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PART TWO:  Exile



Dante in Verona

Dante’s monument in the Piazza della Signoria, Verona

In the opening chapter to this second part “At War with Florence (1302-1304),” Santagata continues to describe the civil war, and the White Guelfs’ movements and consolidations in Pistoia and Arezzo. In the latter city, the anti-Florentine block was unifying and creating alliances with the feudal families of the Apennines, whom they took to be their natural allies. Meanwhile, the Blacks pressed hard, winning victories on Pistoia. In October 1303 Boniface VIII died in Rome, to be replaced by Benedict XI, who attempted to reconcile the Guelf parties—to no avail. He raised many hopes, but more bloody turns to the war were yet to come.

At this stage, Santagata traces the movements of Dante, who may have left Florence before January 1302 and moved to Arezzo to join his allies. It is not clear if he went alone or with his family, as the first set of sentences against him did not affect, for example, his brother. Boccaccio is sure that Gemma went with her husband, but Santagata points out that to leave her in Florence would have made more sense—especially as Gemma was still a Donati, and the Donati were one of the families at the head of the Black Guelf contingent. But as the sentences changed into death sentences, this would have become all the more problematic, and at this stage Gemma would likely have joined Dante in Arezzo or some of the smaller Tuscan towns he was moving between. Throughout this period Dante remained politically active and took part in important embassies, and consequently he moved around Tuscany frequently. But by the beginning of 1303 the coalition in Arezzo moved to Forlì, and Dante surely went with them.

In June 1303, while the coalition leaders were meeting in Forlì, Dante was on a mission to Verona that would substantially alter the course of his own life. He was sent to meet members of the Della Scala, a Ghibelline family with great power. The relationship with the Della Scala family seems rather tense—and, indeed, Dante attacks various members of his host family in the Inferno. But the fact of the matter is that Dante remained in Verona longer than we would otherwise expect, perhaps drawn to stay by the “irresistible charm of a library,” namely the Capitolare that would have contained many volumes inaccessible to him in Florence and Bologna.

From other data, such as Dante’s detailed knowledge of the Veneto region, Santagata concludes that Dante may have been hired by the Della Scala family in some small capacity as a way to repay his stay—allowing him to travel on diplomatic missions. This is an important detail because as an exiled individual under penalty of death, Dante could not count on his wealth or on the protection of Florence, especially in the anti-White regions of the Veneto he appears to have visited, but the protection of the Della Scala name might have allowed him relative autonomy. However, this employment did not last too long. In February of 1304 Dante was still in Verona, but later in the year he was back in Arezzo and not earning any money at all, in a period that Santagata labels “sad poverty.” The historian underlines Dante’s literary and epistolary efforts to connect his poverty with his state of exile. Dante insisted in these years on styling himself as a wanderer and almost a beggar. By the middle of 1304, Dante made moves away from the political arena and distanced himself from the theatre of war.

This opened a period of study and writing that would last at least two years. Santagata’s chapter “Return to Study and Writing (1304-1306)” speculates that Dante moved to Bologna again, where political and employment prospects were much better. The past four or five years provided him with the material that led to the composition of the Convivio, a book designed to (re)educate the Italian nobility. Dante found in the feudal societies outside Florence the values of the lost Florentine golden age, namely a pre-mercantile social organization that still favored the arts and virtuous study over profit-making and a more purely secular morality. In the year that preceded the writing of the Convivio, Dante had been trying to teach Florentine nobles precisely the values they had forgotten, and this book’s explicit aim is to protect the existing nobles under the protection of the Empire and to guarantee “the existence of a civilitas that is human, cohesive and peaceful.” But the Empire had long been inactive and distant, and the institutional forces Dante saw as necessary were by now a mere memory.

Dante LucaThe Convivio, which was never finished, was to consist of fourteen books, each preceded by a canzone followed by a commentary in vernacular prose. Work stopped, however, at the end of the fourth of these books, even though in the period 1303-4, he had written most of the songs already. These songs can be read, and Santagata gives various examples, among biographical reflections on the recent years of Dante’s life. But the “language debate” intervened in this processes—especially as he had come to important realizations in the past five years. Dante realized, with self-admitted surprise, that the Italian language varied from city-state to city-state, and that therefore the Italian ruling classes had no one language to tie them together. It is, in brief, this discovery that leads Dante to work on his now famous De vulgari eloquentia, in which he pioneered much of the abstract theory behind the relatively more modern field of historical linguistics. Pound scholars may find useful a comparison between Dante’s discovery of the hidden depth of language and Pound’s own work on Fenollosa. The two explorations are so different in their particulars, but rather similar in their authors’ fascination with what they perceive to be secrets of languages they had already encountered—and, importantly, both authors approach the linguistic questions from incredibly creative and generative angles (rather than from a more rigorous scientific perspective—even if the semblance of scientism is an essential posture in both). Interestingly, if Cavalcanti has served as a model in the Vita Nova, the object of scrutiny in De vulgari eloquentia is Cino da Pistoia—to whom Pound himself paid homage in his poem “Cino.” [More on Pound and Cino will appear in upcoming issues of MIN.]

