Friday, September 15, 2023

Dante in Exile

Pope Boniface VIII had a grievance with Dante Alighieri. Dante at that time was a politician, having been in the very important position of prior of Florence (although for only two months). He was also of the new White Guelph faction that wanted Rome and the papacy to have less influence over the rest of Italy. (Guelphs were originally supportive of papal authority, but the recent Battle of Campaldino resulted in Florence having much more influence over a larger territory, and many Florentines felt they no longer needed the pope's support behind them.)

While Dante was in Rome, Black Guelphs took over Florence, replacing the government with their own people. In March 1302, Dante was accused of corruption and financial wrongdoing while prior. Moreover, although the pope had "kept" him in Rome, the Black Guelphs considered his absence from Florence for so long an admission of guilt and an attempt to flee justice. He was fined and exiled for two years.

He did not pay the fine: not only did he not have access to his assets back in Florence, but also he considered it spurious and he refused to honor it. He was therefore condemned to permanent exile, and threatened with being burned at the stake if he returned to Florence (unless he paid the fine). Dante participated in attempts by White Guelphs to re-take control of Florence, but they all failed. Ultimately, he abandoned ever returning and went to Verona for a time (illustrated above in 1879 by Antonio Cotti). He also spent time in Scarzana, and probably Lucca. Of his wife and family, only one son, Jacopo, accompanied him into exile.

As the guest of others, he had time to write. He wrote an open letter to Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII, urging him to restore the glory of the Roman Empire (and free Florence from the Black Guelphs). He also wrote De Monarchia, proposing a universal monarchy under Henry. Henry did defeat the Black Guelphs in Florence in 1312, but that did not mean Dante would return. There is a suggestion that the White Guelphs were not happy with Dante; urging a foreigner to attack their beloved Florence was inappropriate, to say the least, even if the result was desirable.

In 1315, the person controlling Florence offered general amnesty to exiles, but it required public penance and a fine; Dante objected to both options, earning himself a death sentence. He spent his remaining years in Ravenna, and died there of malaria on 14 September 1321. His grave contains a line by a fellow poet: parvi Florentia mater amoris ("Florence, mother of little love").

His bones remained a point of contention. Florence came to regret their treatment of the poet, and requested that he be interred there in a tomb they built for him, but Ravenna went so far as to hide his remains, and the tomb in Florence remains empty after seven centuries. In 1329, a Cardinal declared Dante's Monarchia heretical, and wanted to dig up his remains and burn them at the stake.

In 2008, Florence officially rescinded the death sentence.

Having come this far with Dante, I suppose it would seem remiss to ignore the work for which he is best known. Comedy for tomorrow it is, then.



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