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Why Dante still divides Italy

Dante and the Divine Comedy, from the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence - Credit: Heritage Images/Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY on a writer who helped shape Italy, and whose fate still consumes the country.

Does anything burn more fiercely in a human being than a sense of injustice? We can all think of times we’ve been wronged or a verdict has gone unfairly against us, trivial or ruinous, that can still have us waking in the dead of night years later, fuming silently in the dark.

If you’re still coming up with inventively painful forms of revenge to exact on that plumber at the turn of the millennium who bodged a leaky pipe and then scarpered, fear not. Two decades are nothing when compared to seven centuries.

Last week an Italian astrophysicist named Sperello di Serego Alighieri announced in Florence that he is investigating the possible re-hearing of a case brought against an ancestor back in 1302. Even a family of the most entrenched loyalties would struggle to keep fanning the flames of grievance for 700 years but in fairness to Sperello his ancestor wasn’t just anyone. Dante Alighieri remains arguably Italy’s greatest ever cultural figure, the author of The Divine Comedy and the man who effectively established the Italian language as we know it today.

This year marks 700 years since Dante’s death, an anniversary commemorated in Italy by a year-long series of events across the country including a conference at which Dante’s descendent will, along with law professor Alessandro Traversi, facilitate a discussion on the legality of Dante’s ancient conviction.

The sentence was no minor slap on the wrist. Charged by a Florentine court with a series of corruption offences that brought a fine of 5,000 florins, two years’ exile from Florence and a ban from holding public office, Dante was on a diplomatic expedition to Rome at the time of trial. Found guilty in absentia, his non-appearance increased his sentence dramatically to being burnt at the stake. Unable as a result to return to his home city Dante spent the last two decades of his life in exile before dying of malaria in Ravenna in 1321 at the age of 56.

Few writers have retained a contemporary profile like Dante Alighieri. From Don Draper reading Inferno on the beach in an episode of Mad Men to Ben Fletcher, policy director of the manufacturing organisation Make UK, only last week comparing post-Brexit red tape to “Dante’s fifth circle of hell”, he has remained stubbornly in the popular consciousness.

Dante revolutionised European poetry by writing in his vernacular Tuscan Italian instead of the usual Latin, making literature a little more accessible to those outside the scholarly elite. The Divine Comedy, in which Dante descends with Virgil as his guide to the lowest circle of hell then proceeds through purgatory to heaven, is one of the great landmarks of global literature, a work of rare beauty, philosophy, theology and wisdom that influenced everyone from Boccaccio to Chaucer to Milton and beyond. Given it was composed after his conviction, the work also facilitates some spectacular, unrestrained score-settling with those who had wronged him.

His elevated status in the literary firmament makes an investigation into Dante’s trial pertinent despite a statute of limitations-busting seven centuries having passed since the verdict was handed down. Even the most cursory examination of the circumstances that brought about the trial, let alone the sentence, throws up major doubts about its legitimacy and shows why the poet’s thoughts might have turned to hell and purgatory and who he might stick in there if he was in charge.

Florence has tried to make amends in the past, with the City Council voting as recently as 2008 to issue an apology for Dante’s treatment at the hands of their predecessors. It wasn’t something Pieralvise Serego Alighieri, a direct descendant, was prepared to accept, telling the Corriere Della Sera at the time that he would not attend the planned ceremony due to the “petty polemics” he felt accompanied the city’s move towards their expression of regret.

“When I read about the council session, I realised it wouldn’t be a heartfelt, collective mea culpa by any stretch of the imagination,” he harrumphed. “I wept when I read remarks by certain communist and Green councillors who voted against the motion.”

“Dante would send us all to hell now, that’s for sure,” sighed Matteo Renzi, mayor of Florence at the time and a future Italian prime minister. “In Florence we are prickly, contrarian and complicated people so it is only fitting that the man who most embodies this city had to die in exile.”

The poet would certainly have found the current era of political chaos entirely familiar. The Florentine late 13th century was tumultuous even by Italian standards, the city riven by a battle between two factions, the Guelphs and Ghibellines. The Ghibellines, broadly speaking, were aligned with the Pope. It would be an exaggeration to call them progressive but they tended to comprise the merchant classes, bankers and traders, people looking to create a society that was less hierarchical and allowed more social fluidity. The Guelphs, meanwhile, were with the Holy Roman Emperor, seeking to preserve a feudal system they felt was working just fine.

By the late 1280s, with Dante among their military ranks, the Guelphs finally triumphed and took control of the city. In 1295 Dante turned 30 and became a member of the Guild of Doctors and Apothecaries, a move designed to make him eligible to hold public office rather than fulfil any desire to be a pharmacist, and in 1300 he was elevated to be one of the city’s priors, the highest level of government.

Unfortunately, and probably inevitably, following their victory the Guelphs had become increasingly riven by factionalism until by the time Dante took office they had become two distinct and opposed groups known as the Black Guelphs and the White Guelphs. The White faction, based around the influential Florentine Cerchi family, eventually superseded the Black side, who were based around the Donatis and had the backing of the Pope. Dante’s elevation suggested that he was with the White side even though he was married to a Donati.

Apparently in an effort to appear above bias while also settling a few old scores the priors exiled members of both factions in a move which if it had been designed to calm the situation did exactly the opposite.

