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9 June 2021

Dante in the dock: Why Florence wants to clear the poet’s name

Seven hundred years after the poet’s death, many believe he should be exonerated of the crimes for which he was exiled from Florence. Was he the victim of a conspiracy?

By Alexander Lee

In early 1302 Dante Alighieri was travelling back from Rome when he learned that he would never see his native Florence again. For the previous few months, he had been on a diplomatic mission to Pope Boniface VIII. Unbeknown to him, he had, during that time, been charged with extortion, bribery, election tampering and abuse of public office, as well as a litany of other supposed crimes, including withholding support from the pope and plotting to “divide” the subject-town of Pistoia. Along with three other ex-officials, he was tried in absentia, found guilty and sentenced to two years’ exile. He was also given a large fine and banned from public office for the rest of his life. At a second trial later in the spring, it was decreed that if he ever returned to Florence he would be burned at the stake.

For the rest of his life, Dante wandered through northern Italy, railing against his fate. But now, 700 years after his death, one of his descendants, Sperello di Serego Alighieri, is trying to put things right. In May he and Alessandro Traversi, a law professor at the University of Florence, hosted a conference to reassess Dante’s trials. As Traversi told the newspaper Corriere della Sera, the event asked whether the verdicts against Dante were “the result of normal judicial proceedings… or the poisoned fruit of politics”. For Alighieri, there was only one possible conclusion. As the conference agreed, Dante’s trials were a “politically motivated” stitch-up. And since there is no statute of limitations, there has been speculation that the courts could be petitioned to reverse Dante’s conviction.

This is understandable, given that Dante is Italy’s pre-eminent poet. It would surely be egregious not to set the record straight if he were the victim of an injustice.

***

Born in Florence in 1265, Dante entered politics at the age of about 30 at a time when his native city was at its boldest and most terrible. Since the death of the Emperor Frederick II in 1250, the city – dominated by the pro-papal Guelph faction – had seen its economy grow rapidly. Trade had prospered, banking had flourished and its currency, the gold florin, had become the international standard. But, as Dante later noted, it was also a “divided city”. Competing for control of the government were two groups: an elite of powerful landowners and bankers, and the popolo, a larger group of artisans and merchants belonging to guilds.

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By 1293 the popolo, led by the wealthy merchant Giano della Bella, had gained the upper hand. It succeeded in barring elite “magnates” from office and in establishing a new form of government. Henceforth, a body of priors, chosen by the guilds alone, would be the city’s main executive body.

For a short time this arrangement worked well, but two years later, in 1295, around the time that Dante was first elected to one of Florence’s councils, it all started to fall apart. Still furious at their treatment, the magnates drove Giano della Bella from the city and broke the guilds’ monopoly on power. Yet no sooner had they done so than they split into rival factions: the “Blacks” and the “Whites”. The rivalry probably had its origins in personal quarrels rather than principled differences. According to the chronicler Dino Compagni, it centred on the “competition for [public] offices”. But its implications reached far beyond the ranks of the elite: in the attempt to destroy each other, the factions forged alliances, not only with foreign powers but also with members of the popolo. Before long, the city was split in two.

Elected to serve as a prior between June and August 1300, Dante found himself catapulted to the forefront of the struggle. Although he was notionally a White, his loyalties were probably not entirely fixed – not least because his wife, Gemma, came from a family of prominent Blacks. But tensions were intensifying to the extent that few had time for fine distinctions. Things had already become violent and, in May 1300, civic celebrations had degenerated into a pitched battle. Worse was to come.

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Centre of the world: Florence has taken pride in being the birthplace of Italy’s greatest poet. Credit: Getty Images

To stave off further unrest, the government ordered the leaders of both factions out of the city. When that failed, Pope Boniface VIII took matters into his own hands. Since Florence couldn’t resolve the situation on its own, he asked Charles of Valois, the King of France’s brother, to step in. Officially, Charles was supposed to be a “peacemaker”, but no one was in any doubt as to his real purpose. When he arrived in November 1301, he brought the Black leader, Corso Donati, with him. Days later, Donati seized control of the government.

A wave of reprisals followed. First, the Blacks vented their fury against the Whites in an orgy of destruction. Then they turned to the law. After appointing Cante de’ Gabrielli, one of Donati’s partisans, as the city’s chief magistrate and passing retroactive legislation to criminalise the Whites’ actions, they unleashed a barrage of prosecutions. In the months that followed, no fewer than 559 Whites would be exiled – including Dante.

