Some of us are not. For those who are, a guide is usually necessary. Most of us can probably remember the annotated editions of Shakespeare we read in high school and college – each page complimented by explanations of what was meant by antique words and obscure phrases like “alarams” and “the Great Bear.” Nowhere is this more likely to be necessary than with Dante’s Divine Comedy, which is not only almost 700 years old, the original is in Italian.
Finding help with Dante’s work is not hard. Hundreds of commentaries have been written, and most contemporary translations include a stout introduction to help the reader along. Joseph Crane’s book, Between Fortune and Providence: Astrology and the Universe in Dante’s Divine Comedy is both a solid and unusual guide to Dante’s magnum opus. Each author who seeks to help us along the journey with Dante approaches the work from his or her own perspective, and as Crane is an astrologer, he highlights the astrological references in the text. Any interested reader will find it quite helpful, as there are actually very many references to astronomical and astrological phenomena in the Divine Comedy, and without help, most readers would probably gloss over them. Crane has figured out the timing of the work, trying to create a harmony between astronomical and literary time, as well as aiding us in understanding the geography as presented by Dante.
If Between Fortune and Providence were only an explanation of the heavens (and their relationship to Heaven), the book would be a valuable reference for bibliophiles drawn to Dante. But in the last section of the book, Crane does much more, exploring the role of astrology and astrologers in Dante’s time, and helping us to construct an understanding of the medieval worldview. Astrologers are treated poorly in the Divine Comedy, landing in the eighth circle of Hell (you’d be surprised what sort of hijinks you could get into and still have a better eternal home than an astrologer), and Crane helps us to understand why Dante thought so little of them. You’ll have to read the book to get the whole picture, but suffice it to say here that the situation is a bit more complex than we might think, and astrology gets more credit than astrologers.
Crane of course deals with the Big Issues that are presented in Dante’s work; questions about fate and free will, the nature of sin, the nature of good and evil, and the nature of nature. In the process, he weaves in astrology so that we can understand how the medieval world saw one cohesive – or relatively cohesive – cosmos that extended from heaven to hell with order and harmony. We may not be able to experience that world, but through Crane’s work we get a sense of what it was like.
For a serious book that serves as a guide to a serious work, Between Fortune and Providence is extremely readable. Crane’s style is light and engaging, and while he clearly knows a great deal about the Divine Comedy and the world in which it was created, he offers his observations to the contemporary reader with an awareness of the gap between the ages. Besides Dante’s work itself, no other background is required to appreciate this book. A pilgrim scaling the mountain of medieval Italian literature is lucky to have a guide like Joseph Crane to point the way.