Better Exile Than Submission: The Passion Of Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri was born in 1265 to Bella and Alighiero Alighieri.  His mother died in Dante’s infancy, and his father passed away when the poet had barely reached fifteen.  It was not a wealthy family by any measure; although Dante’s Florentine lineage was distinguished, his family was unable to convert pedigree to lucre.

His poetic talents were evident from his early years.  La Vita Nuova (The New Life), a poetic work published in 1294, reveals a soul afire with idealistic passion, and hints at greater things to come.  Soon after this he made a fateful decision, whose consequences would define the trajectory of his adult life:  he entered politics.  This turned out to be a mistake; rarely are artists and scholars temperamentally suited to the back-slapping opportunism and interpersonal wrestling matches of the political palaestra.  Dante aligned himself with the so-called “Whites” (Bianchi), a faction of the middle class, and was elected to Florence’s municipal council.  Perhaps the poet’s goal was to win in politics a financial security that would enable him to pursue his literary activities as an avocation.    

In any case, fortune had other plans for Dante Alighieri.  While he was in office, a competing faction—allied with the papacy—known as the Blacks (Neri) attempted what might today be called regime change.  Conflict ensued, and honed the daggers of the factional belligerents.  Through machinations too dreary for us to review here, Dante found himself on the losing side and out of power.  In 1302 he, along with fifteen other Florentines, was convicted of spurious charges and expelled from the city.  A death sentence would await them, the verdict read, should they ever return.  Dante left alone; for some reason, he left behind his family, his sole support and solace.  His property was confiscated.  There then followed a nineteen-year exile that fed on despair, hope, and unmatched literary brilliance.  We cannot hope to understand his personality without appreciating the impact of these formative experiences. 

Like Machiavelli, who would appear on the scene eight generations later, Dante was a believer in a strong central government that might cure Italy of its endless internecine power struggles and factionalism.  The only candidate at the time that might fill this role, he believed, was the Holy Roman Empire; Dante even authored a treatise (De Monarchia) advocating the benefits of centralized power.  But the papacy, jealous of its own temporal perogatives, had long opposed Italian political unification; and in 1329, the Holy See ordered De Monarchia to be publicly burned.  It was placed on the papal Index of forbidden books, and removed only in 1897.  We may begin to grasp why Dante was untroubled by later depicting, in his Inferno, popes and contemporary political figures roasting in Hell. 

Yet Dante, like many exiles, could not avert his thoughts from his native land.  We must see him as a passionate and unrelentingly intense man, blessed or cursed with an imagination like no other.  We do not find in his Divine Comedy the amiable, meandering verses of the Aeneid, nor the clanging, clashing combats, and irrepressible wisdom and humor, that so distinguish the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Yet Dante is the only poet in history fit to be ranked with Virgil and Homer.  For no one who has ever taken the journey with him from the vivid, steaming depths of the Inferno, then upwards through Purgatorio and finally to Paradiso, can ever forget the experience.  This is not theology, as some argue; this is an account of the soul’s migration to its original source, a subject that the greatest ancient philosophers pondered and debated.

Dante could not leave politics alone.  In March 1311 he penned a scalding letter to his fellow Florentines, denouncing them for not submitting to the authority of the German emperor Henry VI.  The excerpt below conveys the tone of the whole:

But you, who transgress every law of God and man, and whom the insatiable greed of avarice has urged all too willing into every crime, does the dread of the second death not haunt you, seeing that you first and you alone, shrinking from the yoke of liberty, have murmured against the glory of the Roman Emperor, the king of the earth, and minister of God; and under cover of prescriptive right, refusing the duty of submission due to him, have chosen rather to rise up in the madness of rebellion?…

The hopes which you vainly cherish in your unreason will not be furthered by your rebellion; but by this resistance the just wrath of the king at his coming will be but the more inflamed against you, and mercy, which ever accompanies his army, shall fly away indignant; and where you think to defend the threshold of false liberty, there in sooth shall you fall into the dungeon of slavery.  For…it sometimes comes to pass that by the very means whereby the wicked man thinks to escape the punishment which is his due, he is the more fatally hurried into it; and that he who wittingly and willingly is a rebel against the divine will, is unwittingly and unwillingly a soldier in its service.  [P. Toynbee, Letters of Dante (1920), p. 77]

