MoboReader > Literature > Dante: His Times and His Work


Dante: His Times and His Work By Arthur John Butler Characters: 19694

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

In order to understand the extent to which Dante's life was influenced by the political circumstances of his age, it will be well to carry our survey of events somewhat further, with special reference to the affairs of Florence.

As we have seen, after frequent alternations of fortune, the city passed, within two years of Dante's birth, for good and all to the Guelf side. On St. Martin's Day, in November, 1266, Count Guido Novello and his German horse were driven out of the city by the burghers; and though in the January following a treaty of peace was made, and cemented by various marriages between members of the leading families on either side-an arrangement of which the chief result was to embitter party spirit among the Guelfs who had taken no share in it-anything like a lasting reconciliation was soon found to be out of the question. Charles of Anjou, moreover, fresh from his victory over Manfred, was by no means disposed to allow the beaten Ghibelines any chance of rallying. Negotiations were entered into between him and the Florentine Guelfs, and on Easter Day, 1267, Guy of Montfort (son of Sir Simon) entered the city at the head of eight hundred French cavalry. The Ghibelines did not venture to strike a blow, but departed on the day before his arrival. At Easter, says Villani, the crime was committed which first split the city into factions; and at Easter the descendants of the men who had committed the crime went into exile, never to return.

The same year saw a general rally of the north Italian states to the Guelf side, and before many months were out even Lombardy, where, says Villani, there was hardly any memory of the Guelfs, followed the stream. In Tuscany, Pisa and Siena alone held by the tradition-for it was little more-of allegiance to the Empire. The Florentine exiles betook themselves to those cities, and before long the spirits of the party had revived sufficiently to allow them to play what must have been felt to be their last stroke in the game. Profiting by the disaffection of certain Apulian and Sicilian barons (whom one may imagine to have found the gloomy discipline of Charles a poor exchange for the brilliancy and licence of Frederick's Court), they cast their eyes towards the last surviving representative of that Count Frederick who, some two hundred years before, had fixed his seat in the hill-fortress of Staufen. Conrad, or Corradino, as the Italians called him, grandson of Frederick II., was a lad of sixteen, still under the tutelage of his mother, the widow of Conrad IV. Germany seems to have been loyal to him, and had it not been for the impatience of the Italian Ghibelines, he might well have looked forward to regaining, perhaps under more favourable auspices, the Empire which his predecessors had held. But the Tuscan nobles, smarting under defeat, could not wait; and in spite of his mother's opposition, they carried the boy off. Money was lacking; and of the ten thousand German horsemen who accompanied him across the Brenner, only three thousand five hundred went beyond Verona. He passed through Lombardy, however, without opposition, and with the aid of the Genoese fleet reached Pisa in May, 1268. The rising of the Apulian barons had compelled Charles to return hastily to his kingdom, and Conradin found his way clear to Siena. An action in the district of Arezzo resulted in the defeat and capture of Charles's "marshal," who had come out from Florence in pursuit, and the German force was able to enter Rome unmolested. There they received a reinforcement of eight hundred good Spanish cavalry under Don Henry, brother of the King of Castile, and, elated with success, pushed on to strike a decisive blow. They marched eastward to Tagliacozzo, just within the frontier of the Abruzzi, while Charles reached the same point by forced marches from Nocera. The armies met on St. Bartholomew's Eve, and at first everything seemed to go well for Conradin. The Spanish division defeated the Proven?als, and the Germans crushed the French and Italians. But Charles had with him an experienced old knight, Alard de St. Valéry, by whose advice he held a picked force in reserve, concealed behind some rising ground. With this he now attacked the victorious Germans and Spaniards, who had got out of hand in the excitement of pursuit and plundering. They made a bold resistance, but discipline told in the end; they were utterly defeated and their leaders put to flight. Conradin and his immediate staff, comprising the Duke of Austria and some German and Italian nobles, made their way to Astura on the coast of the Campagna, and had succeeded in embarking when they were recognised by one of the Frangipani, who were the lords of the territory. Arrested by him and handed over to Charles, they were subjected to a form of trial, and beheaded in the market-place of Naples. This act has always been regarded as an indelible blot on Charles's record. Dante couples it with the alleged murder, by his order, of St. Thomas Aquinas; and it seems to have been felt even by members of the Guelf party as something, if one may so say, beyond the rules of the game. Pope Clement, according to Villani, blamed Charles severely; and the pious historian, for his own part, sees in the King's subsequent misfortunes the judgment of God upon his cruelty towards an innocent boy. The judge who pronounced the sentence was slain before Charles's very eyes by his son-in-law, Robert, son to the Count of Flanders, "and not a word was said, for Robert was great with the King, and it appeared to the King and to all the barons that he had acted like a valiant gentleman." In Conradin the Hohenstaufen line came to an end, and therewith all raison d'être for the Ghibeline party. After this it became merely a turbulent faction, until the accession of Henry of Luxemburg; when C?sar once more began to take interest in his Italian dominions.

