Dante is himself the hero of the _Divine Comedy_, and ere many stages of the _Inferno_ have been passed the reader feels that all his steps are being taken in a familiar companionship. When every allowance has been made for what the exigencies of art required him to heighten or suppress, it is still impossible not to be convinced that the author is revealing himself much as he really was--in some of his weakness as well as in all his strength. The poem itself, by many an unconscious touch, does for his moral portraiture what the pencil of Giotto has done for the features of his face. The one likeness answers marvellously to the other; and, together, they have helped the world to recognise in him the great example of a man of genius who, though at first sight he may seem to be austere, is soon found to attract our love by the depth of his feelings as much as he wins our admiration by the wealth of his fancy, and by the clearness of his judgment on everything concerned with the lives and destiny of men. His other writings in greater or less degree confirm the impression of Dante's character to be obtained from the _Comedy_. Some of them are partly autobiographical; and, studying as a whole all that is left to us of him, we can gain a general notion of the nature of his career--when he was born and what was his condition in life; his early loves and friendships; his studies, military service, and political aims; his hopes and illusions, and the weary purgatory of his exile.
To the knowledge of Dante's life and character which is thus to be acquired, the formal biographies of him have but little to add that is both trustworthy and of value. Something of course there is in the traditional story of his life that has come down from his time with the seal of genuineness; and something that has been ascertained by careful research among Florentine and other documents. But when all that old and modern _Lives_ have to tell us has been sifted, the additional facts regarding him are found to be but few; such at least as are beyond dispute. Boccaccio, his earliest biographer, swells out his _Life_, as the earlier commentators on the _Comedy_ do their notes, with what are plainly but legendary amplifications of hints supplied by Dante's own words; while more recent and critical writers succeed with infinite pains in little beyond establishing, each to his own satisfaction, what was the order of publication of the poet's works, where he may have travelled to, and when and for how long a time he may have had this or that great lord for a patron.
A very few pages would therefore be enough to tell the events of Dante's life as far as they are certainly known. But, to be of use as an introduction to the study of his great poem, any biographical sketch must contain some account--more or less full--of Florentine affairs before and during his lifetime; for among the actors in these are to be found many of the persons of the _Comedy_. In reading the poem we are never suffered for long to forget his exile. From one point of view it is an appeal to future ages from Florentine injustice and ingratitude; from another, it is a long and passionate plea with his native town to shake her in her stubborn cruelty. In spite of the worst she can do against him he remains no less her son. In the early copies of it, the _Comedy_ is well described as the work of Dante Alighieri, the Florentine; since not only does he people the other world by preference with Florentines, but it is to Florence that, even when his words are bitter against her, his heart is always feeling back. Among the glories of Paradise he loves to let his memory rest on the church in which he was baptized and the streets he used to tread. He takes pleasure in her stones; and with her towers and palaces Florence stands for the unchanging background to the changing scenes of his mystical pilgrimage.
The history of Florence during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries agrees in general outline with that of most of its neighbours. At the beginning of the period it was a place of but little importance, ranking far below Pisa both in wealth and political influence. Though retaining the names and forms of municipal government, inherited from early times, it was in reality possessed of no effective control over its own affairs, and was subject to its feudal superior almost as completely as was ever any German village planted in the shadow of a castle. To Florence, as to many a city of Northern and Central Italy, the first opportunity of winning freedom came with the contest between Emperor and Pope in the time of Hildebrand. In this quarrel the Church found its best ally in Matilda, Countess of Tuscany. She, to secure the goodwill of her subjects as against the Emperor, yielded first one and then another of her rights in Florence, generally by way of a pious gift--an endowment for a religious house or an increase of jurisdiction to the bishop--these concessions, however veiled, being in effect so many additions to the resources and liberties of the townsmen. She made Rome her heir, and then Florence was able to play off the Papal against the Imperial claims, yielding a kind of barren homage to both Emperor and Pope, and only studious to complete a virtual independence of both. Florence had been Matilda's favourite place of residence; and, benefiting largely as it did by her easy rule, it is no wonder that her name should have been cherished by the Florentines for ages after as a household word. Nor is the greatest Florentine unmindful of her. Foe of the Empire though she was, he only remembers her piety; and it is by Matilda, as representing the active religious life, that Dante is ushered into the presence of Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise.
It was a true instinct which led Florence and other cities to side rather with the Pope than with the Emperor in the long-continued struggle between them for predominance in Italy. With the Pope for overlord they would at least have a master who was an Italian, and one who, his title being imperfect, would in his own interest be led to treat them with indulgence; while, in the permanent triumph of the Emperor, Italy must have become subject and tributary to Germany, and would have seen new estates carved out of her fertile soil for members of the German garrison. The danger was brought home to many of the youthful commonwealths during the eventful reign of Frederick Barbarossa (1152-1190). Strong in Germany beyond most of his predecessors, that monarch ascended the throne with high prerogative views, in which he was confirmed by the slavish doctrine of some of the new civilians. According to these there could be only one master in the world; as far as regarded the things of time, but one source of authority in Christendom. They maintained everything to be the Emperor's that he chose to take. When he descended into Italy to enforce his claims, the cities of the Lombard League met him in open battle. Those of Tuscany, and especially Florence, bent before the blast, temporising as long as they were able, and making the best terms they could when the choice lay between submission and open revolt. Even Florence, it is true, strong in her allies, did once take arms against an Imperial lieutenant; but as a rule she never refused obedience in words, and never yielded it in fact beyond what could not be helped. In her pursuit of advantages, skilfully using every opportunity, and steadfast of aim even when most she appeared to waver, she displayed something of the same address that was long to be noted as a trait in the character of the individual Florentine.
The storm was weathered, although not wholly without loss. When, towards the close of his life, and after he had broken his strength against the obstinate patriotism of Lombardy, Frederick visited Florence in 1185, it was as a master justly displeased with servants who, while they had not openly rebelled against him, had yet proved eminently unprofitable, and whom he was concerned to punish if not to destroy. On the complaint of the neighbouring nobles, that they were oppressed and had been plundered by the city, he gave orders for the restoration to them of their lands and castles. This accomplished, all the territory left to Florence was a narrow belt around the walls. Villani even says that for the four years during which Frederick still lived the Commonwealth was wholly landless. And here, rather than lose ourselves among the endless treaties, leagues, and campaigns which fill so many pages of the chronicles, it may be worth while shortly to glance at the constitution of Florentine society, and especially at the place held in it by the class which found its protector in Barbarossa.
