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   Chapter 6 DANTE’S EXILE

Dante: His Times and His Work By Arthur John Butler Characters: 22789

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

Towards the end of the thirteenth century, Dante's name begins to appear in public documents as taking a share in the business of the State. Thus he spoke in the "Council of the Hundred" on December 10, 1296, and in the following March, in opposition, it would seem, to a proposal of a grant to King Charles II. of Apulia. In May, 1299, he acted as ambassador from Florence to the neighbouring city of San Gemignano, the only one of all the numerous embassies ascribed to him by some biographers in which modern criticism will still allow us to believe. Finally, in 1300, probably from June 15th to August 15th, he served his term as Prior.

The Constitution of Florence at this time was somewhat complicated. It will be sufficient to say here that the government was carried on by a committee of six priors, who held office for two months only; and that in order to be eligible for the offices of State a man had to be enrolled in one of the twelve trading guilds known as Arts, of which seven ranked as "greater," five as "less." Dante belonged to one of the "greater arts," that of the speziali, "dealers in spices," which included the apothecaries and, as it is believed, the booksellers. The number of priors was so large, and their tenure of office so short, that the selection of any particular citizen would hardly imply more than that he was regarded as a man of good business capacity; but in 1300 public affairs in Florence were in such a critical state, that one may well suppose the citizens to have been especially careful in their choice. In the previous April an accusation had been brought by Lapo Salterelli (afterwards one of Dante's fellow-exiles, not held by him in much esteem), who then was Prior, against three citizens of Florence-Simon Gherardi, Noffo Quintavalle, and Cambio, son of Sesto, of conspiring against the State. The facts are somewhat obscure, but, as it appears that they were all connected with the Papal Court, and that Boniface made strong efforts to get the fine imposed on them remitted, we may conjecture that they had in some way abetted his scheme of "getting Tuscany into his hands." In a remarkable letter addressed to the Bishop of Florence, in which a good deal of the argument, and even some of the language, of Dante's De Monarchia is curiously paralleled, of course from the opposite point of view, the Pope requires the attendance before him of Lapo (whom he styles vere lapis offensionis) and the other accusers. As may be supposed, no notice was taken of this requisition, and the fines were duly enforced.

Boniface's letter is dated from Anagni, on May 15th. Before it was written, the first actual bloodshed in the feud between the Black and White parties had taken place. Some of the young Donati and Cerchi, with their respective friends, were in the Piazza di Santa Trinità on May 1st, looking on at a dance. Taunts were exchanged, blows followed, and "Ricoverino, son of Messer Ricovero de' Cerchi, by misadventure got his nose cut off his face." The leading Guelfs, seeing what a chance the split in their party would offer to the Ghibelines, sought the mediation of the Pope. Boniface was of course willing enough to interfere, and, as has been said, sent Matthew of Acquasparta, Cardinal of Ostia, a former General of the Franciscans, to Florence as peacemaker. He arrived just about the time when the new Priors, including, as we must suppose, Dante, were entering on office, and was received with great honour. But when it came to measures of pacification, he seems to have had nothing better to suggest than the selection of the Priors by lot, in place of their nomination (as had hitherto been the custom) by their predecessors and the chiefs of the guilds. "Those of the White party," says Villani, "who controlled the government of the country, through fear of losing their position, and of being hoodwinked by the Pope and the Legate through the reform aforesaid, took the worser counsel, and would not obey." So the familiar interdict was launched once more, and the Legate departed.

In the city, things went from bad to worse. At the funeral of a lady belonging to the Frescobaldi, a White family, in the following December, a bad brawl arose, in which the Cerchi had the worst of it. But when the Donati, emboldened by this success, attacked their rivals on the highway, the Commune took notice of it, and the assailants were imprisoned, in default of paying their fines. Some of the Cerchi were also fined, and, though able to pay, went to prison, apparently from motives of economy, contrary to Vieri's advice. Unluckily for them, the governor of the prison, one of their own faction, "an accursed Ser Neri degli Abati," a scion of a family which seems, if we may trust Dante's mention of some of its other members, to have made a "speciality" of treacherous behaviour, introduced into the prison fare a poisoned millet-pudding, whereof two of the Cerchi died, and two of the opposite party as well,[27] "and no blood-feud came about for that"-probably because it was felt that the score was equal.

The Blacks now made a move. The "captains of the Guelf party," who, though holding no official position, seem to have exercised a sort of imperium in imperio, were on their side; and a meeting was held in Holy Trinity Church, at which it was resolved to send a deputation to Boniface, requesting him to take once again what seems to us-and indeed was-the fatal step of calling in French aid. The stern prophecy which Dante puts into the mouth of Hugh Capet in Purgatory was to be fulfilled:-

"I see the time at hand

That forth from France invites another Charles

To make himself and kindred better known.