It may be conceded that party rancour had much more to do with the bringing of Conradin into Italy than any conscientious adhesion to views such as those to which Dante afterwards gave utterance in the De Monarchia, or faith in the benefit which would accrue to the world from the rule of a single sovereign. But it shows the hold which the Empire still had on men's minds, that the Ghibeline chiefs should have preferred to take a boy from Germany as the figure-head of their cause, rather than seek a leader of more experience from among their fellow-countrymen. Nor does it seem to have entered any one's mind to look out of Germany for an Emperor. There were, indeed, at the very time, two rival C?sars-elect in existence-Richard, Earl of Cornwall, and Alfonso, King of Castile, the former of whom his own countrymen, more in derision than respect, were wont to call "King of Almayne;" but clearly no Ghibeline cared to call upon either of them to "heal the wounds which were killing Italy." Later, when the long interregnum was brought to an end by the election of Rudolf of Hapsburg, even the Guelf Villani holds that if he had been willing to pass into Italy he would have been lord of it without opposition; but that astute prince no doubt found himself much better employed in converting a petty baronial line into one of the great houses of Germany, and ultimately of Europe, than in acting up to a titular dignity which brought its bearer more splendour than either wealth or ease. When he did send an Imperial Vicar into Tuscany in 1281 his chance was gone, and the emissary was glad to come to terms with the Florentines.

Thus, from the earliest time that Dante could remember, the Guelfs held an almost undisturbed supremacy throughout Tuscany. There was occasional fighting between Florence, as the head of the Guelf League, and Siena, or Pisa, as the case might be. The Sienese, though helped by Guido Novello and the Florentine exiles, and by some of the Spanish and German troops who had escaped from Tagliacozzo, were badly beaten at Colle di Val d'Elsa in 1269, and their commander, Provenzano Salvani (whom Dante afterwards met in Purgatory), taken and slain. In the following year this city too was purged of the Ghibeline taint, and a few Florentine citizens who were caught were, after a reference to Charles, duly beheaded. Pisa held out somewhat longer, and was able to expel its Guelfs in 1275, among them the famous Count Ugolino de' Gherardeschi, a member of the house of Donoratico, one of whose counts had been captured and killed with Conradin; but in a year's time a Florentine success brought them back. An effort made by Pope Gregory X. to reconcile the factions, as he passed through Florence on his way to the Council of Lyons, bore little or no fruit, and, as a pendant to former excommunications of Emperors, the city was placed under interdict. When, a year and a half later, Gregory died at Arezzo, "by his death," says Villani, "the Guelfs of Florence were greatly cheered, by reason of the ill will which he had towards them;"-an interesting remark, as showing that the Guelfs were not prepared to support the Holy See farther than their own interests as a party demanded.

The condition of Florence at this time cannot be better described than in Villani's words. Writing of the year 1278, he says-

"In these times, the Guelf nobles of Florence, reposing from their foreign wars with victory and honour, and fattened upon the goods of the exiled Ghibelines, and by reason of their other gains, began, through pride and envy, to quarrel among themselves; whence came to pass in Florence more feuds and enmities between the citizens, with slayings and woundings. Among them all the greatest was the quarrel between the house of the Adimari of the one part, who were very great and powerful, and on the other side were the house of the Donati; in such wise that nearly the whole o

f the city took sides, and some held with one party and some with the other, whereby the city and the Guelf party were in great danger."