Much about the time at which the Commonwealth was relieved of its feudal trammels, as a result of the favour or the necessities of Matilda, it was beginning to extend its commerce and increase its industry. Starting somewhat late on the career on which Venice, Genoa, and Pisa were already far advanced, Florence was as if strenuous to make up for lost time, and soon displayed a rare comprehension of the nature of the enterprise. It may be questioned if ever, until quite modern times, there has been anywhere so clear an understanding of the truth that public wellbeing is the sum of private prosperity, or such an enlightened perception of what tends to economical progress. Florence had no special command of raw material for her manufactures, no sea-port of her own, and no monopoly unless in the natural genius of her people. She could therefore thrive only by dint of holding open her communications with the world at large, and grudged no pains either of war or diplomacy to keep at Pisa a free way out and in for her merchandise. Already in the twelfth century she received through that port the rough woollens of Flanders, which, after being skilfully dressed and dyed, were sent out at great profit to every market of Europe. At a somewhat later period the Florentines were to give as strong a proof of their financial capacity as this was of their industrial. It was they who first conducted a large business in bills of exchange, and who first struck a gold coin which, being kept of invariable purity, passed current in every land where men bought and sold--even in countries where the very name of Florence was unknown.
In a community thus devoted to industry and commerce, it was natural that a great place should be filled by merchants. These were divided into six guilds, the members of which, with the notaries and lawyers, who composed a seventh, formed the true body of the citizens. Originally the consuls of these guilds were the only elected officials in the city, and in the early days of its liberty they were even charged with political duties, and are found, for example, signing a treaty of peace with a neighbouring state. In the fully developed commune it was only the wealthier citizens--the members, we may assume, of these guilds--who, along with the nobles, were eligible for and had the right of electing to the public offices. Below them was the great body of the people; all, that is, of servile condition or engaged in the meaner kinds of business. From one point of view, the liberties of the citizens were only their privileges. But although the labourers and humbler tradesmen were without franchises, their interests were not therefore neglected, being bound up with those of the one or two thousand citizens who shared with the patricians the control of public affairs.
There were two classes of nobles with whom Florence had to reckon as she awoke to life--those within the walls, and those settled in the neighbouring country. In later times it was a favourite boast among the noble citizens--a boast indulged in by Dante--that they were descended from ancient Roman settlers on the banks of the Arno. A safer boast would in many cases have been that their ancestors had come to Italy in the train of Otho and other conquering Emperors. Though settled in the city, in some cases for generations, the patrician families were not altogether of it, being distinguished from the other citizens, if not always by the possession of ancestral landward estates, at least by their delight in war and contempt for honest industry. But with the faults of a noble class they had many of its good qualities. Of these the Republic suffered them to make full proof, allowing them to lead in war and hold civil offices out of all proportion to their numbers.
Like the city itself, the nobles in the country around had been feudally subject to the Marquis of Tuscany. After Matilda's death they claimed to hold direct from the Empire; which meant in practice to be above all law. They exercised absolute jurisdiction over their serfs and dependants, and, when favoured by the situation of their castles, took toll, like the robber barons of Germany, of the goods which passed beneath their walls. Already they had proved to be thorns in the side of the industrious burghers; but at the beginning of the twelfth century their neighbourhood became intolerable, and for a couple of generations the chief political work of Florence was to bring them to reason. Those whose lands came up almost to the city gates were first dealt with, and then in a widening circle the country was cleared of the pest. Year after year, when the days were lengthening out in spring, the roughly organised city militia was mustered, war was declared against some specially obnoxious noble and his fortress was taken by surprise, or, failing that, was subjected to a siege. In the absence of a more definite grievance, it was enough to declare his castle dangerously near the city. These expeditions were led by the nobles who were already citizens, while the country neighbours of the victim looked on with indifference, or even helped to waste the lands or force the stronghold of a rival. The castle once taken, it was either levelled with the ground, or was restored to the owner on condition of his yielding service to the Republic. And, both by way of securing a hold upon an unwilling vassal and of adding a wealthy house and some strong arms to the Commonwealth, he was compelled, along with his family, to reside in Florence for a great part of every year.
With a wider territory and an increasing commerce, it was natural for Florence to assume more and more the attitude of a sovereign state, ready, when need was, to impose its will upon its neighbours, or to join with them for the common defence of Tuscany. In the noble class and its retainers, recruited as has been described, it was possessed of a standing army which, whether from love of adventure or greed of plunder, was never so well pleased as when in active employment. Not that the commons left the fighting wholly to the men of family, for they too, at the summons of the war-bell, had to arm for the field; but at the best they did it from a sense of duty, and, without the aid of professional men-at-arms, they must have failed more frequently in their enterprises, or at any rate have had to endure a greatly prolonged absence from their counters and workshops. And yet, esteem this advantage as highly as we will, Florence surely lost more than it gained by compelling the crowd of idle gentlemen to come within its walls. In the course of time some of them indeed condescended to engage in trade--sank, as the phrase went, into the ranks of the _Popolani_, or mere wealthy citizens; but the great body of them, while their landed property was being largely increased in value in consequence of the general prosperity, held themselves haughtily aloof from honest industry in every form. Each family, or rather each clan of them, lived apart in its own group of houses, from among which towers shot aloft for scores of yards into the air, dominating the humbler dwellings of the common burghers. These, whenever they came to the front for a time in the government, were used to decree that all private towers were to be lopped down to within a certain distance from the ground.
