III. THE POET IN POLITICS

However, there were deviations. Some time after Beatrice’ death Dante indulged himself in a series of light loves—“Pietra,” “Pargoletta,” “Lisetta,” “or other vanity of such brief use.”19 To one lady, whom he names only gentil donna, he addressed love poems less ethereal than those to Beatrice. About 1291, aged twenty-six, he married Gemma Donati, a descendant of the oldest Florentine aristocracy. In ten years she gave him several children, variously reckoned at three, four, or seven.20 Faithful to the troubadour code, he never mentioned his wife or his children in his poetry. It would have been indelicate. Marriage and romantic love were things apart.

Now, perhaps through Cavalcanti’s aid, he entered politics. For reasons unknown to us he joined the Whites or Bianchi—the party of the upper middle class. He must have had ability, for as early as 1300 he was elected to the Priory or municipal council. During his brief incumbency the Blacks or Neri, led by Corso Donati, attempted a coup d’état to restore the old nobility to power. After suppressing this revolt the priors, Dante concurring, sought to promote peace by banishing the leaders of both parties—among them Donati, Dante’s relative by marriage, and Cavalcanti, his friend. In 1301 Donati invaded Florence with a band of armed Blacks, deposed the priors, and captured the government. Early in 1302 Dante and fifteen other citizens were tried and convicted on various political charges, were exiled, and were sentenced to be burned to death if they should ever enter Florence again. Dante fled, and, hoping soon to return, left his family behind him. This exile, with confiscation of his property, condemned the poet to indigent wandering for nineteen years, embittered his spirit, and in some measure determined the mood and theme of The Divine Comedy. His fellow exiles, against Dante’s advice, persuaded Arezzo, Bologna, and Pistoia to send against Florence an army of 10,000 men to restore them to power or their homes (1304). The attempt failed, and thereafter Dante followed an individual course, living with friends in Arezzo, Bologna, and Padua.

It was during the first decade of his exile that he gathered together some of the poems he had written to the gentil donna, and added to them a prose commentary transforming her into Dame Philosophy. The Convivio {Banquet, c. 1308) tells how, in the disappointments of love and life, Dante turned to philosophy for solace; what a divine revelation he found in the seductive study; and how he resolved to share his findings, in Italian, with those who could not read Latin. Apparently he had in mind to write a newSumma or Tesoro, in which each part would pretend to be a commentary on a poem about the beautiful lady; it was a remarkable scheme for redeeming the sensuous with the arid. The little book is a hodge-podge of weird science, farfetched allegories, and snatches of philosophy from Boethius and Cicero. We must mark it as a credit to Dante’s intelligence that after completing three of fourteen intended commentaries he abandoned the book as a total loss.

He took on now the modest task of re-establishing the rule of the Holy Roman emperors in Italy. His experience had convinced him that the chaos and violence of politics in the Italian cities were due to an atomistic conception of freedom—each region, city, class, individual, and desire demanding anarchic liberty. Like Machiavelli two centuries later, he longed for some power that would co-ordinate individuals, classes, and cities into an orderly whole within which men might work and live in security and peace. That unifying power could come either from the pope or from the head of the Holy Roman Empire, to which northern Italy had long been subject in theory. But Dante had just been exiled by a party allied with the papacy; an uncertain tradition says that he had taken part in an unsuccessful embassy from Florence to Boniface VIII; and for a long time the popes had opposed the unification of Italy as a danger to their spiritual freedom as well as their temporal power. The only hope of order seemed to lie in the restoration of Imperial control, in a return to the majestic pax Romana of ancient Rome.

So, at a date unknown, Dante wrote his provocative treatise De monarchia. Writing in Latin as still the language of philosophy, Dante argued that since the appropriate function of man is intellectual activity, and since this can proceed only in peace, the ideal government would be a world state maintaining a stable order and uniform justice over all the earth. Such a state would be the proper image and correlate of the celestial order established throughout the universe by God. Imperial Rome had come nearest to being such an international state; God’s approval of it was made manifest by His choosing to become man under Augustus; and Christ Himself had bidden men accept the political authority of the Caesars. Obviously the authority of the ancient Empire had not been derived from the Church. But the Holy Roman Empire was that older Empire revived. It is true that a pope crowned Charlemagne, and thereby appeared to make the Empire subordinate to the papacy; but the “usurpation of a right does not create a right; if it did, the same method could show the dependency of ecclesiastical authority on the Empire after the Emperor Otto restored Pope Leo and deposed Benedict.”21 The right of the Empire to govern was derived not from the Church but from the natural law that social order requires government; and since natural law is the will of God, the state derives its powers from God. It is indeed proper that the emperor should acknowledge the superior authority of the pope in matters of faith and morals; but this does not limit the sovereignty of the state in “the earthly sphere.”22

The De monarchia, despite a scholastic mechanism of disputation no longer appetizing to the fashions of thought, was a powerful argument for “one world” of government and law. The manuscript was known only to a few during the author’s lifetime. After his death it was more widely circulated, and was used as propaganda by the antipapal Louis the Bavarian. It was publicly burned by order of a papal legate in 1329, was placed on the papal Index of Forbidden Books in the sixteenth century, and was removed from that Index by Leo XIII in 1897.