All that being said, Santagata’s next chapter “The Penitent (1306-1310)” makes clear that Dante would not be able to stay in Bologna to see if his book would have the desired effect on the professors at the local university. Internal opposition to the White Guelf-sympathizing ruling class led him to flee Bologna by the end of April 1306. The White Guelfs remained active, and even sent embassies to the Pope in an attempt to stabilize relations. These emissaries’ valiant efforts failed, and we must assume that by this time Dante left Bologna, and began to seek out a personal resolution in the form of a pardon. Dante still had some support in Florence he could count on, especially as his wife was a Donati. The plan seems to have worked, initially, as Gemma was re-admitted to the city and seized control of some of the previously confiscated properties as Dante made ready his public request for an official pardon. The Florentine historian Leonardo Bruni reports that Dante made this request with great humility, hoping that good deeds might restore his reputation. The letter requesting the pardon is unfortunately lost, but it is possible to reconstruct some of its generalities, including an important phrase “my people, what have I done to you?” (a quotation from the book of the prophet Micah). Dante’s letter places his own blame in the alliance with the Ghibellines, emphasizing his own role in what had been perceived as one of the greatest acts of treason that the Florentine elite could remember. This perceived treason is grounded in the fact that even though the White Guelfs were oppressed by the Blacks, an alliance with the Ghibellines (who rejected papal interference on nearly all levels) was seen as intolerable.

At this time Dante was in the Lunigiana region, with the Malaspina family that might have helped execute the first phase of the plan (Gemma’s return to Florence). Santagata stresses that we should remember this partly-vagrant Dante who lived in the Apennine regions alongside the Dante of the famous cities like Verona and Florence, for the Apennine regions played an important part in his imagination. There Dante found that the Malaspina family held onto the noble courtly virtues whose loss he had so often lamented, and it was one of the few families he never found reason to repudiate. He seems to have been hired by them in tricky diplomatic tasks (mostly local), and this gave him a way to get to know the wider communities of this region. Meanwhile, no reply (or a negative one) was received from Florence. At a loss, he wished to turn to Corso Donati—but Corso’s own situation was complicated enough, and he was not able to give Dante any substantial help. Santagata reads into a selection of Dante’s rime from this period to give us a sense of how Dante might be responding to his longing to return home, or even registering his discontent towards a negative response. Indeed, Dante begins to style himself further as an exiled poet, and begins to bless his exile for its creative influence. The patronage of the Malaspina paradoxically allowed him to engage with Black Guelfs outside of Florence with increasing success, as if the pardon had been accepted everywhere but Florence. Given these more promising circumstances, it is difficult to understand why Dante left the Lunigiana valley in 1307 for the Casentino region.

The sources for this phase of his life are lacking, and Santagata speculates on various details of his stay there, which he supports with a number of literary readings that are too tangential to explain in detail here. What matters is that Dante was building his reputation as an exiled poet even in Florence where his rime were sometimes read, and by 1308 he had moved to Lucca, where biographical details start to emerge and the story of his life can be resumed with more certainty (even though proofs from the archives remain unclear). Throughout this period, it is unlikely that Dante would have been with his family (except for a mysterious son that appears in a legal document, Giovanni Alighieri). Gemma would likely have stayed in Florence, with Corso, but her brother’s power dwindled by the end of 1308 until he had retreated to Treviso and assumed power there. Corso’s move from Florence to this prestigious position is a sure sign of his weakened hold on Florence—and the results were soon felt as various plots to overthrow him were eventually successful. With his death, all hope of a personal amnesty faded for Dante, and soon he would be forced to leave Lucca as well.

On March 31, 1309, an edict forced Florentine refugees to leave Lucca. Biographers tend to agree that Dante went to study in Paris, but there is very little evidence to support this. Santagata instead proposes a speculative restoration of the biography, suggesting that Dante actually went to Avignon. All we know, in reality, is that in the spring of 1309 Dante left Italy for Paris or Provence, to Avignon, where Clement V had recently established himself, slowly turning the city into a cultural capital of Europe.