It is a favourite exercise of Villani and other historians to trace the troubles and revolutions in the state of Florence to chance quarrels between noble families, arising from an angry word or a broken troth. Here, they tell, was sown the seed of the Guelf and Ghibeline wars in Florence; and here that of the feuds of Black and White. Such quarrels and party names were symptoms and nothing more. The enduring source of trouble was the presence within the city of a powerful idle class, constantly eager to recover the privilege it had lost, and to secure itself by every available means, including that of outside help, in the possession of what it still retained; which chafed against the curbs put upon its lawlessness, and whose ambitions were all opposed to the general interest. The citizens, for their part, had nothing better to hope for than that Italy should be left to the Italians, Florence to the Florentines. On the occasion of the celebrated Buondelmonti feud (1215), some of the nobles definitely went over to the side of the people, either because they judged it likely to win in the long-run, or impelled unconsciously by the forces that in every society divide ambitious men into two camps, and in one form or another develop party strife. They who made a profession of popular sympathy did it with a view of using rather than of helping the people at large. Both of the noble parties held the same end in sight--control of the Commonwealth; and this would be worth the more the fewer there were to share it. The faction irreconcilable with the Republic on any terms included many of the oldest and proudest houses. Their hope lay in the advent of a strong Emperor, who should depute to them his rights over the money-getting, low-born crowd.
II. The opportunity of this class might seem to have come when the Hohenstaufen Frederick II., grandson of Barbarossa, ascended the throne, and still more when, on attaining full age, he claimed the whole of the Peninsula as his family inheritance. Other Emperors had withstood the Papal claims, but none had ever proved an antagonist like Frederick. His quarrel seemed indeed to be with the Church itself, with its doctrines and morals as well as with the ambition of churchmen; and he offered the strange spectacle of a Roman Emperor--one of the twin lights in the Christian firmament--whose favour was less easily won by Christian piety, however eminent, than by the learning of the Arab or the Jew. When compelled at last to fulfil a promise extorted from him of conducting a crusade to the Holy Land, he scandalised Christendom by making friends of the Sultan, and by using his presence in the East, not for the deliverance of the Sepulchre, but for the furtherance of learning and commerce. Thrice excommunicated, he had his revenge by proving with how little concern the heaviest anathemas of the Church could be met by one who was armed in unbelief. Literature, art, and manners were sedulously cultivated in his Sicilian court, and among the able ministers whom he selected or formed, the modern idea of the State may be said to have had its birth. Free thinker and free liver, poet, warrior, and statesman, he stood forward against the sombre background of the Middle Ages a figure in every respect so brilliant and original as well to earn from his contemporaries the title of the Wonder of the World.
On the goodwill of Italians Frederick had the claim of being the most Italian of all the Emperors since the revival of the Western Empire, and the only one of them whose throne was permanently set on Italian soil. Yet he never won the popular heart. To the common mind he always appeared as something outlandish and terrible--as the man who had driven a profitable but impious trade in the Sultan's land. Dante, in his childhood, must have heard many a tale of him; and we find him keenly interested in the character of the Emperor who came nearest to uniting Italy into a great nation, in whose court there had been a welcome for every man of intellect, and in whom a great original poet would have found a willing and munificent patron. In the _Inferno_, by the mouth of Pier delle Vigne, the Imperial Chancellor, he pronounces Frederick to have been worthy of all honour; yet justice requires him to lodge this flower of kings in the burning tomb of the Epicureans, as having been guilty of the arch-heresy of denying the moral government of the world, and holding that with the death of the body all is ended. It was a heresy fostered by the lives of many churchmen, high and low; but the example of Frederick encouraged the profession of it by nobles and learned laymen. On Frederick's character there was a still darker stain than this of religious indifference--that of cold-blooded cruelty. Even in an age which had produced Ezzelino Romano, the Emperor's cloaks of lead were renowned as the highest refinement in torture. But, with all his genius, and his want of scruple in the choice of means, he built nothing politically that was not ere his death crumbling to dust. His enduring work was that of an intellectual reformer under whose protection and with whose personal help his native language was refined, Europe was enriched with a learning new to it or long forgotten, and the minds of men, as they lost their blind reverence for Rome, were prepared for a freer treatment of all the questions with which religion deals. He was thus in some respects a precursor of Dante.
More than once in the course of Frederick's career it seemed as if he might become master of Tuscany in fact as well as in name, had Florence only been as well affected to him as were Siena and Pisa. But already, as has been said, the popular interest had been strengthened by accessions from among the nobles. Others of them, without descending into the ranks of the citizens, had set their hopes on being the first in a commonwealth rather than privates in the Imperial garrison. These men, with their restless and narrow ambitions, were as dangerous to have for allies as for foes, but by throwing their weight into the popular scale they at least served to hold the Imperialist magnates in check, and established something like a balance in the fighting power of Florence; and so, as in the days of Barbarossa, the city was preserved from taking a side too strongly. The hearts of the Florentine traders were in their own affairs--in extending their commerce and increasing their territory and influence in landward Tuscany. As regarded the general politics of Italy, their sympathy was still with the Roman See; but it was a sympathy without devotion or gratitude. For refusing to join in the crusade of 1238 the town was placed under interdict by Gregory IX. The Emperor meanwhile was acknowledged as its lawful overlord, and his vicar received something more than nominal obedience, the choice of the chief magistrates being made subject to his approval. Yet with all this, and although his party was powerful in the city, it was but a grudging service that was yielded to Frederick. More than once fines were levied on the Florentines; and worse punishments were threatened for their persevering and active enmity to Siena, now dominated by its nobles and held in the Imperial interest. Volunteers from Florence might join the Emperor in his Lombard campaigns; but they were left equally free by the Commonwealth to join the other side. At last, when he was growing old, and when like his grandfather he had been foiled by the stubborn Lombards, he turned on the Florentines as an easier prey, and sent word to the nobles of his party to seize the city. For months the streets were filled with battle. In January 1248, Frederick of Antioch, the natural son of the Emperor, entered Florence with some squadrons of men-at-arms, and a few days later the nobles that had fought on the popular side were driven into banishment. This is known in the Florentine annals as the first dispersion of the Guelfs.