Unarm'd he issues, saving with that lance

Which the arch-traitor tilted with; and that

He carries with so home a thrust, as rives

The bowels of poor Florence."

We may probably date from this Dante's final severance from the Guelf party; and, at any rate, we may judge from it the real value of Guelf patriotism.

It must be remembered that the Black faction was still but a faction. The conspiracy leaked out, and popular indignation was aroused. The Signoria that is, the Priors, took action. Corso Donati and the other leaders were heavily fined, and this time the fines were paid. Probably they did not wish to taste Ser Neri degli Abati's cookery a second time. A good many of the junior members of the party were banished to Castello della Pieve; and at the same time, "to remove all jealousy," several of the White leaders were sent to Serezzano (which we now call Sarzana)-a weak and unlucky attempt at compromise. They were, indeed, soon allowed to return, their place of exile being unhealthy; so much so that one of them, Dante's most intimate friend, Guido Cavalcanti, died in the course of the winter from illness contracted there.

Cardinal Matthew seems not to have actually left Florence till after the beginning of 1301. We are told that among his other demands (probably made on this occasion), was one to the effect that Florence should furnish a hundred men-at-arms for the Pope's service; and that Dante, who, after his term of office as Prior, remained a member of the council, moved that nothing should be done in the matter. Indeed, in the scanty notices which we have of his doings in this critical period, he appears as the steady opponent of all outside interference in the affairs of Florence, whether by Pope or Frenchman. In the face of this it is hard to understand how the famous story of his having gone on an embassy to Rome-"If I stay, who goes? If I go, who stays?"-can ever have obtained credence. Some words like those he may well have used, in the magnificent self-consciousness which elsewhere made him boast of having formed a party by himself; but we cannot suppose that he would at any time in the course of 1301 have thus put his head into the lion's mouth. That Boniface was at the time of the supposed mission not at Rome but at Anagni is a minor detail.

If all the White party had possessed Dante's energy, Florence might have been saved. Vieri de' Cerchi had, indeed, as we have seen, spirit enough to tell the Pope in effect to mind his own business, and he was not devoid of shrewdness; but he seems to have been incapable of any sustained vigour in action. The party as a whole were probably as corrupt as their rivals, and less astute-"an evil and foolish company," as Dante afterwards called them by the mouth of Cacciaguida. Corso Donati, on the other hand, was a bold and reckless intriguer. He followed up the conspiracy of the Santa Trinità by hastening to the Papal Court, and inducing Boniface to send at once for Charles of Valois, brother of the French king, Philip the Fair. Charles obeyed the summons readily, in the hope, says Villani, of the Imperial crown. After a visit to the Pope at Anagni, he entered Florence on All Saints' Day, 1301. All opposition on the part of the Whites was disarmed by the assurance that he came only as "peacemaker;" and a meeting, "at which I, the writer, was present," was held in the Church of Santa Maria Novella. Charles, "with his own mouth, undertook and swore, and promised as a King's son to maintain the city in peace and good estate; and incontinently by him and by his people the contrary was done." Armed men were introduced; Corso Donati, though under sentence of banishment, entered with them, Vieri de' Cerchi, in foolish confidence, forbidding his arrest. The populace, promptly seeing who were the masters, raised a shout of "Long live Lord Charles and the Baron" (the name given to Corso); and the city was given up for a week to burning and pillage. A second visit from the Cardinal of Acquasparta produced no result, save a momentary truce and another interdict. Throughout the early months of 1302, killings and slayings went on, Corso's only son, among others, being mortally wounded in the act of murdering one of the Cerchi. Finally, one of the French knights, acting in the capacity which to this day is regarded as peculiarly suited to the French genius, that of agent provocateur, induced some of the White party, by offers of help, to form some kind of conspiracy against Charles's person. This plot being duly reported, the conspirators fled on April 4th, some to Pisa, some to Arezzo, some to Pistoia, and joined the already exiled Ghibelines. They were condemned as rebels, and their houses destroyed. From this time the Whites and Ghibelines form one party.