According to Boccaccio,23 Dante wrote the De monarchia “at the coming of Henry VI.” In the year 1310 the King of Germany invaded Italy in the hope of re-establishing over all the peninsula except the Papal States that Imperial rule which had died with Frederick II. Dante welcomed him with excited hopes. In a “Letter to the Princes and Peoples of Italy” he called upon the Lombard cities to open their hearts and gates to the Luxembourg “Arrigo” who would deliver them from chaos and the pope. When Henry reached Milan Dante hastened thither and threw himself enthusiastically at the feet of the Emperor; all his dreams of a united Italy seemed near fulfillment. Florence, heedless of the poet, closed her gates against Henry, and Dante publicly addressed an angry letterScelestissimis Florentines—“to the most criminal Florentines” (March, 1311).

Know ye not God hath ordained that the human race be under the rule of one emperor for the defense of justice, peace, and civilization, and that Italy has always been a prey to civil war whenever the Empire lapsed? You who transgress laws human and divine, you whom the awful insatiability of avarice has led to be ready for any crimes—does not the terror of the second death harass you, that ye, first and alone … have raged against the glory of the Roman prince, the monarch of the earth and the ambassador of God? … Most foolish and insensate men! Ye shall succumb perforce to the Imperial Eagle!24

To Dante’s dismay Henry took no action against Florence. In April the poet wrote to the Emperor like a Hebrew prophet warning kings:

We marvel what sluggishness delays you so long…. You waste the spring as well as the winter at Milan…. Florence (do you perchance know it not?) is the dire evil…. This is the viper … from her evaporating corruption she exhales an infectious smoke, and thence the neighboring flocks waste away…. Up, then, thou noble child of Jesse!25

Florence responded by declaring Dante forever excluded from amnesty and from Florence. Henry left Florence untouched, and passed via Genoa and Pisa to Rome and Siena, where he died (1313).

It was a crowning disaster for Dante. He had staked everything on Henry’s victory, had burned all bridges to Florence behind him. He fled to Gubbio, and took refuge in the monastery of Santa Croce. There, apparently, he wrote much of The Divine Comedy.26But he had not yet had his fill of politics. In 1316 he was probably with Uguccione della Faggiuola at Lucca; in that year Uguccione defeated the Florentines at Montecatini; Florence recovered, and included Dante’s two sons in a sentence of death—which was never carried out. Lucca revolted against Uguccione, and Dante was again homeless. Florence, in a mood of victorious generosity, and forgetting its forevers, offered amnesty and safe return to all exiles on condition that they pay a fine, walk through the streets in penitential garb, and submit to a brief imprisonment. A friend notified Dante of the proclamation. He replied in a famous letter:

To a Florentine friend: From your letter, which I received with due reverence and affection, I have learned with a grateful heart… how dear to your soul is my return to my country. Behold, then, the ordinance … that if I were willing to pay a certain amount of money, and suffer the stigma of oblation, I should be pardoned, and could return forthwith….

Is this, then, the glorious recall wherewith Dante Alighieri is summoned back to his country after an exile patiently endured for almost fifteen years? … Far be it from a man who preaches justice … to pay his money to those inflicting injustice, as though they were his benefactors. This is not the way to return to my country…. If another way may be found … which does not derogate from the honor of Dante, that will I take with no lagging steps. But if Florence is not to be entered by such a path, then never will I enter…. What! Can I not look upon the face of the sun and the stars everywhere? Can I not under any sky contemplate the most precious truths?27

Probably toward the close of the year 1316 he accepted the invitation of Can Grande della Scala, ruler of Verona, to come and live as his guest. There, apparently, he finished—there he dedicated to Can Grande—the Paradiso of The Divine Comedy (1318). We may picture him at this period—aged fifty-one—as Boccaccio described him in the Vita of 1354: a man of medium height, “somewhat stooped,” walking with grave and measured gait in somber dignity; dark hair and skin, long and pensive face, furrowed projecting brow, stern deep eyes, thin aquiline nose, tight lips, a pugnacious chin.28 It was the face of a spirit once gentle, but hardened to bitterness by pain; the Dante of the Vita nuova could hardly have affected all the tenderness and sensibility there expressed; and something of those qualities appears in the pity with which he hears Francesca’s tale. He was grim and austere as became a defeated exile; his tongue was sharpened by adversity; and he became imperious to cover his fall from power. He prided himself on his ancestry because he was poor. He despised the money-making bourgeoisie of Florence; he could not forgive Portinari for marrying Beatrice to a banker; and he took the only revenge open to him by placing usurers in one of the deepest pits of hell. He never forgot an injury or a slight, and there were few of his enemies who escaped damnation from his pen. He had less use than Solon for those who remained neutral in revolution or in war. The secret of his character was a flaming intensity. “Not by the grace of riches but by the grace of God I am what I am, and the zeal of His house hath eaten me up.”29

He poured all his strength into his poem, and could not long survive its completion. In 1319 he left Verona and went to live with Count Guido da Polenta at Ravenna. He received an invitation from Bologna to come and be crowned poet laureate; he answered no in a Latin eclogue. In 1321 Guido sent him to Venice on a political mission, which failed; Dante returned with a fever caught from the marshes of the Veneto. He was too weak to fight it off, and it killed him on September 14, 1321, in the fifty-seventh year of his age. The Count planned to raise a handsome tomb above the poet’s grave, but it was not done. The bas-relief that stands above the marble coffin today was carved by Pietro Lombardo in 1483. There, as all the world knows, Byron came and wept. Today the tomb lies almost unnoticed around the corner from Ravenna’s busiest square; and its old and crippled custodian, for a few lire, will recite sonorous beauties from the poem that all men praise and few men read.

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