Long before they were adopted in Italy, the names of Guelf and Ghibeline had been employed in Germany to mark the partisans of the Bavarian Welf and of the Hohenstaufen lords of Waiblingen. On Italian soil they received an extended meaning: Ghibeline stood for Imperialist; Guelf for anti-Imperialist, Papalist, or simply Nationalist. When the names began to be freely used in Florence, which was towards the close of Frederick's reign and about a century after their first invention, they denoted no new start in politics, but only supplied a nomenclature for parties already in existence. As far as Florence was concerned, the designations were the more convenient that they were not too closely descriptive. The Ghibeline was the Emperor's man, when it served his purpose to be so; while the Guelf, constant only in his enmity to the Ghibelines, was free to think of the Pope as he chose, and to serve him no more than he wished or needed to. Ultimately, indeed, all Florence may be said to have become Guelf. To begin with, the name distinguished the nobles who sought alliance with the citizens, from the nobles who looked on these as they might have done on serfs newly thriven into wealth. Each party was to come up in turn. Within a period of twenty years each was twice driven into banishment, a measure always accompanied with decrees of confiscation and the levelling of private strongholds in Florence. The exiles kept well together, retreating, as it were in the order of war, to camps of observation they found ready prepared for them in the nearest cities and fortresses held by those of their own way of thinking. All their wits were then bent on how, by dint of some fighting and much diplomacy, they might shake the strength and undermine the credit of their successful rivals in the city, and secure their own return in triumph. It was an art they were proud to be adepts in.
In a rapid sketch like this it would be impossible to tell half the changes made on the constitution of Florence during the second part of the thirteenth century. Dante in a well-known passage reproaches Florence with the political restlessness which afflicted her like a disease. Laws, he says, made in October were fallen into desuetude ere mid-November. And yet it may be that in this constant readiness to change, lies the best proof of the political capacity of the Florentines. It was to meet new necessities that they made provision of new laws. Especial watchfulness was called for against the encroachments of the grandees, whose constant tendency--whatever their party name--was to weaken legal authority, and play the part of lords and masters of the citizens. But these were no mere weavers and quill-drivers to be plundered at will. Even before the return of the Guelfs, banished in 1248, the citizens, taking advantage of a check suffered in the field by the dominant Ghibelines, had begun to recast the constitution in a popular sense, and to organise the townsmen as a militia on a permanent footing. When, on the death of Frederick in 1250, the Imperialist nobles were left without foreign aid, there began a period of ten years, favourably known in Florentine history as the Government of the _Primo Popolo_ or _Popolo Vecchio_; that is, of the true body of the citizens, commoners possessed of franchises, as distinguished from the nobles above them and the multitude below. For it is never to be forgotten that Florence, like Athens, and like the other Italian Republics, was far from being a true democracy. The time was yet to come, and it was not far distant, when the ranks of citizenship were to be more widely opened than now to those below, and more closely shut to those above. In the meantime the comparatively small number of wealthy citizens who legally composed the 'People' made good use of their ten years of breathing-time, entering on commercial treaties and widening the possessions of the Commonwealth, now by war, and now by shrewd bargains with great barons. To balance the influence of the Podesta, who had hitherto been the one great officer of State--criminal judge, civil governor, and commander-in-chief all in one--they created the office of Captain of the People. The office of Podesta was not peculiar to Florence. There, as in other cities, in order to secure his impartiality, it was provided that he should be a foreigner, and hold office only for six months. But he was also required to be of gentle birth; and his councils were so composed that, like his own, their sympathies were usually with the nobles. The Captain of the People was therefore created partly as a tribune for the protection of the popular rights, and partly to act as permanent head of the popular forces. Like the Podesta, he had two councils assigned to him; but these were strictly representative of the citizens, and sat to control his conduct as well as to lend to his action the weight of public opinion.
Such of the Ghibelines as had not been banished from Florence on the death of Frederick, lived there on sufferance, as it were, and under a rigid supervision. Once more they were to find a patron and ally in a member of the great house of Hohenstaufen; and with his aid they were again for a few years to become supreme in Florence, and to prove by their abuse of power how well justified was the mistrust the people had of them. In many ways Manfred, one of Frederick's bastards, was a worthy son of his father. Like him he was endowed with great personal charm, and was enamoured of all that opened new regions to intellectual curiosity or gave refinement to sensual pleasure. In his public as well as in his private behaviour, he was reckless of what the Church and its doctrines might promise or threaten; and equally so, his enemies declared, of the dictates of common humanity. Hostile eyes detected in the green clothes which were his favourite dress a secret attachment to Islam; and hostile tongues charged him with the murder of a father and of a brother, and the attempted murder of a nephew. His ambition did not aim at the Empire, but only at being King of Sicily and Naples, lands which the Hohenstaufens claimed as their own through the Norman mother of Frederick. Of these kingdoms he was actual ruler, even while his legitimate brother Conrad lived. On the death of that prince he brushed aside the claims of Conradin, his nephew, and bid boldly for recognition by the Pope, who claimed to be overlord of the southern kingdoms--a recognition refused, or given only to be immediately withdrawn. In the eyes of Rome he was no more than Prince of Tarentum, but by arms and policy he won what seemed a firm footing in the South; and eight years after the rule of the _Popolo Vecchio_ began in Florence he was the acknowledged patron of all in Italy who had been Imperialist--for the Imperial throne was now practically vacant. And Manfred was trusted all the more that he cared nothing for Germany, and stood out even more purely an Italian monarch than his father had ever been. The Ghibelines of Florence looked to him to free them of the yoke under which they groaned.
When it was discovered that they were treating with Manfred, there was an outburst of popular wrath against the disaffected nobles. Some of them were seized and put to death, a fate shared by the Abbot of Vallombrosa, whom neither his priestly office nor his rank as Papal Legate availed to save from torture and a shameful end. Well accustomed as was the age to violence and cruelty, it was shocked at this free disposal of a great ecclesiastic by a mercantile community; and even to the Guelf chronicler Villani the terrible defeat of Montaperti seemed no more than a just vengeance taken by Heaven upon a crime so heinous. In the meantime the city was laid under interdict, and those concerned in the Abbot's death were excommunicated; while the Ghibelines, taking refuge in Siena, began to plot and scheme with the greater spirit against foes who, in the very face of a grave peril, had offended in the Pope their strongest natural ally.