After Dante’s brief term of office had come to an end the White Guelph exiles were pardoned by the priors but their Black equivalents remained banned from Florence. Then in November 1301 the Black faction, backed by Pope Boniface VIII, wrested control from the Whites after a short and vicious power struggle and the recriminations started.

By this time Dante was in Rome seeking to lobby Boniface with diplomatic overtures, but the events at home meant he was in big trouble. Despite not being in office when the decision to recall the White exiles was made, he was tried in 1302 along with 558 other White-associated defendants, convicted of extortion and misuse of public funds and duly sentenced on the basis that “public reports” had “reached the ears and notice of the courts”. Hearsay, in other words.

Dante was forced to spend his final years unwelcome in his own city and fated to seek the hospitality of whoever might have him. While rumours that he ranged as far as Paris and even Oxford seem unlikely to be true, he spent a long period in Verona where from 1308 he worked on what he titled the Commedia, a task he completed shortly before his death in 1321 in Ravenna, where he was living in the court of Guido Novello da Polenta, a fellow poet.

On Dante’s death his host announced plans to construct an appropriately opulent tomb just as soon as he returned from a brief trip to Bologna, leaving his brother to run things. The brother was almost immediately murdered by an ambitious relative who then exiled Guido meaning the promise of Dante’s tomb evaporated as soon as the dagger struck. Instead, the poet was interred in a mausoleum alongside the Basilica di San Francesco where he has remained ever since, despite repeated efforts by a contrite Florence to bring his bones home to atone for what many see as a blatantly political show trial.

“They were political charges and the penalties of exile and death inflicted on Dante, my beloved ancestor, were unjust and have never been cancelled,” Sperello di Serego Alighieri told the Corriere della Sera earlier this month. “If the law permits it, we will seek a revision of the sentence.”

The lawyer Traversi concurred, saying he looked forward to establishing whether the verdict was “the poisoned fruit of politics that exploited justice to strike at an adversary”. The proceedings will be given added spice by the presence of Antoine de Gabrielli, a direct descendant of the presiding official who convicted Dante.

Dante’s status as an Italian national hero has seen him represented as a beacon of integrity but it is unlikely that in the prevailing atmosphere of the times he would have resisted the opportunity to exercise power at least to get even with a few antagonists. The fact he condemned so many of them to various levels of his literary Hell show that he was a man more than willing to bear a grudge. “Joy to you, Florence, that your banners swell,” he wrote in the 25th canto, “beating their proud wings over land and sea and that your name expands through all of Hell!”

He was renowned in his day for a certain spikiness in his character: a rare portrait in prose by a contemporary, Giovanni Villani, acknowledged that Dante was “a great poet and philosopher” but added that he could be “presumptuous, contemptuous and disdainful” as well as possessing a notoriously short temper. That doesn’t mean he was necessarily trousering backhanders, of course. Dante was a wealthy man before his spell as a prior so it’s unlikely he was in it for the cash. He was probably more attracted by the possibility of status and the chance to avenge a few slights than increasing his wealth.

He was offered the opportunity to return to Florence in 1315 but as it depended on the payment of a hefty fine and was nothing like a full pardon he refused and the original sentence was affirmed.

He never stopped dreaming of a return. In The Divine Comedy he writes: “If this sacred poem – this work so shared by heaven and by earth that it has made me thin through these long years – can ever overcome the cruelty that bars me from the fair fold where I slept, a lamb opposed to wolves that war on it, by then with other voice, with other fleece, I shall return as poet and put on, at my baptismal font, the laurel crown”.

Perhaps, if the May conference goes well, he might at least no longer be a criminal in his own city.

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Geoffrey Chaucer (Penguin Classics, £7.99)

The roots of Chaucer’s decision to write in English lay in Dante’s employment of Tuscan Italian rather than Latin, making the London writer effectively the father of literature in English. More directly, The Monk’s Tale among Chaucer’s merry band of Canterbury pilgrims draws heavily on the story of Count Ugolino that featured in The Divine Comedy.


Gloria Naylor (Penguin, £9.99)

Naylor’s tale of two young black poets working in the affluent black community of Linden Hills draws directly on Inferno as the men embark on a journey through their own particular hells in order to learn the price of success and the value of dreams in a searing indictment of 1980s America and the historical legacy on which it drew.


Dan Brown (Corgi, £8.99)

Yes yes, I know, including Dan Brown in a list featuring the phrase ‘great books’ is always contentious but there’s no denying his Robert Langdon series has had a similar impact on literature to that enjoyed by The Divine Comedy in its early life. This fourth book in the series is set in Florence and employs a few lines from Inferno as the key to Brown’s characteristically pacy, racy mystery.


Jodi Picoult (Hodder, £8.99)

The title refers to a comic strip drawn by Picoult’s main character based on Dante’s work, but The Divine Comedy suffuses this 2006 novel, a gripping tale of buried secrets, consequences, long journeys and what happens when the past begins to resurface in the present.


Matthew Pearl (Vintage, £14.99)

In post-American Civil War Boston a group of scholars have gathered to make a new translation of The Divine Comedy, only to find a series of murders commencing in the city that seem to take their inspiration from the text. Seeking to protect Dante’s reputation and using the hints from the book, the translators set out to catch the killer.

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