We shall remember how, in Dante's judgement also, pride, envy, and avarice were "the sparks that had set hearts on fire," in Florence.

Once again the Pope, who was now Nicholas III., interfered; and once again representatives of the two great factions exchanged the kiss of peace before a Papal Legate, this time in front of "the Preaching Friars' new church of New St. Mary's, in Florence," of which the Legate, Cardinal Latino, had but lately laid the first stone. The Ghibeline leaders were still kept out, but the rank and file returned. The feud of the Adimari and Donati was patched up for the time, whereby "the said Cardinal had much honour, and Florence remained a good time in a peaceful and good and tranquil state."

Cardinal Latino had arranged for the government of Florence by a committee of fourteen "good men," of whom eight were to be Guelfs and six Ghibelines. They were to hold office for two months. It marks the Cardinal as a man of some organizing capacity that his peace continued for four years, during which time Villani has next to nothing to relate about the affairs of his city. These were the years in which Dante was growing up to manhood. As a boy of thirteen he would doubtless have looked on at the scene in front of Santa Maria Novella; and during the next four peaceful years we may suppose that he would have begun to sit at the feet of the old statesman, diplomatist, and scholar Brunetto Latini, picking up from his lips the lore "how man becomes immortal." We can picture him too, where the boys and girls were gathered together, a silent and reserved lad, probably unpopular unless with one or two special friends, paying little heed to any of his companions save one girl of about his own age, whose movements he would follow, and for the sound of whose words, though never addressed to him, he would listen, with the speechless devotion which perhaps is only felt at sixteen or seventeen, and then only by natures which fortunately are exceptional in this world. "The child is father to the man;" and we can be pretty certain from what we know of the man Dante what the boy Dante must have been.

The tranquil period was disturbed in 1282. Pope Nicholas, who, whether guilty of Simony or not-and one fears that the case against him must have been strong, since not only Dante, but even Villani charges him with the offence-at least deserved the blessing pronounced on peacemakers, had died in the previous year at Viterbo, a town which, during this period, seems to have suited the Popes better than Rome as a place of residence. Charles, between whom and Nicholas no love had been lost, was resolved that the next Pope should not come from the powerful house of the Orsini, to a branch of which, the Guatani, the late Pontiff had belonged, and by an arrangement with the people of Viterbo, succeeded in getting the two most prominent clerical members of that house imprisoned. Thus he secured the election of a Frenchman, Simon of Brie, who, being a canon of Tours, took the name of Martin IV. His Papacy, though it lasted little more than three years, was eventful. He was elected in January, 1282, and on the following Easter Monday, March 30th, the people of Palermo, furious at the outrages of Charles's French troops, rose and massacred every Frenchman upon whom they could lay hands. Charles's efforts to recapture the island were baffled, chiefly owing to the hostility of Manfred's son-in-law. King Peter of Aragon, also, with the help of his famous admiral, Roger of Loria, began about this time to prove a serious thorn in the side of the Angevin King. From the day of the "Sicilian Vespers," fortune turned against Charles. His son was taken prisoner by Loria in 1284, his life being spared only at the entreaty of Peter's wife, while he did not recover his liberty till 1289. The King himself died broken down with grief and disappointment, in the early days of 1285, and was followed a couple of months later by his creature, Martin IV., and, before the year was out, by his enemy, King Peter. It will be remembered that Peter and Charles were seen by Dante in the "Valley of Princes," awaiting their entry into Purgatory, and singing their Compline hymn in friendly accord: Martin IV. being placed higher up the mountain, among the gluttonous.

