Heroes of Modern Europe - Alice Birkhead

Dante—the Divine Poet

There were still Guelfs and Ghibellines in 1265, but the old names had partially lost their meaning in the Republic of Florence, where the citizens brawled daily, one faction against the other. The nobles had, nevertheless, a bond with the emperor, being of the same Teutonic stock, and the burghers often sought the patronage of a very powerful pope, hoping in this way to maintain their well-loved independence.

But often Guelf and Ghibelline had no interest in anything outside the walls of Florence. The Florentine blood was hot and rose quickly to avenge insult. Family feuds were passionately upheld in a community so narrow and so zealous. If a man jostled another in the street, it was an excuse for a fight which might end in terrible bloodshed. Fear of banishment was no restraint to the combatants. The Guelf party would send away the Ghibelline after there had been some shameful tumult. Then the fuori (outside) were recalled because their own faction was in power again, and, in turn, the Guelfs were banished by the Ghibellines. In 1260 there had even been some talk of destroying the famous town in Tuscany. Florence would have been razed to the ground had not a party leader, Farinata degli Uberti, showed unexpected patriotism which saved her.

Florence had waxed mighty through her commerce, holding a high place among the Italian cities which had thrown off the feudal yoke and become republics. Wealth gave the citizens leisure to study art and literature, and to attain to the highest civilization of a thriving state. The Italians of that time were the carriers of Europe, and as such had intercourse with every nation of importance. They were especially successful as bankers, Florentine citizens of middle rank acquiring such vast fortunes by finance that they outstripped the nobles who dwelt outside the gates and spent all their time in fighting. The guilds of Florence united men of the same trade and also encouraged perfection in the various branches. Goldsmiths offered marvellous wares for the purchase of the affluent dilettante. Silk was a natural manufacture, and paper had to be produced in a place where the School of Law attracted foreign scholars.

Rome had the renown of past splendour and the purple of imperial pride. Venice was the depot of the world's trade, and sent fleets east and west laden with precious cargoes, which gave her a unique position among the five Republics. Bologna drew students from every capital in Europe to her ancient Universities. Milan had been a centre of learning even in the days of Roman rule, and the Emperor Maximilian had made it the capital of Northern Italy. Florence, somewhat overshadowed by such fame, could yet boast the most ancient origin. Was not Faesulae, lying close to her, the first city built when the Flood had washed away the abodes of men and left the earth quite desolate? Fia sola—"Let her be alone"—the words re-echoed through the whole neighbourhood and were the pride of Florence, which lay in a smiling fertile plain where all things flourished. The Florentines were coming to their own as the Middle Ages passed; they were people of cunning hand and brain, always eager to make money and spend it to procure the luxury and beauty their natures craved. The "florin" owed its popularity to the soundness of trade within the very streets where the bell, known as "the great cow," rang so lustily to summon the citizens to combat. The golden coins carried the repute of the fair Italian town to other lands, and changed owners so often that her prosperity was obvious.

Florence looked very fair when Durante Alighieri came into the world, for he was born on a May morning, and the Florentines were making holiday. There was mirth and jesting within the tall grey houses round the little church of San Martino. The Alighieri dwelt in that quarter, but more humbly than their fine neighbours, the Portinari, the Donati, and the Cerci.

The Portinari celebrated May royally in 1275, inviting all their friends to a blithe gathering. At this festa Dante Alighieri met Beatrice, the little daughter of his host, and the long dream of his life began, for he idealized her loveliness from that first youthful meeting.

"Her dress on that day was of a most noble colour, a subdued and goodly crimson, girdled and adorned in such sort as best suited with her very tender age. At that moment I say most truly that the spirit of life, which hath its dwelling in the secretest chamber of the heart, began to tremble so violently that the least pulses of my body shook therewith; and in trembling it said these words—'Ecce Deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi.' From that time Love ruled my soul. . . ."

Henceforth, Dante watched for the vision of Beatrice, weaving about her all the poetic fancies of his youth. He must have seen her many times, but no words passed between them till nine years had sped and he chanced to come upon her in all the radiance of her womanhood. She was "between two gentle ladies who were older than she; and passing by in the street, she turned her eyes towards that place where I stood very timidly, and in her ineffable courtesy saluted me so graciously that I seemed then to see the heights of all blessedness. And because this was the first time her words came to my ears, it was so sweet to me that, like one intoxicated, I left all my companions, and retiring to the solitary refuge of my chamber I set myself to think of that most courteous one, and thinking of her, there fell upon me a sweet sleep, in which a marvellous vision appeared to me." The poet described the vision in verse—it was Love carrying a sleeping lady in one arm and in the other the burning heart of Dante. He wished that the sonnet he wrote should be answered by "all the faithful followers of love," and was gratified by the prompt reply of Guido Cavalcanti, who had won renown as a knight and minstrel.

Dante became the friend of this elder poet, and was encouraged to pursue his visionary history of the earlier years of his life and his fantastic adoration for Beatrice Portinari. The Vita Nuova was read by the poet's circle, who had a sympathetic interest in the details of the drama. The young lover did not confess his love to "the youngest of the angels," but he continued to worship her long after she had married Simone de Bardi.

