Book Review: Dante’s Bones: How a Poet Invented Italy


by Guy P. Raffa.

Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard, The Belknap Press, 2020. Pp. xii, 370. . Illus., notes, index. $35.00. ISBN: 0674980832

Dante and the Formation of Italian Nationality

In this learned, literate, and quite entertaining book, Prof. Raffa (UT Austin), uses the fate of the great poet’s remains to lead us on a journey through several centuries of Italian political, social, intellectual, religious, and cultural history from Dante’s times to the present.

Although the most illustrious of Florentines, Dante (c.?1265-1321) died an exile in Ravenna. While his remains sparked a long dispute between his native city and that of his exile, Dante’s works, most notably the Comedia, helped establish Italian as a distinct language (rather than a “vulgar” Latin dialect) and fueled the idea of an Italian nation. The nineteenth century perhaps saw his greatest literary status, as he attained a quasi-religious devotion during the Risorgimento, while in the following century he was coopted by Italian nationalism and then Fascism, turning the poet – who had soldiered as a young man – into “Dante the warrior”, with a battleship named for him.

Raffa’s tale touches on art and architecture, forensic science, war, public spectacle, political machination, literary trends, body snatching, air raids, and more. There’s an impressive cast, Dante himself, of course, and many famous – or infamous – others down the ages, such as Boccaccio, Lorenzo the Magnificent, Napoleon, Foscolo, Alfieri, D’Annunzio, Mussolini, and even Longfellow and Lincoln, as well as many rather ordinary people, stone masons, artists, functionaries, Franciscan friars, architects, scholars, Fascist squardisti and anti-Fascist partigiani, and many others.

Dante’s Bones is an excellent book for anyone with an interest in Dante, the arc of Italian history, or merely an historical adventure well told.



Note: Dante’s Bones is also available in several e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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