At Florence the course of affairs was not much affected by the reverses which befell Charles. At the same time, these, and a success gained by Guy of Montefeltro over John of Appia, a French officer whom Martin had appointed Count of Romagna, made the Guelf majority uneasy. Cardinal Latino's Constitution was abandoned, and a new form of government adopted. The trading-class resolved to get rid altogether of the representatives of feudal authority, weak as they had become,[26] and to this end the Fourteen were abolished, and the chief power placed in the hands of the Priors of the Arts, or, as we should say, the Masters of the great trading guilds. The number of those guilds which contributed members to the governing body seems to have been gradually increased. At first only three-the Clothmakers, the Money-changers, and the Wool-dealers-were thus honoured; but by the end of the century, at least twelve, seven greater and five lesser arts, were included. The Priors, as the Fourteen had done, held office for two months only, and various devices were employed to prevent any house or any person from becoming dangerously powerful. Nobles, in order to qualify for office, had to join a guild; and as the nobles, or grandi, were more frequently on the Ghibeline side, this would yet further weaken that party.

Florence had now fairly entered upon a period of great prosperity. Her bankers lent money to kings; her trade extended all over Europe. Pisa, her most dangerous rival, had been utterly crushed by the Genoese in the great sea-fight off Meloria, with a slaughter which seems to have struck awe into the hearts even of the victors; and though she expelled her Guelfs four years later, in 1288, and, in 1291, under the brilliant leader Guy of Montefeltro, won some successes in the field, she was never again a power to be feared. Arezzo gave some trouble as a rendezvous for the banished Ghibelines; but the battle of Campaldino, in 1289, already referred to, broke her strength for a long time. Florence was thus free to attend to the arts of peace. The city walls were extended and new gates built; and several of the buildings, which to this day are among the glories of Florence, date from that period. Still, however, much of the old class-jealousy smouldered; and, as Machiavelli points out, all fear of the Ghibelines being removed, the powerful houses began to oppress the people. Giano della Bella, himself of noble family, casting in his lot with the commons, succeeded in carrying what were called the Ordinances of Justice, whereby, among other things, nobles were absolutely disqualified from taking any part in the government. A measure so oppressive as this was bound to bring about its own appeal, and, as a matter of fact, within two years from its promulgation, Giano was driven into exile, and the nobles were more turbulent than ever. It is at this time that the name of Corso Donati first comes into prominence.

Another event, which was to influence the destinies of Florence and of Dante, occurred shortly before Giano's overthrow. This was the election to the Papacy, in 1294, of Benedetto Guatani, known to history as Boniface VIII. The most vigorous Pope who had held the office for several generations, he soon let it be known that he intended to revive all the claims which his predecessors, Gregory VII. and Innocent III., had made to temporal as well as spiritual supremacy. His first efforts were devoted to getting Tuscany into his hands, and to this end he seems to have intrigued freely with the leaders of both parties in Florence. In theory, of course, where all were Guelfs, the Pope ought to have had little trouble; but there were Guelfs and Guelfs, and it was not long before party differences were emphasised, and, so to say, crystallised, by party names. Curiously enough, these again appear first at Pistoia. A family feud there had led to two branches of the Cancellieri being distinguished as Black and White, and towards 1300 the names appear at Florence. The Donati headed the Black faction; their rivals, the Cerchi, the White. The latter represented the more orderly section of the community; the former reproduced all the worst features of the old Ghibeline aristocracy, though in the end it was the Whites who had to coalesce with the Ghibelines. At first, indeed, it would seem as if Boniface might have been willing to work with the Whites. He sent for Vieri de' Cerchi, the leader of that party, and tried to induce him to live peaceably with the other side. Vieri, for reasons which we can only conjecture, replied curtly that he had no quarrel with any one; and Boniface resorted to the old expedient of sending a Cardinal-Matthew of Acquasparta-to reconcile the factions.

We have now reached the critical year of Dante's life-that in which he held the office of Prior. But for the events of this and the next two years, it may be doubted whether the Commedia would ever have come into existence, at least in the form in which six centuries have studied and admired it. Henceforth Dante's own history, rather than that of his times, will be our chief subject.

* * *


[26] In 1300, when the Black and White factions arose, we find among the twenty-eight houses enumerated by Machiavelli, as the chief on either side, only three which in the old days had belonged to the Ghibeline party.

* * *

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top