[Illustration] from Heroes of Modern Europe by Alice Birkhead


Yet Dante entered into the ruder life of Florence, and took up arms for the Guelf faction, to which his family belonged. He fought in 1289 at the battle of Campaldino against the city of Arezzo and the Ghibellines who had taken possession of that city. Florence had been strangely peaceful in his childhood because the Guelfs were her unquestioned masters at the time. It must have been a relief to Florentines to go forth to external warfare!

Dante played his part valiantly on the battle-field, then returned to wonderful aloofness from the strife of factions. He was stricken with grave fears that Beatrice must die, and mourned sublimely when the sad event took place on the ninth day of one of the summer months of 1290. "In their ninth year they had met, nine years after, they had spoken; she died on the ninth day of the month and the ninetieth year of the century."

Real life began with the poet's marriage when he was twenty-eight, for he allied himself to the noble Donati by marrying Gemma of that house. Little is known of the wife, but she bore seven children and seems to have been devoted. Dante still had his spiritual love for Beatrice in his heart, and planned a wonderful poem in which she should be celebrated worthily.

Dante began to take up the active duties of a citizen in 1293 when the people of Florence rose against the nobles and took all their political powers from them. The aristocratic party had henceforth to submit to the humiliation of enrolling themselves as members of some guild or art if they wished to have political rights in the Republic. The poet was not too proud to adopt this course, and was duly entered in the register of the art of doctors and apothecaries. It was not necessary that he should study medicine, the regulation being a mere form, probably to carry out the idea that every citizen possessing the franchise should have a trade of some kind.

The prosperity of the Republic was not destroyed by this petty revolution. Churches were built and stones laid for the new walls of Florence. Relations with other states demanded the services of a gracious and tactful embassy. Dante became an ambassador, and was successful in arranging the business of diplomacy and in promoting the welfare of his city. He was too much engaged in important affairs to pay attention to every miserable quarrel of the Florentines. The powerful Donati showed dangerous hostility now to the wealthy Cerchi, their near neighbours. Dante acted as a mediator when he could spare the time to hear complaints. He was probably more in sympathy with the popular cause which was espoused by the Cerchi than with the arrogance of his wife's family.

The feud of the Donati and Cerchi was fostered by the irruption of a family from Pistoia, who had separated into two distinct branches—the Bianchi and the Neri (the Whites and the Blacks)—and drawn their swords upon each other. The Cerchi chose to believe that the Bianchi were in the right, and, of course, the Donati took up the cause of the Neri. The original dispute had long been forgotten, but any excuse would serve two factions anxious to fight. Brawling took place at a May festa, in which several persons were wounded.

Dante was glad to divert his mind from all his discords when the last year of the thirteenth century came and he set out to Rome on pilgrimage. At Easter all the world seemed to be flocking to that solemn festival of the Catholic Church, where the erring could obtain indulgence by fifteen days of devotion. Yet the very break in the usual life of audiences and journeys must have been grateful to the tired ambassador. He began to muse on the poetic aims of his first youth and the work which was to make Beatrice's name immortal. Some lines of the new poem were written in the Latin tongue, then held the finest language for expressing a great subject. The poet had to abandon his scheme for a time at least, when he was made one of the Priors, or supreme rulers, of Florence in June 1300.

There was some attempt during Dante's brief term of office to settle the vexed question of the rival parties. Both deserved punishment, without doubt, and received it in the form of banishment for the heads of the factions. "Dante applied all his genius and every act and thought to bring back unity to the republic, demonstrating to the wiser citizens how even the great are destroyed by discord, while the small grow and increase infinitely when at peace. . . ."

Apparently Dante was not always successful in his attempts to unite his fellow-citizens. He talked of resignation sometimes and retirement into private life, a proposal which was opposed by his friends in office. When the losing side decided to ask Pope Boniface for an arbitrator to settle their disputes, all Dante's spirit rose against their lack of patriotism. He went willingly on an embassy to desire that Charles, the brother or cousin of King Philip of France, who had been selected to regulate the state of Florence, should come with a friendly feeling to his party, if his arrival could not be averted. He remained at Rome with other ambassadors for some unknown cause, while his party at Florence was defeated and sentence of banishment was passed on him as on the other leaders.

Dante loved the city of his birth and was determined to return from exile. He joined the band of fuor-usciti, or "turned-out," who were at that time plotting to reverse their fortunes. He cared not whether they were Guelf or Ghibelline in his passionate eagerness to win them to decisive action that would restore him to his rights as a Florentine citizen. He had no scruples in seeking foreign aid against the unjust Florentines. An armed attempt was made against Florence through his fierce endeavours, but it failed, as also a second conspiracy within three years, and by 1304 the poet had been seized with disgust of his companions outside the gates. He turned from them and went to the University of Bologna.