The leader of the exiles was Farinata, one of the Uberti, a family which, so long ago as 1180, had raised a civil war to force their way into the consulship. Ever since, they had been the most powerful, perhaps, and certainly the most restless, clan in Florence, rich in men of strong character, fiercely tenacious of their purpose. Such was Farinata. To the Florentines of a later age he was to stand for the type of the great Ghibeline gentleman, haughty as Lucifer, a Christian in name though scarcely by profession, and yet almost beloved for his frank excess of pride. It detracted nothing from the grandeur of his character, in the judgment of his countrymen, that he could be cunning as well as brave. Manfred was coy to afford help to the Tuscan Ghibelines, standing out for an exorbitant price for the loan of his men-at-arms; and to Farinata was attributed the device by which his point of honour was effectually touched. When at last a reinforcement of eight hundred cavalry entered Siena, the exiles and their allies felt themselves more than a match for the militia of Florence, and set themselves to decoy it into the field. Earlier in the same year the Florentines had encamped before Siena, and sought in vain to bring on a general engagement. They were now misled by false messengers, primed by Farinata, into a belief that the Sienese, weary of the arrogance of Provenzano Salvani, then all-powerful in Siena, were ready to betray a gate to them. In vain did Tegghiaio Aldobrandi, one of the Guelf nobles, counsel delay till the German men-at-arms, wearied with waiting on and perhaps dissatisfied with their wages, should be recalled by Manfred. A march in full strength upon the hostile city was resolved on by the eager townsmen.
The battle of Montaperti was fought in September 1260, among the earthy hills washed by the Arbia and its tributary rivulets, a few miles to the east of Siena. It marked the close of the rule of the _Popolo Vecchio_. Till then no such disastrous day had come to Florence; and the defeat was all the more intolerable that it was counted for a victory to Siena. Yet the battle was far from being a test of the strength of the two rival cities. Out of the thirty thousand foot in the Guelf army, there were only about five thousand Florentines. In the host which poured out on them from Siena, beside the militia of that city and the Florentine exiles, were included the Ghibelines of Arezzo, the retainers of great lords still unsubdued by any city, and, above all, the German men-at-arms of Manfred. But the worst enemies of Florence were the traitors in her own ranks. She bore it long in mind that it was her merchants and handicraftsmen who stood stubbornly at bay, and tinged the Arbia red with their life-blood; while it was among the men of high degree that the traitors were found. On one of them, Bocca degli Abati, who struck off the right hand of the standard-bearer of the cavalry, and so helped on the confusion and the rout, Dante takes vengeance in his pitiless verse.
The fortifications of Florence had been recently completed and strengthened, and it was capable of a long defence. But the spirit of the people was broken for the time, and the conquerors found the gates open. Then it was that Farinata almost atoned for any wrong he ever did his native town, by withstanding a proposal made by the Ghibelines of the rival Tuscan cities, that Florence should be destroyed, and Empoli advanced to fill her room. 'Alone, with open face I defended her,' Dante makes him say. But the wonder would rather be if he had voted to destroy a city of which he was about to be one of the tyrants. Florence had now a fuller experience than ever of the oppression which it was in the character of the Ghibelines to exercise. A rich booty lay ready to their hands; for in the panic after Montaperti crowds of the best in Florence had fled, leaving all behind them except their wives and children, whom they would not trust to the cruel mercy of the victors. It was in this exile that for the first time the industrious citizen was associated with the Guelf noble. From Lucca, not powerful enough to grant them protection for long, they were driven to Bologna, suffering terribly on the passage of the Apennines from cold and want of food, but safe when the mountains lay between them and the Val d'Arno. While the nobles and young men with a taste for fighting found their livelihood in service against the Lombard Ghibelines, the more sober-minded scattered themselves to seek out their commercial correspondents and increase their acquaintance with the markets of Europe. When at length the way was open for them to return home, they came back educated by travel, as men must always be who travel for a purpose; and from this second exile of the Guelfs dates a vast extension of the commerce of Florence.
Their return was a fruit of the policy followed by the Papal Court The interests of both were the same. The Roman See could have as little independence of action while a hostile monarch was possessed of the southern kingdoms, as the people of Florence could have freedom while the Ghibeline nobility had for patron a military prince, to whom their gates lay open by way of Siena and Pisa. To Sicily and Naples the Pope laid claim by an alternative title--they were either dependent on the See of Rome, or, if they were Imperial fiefs, then, in the vacancy of the Empire, the Pope, as the only head of Christendom, had a right to dispose of them as he would. A champion was needed to maintain the claim, and at length the man was found in Charles of Anjou, brother of St. Louis. This was a prince of intellectual powers far beyond the common, of untiring industry in affairs, pious, 'chaste as a monk,' and cold-hearted as a usurer; gifted with all the qualities, in short, that make a man feared and well served, and with none that make him beloved. He was not one to risk failure for want of deliberation and foresight, and his measures were taken with such prudence that by the time he landed in Italy his victory was almost assured. He found his enemy at Benevento, in the Neapolitan territory (February 1266). In order to get time for reinforcements to come up, Manfred sought to enter into negotiations; but Charles was ready, and knew his advantage. He answered with the splendid confidence of a man sure of a heavenly if he missed an earthly triumph. 'Go tell the Sultan of Lucera,' was his reply, 'that to-day I shall send him to Hell, or he will send me to Paradise.' Manfred was slain, and his body, discovered only after long search, was denied Christian burial. Yet, excommunicated though he was, and suspected of being at heart as much Mohammedan as Christian, he, as well as his great rival, is found by Dante in Purgatory. And, while the Christian poet pours his invective on the pious Charles, he is at no pains to hide how pitiful appeared to him the fate of the frank and handsome Manfred, all whose followers adored him. He, as more than once it happens in the _Comedy_ to those whose memory is dear to the poet, is saved from Inferno by the fiction that in the hour of death he sent one thought heavenward--'so wide is the embrace of infinite mercy.'