Every aspect of Dante’s trials bore the imprint of political intervention. Though care was taken to preserve the appearance of legal respectability, the outcome was never in doubt. The judge appointed to hear Dante’s case, Messer Paolo of Gubbio, was both prosecutor and jury. Relying on “common knowledge” and his own, highly selective, investigations, he alone was responsible for drawing up the charges. These reeked of factional bias. While some, such as extortion and election tampering, were accusations that were frequently levelled against outgoing officials, others, including the charge of withholding support from the pope, were tailored to reflect the political gulf separating the Whites and the Blacks.

The summonses were a farce, too. How long Dante was given to appear before the court is not known but defendants in such cases were typically given roughly three days to respond. As Messer Paolo must have known, Dante would have found it impossible to comply. Then in Rome, he could not have made it back in time, even if he had wanted to. In the eyes of the court, however, this was no excuse. In fact, absence was taken as proof of guilt.

Sentencing Dante on 27 January 1302, the court twisted the knife. Although it was well within its rights to exile, disenfranchise and fine Dante, it must have been obvious that the fine – 5,000 florins – was well beyond the poet’s means (Dante was comfortably off but certainly not rich). Yet the court still decreed that if Dante didn’t pay up, his property in Florence would be confiscated and destroyed. As the court records noted, this was pure “retribution”. That Dante was put on trial a second time in March was just vindictive. No new charges were brought. No new evidence was presented. The sentence – death – only underscored the vehemence of the Blacks’ hatred.

***

But the case for revoking the verdict against Dante is weaker than it might appear. However shocking the proceedings may seem, it is anachronistic to suppose that a distinction can be drawn between “normal judicial proceedings” and “the poisoned fruit of politics”. Although communes such as Florence were proud of their commitment to justice, the “commune” – that is, those who shared in government – often denoted little more than a dominant party or faction, and justice was rarely anything more than an instrument of sectional policy. No one except the victims ever saw anything wrong with rivals being excluded from the political process, and exile was regarded as a legitimate, even desirable, means of establishing political order.

By the time Dante was tried, it had become normal for each change of regime in Florence to be accompanied by a raft of expulsions. A telling example is found in the Inferno, the first part of the Divina Commedia, Dante’s epic tale of a fictive journey through the afterlife. While in the Circle of the Heretics, Dante’s literary alter ego encounters Farinata degli Uberti, the leader of Florence’s pro-imperial Ghibellines, who had defeated the Guelphs at the Battle of Montaperti in 1260. With characteristic pride, Farinata declares that he had “twice” driven Dante’s ancestors out of the city. Dante retorts that not only had they twice returned, but when they did so for the second time, they had also expelled Farinata’s party for good.

Neither was Dante necessarily innocent. The surviving evidence is scant, but there are grounds to believe that he may have been guilty of some of the charges brought against him. Those relating to election tampering and Pistoia are credible. As a member of various councils, Dante had spoken about the election of priors and had been involved in discussions about the Pistoiesi. The accusation of extortion is less certain. In April 1301, Dante had been appointed to oversee the widening of a street, and since this involved paying indemnities to affected property owners, it is possible he found the temptation to line his own pockets too much to resist. But that he opposed giving support to Boniface VIII is beyond question. At a council meeting on 19 June 1301, he is recorded as saying “Let nothing be done in the matter of a subsidy for the pope”; and though his was a lone voice, there could be no denying his position.

Although Dante later claimed that he had “unjustly suffered punishment”, he appears to have come close to admitting his guilt in a canzone written shortly after his exile. Beginning “Three women have gathered round my heart”, this took the form of a dialogue with personifications of Justice, Generosity and Temperance. After mentioning his exile, Dante says that if he were guilty, and remorse can wipe away responsibility, then any blame he bore was long ago effaced. Though the exact meaning of these lines has been debated, the fact that he goes on to beg the Blacks’ pardon suggests that he may have been referring to the crimes of which he had been convicted.

This does not mean that Dante did not suffer. Though the Commedia is set in Holy Week 1300 – before Florence’s troubles began in earnest – a vivid portrait of his exile is given in the form of a “prophesy” by his ancestor Cacciaguida. As Cacciaguida predicts, he will leave everything he “loves most dearly” – his home, his wife and his children. At first, he will throw in his lot with other White exiles and benefit from their financial support. But when a disastrous bid to force their way back into Florence (in 1304) goes horribly wrong, he will break with that “stupid and dangerous bunch” and form a “party of [his] own”. Wandering from city to city, from court to court, he will rely on handouts from men like Bartolomeo della Scala, the Lord of Verona. It will be difficult to take. As Cacciaguida tells him: “You shall find out how salt is the taste of another man’s bread, and how hard is the way up and down another man’s stairs.”