It is at this moment, also reading into the finesses of the German Empire, that Santagata begins to analyze Dante’s turn to writing the Commedia as a text about current affairs. This section of his biography may be too difficult to summarize profitably, but the main stages of his argument run as follows. The writing of the Inferno had appropriately been resumed when Dante was in the Lunigiana in 1306. This would have been completed in 1308-9 (published 1314). The Purgatorio was written in the following years and published in 1315 or 1316. The Inferno is read by Santagata as a text that casts Dante in a strongly Guelf position, such that he could also use in his attempts to persuade contemporaries to pardon him—distancing himself from the Ghibellines. We cannot know how much Dante re-worked what he had already written, but it is telling that he steers away from rehashing political problems that he had already raised in the Convivio and the De vulgari eloquentia—limiting himself to restating allegiances instead. Santagata also reads in the Inferno two models of Florentine history. The first is a postured impartiality through which Dante condemns members of all allegiances to hell, his friends as well as his enemies. But this impartiality is a fiction when read in the light of Dante’s current aims to distance himself from previous struggles by proclaiming himself the heir apparent to a series of radical leaders. As such Dante is extremely partial to some of those he damns, and his poetry allows the real disorders of Florentine politics to shine through on this level. Detailed information on his own exile is in fact excluded from the Commedia, and it is recast into a form of universal injustice. Considering much of the cantica had been written before some of the historical event had played out, we can speculate that revisions or additions were made in the early sections to align previous opinions to questions of current politics. In the Purgatorio, Dante appears to retract his “impartiality” and begins to argue in earnest for the Imperial projects. Santagata’s detailed readings are able to bring out that while Dante’s partiality is confusing, this partiality can be understood in direct relationship to his constantly shifting patronage, which forces him to realign enemies and allies at a breakneck pace—the same pace at which he wrote these first two Canticas. After 1316 Dante would return to Verona as the guest of (perhaps) his most famous patron Cangrande della Scala, where he would write some important sections of the Paradiso. Santagata notes here—and he should have done earlier—that the difficulty of navigating the genealogical maze of families is a difficult task, if essential to understanding the composition of Dante’s epic. One way of highlighting this is the emphasis Dante places on female characters who animate much of the poem. The hiatus between the composition of the second and third Canticas coincides—not coincidentally—with Henry VII’s visit to Italy.

Henry VII Holy Roman EmperorIndeed, Santagata’s following section “An Emperor Arrives (1310-1313)” begins with a further political analysis of the central period of the Commedia’s composition. The Imperial history is too complicated and turbulent to report on briefly and linearly, but it is clear that 1310 signals a year of apparent resolution. For years, Dante had been examining the damage done by the papal secular power on Christianity, and the notion of a return to Empire seemed promising to him, to the extent that he saw the divine hand behind the appointment of Henry VII as Holy Roman Emperor in 1309. Henry was particularly appealing to Dante, who had sadly failed to achieve amnesty, in his promises to settle old discords and restore peace, by forcing local authorities to offer amnesties to exiles. Cangrande was, in his capacity as one of the Ghibelline leaders, one of the first to pay homage to Henry VII.

It was to these “old comrades” that Dante returns when he comes back to Italy from France, offering them his skills as an intellectual and political man. For a short time Dante was in Forlì, but he probably left in the second half of 1310 to the courts of Romagna and the Casentino. At that time Henry crossed the Alps into Italy, to be crowned emperor by Pope Clement V. As Henry moved south, the promises of reconciliation seemed realistically achievable. Henry was crowned in Milan, at a symbolic event attended by many ambassadors, but avoided by the Black Guelfs of Florence and their allies. Either at this time, or shortly after, Dante met with the king, presenting him with a manifesto he had written, addressed to all the nobility of Italy. Its message was clear: Dante condoned the reconciliation strategies put forward by Henry and defended the claim to empire to rule Italy in the strongest possible terms. Moving towards his coronation in Rome, Henry encountered resistance from the King of Naples and his allies. Attempts to make a show of force and end local points of resistance clearly demonstrated his favor for the Ghibellines, partly tarnishing his reputation as an impartial reconciliatory emperor. Dante was in the Casentino during the spring of 1311, having to avoid Forlì. From there he wrote two letters that were at once written with an apocalyptic and prophetic style, whilst also dealing with extremely concrete problems of Florentine politics and discussing the question of the inalienability of imperial rights. As northern cities expanded their independent holds on their estates through finance and power-plays, Henry’s reconciliation began to slip from view.