To Florence Charles proved a useful if a greedy and exacting protector. Under his influence as Pacificator of Tuscany--an office created for him by the Pope--the Guelfs were enabled slowly to return from exile, and the Ghibelines were gradually depressed into a condition of dependence on the goodwill of the citizens over whom they had so lately domineered. Henceforth failure attended every effort they made to lift their heads. The stubbornly irreconcilable were banished or put to death. Elaborate provisions were enacted in obedience to the Pope's commands, by which the rest were to be at peace with their old foes. Now they were to live in the city, but under disabilities as regarded eligibility to offices; now they were to be represented in the public councils, but so as to be always in a minority. The result of the measures taken, and of the natural drift of things, was that ere many more years had passed there were no avowed Ghibelines in Florence.
One influence constantly at work in this direction was that of the _Parte Guelfa_, a Florentine society formed to guard the interests of the Guelfs, and which was possessed of the greater part of the Ghibeline property confiscated after the triumph of Charles had turned the balance of power in Italy. This organisation has been well described as a state within a state, and it seems as if the part it played in the Florentine politics of this period were not yet fully known. This much seems sure, that the members of the Society were mostly Guelf nobles; that its power, derived from the administration of vast wealth to a political end, was so great that the Captain of the _Parte Guelfa_ held a place almost on a level with that of the chief officials of the Commonwealth; and that it made loans of ready money to Florence and the Pope, on condition of their being used to the damage of the Ghibelines.
The Commonwealth, busy in resettling its government, was but slightly interested in much that went on around it. The boy Conradin, grandson of Frederick, nephew of Manfred, and in a sense the last of the Hohenstaufens, came to Italy to measure himself with Charles, and paid for his audacity upon the scaffold. Charles deputed Guy of Montfort, son of the great Earl Simon, to be his vicar in Florence. The Pope smiled and frowned in turn on the Florentines, as their devotion to him waxed and waned; and so he did on his champion Charles, whose ambition was apt to outrun his piety. All this was of less importance to the Commonwealth than the promotion of its domestic interests. It saw with equanimity a check given to Charles by the election of a new Emperor in Rudolf of Hapsburg (1273), and a further check by the Sicilian Vespers, which lost him half his kingdom (1283). But Siena and Pisa, Arezzo, and even Pistoia, were the objects of a sleepless anxiety. Pisa was the chief source of danger, being both from sentiment and interest stubbornly Ghibeline. When at length its power was broken by Genoa, its great maritime rival, in the naval battle of Meloria (1284), there was no longer any city in Tuscany to be compared for wealth and strength with Florence.
III. It was at this period that Dante, reaching the age of manhood, began to perform the duties that fell to him as a youthful citizen--duties which, till the age of thirty was reached, were chiefly those of military service. The family to which he belonged was a branch of the Elisei, who are included by Villani in the earliest catalogue given by him of the great Florentine houses. Cacciaguida, one of the Elisei, born in 1106, married a daughter of the Aldighieri, a family of Ferrara. Their son was christened Aldighiero, and this was adopted by the family as a surname, afterwards changed to Alighieri. The son of Aldighiero was Bellincione, father of Aldighiero II., the father of Dante.
It serves no purpose to fill a page of biography with genealogical details when the hero's course in life was in no way affected by the accident of who was his grandfather. In the case of Dante, his position in the State, his political creed, and his whole fashion of regarding life, were vitally influenced by the circumstances of his birth. He knew that his genius, and his genius alone, was to procure him fame; he declares a virtuous and gentle life to be the true proof of nobility: and yet his family pride is always breaking through. In real life, from his family's being decayed in wealth and fallen in consideration compared with its neighbours, he may have been led to put emphasis on his assertion of gentility; and amid the poverty and humiliations of his exile he may have found a tonic in the thought that by birth, not to speak of other things, he was the equal of those who spurned him or coldly lent him aid. However this may be, there is a tacit claim of equality with them in the easy grace with which he encounters great nobles in the world of shades. The bent of his mind in relation to this subject is shown by such a touch as that when he esteems it among the glories of Francis of Assisi not to have been ashamed of his base extraction. In Paradise he meets his great crusading ancestor Cacciaguida, and feigns contrition for the pleasure with which he listens to a declaration of the unmixed purity of their common blood. In Inferno he catches a glimpse, sudden and terrible, of a kinsman whose violent death had remained unavenged; and, for the nonce, the philosopher-poet is nothing but the member of an injured Florentine clan, and winces at the thought of a neglected blood feud. And when Farinata, the great Ghibeline, and haughtiest of all the Florentines of the past generation, asks him, 'Who were thine ancestors?' Dante says with a proud pretence of humility, 'Anxious to obey, I hid nothing, but told him all he demanded.'
Dante was born in Florence in the May of 1265. A brother of his father had been one of the guards of the Florentine Caroccio, or standard-bearing car, at the battle of Montaperti (1260). Whether Dante's father necessarily shared in the exile of his party may be doubted. He is said--on slight authority--to have been a jurisconsult: there is no reason to suppose he was at Montaperti. It is difficult to believe that Florence was quite emptied of its lawyers and merchants as a consequence of the Ghibeline victory. In any case, it is certain that while the fugitive Guelfs were mostly accompanied by their wives, and did not return till 1267, we have Dante's own word for it that he was born in the great city by the Arno, and was baptized in the Baptistery, his beautiful St. John's. At the font he received the name of Durante, shortened, as he bore it, into Dante. It is in this form that it finds a place in the _Comedy_, once, and only once, written down of necessity, the poet says--the necessity of being faithful in the report of Beatrice's words: from the wider necessity, we may assume, of imbedding in the work itself the name by which the author was commonly known, and by which he desired to be called for all time.