Dante longed to return to Florence. But after the failure of the Whites’ attack on the city in 1304, he was viewed with even more suspicion than before. On 2 September 1311, Florence’s Black government excluded him from a partial amnesty offered to some of the exiles. Nevertheless, there was still hope. A letter indicates that his friends had been lobbying on his behalf, and had even secured a pardon for him. If he paid a fine and did public penance for his crimes, he would be allowed to return. But for Dante  it was too high a price, and he refused. It set the seal on his exile. In October 1315, his death sentence was reconfirmed and extended to his two sons. The following month, the decision was made definitive.

***

But Dante’s standing was not unduly harmed, least of all in the long run. It could even be said that exile was the making of him. Whether necessity stimulated his ambition or distance inspired him to reach beyond the particular, his works grew in richness and scope. Although Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75) thought he started the Commedia before leaving Florence, it was in exile that he completed it, and it was also in exile that he composed The Banquet and On Monarchy, as well as many letters and poems that still rank as landmarks in the history of Italian literature.

Why Dante wrote the Commedia has been much debated. Some believe his purpose was at least partly religious. In Paradiso, he hoped that he could help others pray better. But it was also a deeply political work, written with an eye to finding closure. Although he sometimes spoke of Florence with affection, he veered more towards anger, and used his poetic gift as an instrument of revenge. As Cacciaguida foresees in Paradiso, his vengeance would be “to testify to the truth” about the evils of Florentine factionalism. He exposed the sins to which both Whites and Blacks owed their origins and imposed cruel torture on those who had offended him. Of these, none is more striking than Filippo Argenti, who may have opposed his return from exile. With sadistic bitterness, Dante condemns Argenti to be beaten and gouged by the wrathful and took so much delight in his suffering that, even years later, he “still render[ed] praise and thanks for it to God”. He also sought to erect a vision of imperial government that would compensate for the failures of communes such as Florence and claimed for his reward a fame far outlasting that of his enemies. 

What purpose, then, would overturning Dante’s conviction serve? Since it cannot add anything to his renown, or grant him any satisfaction denied in life, the benefit to his descendants seems negligible. The only real interest is surely to Florence.

Florence has taken pride in being the birthplace of Italy’s greatest poet, yet it has always been pained by the fact that Dante died elsewhere. The need to “reclaim” him, literally and figuratively, has been acute. A good deal of attention has focused on his body and tomb. In 1429 the historian and statesman Leonardo Bruni became the first of many to ask for the return of Dante’s body from Ravenna in northern Italy; in 1465 Domenico di Michelino painted a fresco in Florence Cathedral, showing Dante looking wistfully at the city from outside; and in 1829 an empty tomb was even erected for the poet in the Basilica of Santa Croce.

***

It is nevertheless on Dante’s trials that most effort has been expended. Since these were the root cause of his absence, many Florentines have attempted to cast them as “unjust” aberrations in the hope that they might then be “put right”, and Dante’s Florentine identity re-established in one way or another. Some, like Boccaccio, wrote biographies full of praise; others, such as Cristoforo Landino (1424-98) sought to symbolically restore Dante to the city by preparing editions of the Commedia, while others, such as Girolamo Benivieni (1453-1542), called on Florence to beg his pardon. More recently, in 2008, Florence city council even revoked the sentence of death against him – as if this might somehow persuade him to “return”.

The same goal is perhaps behind the current speculation about overturning Dante’s conviction. And it seems to have struck a chord. With the celebrations marking the 700th anniversary of his death in full swing, support in Italian newspapers is high. Florence is in the grip of Dante fever. Almost every major museum or church – from the Uffizi Gallery to Santa Croce – is holding a Dante-themed event. The Bargello and the University of Florence are putting on a Dante exhibition entitled “Honourable and Historic Citizen of Florence”, and the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno is holding a competition for the best artwork on the theme of “Dante in exile”. Undoing Dante’s conviction would be the crowning glory.

But while it might help Florence “reclaim” its most glorious son, it does Dante himself scant credit. Given that the verdict against him can be revoked only by denying both his guilt and the juridical norms of his day, it grants him a home-coming at the price of a lie. And for a man whose vengeance was to tell the truth, that’s no justice at all.

Alexander Lee is a historian at the University of Warwick and the author of “Machiavelli: His Life and Times” (Picador)

[see also: Mussolini and the rise of fascism]

This article appears in the 09 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Covid cover-up?