In 1311, and into 1312, Dante was in Genoa, where Henry’s imperial entourage also sojourned for a while. It is here, most likely, that Boccaccio (still a child) met Dante for the only time in his life. There, Dante was welcomed by fellow exiles, and he began to elaborate his political ideas into more developed theories that would later subtend his writing. But this was a difficult period for Henry, who had marched on Rome to find that barricades and defenses had been prepared, blocking him from arriving at St. Peter’s. As part of the following conflict, age-old rivalries between the Colonna and Orsini families, who sided with Henry and the Kingdom of Naples respectively, were fought out in the center of Rome. Henry lost, and decided to be crowned emperor in the basilica of St. John Lateran, controlled by the Colonna. Clement was not present, and Henry was crowned by three cardinals. From there, he made an alliance with the Kingdom of Sicily to enact a pincer movement on the Kingdom of Naples, and on August 1 the attacks began. They were short lived, however, as Henry died of a sudden sickness on August 24th, and the army fell apart. He was buried in Pisa, his Ghibelline stronghold, while all his forces returned to their home cities. Rumors began to spread that Henry had been poisoned by a Dominican priest, and Dante seems to have believed this along with many others—even though the imperial authorities denied it. Dominicans across the region (and their property) were attacked and harmed. The episode is remembered in an obscure passage of the Purgatorio (XXXIII 34-36).

Dante was likely present at the funeral, and was therefore in Pisa by 1312. It was the first time he had been in the city, even though almost twenty-five years earlier he had attacked its walls with the Florentine cavalry, but failed to seize it (it was defended by Guido da Montefeltro). It is here in Pisa that Dante began to write his philosophical and legal treatise, the De Monarchia. Santagata’s summary of the short book is extremely useful, concise, and indicative of his ability to synthesize information in context—especially considering how different this text is (at least in its conception) to much of Dante’s other works.

With this exegesis this important chapter of the biography comes to a close, and Santagata’s next is provocatively titled “The Prophet (1314-1315).” The transition picks up again from Henry’s death in 1312, reading into that moment the birth of a “mission” for Dante to continue to engage politically in the affairs of church and state, seeking out his persistent objectives. In 1313-5, Ghibelline activity was strong and Dante therefore remained highly committed to his politics. Santagata notes that in this period of (what we might expect to be) disillusionment Dante instead develops his personal sense of ambition into a “prophetic” voice, transforming his often intermediary role in politics into a personal and even egocentric role. “The more he is alone,” Santagata writes, “the more he claims to speak in the name of everyone. In the Commedia he goes as far as claiming to speak in the name of God” (282). The autobiographical character Dante constructs is therefore prophetic in the original sense too, not predicting the future but reporting from the afterlife experiences that underpin his Commedia. His fictio provides him with a self-investiture, going beyond his will as author.

The Purgatorio registers the vacant empire in its discussions of government; its political and historical pictures paint Italy in a time of great turmoil, but almost no part contains prophetic inspiration per se, until the prophetic vision of Beatrice in the closing canti. Santagata reads these tortuous and allegorical cantos with great finesse, highlighting the emphasis on the otherworldly and transcendental—connecting those images to the lament of an Empire in decline, a failed state of reconciliation. Santagata goes into various questions that cannot be repeated here but that are of major concern to Dantean scholars, each time evaluating positions held by the Dantean community. This section of the biography can provide a first lucid access to these difficult scenes for readers who have not approached the Commedia before.

Dante’s whereabouts in 1315 are unknown, although the political situation in Florence and his relationship to the city makes us wish we knew more. In 1316 the city offers an amnesty, but requires the payment of a fine. This is not a pardon—and Dante rejects the offer to return to Florence out of pride. Later, as the Montecatini take over Florence, a second amnesty is offered and those who had been sentenced to death by the Black Guelfs are asked to appear before the court so as to have their sentence commuted to internment. Dante does not appear before this court, and dramatically this leads to the issuing of a second death sentence. He is also banished anew from the city he did not return to, leaving his person, family and property at risk.

can grandeDante’s response is chronicled by Santagata under the heading “Courtier (1316-1321).” As the rift with Florence grew wider, his political allegiances to Tuscany more generally began to dissipate. Lombardy could offer him support, in Milan and Verona, the latter controlled by Cangrande since Henry VII had appointed him the town’s ruler. It is not clear when Dante arrived in Verona, but we know he was unlikely to have known Cangrande well, who would only have been thirteen when Dante last stayed with the della Scala family in 1304. Santagata takes some time to investigate the (over-)emphasis laid on Cangrande in Dante’s life, concluding that while he was certainly an important patron from 1316, scholars tend to look for reasons to connect too much Dante’s work with the influence of Cangrande. Santagata considers the famous letter to Cangrande with Dante’s dedication of the Paradiso, a weak form of evidence, commenting acutely on its still-disputed authenticity. He close-reads the document to provide further commentaries and his effort to make the letter accessible is welcome given how little emphasis this letter receives in non-specialist scholarship. Santagata also delves into the speculations about Dante’s alleged career as sorcerer or necromancer—false anecdotes that are often overlooked in scholarship, but which Santagata explains as a natural result of contemporary perceptions of Dante’s astrological studies, and his claim to have lived the Inferno in the flesh, rather than as a mere vision.