When Dante was about ten years old he lost his father. Of his mother nothing but her Christian name of Bella is known. Neither of them is mentioned in the _Comedy_, nor indeed are his wife and children. Boccaccio describes the Alighieri as having been in easy though not in wealthy circumstances; and Leonardo Bruni, who in the fifteenth century sought out what he could learn of Dante, says of him that he was possessed of a patrimony sufficient for an honourable livelihood. That he was so might be inferred from the character of the education he received. His studies, says Boccaccio, were not directed to any object of worldly profit. That there is no sign of their having been directed by churchmen tends to prove the existence in his native town of a class of cultivated laymen; and that there was such appears from the ease with which, when, passing from boyhood to manhood, he felt a craving for intellectual and congenial society, he found in nobles of the stamp of Guido Cavalcanti men like-minded with himself. It was indeed impossible but that the revival of the study of the civil law, the importation of new learning from the East, and the sceptical spirit fostered in Italy by the influence of Frederick II. and his court, should all have told on the keen-witted Florentines, of whom a great proportion--even of the common people--could read; while the class with leisure had every opportunity of knowing what was going on in the world. Heresy, the rough word for intellectual life as well as for religious aspiration, had found in Florence a congenial soil. In the thirteenth century, which modern ignorance loves to reckon as having been in a special sense an age of faith, there were many Florentines who, in spite of their outward conformity, had drifted as far from spiritual allegiance to the Church as the furthest point reached by any of their descendants who some two ages later belonged to the school of Florentine Platonists.
Chief among these free-thinkers, and, sooth to say, free-livers--though in this respect they were less distinguished from the orthodox--was Brunetto Latini, for some time Secretary to the Republic, and the foremost Italian man of letters of his day. Meagre though his greatest work, the _Tesoro_, or _Treasure_, must seem to any one who now glances over its pages, to his contemporaries it answered the promise of its title and stood for a magazine of almost complete information in the domains of natural history, ethics, and politics. It was written in French, as being a more agreeable language than Italian; and was composed, there is reason to believe, while Latini lived in Paris as an exiled Guelf after Montaperti. His _Tesoretto_, or _Little Treasure_, a poem in jingling eight-syllabled Italian verse, has been thought by some to have supplied hints to Dante for the _Comedy_. By neither of these works is he evinced a man of strong intellect, or even of good taste. Yet there is the testimony of Villani that he did much to refine the language of his contemporaries, and to apply fixed principles to the conduct of State affairs. Dante meets him in Inferno, and hails him as his intellectual father--as the master who taught him from day to day how fame is to be won. But it is too much to infer from these words that Latini served as his teacher, in the common sense of the word. It is true they imply an intimacy between the veteran scholar and his young townsman; but the closeness of their intercourse is perhaps best accounted for by supposing that Latini had been acquainted with Dante's father, and by the great promise of Dante's boyhood was led to take a warm interest in his intellectual development. Their intimacy, to judge from the tone of their conversation down in Inferno, had lasted till Latini's death. But no tender reminiscence of the days they spent together avails to save him from condemnation at the hands of his severe disciple. By the manners of Brunetto, and the Epicurean heresies of others of his friends, Dante, we may be sure, was never infected or defiled.
Dante describes himself as having begun the serious study of philosophy and theology only at the mature age of twenty-seven. But ere that time he had studied to good effect, and not books alone, but the world around him too, and the world within. The poet was formed before the theologian and philosopher. From his earliest years he was used to write in verse; and he seems to have esteemed as one of his best endowments the easy command of his mother tongue acquired by him while still in boyhood.
Of the poems written in his youth he made a selection, and with a commentary gave them to the world as his first work. All the sonnets and canzoni contained in it bear more or less directly on his love for Beatrice Portinari. This lady, whose name is so indissolubly associated with that of Dante, was the daughter of a rich citizen of good family. When Dante saw her first he was a child of nine, and she a few months younger. It would seem fabulous, he says, if he related what things he did, and of what a passion he was the victim during his boyhood. He seized opportunities of beholding her, but for long never passed beyond a silent worship; and he was eighteen before she spoke to him, and then only in the way of a passing salutation. On this he had a vision, and that inspired him with a sonnet, certainly not the first he had written, but the first he put into circulation. The mode of publication he adopted was the common one of sending copies of it to such other poets as were within reach. The sonnet in itself contains a challenge to interpret his dream. Several poets attempted the riddle--among them the philosopher and poet Guido Cavalcanti. They all failed in the solution; but with some of them he was thus brought into terms of intimacy, and with Cavalcanti of the closest friendship. Some new grace of style in Dante's verse, some art in the presentation of his mystical meaning that escapes the modern reader, may have revealed to the middle-aged man of letters that a new genius had arisen. It was by Guido's advice that the poems of which this sonnet stands the first were some years later collected and published with the explanatory narrative. To him, in a sense, the whole work is addressed; and it agreed with his taste, as well as Dante's own, that it should contain nothing but what was written in the vulgar tongue. Others besides Guido must have recognised in the little book, as it passed from hand to hand, the masterpiece of Italian prose, as well as of Italian verse. In the simple title of _Vita Nuova_, or _The New Life_, we can fancy that a claim is laid to originality of both subject and treatment. Through the body of the work, though not so clearly as in the _Comedy_, there rings the note of assurance of safety from present neglect and future oblivion.
It may be owing to the free use of personification and symbol in the _Vita Nuova_ that some critics, while not denying the existence of a real Beatrice, have held that she is introduced only to help out an allegory, and that, under the veil of love for her, the poet would express his youthful passion for truth. Others, going to the opposite extreme, are found wondering why he never sought, or, seeking, failed to win, the hand of Beatrice. To those who would refine the Beatrice of the early work into a being as purely allegorical as she of the _Comedy_, it may be conceded that the _Vita Nuova_ is not so much the history of a first love as of the new emotional and intellectual life to which a first love, as Dante experienced it, opens the door. Out of the incidents of their intercourse he chooses only such as serve for motives to the joys and sorrows of the passionate aspiring soul. On the other hand, they who seek reasons why Dante did not marry Beatrice have this to justify their curiosity, that she did marry another man. But her husband was one of the rich and powerful Bardi; and her father was so wealthy that after providing for his children he could endow a hospital in Florence. The marriage was doubtless arranged as a matter of family convenience, due regard being had to her dower and her husband's fortune; and we may assume that when Dante, too, was married later on, his wife was found for him by the good offices of his friends. Our manners as regards these things are not those of the Italy of the thirteenth century. It may safely be said that Dante never dreamed of Beatrice for his wife; that the expectation of wedding her would have sealed his lips from uttering to the world any word of his love; and that she would have lost something in his esteem if, out of love for him, she had refused the man her father chose for her.
