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The Tumultuous Relationship Between Dante and the City of Florence

by Rachel McGinnis

Dante Alighieri, perhaps one of the greatest poets of the medieval period, was born in 1265 into an affluent Italian family.  Having nobility, ancient lineage, and a widely respected name, the only thing the Alighieri family lacked was money.  To compensate for this financial deficit, Alighieri’s parents, Alighiero de Bellincione and Bella degli Abati, arranged for twelve-year-old Dante, to eventually marry Gemma di Manetto Donati, a distant relative from Corso, Italy.  Receiving a sizable dowry, Dante married Gemma as a young adult, had four children with her, studied at the University of Bologna, and authored several pieces of literature, such as Commedia, the poet’s best-known work.

The poem tells of the protagonist’s journey to various nether regions while accompanied by the Roman poet, Virgil.  The epic tale is based largely on the time Dante spent in a politically unstable Florence, an instability that was largely attributable to differences in religious opinions of powerful political factions.  The first combatants, Ghibellines, consisted of individuals best described as “pro-imperial.”  The second sect, the Guelphs, supported the Pope as the supreme ruler in place of the emperor.  Although Florence was continuously plagued by the presence of a deep political rift, conditions worsened at the beginning of 1300 when the Guelphs fragmented and split into two separate factions, the Neri (Black) Guelphs and the Bianchi (White) Guelphs, giving way to three unique factions battling for political supremacy.  The Black Guelphs maintained their doctrine of unflagging support for the Pope’s dominion over the Catholic Church while the White Guelphs became increasingly wary of Papal influence.  Dante, then roughly thirty-five years old, joined the White Guelphs, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the then-current Pope, Boniface VIII.

During his time in Florence, the poet served the city on a number of public councils.  Following the Ordinances of Justice, a doctrine requiring all public officials to be a member of the “Arts,” the poet joined the guild of physicians and apothecaries.  On May 7, 1300, Dante was elected to serve a two-month term as one of six priors that formed the Signoria, the chief magistracy of Florence.  During his tenure, the author furthered the anti-Papal causes of his predecessors, banished the leaders of both warring factions, and was overtly opposed to various members of the papacy.

Shortly after the conclusion of his term, however, the Black Guelphs regained power and Dante was one of the first traitors to be targeted for revenge.  Black Guelph leaders made trumped-up, false accusations against Dante of hostility toward the church and corruption of a public office.  As a result, Dante was fined and banned from further public service in Florence.  The poet was further condemned as contumacious and sentenced to be burned to death should he ever fall into the hands of the proper authorities.  Unhappily driven from his beloved Florence, Dante spent the remainder of his life traveling, seeking protection from various nobles, and composing The Divine Comedy, a work that has become known as theepic poem of Italian Literature.

Originally named Commedia (Comedy) by Dante, the poem became known as La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy) in 1555, in an edition produced in Venice.  It is composed of an introductory canto (Canto I) followed by three canticas, namely Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, which each have thirty-three cantos, thereby totaling 100 canti for the entire poem.  Inferno, the first cantica, has been described as the most resounding segment of the poem, largely due to its memorable images and abrasive treatment of 13th century Florence.  The poem is based on Dante’s journey through the Inferno, in which sinners are punished according to a graded moral scale–the more appalling the sin committed, the lower the circle to which the sinner was condemned.

Perhaps one of the most resounding and repeated elements of the poem is Dante’s poor depiction of Florentine citizens, a fact that clearly reveals that no love was lost between the poet and the great Italian city.  In fact, Dante and Virgil do not encounter a Florentine citizen until they reach the third circle.  After Dante’s initial recognition of this fellow citizen, however, the remainder of the poem is riddled with allusions to shades from Florence.  Dante’s most poignant reference appears in Canto XXVI, when he enthusiastically declares,

Florence, rejoice, now that you have such fame,
And over land and sea you spread your wings!
The whole Inferno’s ringing with your name!

Critics have attributed the author’s negative illustration of this Italian city to his eventual disillusionment with both the politics of the city and the city itself.

Since its conception, The Divine Comedyhas elicited more than fifty English-language translations in the twentieth-century alone.  It has, in effect, made Dante Alighieri into an Italian institution.  The author died in Ravenna at the age of fifty-six in September of 1321, after possibly contracting malaria while on a diplomatic mission to Venice, just a few months after finishing the final cantica of his great comedy.

The poet’s funeral was held at the Church of San Pier Maggiore in Ravenna, now known as the San Francesco, a Franciscan monastery that sits on the Via Corrado Ricci in Ravenna.  This basilica, built in 1230, is still a major place of pilgrimage that is widely renowned for the astounding artwork found throughout the interior of the religious monument.  The Renaissance structure boasts a dim, crypt-like church on the lower half that is lit by beautiful, relatively opaque stained-glass windows, some of which are as old as the church itself.  The upper half of the church provides a striking contrast to the lower region with its translucent stained glass that enhances the upper frescos with a flood of light.

The poet’s tomb, which sits just outside San Francesco, was constructed in 1780.  It is decorated with various marble relief sculptures and the inscription reads, “DANTIS POETAE SEPVLCRVM,” which indicates that it is the tomb of the poet, Dante.  A number of epitaphs adorn the interior of the tomb, having been periodically added over the years.  Dante’s sarcophagus is engraved with the words:

JVRA MONARCHIAE SVPEROS PHLEGETHONTA LACVSQVE
LVSTRANDO CECINI VOLVERVNT FATA QVOVSQVE
SED QVIA PARS CESSIT MELIORIBVS HOSPITA CASTRIS
AVCTOREMQVE SVVM PETIIT FELICIOR ASTRIS
HIC CLAVDOR DANTES PATRIIS EXTORRIS AB ORIS
QVEM GENVIT PARVI FLORENTIA MATER AMORIS.

The epitaph roughly translates to:

The rights of Monarchy, the Heavens, the Stream of Fire, the Pit,
In vision seen, I sang as far as to the Fates seemed fit;
But since my soul, an alien here, hath flown to nobler wars,
And, happier now, hath gone to seek its Maker ‘mid the stars,
Here am I Dante shut, exiled from the ancestral shore,
Whom Florence, the of all least-loving mother, bore.

Following the wide-spread success of Dante’s Commedia, Florentine officials began to understandably regret the exile of one of its greatest citizens.  Religious and political leaders repeatedly demanded the return of Dante’s remains, even eliciting the assistance of the Pope in hopes of swaying the citizens of Ravenna.  Nevertheless, the custodians of Dante’s remains in Ravenna refused, leading the city of Florence to construct a tomb at the basilica of Sante Croce, which has remained empty since its construction.  The tomb reads, “Onorate l’altissimo poeta,” which translates to “Honor the most exalted poet”–a line that may seem oddly familiar to readers of Dante’s Inferno, given its appearance in Canto IV.