2021 marks the 700th anniversary of the death of celebrated author and poet Dante. His work the Divine Comedy, a story in verse of love, admiration, intrigue was written whilst in exile from his birthplace of Florence. His story is that of a Soldier, Poet, and Political exile.
Dante’s early life
Dante was born Durante di Alghiero dei Alghieri in 1265 in the Sesto di Porto di San Pietro area of Florence. There is a museum dedicated to him there.
His name was shortened on his baptism as was the custom of the day to Dante Alghieri. To have a surname denoted a family of influence and social standing.
His mother Bella died when Dante was young. His Father remarried and had further children; however, he also died whilst Dante was young. This is all that is known of his parents. Dante never referred to them in any of his works.
As a child and young man, he studied Latin. He continued reading and writing until at the age of 24 when he enlisted with the Florentine cavalry and fought at the Battle of Campaldino on the 11th June 1289.
This Battle and victory celebrations became part of his most famous work, The divine Comedy, in Canto XX11 of the Inferno.
The Battle itself was between Florence and Arrezzo. The Guelfs of Florence, with whom Dante was aligned, and the Ghibellines of Arezzo. Their conflict is worthy of a separate chapter.
Florence and Dante
Suffice to say, Florence was an expanding and prosperous city, one of the largest metropolises of the time with a population of 90,000 – not including religious orders and travellers of which there were many.
Its wealth was enhanced by the development of banking, which made possible the organisation of manufacture and industry. At Dante’s time, when the walls of the city were being enlarged, they were constructing the Cathedral, the Churches of Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella, and the Badia plus the new Palace of the Priors.
The Florentine craftsmen were part of rich and powerful organisations, divided into guilds, of which one of the most powerful was the guild of wool makers. There were also cloth makers, silk merchants, furriers, leather makers and the guild of physicians, surgeons and apothecaries. Only the members of the major guilds could take part in government.
Dante the politician
Dante became a member of the Guild of Physicians, Surgeons and Apothecaries, thus involving himself in the politics of the day.
Florence as a city state was always defending its independence from other states, such as the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor. It also faced internal pressures from warring factions, families, magnates and commoners, vying for power. Hence the need to build family homes as defensive towers.
Dante Alghieri entered political life and was elected as Prior in 1300. To protect the Priors from bribery and corruption they held office for only 2 months and during this time, they lived in seclusion in the Torre della Castagna or Tower of the Chestnuts.
Dante resided there from 15th June to 15th August. It was called the Tower of the Chestnuts because when the priors voted, they did so with chestnuts. What is interesting to note is that the boiled chestnuts used were called “ballotta” and from this name derived the term “ballottaggio”, in English, the word ballot.
The years from 1300
Politically and religiously the year 1300 was significant for Dante. The Pope, Boniface VIII, declared a Jubilee, offering absolution. Of the many pilgrims to visit Rome, Dante was one.
The Pope was also interested in the political manoeuvrings of Florence, suspecting the White Guelfs party had anti papal sentiments. Naturally, Boniface supported their opponents the Black Guelfs and their leader Corso Donati. The whites sent an embassy to the Pope, of which it is said Dante was a member.
In the meantime, peace was shattered in Florence. The Black Guelfs ransacked the city and set plans in motion to banish the Whites. On the 27th January 1302, Dante was accused of corruption, prohibited from ever holding public office again, fined 5,000 florins and banished for 2 years. On 10th March, this was extended to life banishment and a further decree that if he returned to Florence, he would be burned alive.
Dante never returned to Florence, even in death. He wandered as an exile for 20 years.
It was during his exile he wrote the Divine Comedy. Why? Was it an ode to a beautiful lady or was it politically motivated or both?