An Italian Studies professor narrates the physical afterlife of the writer who vividly imagined the spiritual afterlife. Like a saint's relics, Dante's bones have been stolen, exhumed, and worshiped, representing his evolving status from Renaissance to Italian nationalist hero.
... episode after fascinating episode in the strange afterlife of Dante’s poetry and bones ... Perhaps not every episode covered in Raffa’s 'graveyard history' really contributes to the invention of Italy, as the subtitle of the book proposes. But it’s an intensively researched, gripping story of Dante’s lively bones that also tells a brisk history of modern Italy ... Raffa keeps a detached historian’s eye on how Italian political figures used Dante to justify their own vision of the nation, the race, and the culture. But he is also an expert reader of Dante’s literature ... tells a fascinating story about the afterlife of a brilliant artist. But it also reveals how frequently political figures have distorted the man and his books ... Raffa’s excellent history indirectly shows that when we remake a work of literature in our own image, we may in fact be desecrating the author’s bones.
Dante's Bones is a thorough study—exhaustive, even. Well-researched and quite well presented, it covers the history of the remains, and the battles over them, well. The twist, of the unexpected rediscovery (in 1865) of something that most hadn't realized had been lost, is amusing, of course, and Raffa structures much of the account around that—but it's impossible to get around the fact that not all that much happens to the remains themselves. This small disturbance is a good story—so also in Raffa's telling of how the Franciscans seem to have gone about it—but of course the rest of the time practically all of Dante's remains simply remained in one place or another, which isn't all that exciting. Some more interesting things did happen around them—not least in the role they played as part of the greater Dante-veneration, including why physical possession was considered symbolically important—and Raffa covers that quite well too, but with a focus on the remains Dante's Bones isn't (and doesn't mean to be) a larger study of all of Dante's legacy across the centuries ... a welcome addition to the large library of works on Dante, covering its territory very well.
Mr. Raffa has a deep acquaintance with Italian antiquarian lore, supported by immaculate prose craftsmanship. He also appears to honor the old maxim that if one wants to know anything about something one wants to know everything. This story, however, is full of much more than most of us might ever want to know about Dante’s skull, his digits, a much-prized handful of his bodily dust and other mortuary oddments. Declining to contribute to our understanding of Dante’s work, the author yet shines a searching light on human absurdity when he turns to the social uses of the bard’s reconstructed or reimagined image.