked like. In tracing the history of Dante’s bones, Raffa also provides an illuminating exploration of Italian nationalism and political thought. (May)