Whether Dante actually went with them is a perplexing question which has never been thoroughly solved, but is of sufficient interest to delay us for a while. In the short biography of the poet which Villani gives when recording his death, we read: "This Dante was a citizen of Florence, honourable and of old family, belonging to the ward of St. Peter's Gate, and a neighbour of ours. His exile from Florence was for the reason that when Lord Charles of Valois, of the house of France, came to Florence in 1301 and drove out the White party, as is mentioned above under the date, the said Dante was one of the chief governors of our city, and belonged to that party, Guelf though he was; and therefore, for no other fault, he was driven forth and banished with the said White party from Florence." This seems very explicit, but there are difficulties in the way of taking it quite l

iterally. A document exists, dated January 27, 1302, in which the Podestà, Cante de' Gabrielli of Gubbio, charges Dante Alighieri and three others with various offences, the chief being baratteria (or corrupt jobbery in office), the use of public money to resist the entrance of Charles of Valois, and interference in the affairs of Pistoia with the view of securing the expulsion from that city "of those who are called Blacks, faithful, men devoted to the Holy Roman Church," which had taken place in May, 1301. It is stated that, having been duly summoned, they had contumaciously absented themselves, which seems to show that they were not in Florence; and they are sentenced to pay five thousand florins apiece within three days, or, in default, be banished and have their houses destroyed and their goods confiscated; and in any case they were banished for two years. A second decree of March 10th condemns Dante and fourteen others, among them Lapo Salterelli, if they fall into the power of the Commonwealth, to be burnt to death.

As has been said, Dante must clearly have been out of Florence when this document was launched. Leonardi Bruni says he was at Rome on an embassy when the Whites left Florence, and that he hastened to join his party at Siena; but for the reasons already given, this story of the embassy cannot be accepted. Some have suggested that as at Florence the old style prevailed, under which March 26th was New Year's Day, the two sentences really belong to what we should now call 1303, when Dante had undoubtedly been in exile for some months, and this is corroborated by Benvenuto's statement, "bannitus fuit anno MCCCIII."-"bannitus" meaning, no doubt, "placed under ban," as distinct from voluntary exile. But it appears that Cante de' Gabrielli went out of office in June, 1302. So, unless we can suppose this last date to be wrong-and there is some little ground for suspecting it-we must assume that, though a Florentine official, he did not use Florentine style, and that Dante, with some few others of the leading White Guelfs, was compelled to fly sooner than the bulk of his party. He may very well have been regarded as a specially dangerous opponent.

That there was any foundation for the charge of corruption it is impossible to believe. Dante's faults were many, but they did not lie in that direction; and the honest Villani, though he appears to have sided with the Black party, and indeed held office himself as Prior only a few years later, seems to have introduced the words which we have italicised in the passage given above, with the express intention of indicating this. On the other hand, it may be noted that the charge was ingeniously devised. Dante is known to have been in debt, for some of his notes-of-hand exist, belonging to the years preceding 1300; while in the course of 1301 he was engaged in superintending the performance of certain public works in the city. Thus it would be matter of common knowledge both that he was short of money and that he had recently been in a position offering good opportunities for peculation, a fact of which his unscrupulous adversaries would naturally avail themselves. We may perhaps see, in the large space which he devotes, in the Hell, to the crime of baratteria, evidence of a wish to express his especial detestation of it.

What, however, we know for certain is that, after some date early in the year 1302, Dante never saw Florence again. Several attempts were made by the exiles to win their way back, but they were uniformly unsuccessful, and only led to fresh sentences against those who took part in them. Whether Dante was among these, at all events during the earlier years of his exile, seems very doubtful. We know from his own words that he had no sympathy with the men with whom he was thrown. Indeed, it was a curious irony of fate which linked in one condemnation his name and that of Lapo Salterelli, a man whom he selects (Par., xv. 128) as an example of the degradation into which the Florentine character had fallen. During this first period he was probably eating his heart, and watching for the coming of the deliverer who, by bringing all the world under one impartial sway, should put an end to faction and self-seeking-the invidia and avarizia against which he is for ever inveighing-and permit every man "to sit at ease and perfect himself in prudence and wisdom;" thus fulfilling his proper task of "making himself immortal," or, as St. Paul phrases it, coming "to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ." It is a noble conception, though the six hundred years which have elapsed since Dante looked for its fulfilment do not seem to have brought us very much more forward in that direction. Still, we can give him the honour due to a lofty standard of political and social conduct in a violent and profligate, if brilliant, age; and we can still read with interest and profit that wonderful repertory of political wisdom, dialectical argument (after the manner of the schoolmen), and passionate pleading for good government, which he calls the Treatise on Monarchy.

