Reading Dante’s Commedia as Theology
Divinity Realized in Human Encounter
Reading Dante’s Commedia as Theology, Vittorio Montemaggi’s wonderfully provocative, beautifully written new monograph on the Italian poet’s medieval epic, begins with a pair of sentences unlike anything I have ever encountered in a scholarly work:
I have written this book throughout in the first person, as an exercise in self-discovery. It has a very strong autobiographical vein, with a particular emphasis on spiritual transformation and on the expression of gratitude toward those from whose goodness I have had the privilege of benefitting in preparing the present study.
These lines encapsulate the novelty of Montemaggi’s singular journey into Dante’s theology, a topic of renewed interest in the somewhat rarefied and sometimes combative field of academic Dante studies. As curious, quirky, and all-embracing as the Commedia itself, Montemaggi’s kaleidoscopic book fuses two very distinct modes of writing about Dante that until now have always remained separate: a reader’s deeply personal, spiritual engagement with the poem on one hand, and a professional Dante scholar’s rigorous intellectual analysis on the other. Presenting Dante not simply as a poet who creates art that happens to involve theology, but as a truly original theologian whose poetic art is his theology, Montemaggi ably articulates the startling inventiveness of Dante’s bold theological vision: for the Commedia insists that we are all called to divinization, to union with the living God, whom Dante invites us to discover within ourselves and, more importantly, in our loving relationships with each other.
In joining the autobiographical with the scholarly, the book takes considerable risks, and the success of Montemaggi’s experiment hinges on the newness of his study’s form. We might call this a “total response” to Dante’s art, which demands that the reader engage with the fiction of the poet’s journey through the afterlife with her whole mind, heart, and soul. Montemaggi thus takes up Dante’s call to encounter—with self, with the author and his characters, with fellow human beings, and with God—by framing his investigation of the poet’s theology within a tripartite structure whose orderly shape recalls the formal arrangement not only of theCommedia itself but also the many “aesthetic” theological treatises produced in the later Middle Ages, such as Bonaventure’s Itinerarium Mentis in Deum. The three chapters each contain twelve distinct yet linked “reflections” that focus on a wide range of topics. A reflection devoted to literary analysis might be followed by one that addresses a methodological or theoretical concern particular to theologians. And this in turn might be followed by a reflection on the author’s own scholarly bildungsroman. This orderly yet elastic structure allows readers to rove liberally and meditatively through the path of Montemaggi’s investigation, concentrating on those aspects they find most relevant to their own particular scholarly, spiritual, and personal interests. Such a non-linear style of argumentation brilliantly reflects the mode of reading proposed by Dante himself, who, like Montemaggi, repeatedly invites his readers to savor slowly the Commedia’s vivid imagery, dramatic encounters, and rich conceptual discussions, enticing them to mull over earlier passages whose meanings change and deepen in light of later ones. Thus does the form of Reading Dante’s Commedia as Theology promote the same interpretive freedom that Dante’s poetry aims to instill in readers, who are encouraged to bring their entire personhood into creative, open-ended contact with the text.
It is this unitive act, between life and literature, readers and writers, that for Montemaggi forms the theological core of Dante’s art. His book argues that for Dante human life is a journey toward union with God that must be undertaken with others, and it is concrete acts of love that move us ever closer to our destination. According to Montemaggi, Dante’s great poem embodies what it describes: it is a work of love, not just a work about love.