Dante reached Ravenna around 1319, accompanied by his family. Here Santagata faces another problem of authenticity—the mysterious cosmological text Questio de aqua et terra attributed to Dante. He calmly looks at the problem from various angles before rejecting the attribution on practically all grounds. In Ravenna, Dante’s political interests seem to wane (something Santagata also notes about the last cantos of the Commedia). His move to the city seems to have been motivated less by political allegiances than by a desire to establish better conditions for his family, access to wider resources (libraries, chiefly), and to avoid distractions that would slow down progress on the Paradiso. He received kind treatment at the “court” of the lord of the city, Guido Novello da Polenta (the nephew of Francesca, Inferno V). His presence in Ravenna also conferred honor upon that small town, and the city allowed him to benefit from some church incomes in exchange for his son acting as a rector. As a result of all this, Dante (finally) achieved some calm and relative prosperity in his life. He was surrounded by his children, his wife, for the first time certainly all reunited (although this may have happened at earlier stages of his life, we have no evidence to prove it). He also had pupils and admirers of his work, and alongside these, he enjoyed the company of many intellectuals and literary men. It is peculiar—but not uncharacteristic, as we can recall from the opening of the biography—that Dante should depict himself, in this phase of his life, as a man alone and misunderstood.

dantes lettersnHe was not alone in fact, though his company would never rival his old Florentine companions like Cavalcanti or Cino. His interactions with Giovanni del Virgilio, with whom he discussed and corresponded at length, seem to revolve around questions of the vernacular. Interestingly, Dante defends all of his older work—but he does not feel the need to speak for the Commedia, perhaps thinking it naturally carried its own weight. The two would continue to exchange letters in the form of eclogues.

Santagata reads Dante’s “farewell to history” in the closing phases of Paradiso (that tend to no longer engage as strongly with current affairs) with the new city Dante is living in. After Canto XXI, Dante will return to secular matters to express a hope that his merit would be recognized in Florence (something already foreshadowed by Cacciaguida’s appearance in canto XVI). He longs for the “fair fold,” hoping the “cruel” hearts of the Florentines will recognize him as a master of the vernacular tongue. His picture of Florence in these cantos either willingly or accidentally avoids mentioning the changes in Florentine architecture, especially around the church complex, which creates the mirage that Dante is still conceiving of the city with an ancient loyalty and melancholy.

Giovanni di Virgilio invited Dante to Bologna—but he reluctantly refused this invitation, perhaps moved by the welcome he had received in Ravenna, but also moved by a mysterious fear of someone whom he terms “Polyphemus” in one of his eclogues. It was likely Fulcieri da Calboli, an old acquaintance of Dante’s from Florence, and a vicious attacker of the White Guelfs. Fulcieri had been assigned the captaincy of the city of Bologna in 1321. Once more, the past would not allow Dante to move on with his desire to seek out the learned company of Bologna. The exchange of eclogues continued, and later Giovanni di Virgilio would say that Dante was the first to revive that ancient genre—and indeed, these poems would later reach Petrarch and Boccaccio, and go even further.

In 1321 Dante went as an ambassador to Venice to avoid a war that might otherwise have destroyed Ravenna. On his return, he fell ill—probably with malaria—and died on September 13, after sunset. He was given a solemn funeral in the church of San Francesco, where the Polenta family was interred. Guido Novello (who had sent Dante north) oversaw all the proceedings and delivered a long sermon at Dante’s house, announcing that he would erect an ornate tomb for Dante. He seems to have organized a competition to find an epitaph, and many were submitted. But Guido was caught in political maneuvers and killed within a year, and the tomb remained unbuilt.

The last eclogue seems to have been forwarded to its destination by Dante’s son, and the question of the Paradiso remains an open one. Santagata is certain it was completed before Dante’s death. The last thirteen cantos, Boccaccio tells us, were not located for some time until Iacopo, his son, was told where they were in a dream. This anecdote certainly may have helped the early promotion of the Commedia, but other evidence suggests that Dante, having completed the poem, had given readings and circulated the final sections in Ravenna already. In the space of a few years, also thanks do Dante’s son, it would become the most widely read vernacular book of its time. 

Dantes tomb Ravenna

    Dante’s tomb in Ravenna, 1781.