The date at which the De Monarchia was composed is uncertain, but it would seem to belong most fitly to the years which immediately succeeded Dante's banishment. The Empire was in the hands of the incapable Albert of Hapsburg while the Pope, from 1305, was the creature of the French King. C?sar and Peter seemed both alike to have abdicated, and the world was going from bad to worse. With the election of Henry of Luxemburg, in 1308, better times may seem to have dawned, when practice might supersede abstract theories. The letter which Dante actually wrote to Henry in 1311 is couched in a far less meditative tone.

During Henry's short reign the Ghibeline cause looked up; nor was his death in 1313 so fatal a blow to it as might have been expected. Several powerful leaders arose, one of whom, Uguccione della Faggiuola of Pisa, won back most of Tuscany for his party. In 1315 he inflicted a severe defeat on the Florentines and their allies at Montecatini, on the border of the Florentine and Lucchese territories; but he was unable to follow up his success so far as to enter the city. Some two months later a third sentence went forth against Dante, in which his sons were included, condemning them, as Ghibelines and rebels against the Commonwealth and people of Florence and the statutes of the Guelf party, to be beheaded whenever taken. It has been plausibly suggested that the two events were not unconnected; and as it is hardly likely that at the age of fifty Dante would have taken a prominent part in the actual fighting, we must suppose it to have been as a leading adviser of the enemy that he was specially obnoxious to the ruling powers at Florence.

The chief importance, however, which Dante's exile has for us, is that with it his great literary activity began. He had, of course, written all his life; and it is quite possible even that some portion of the Commedia had been composed before he left Florence. The story told by Boccaccio is well known. Commenting upon the opening words of Canto viii., he tells us that the preceding portion of the poem had been written before the final catastrophe, and left behind by Dante in his flight, not being discovered for some years. In any case, the Vita Nuova was written, as he himself tells us, before he was twenty-five; and a good deal of the Convito, a work which looks very much as if it had first come into existence as the contents of notebooks, in which materials to be afterwards worked into the great poem were jotted down, was no doubt in writing. But it is to Dante's twenty years of exile that we owe in their completed form the works which place him not only among the world's five or six greatest poets, but in an eminent position among philosophers, theologians, statesmen, and men of science.

We have but little certain information as to Dante's life during his exile. Legends innumerable have sprung up as to his residence here, there, and elsewhere; but most of these are based on the fancies of later writers; or in some cases even on local vanity, which was flattered by the remotest connection with the great name. We can say for certain that he passed some time at Verona, some at Lucca, some at Ravenna, where his sepulchre remains to this day; and with some approach to probability we can place him at Paris, at Bologna, and perhaps at Milan. He may possibly have spent some time in the Lunigiana, and some in the Casentino. All we know is that his life was spent in wandering, that he had no settled home, that he lived on other men's bread, and went up and down other men's stairs. He was honoured, it is true. Great nobles were glad to employ his services, and, as we have said, the fact of his being so often selected by the rulers of Florence for condemnation, shows that at least they regarded him as a man to be reckoned with. But probably the strongest evidence of the estimation in which he was held is to be found in Villani's obituary chapter, wherein his character and accomplishments are set forth with a fulness which the historian elsewhere reserves for Popes and sovereigns; a fulness all the more noteworthy since his name never occurs in the chronicle of events in which he undoubtedly took a leading part.

Only when Italy and Florence had lost him beyond hope of recovery was it realised that he was one of his country's greatest glories. Then chairs were founded from which the most eminent literary men of the age should expound his works; and commentator after commentator-nine or ten before the end of the fourteenth century-cleared up some obscurities and made others more obscure. Of course, so far as historical allusions go, the writers who were nearly or quite contemporary with the events are often of great service; but it is otherwise, as a rule, when a knowledge of books is wanted. We are never so much impressed with the vastness of Dante's reading, as when we see the utter failure of these learned men even to observe, in many cases, that any explanation or illustration of an allusion is wanted. This, however, brings us back to the point from which we started, namely, that much as has been written about Dante, the possible fields of research are by no means exhausted.

The interest of the events which moulded Dante's career and influenced his work has perhaps led to their occupying too large a share of these pages; but it has been thought best to go into the history at some length, as being after all the first and most essential step towards a thorough comprehension of the position which his writings, and especially the Commedia, hold in European literature. This is quite unique of its kind. Never before or since has a poem of the highest imagination served-not merely as a political manifesto, but-as a party pamphlet; and we may safely say that no such poem will in future serve that purpose, at all events until the conditions under which it was produced occur. Whether that is ever likely to be the case, those who have followed the history may judge.

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[27] So I understand an obviously corrupt passage in Villani, viii. 41. One of the unlucky Blacks was a Portinari, doubtless a kinsman of Beatrice-a fact which curiously seems to have escaped the conjectural commentators.

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