The Earliest Lives of Dante (Smith 1901)/Preface


These lives of Dante were written, one within fifty, the other within a hundred and twenty-five years, after the poet's death. Boccaccio was acquainted with at least four persons who, as we have reason to believe, knew Dante in the flesh, and he could draw his information from them as well as from popular tradition. Bruni, on the other hand, who, as he himself says, supplements the work of his predecessor, derives the bulk of his matter from public documents and letters of Dante, which are not now extant. The value, then, of their works lies in their nearness to authoritative sources. No other documents of anything like equal importance as regards the life of Dante have come down to us. Our knowledge of the poet as he moved among men is almost wholly derived from these two lives and from his own works.

The facts here presented are not all of equal significance or trustworthiness. The dream of the poet's mother, the presumed unhappiness of his marriage, the charge made against him of great licentiousness in youth and manhood, the dates here given of his works, the loss and recovery of the last thirteen cantos of the Commedia, have no evidence in their favor other than that which is here presented. But the main features of his life: the time and place of his birth, his liberal education, his life-long love of Beatrice on earth and in the spirit, his marriage to Gemma Donati, his rise to the highest places in the government of Florence, his banishment and twenty years of exile, and the date and manner of his death, these things, I repeat, we know to be true.

And what a series of pictures it is! student, lover, poet, the companion of musicians and singers; the soldier, the father of a family, great in the affairs of his country at home and abroad; the exile, the wanderer, the greater poet; oppressed by poverty, defeated in his attempts to deliver the fatherland, heavy with a sense of the sin and injustice of the world, and feeling, as his great poem tells us, his own imperfect living toward his perfect aim, and yet through it all knowing the peace that comes with consecration to one's dreams.

Professor Albert S. Cook of Yale University suggested the undertaking of the present translation. The work has been carried on under his helpful guidance, and every page is nearer what it should be because of his thoughtful and painstaking criticism. Professor Henry R. Lang, also of Yale, has kindly decided for me doubtful points in the Italian. For the rendering of certain words and phrases I am indebted to the translation of the Boccaccio life by Professor G. R. Carpenter, published in a limited edition by the Grolier Club, New York 1900; and to the translation of the Bruni life and of portions of the Boccaccio life by Mr. P. H. Wicksteed, Hull 1898.

The texts used are as follows: Boccaccio, La Vita di Dante, ed. by Macrì-Leone, Florence 1888; Bruni, La Vita di Dante, in vol. v of Lombardi's edition of the Divina Commedia, Padua 1822; F. Villani's Liber de Civitatis Florentiae Famosis Civibus, ed. by Galetti, Florence 1847. In a very few instances I have departed from these texts: for example, I read in the Vita di Dante by Boccaccio, p. 25, l. 7, cercante for cercanti; p. 80, l. 5, lei for lui; in the Latin life by Villani, singillatim for sugillandum. I have retained the spelling of the texts in the case of proper names.

A discussion of the genuineness of the Vita by Boccaccio, which is here translated, as opposed to the so-called Compendio, and a critical review of both the Bruni and Boccaccio lives, will be found in Dante and His Early Biographers, by Dr. Edward Moore, London 1890.

J. R. S.

Yale University, May, 1901.