Dante's wife had remained in Florence, escaping from dangers, perhaps, because she belonged to the powerful family of Donati. Now she sent her eldest son, Pietro, to his father, with the idea that he should begin his studies at the ancient seat of learning.

After two years of a quiet life, spent in writing his Essay on Eloquence and reading philosophy, the exile was driven away from Bologna and had to take refuge with a noble of the Malespina family. He hated to receive patronage, and was thankful to set to work on his incomplete poem of the Inferno, which was sent to him from Florence. The weariness of exile was forgotten as he wrote the great lines that were to ring through the centuries and prove what manner of man his fellow-citizens had cast forth through petty wish for revenge and jealous hatred. He had written beautiful poems in his youth, telling of love and chivalry and fair women. Now he took the next world for his theme and the sufferings of those whose bodies have passed from earth and whose souls await redemption. "Where I am sailing none has tracked the sea" were his words, avowing an intention to forsake the narrower limits of all poets before him.

"In the midway of this our mortal life,

I found one in a gloomy wood, astray

Gone from the path direct; and e'en to tell

It were no easy task, how savage wild

That forest, how robust and rough its growth,

Which to remember only, my dismay

Renews, in bitterness not far from death."

So the poet descended in imagination to the underworld, which he pictured reaching in wide circles from a vortex of sin and misery to a point of godlike ecstasy. With Vergil as a guide, he passed through the dark portals with their solemn warning.

"Through me men pass to city of great woe,

Through me men pass to endless misery,

Through me men pass where all the lost ones go."

In 1305 the Inferno was complete, and Dante left it with the monks of a certain convent while he wandered into a far-distant country. The Frate questioned him eagerly, asking why he had chosen to write the poem in Italian since the vulgar tongue seemed to clothe such a wonderful theme unbecomingly. "When I considered the condition of the present age," the poet replied, "I saw that the songs of the most illustrious poets were neglected of all, and for this reason high-minded men who once wrote on such themes now left (oh! pity) the liberal arts to the crowd. For this I laid down the pure lyre with which I was provided and prepared for myself another more adapted to the understanding of the moderns. For it is vain to give sucklings solid food."

Dante fled Italy and again sat on the student's "bundle of straw," choosing Paris as his next refuge. There he discussed learned questions with the wise men of France, and endured much privation as well as the pangs of yearning for Florence, his beloved city, which seemed to forget him. Hope rose within his breast when the newly-elected Emperor, Henry of Luxemburg, resolved to invade Italy and pacify the rebellious spirit of the proud republics. Orders were given that Florence should settle her feuds once for all, but the Florentines angrily refused to acknowledge the imperial authority over their affairs and, while recalling a certain number of the exiled, refused to include the name of Dante.

Dante, in his fierce resentment, urged the Emperor to besiege the city which resisted his imperial mandates. The assault was unsuccessful, and Henry of Luxemburg died without accomplishing his laudable intention of making Italy more peaceful.

Dante lived under the protection of the powerful Uguccione, lord of Pisa, while he wrote the Purgatorio. The second part of his epic dealt with the region lying between the under-world of torment and the heavenly heights of Paradise itself. Here the souls of men were to be cleansed of their sins that they might be pure in their final ecstasy.

A revolt against his patron led the poet to follow him to Verona, where they both dwelt in friendship with the young prince, Cane della Scala. The later cantos of the great poem, the Divine Comedy, were sent to this ruler as they were written. Cane loved letters, and appreciated Dante so generously that the exile, for a time, was moved to forget his bitterness. He dedicated the Paradiso to della Scala, but he had to give up the arduous task of glorifying Beatrice worthily and devote himself to some humble office at Verona. The inferiority of his position galled one who claimed Vergil and Homer as his equals in the world of letters. He lost all his serene tranquillity of soul, and his face betrayed the haughty impatience of his spirit. Truly he was not the fitting companion for the buffoons and jesters among whom he was too often compelled to sit in the palaces where he accepted bounty. He could not always win respect by the power of his dark and piercing eyes, for he had few advantages of person and disdained to be genial in manners. Brooding over neglect and injustice, he grew so repellant that Cane was secretly relieved when thoughtless, cruel levity drove the poet from his court. He never cared, perhaps, that Dante, writing the concluding cantos of his poem, decided sadly not to send them to his former benefactor.

The last goal of Dante's wanderings was the ancient city of Ravenna, where his genius was honoured by the great, and he derived a melancholy pleasure from the wonder of the people, who would draw aside from his path and whisper one to another: "Do you see him who goes to hell and comes back again when he pleases?" The fame of the Divine Comedy was known to all, and men were amazed by the splendid audacity of the Inferno.

Yet Dante was still an exile when death took him in 1321, and Florence had stubbornly refused to pay him tribute. He was buried at Ravenna, and over his tomb in the little chapel an inscription reproached his own city with indifference.

"Hic claudor Dantes patriis extorris ab oris,

Quem genuit parvi Florentia mater amoris."

"Here I am enclosed, Dante, exiled from my native country, Whom Florence bore, the mother that little did love him."