Classic mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers maintained that her best work was not any of her novels but her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. When she died in 1957 the last thirteen cantos of her translation of the Commedia – the final verses of the Paradiso – remained unfinished. They were completed by her friend Barbara Reynolds in a remarkable feat of ghost-writing described by Reynolds in her 2006 biography, Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man. There is an extraordinary literary echo here, involving another kind of ghost. When Dante died, the same thirteen cantos were missing from his text of the Paradiso.
Dante succumbed suddenly to malaria in 1321. He had been elated, not long before, to complete the Commedia during a burst of writing in Ravenna, on the Adriatic. Now his survivors could not find the final thirteen cantos.
In his Vita di Dante, Boccaccio relates how Dante’s children and “disciples” searched for the lost cantos for months, only to give up in despair, “enraged” that God would take Dante from the world before sharing the entirety of his work. Two of his children, Jacopo and Piero, decided they would attempt to complete the work themselves. Luckily, a miracle occurred to “check [this] foolish presumption.”
Exactly eight months after his death, Dante appeared in a dream to Jacopo. He showed himself with a shining face, in shining white garments. Jacopo asked him if he was alive. Dante replied, “Yes, but with the true life, not this life of ours [in the world]”. Jacopo asked about the lost cantos. Dante took him to a room where he used to sleep. He touched one of the walls and said, “Here is what you have been looking for.”
Jacopo woke up and enlisted a friend to help search the house where his father had lived. They inspected the wall Dante had indicated. They searched behind a rug hanging in front of "a little window in the wall" and found the missing cantos “all moldy with the damp of the wall, and close to rotting if they had stayed there much longer.”
Illustration for the Paradiso by Giovanni di Paolo, 1450