The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges once commented that
Shakespeare’s work has been progressively enriched by the generations of its readers. Undoubtedly Coleridge, Hazlitt, Goethe, Heine, Bradley, and Hugo have all enriched Shakespeare’s work, and it will undoubtedly be read in another way by readers to come. Perhaps this is one possible definition of the work of genius: a book of genius is a book that can be read in a slightly or very different way by each generation. This is what happened with the Bible. Someone has compared the Bible to a musical instrument that can be tuned infinitely. (473)
For Borges, a writer of genius, such as Shakespeare, is one whose original work comes down to us through time like some vast literary snowball, gathering to itself an accretion of commentary, exposition, imitation, and controversy, so that not merely does our idea of ‘Shakespeare’ change and develop through the centuries following his death and the publication of his plays, but it grows constantly as it gathers new material, and (to shift the metaphor) sends out ripples across the whole of subsequent literature.
Dante clearly falls into this same category – but with one significant difference. As a number of historians have pointed out, the concept of the ‘Renaissance’ as a way of describing Italy from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century is essentially a nineteenth century idea. By and large, the English-speaking world looks at early modern Italy through nineteenth-century spectacles. It is not unique in this – many other European countries do the same. Not incidentally, the current cult of Dante – in commentaries, translations, illustrations, and a host of literary references – belongs to the same period and the same matrix. It is significant that while Dante’s fame had reached England at least by the time of Chaucer (the first English writer to mention him) his works themselves remained largely untranslated until almost the nineteenth century.