Such denunciations, of course, did nothing to win him friends in Florence.  Henry chose to leave Florence alone, and then died suddenly in 1313.  There now seemed to be no chance that Dante would ever return to his native city.  This final, crushing disappointment sent him into isolation; he secluded himself in the monastery of Santa Croce in Gubbio, where he apparently wrote most of the Divine Comedy

A glimmer of hope seemed to appear around 1316.  Florence decided to issue a general amnesty to all exiles, including Dante and his sons, under certain conditions.  The requirements were that the penitent returnees pay a fine, walk through the streets in contritional clothing, and accept a perfunctory period of incarceration.  In short, any returning exile would have to ask forgiveness and submit to a pro forma punishment.  But this was something the prickly and dignified Dante could not do.  Years of exile and suffering had sown a lasting sense of grievance in his breast; and his astringent pride could not accept conditions that seemed more debasing than redemptive.  A friend informed Dante of Florence’s amnesty.  In response, he penned a letter that is more revealing of his character than a dozen cantos of the Divine Comedy.  We reproduce it here in full:

From your letter, which I received with due respect and affection, and have diligently studied, I learn with gratitude how my recall to Florence has been the object of your care and concern; and I am the more beholden to you therefore, inasmuch as it rarely happens that an exile finds friends.  My reply to what you have written, although perchance it be not of such tenor as certain faint hearts would desire, I earnestly beg may be carefully examined and considered by you before judgement be passed upon it.

I gather, then, from the letter of your nephew and mine, as well as from those of sundry other friends, that, by the terms of a decree lately promulgated in Florence touching the pardon of the exiles, I may receive pardon, and be permitted to return forthwith, on condition that I pay a certain sum of money, and submit to the stigma of the oblation—two propositions, my Father, which in sooth are as ridiculous as they are ill-advised—ill-advised, that is to say, on the part of those who have communicated them, for in your letter, which was more discreetly and cautiously formulated, no hint of such conditions was conveyed.

This, then, is the gracious recall of Dante Alighieri to his native city, after the miseries of well- nigh fifteen years of exile!  This is the reward of innocence manifest to all the world, and of the sweat and toil of unremitting study!  Far be from a familiar of philosophy such a senseless act of abasement as to submit himself to be presented at the oblation, like a felon in bonds, as one Ciolo and other infamous wretches have done!  Far be it from the preacher of justice, after suffering wrong, to pay of his money to those that wronged him, as though they had deserved well of him!

No! My father, not by this path will I return to my native city.  If some other can be found, in the first place by yourself and thereafter by others, which does not derogate from the fame and honor of Dante, that will I tread with no lagging steps.  But if by no such path Florence may be entered, then will I enter Florence never.  What?  Can I not anywhere gaze upon the face of the sun and the stars?  Can I not under any sky contemplate the most precious truths, without I first return to Florence, disgraced, nay dishonored, in the eyes of my fellow citizens?  Assuredly bread will not fail me! [P. Toynbee, p. 159]

Better exile than being paraded as a spectacle; better exile than humiliation.  Dante accepted an invitation to stay in Verona instead, and there apparently completed the final cantos of the Divine Comedy.  Never has a poet contended so strenuously with the world, nor endured such unjust sufferings.  But he never doubted an ultimate redemption, both for himself and for the human soul.  This is why he uses the word “comedy” to describe his work—he means comedy in the ancient theatrical sense of the word, where a story ends on a happy note. 

He was an optimist, but a humorless optimist; his experiences made him so, and it could not be otherwise.  He poured everything he had into his work: his erudition, his suffering, his loves, and his hopes; and if the Divine Comedy seems at times top-heavy with contemporary references, it is because Dante was a participant, and not a passive observer, in the affairs of his time. He was a fighter, not a hermit. His cantos have never been equaled in raw intensity of vision and fury of execution; to him belongs an imaginative savagery that not even Homer can match.  And if sulphurous fumes do indeed rise from the pages of the Inferno, we can be assured that it is because Dante Alighieri had truly been there, and returned to tell the tale.    



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