We must not seek in the _Vita Nuova_ what it does not profess to give. There was a real Beatrice Portinari, to a careless glance perhaps not differing much from other Florentine ladies of her age and condition; but her we do not find in Dante's pages. These are devoted to a record of the dreams and visions, the new thoughts and feelings of which she was the occasion or the object. He worshipped at a distance, and in a single glance found reward enough for months of adoration; he read all heaven into a smile. So high strung is the narrative, that did we come on any hint of loving dalliance it would jar with all the rest She is always at a distance from him, less a woman than an angel.
In all this there is certainly as much of reticence as of exaggeration. When he comes to speak of her death he uses a phrase on which it would seem as if too little value had been set. He cannot dwell on the circumstances of her departure, he says, without being his own panegyrist. Taken along with some other expressions in the _Vita Nuova_, and the tone of her words to him when they meet in the Earthly Paradise, we may gather from this that not only was she aware of his long devotion, but that, ere she died, he had been given to understand how highly she rated it. And on the occasion of her death, one described as being her nearest relative by blood and, after Cavalcanti, Dante's chief friend--her brother, no doubt--came to him and begged him to write something concerning her. It would be strange indeed if they had never looked frankly into one another's faces; and yet, for anything that is directly told in the _Vita Nuova_, they never did.
The chief value of the _Vita Nuova_ is therefore psychological. It is a mine of materials illustrative of the author's mental and emotional development, but as regards historical details it is wanting in fulness and precision. Yet, even in such a sketch of Dante's life as this tries to be, it is necessary to dwell on the turning-points of the narrative contained in the _Vita Nuova_; the reader always remembering that on one side Dante says more than the fact that so he may glorify his love, and less on another that he may not fail in consideration for Beatrice. She is first a maiden whom no public breath is to disturb in her virgin calm; and afterwards a chaste wife, whose lover is as jealous of her reputation as any husband could be. The youthful lover had begun by propounding the riddle of his love so obscurely that even by his fellow-poets it had been found insoluble, adepts though they themselves were in the art of smothering a thought. Then, though all his longing is for Beatrice, lest she become the subject of common talk he feigns that he is in love first with one lady and then with another. He even pushes his deceit so far that she rebukes him for his fickleness to one of his sham loves by denying him the customary salutation when they meet--this salutation being the only sign of friendship she has ever shown. It is already some few years since the first sonnet was written. Now, in a ballad containing a more direct avowal of his love than he has yet ventured on, he protests that it was always Beatrice his heart was busy with, and that to her, though his eyes may have seemed to wander, his affection was always true. In the very next poem we find him as if debating with himself whether he shall persevere. He weighs the ennobling influence of a pure love and the sweetness it gives to life, against the pains and self-denial to which it condemns its servant. Here, he tells us in his commentary, he was like a traveller who has come to where the ways divide. His only means of escape--and he feels it is a poor one--is to throw himself into the arms of Pity.
From internal evidence it seems reasonably certain that the marriage of Beatrice fell at the time when he describes himself as standing at the parting of the ways. Before that he has been careful to write of his love in terms so general as to be understood only by those in possession of the key. Now he makes direct mention of her, and seeks to be in her company; and he even leads us to infer that it was owing to his poems that she became a well-known personage in the streets of Florence. Immediately after the sonnet in which he has recourse to Pity, he tells how he was led by a friend into the house of a lady, married only that day, whom they find surrounded by her lady friends, met to celebrate her home-coming after marriage. It was the fashion for young gentlemen to offer their services at such a feast. On this occasion Dante for one can give no help. A sudden trembling seizes him; he leans for support against the painted wall of the chamber; then, lifting his eyes to see if the ladies have remarked his plight, he is troubled at beholding Beatrice among them, with a smile on her lips, as, leaning towards her, they mock at her lover's weakness. To his friend, who, as he leads him from the chamber, asks what ails him, he replies: 'My feet have reached that point beyond which if they pass they can never return.' It was only matrons that gathered round a bride at her home-coming; Beatrice was therefore by this time a married woman. That she was but newly married we may infer from Dante's confusion on finding her there. His secret has now been discovered, and he must either renounce his love, or, as he is at length free to do, Beatrice being married, declare it openly, and spend his life in loyal devotion to her as the mistress of his imagination and of his heart.
But how is he to pursue his devotion to her, and make use of his new privilege of freer intercourse, when the very sight of her so unmans him? He writes three sonnets explaining what may seem pusillanimity in him, and resolves to write no more. Now comes the most fruitful episode in the history. Questioned by a bevy of fair ladies what is the end of a love like his, that cannot even face the object of its desire, he answers that his happiness lies in the words by which he shows forth the praises of his mistress. He has now discovered that his passion is its own reward. In other words, he has succeeded in spiritualising his love; although to a careless reader it might seem in little need of passing through the process. Then, soon after, as he walks by a crystal brook, he is inspired with the words which begin the noblest poem he had yet produced, and that as the author of which he is hailed by a fellow-poet in Purgatory. It is the first to glorify Beatrice as one in whom Heaven is more concerned than Earth; and in it, too, he anticipates his journey through the other world. She dies, and we are surprised to find that within a year of her death he wavers in his allegiance to her memory. A fair face, expressing a tender compassion, looks down on him from a window as he goes nursing his great sorrow; and he loves the owner of the face because she pities him. But seeing Beatrice in a vision he is restored, and the closing sonnet tells how his whole desire goes forth to her, and how his spirit is borne above the highest sphere to behold her receiving honour, and shedding radiance on all around her. The narrative closes with a reference to a vision which he does not recount, but which incites him to severe study in order that he may learn to write of her as she deserves. And the last sentence of the _Vita Nuova_ expresses a hope--a hope which would be arrogant coming after anything less perfect than the _Vita Nuova_--that, concerning her, he shall yet say things never said before of any woman. Thus the poet's earliest work contains an earnest of the latest, and his morning makes one day with his evening.
The narrative of the _Vita Nuova_ is fluent and graceful, in this contrasting strongly with the analytical arguments attached to the various poems. Dante treats his readers as if they were able to catch the meaning of the most recondite allegory, and yet were ignorant of the alphabet of literary form. And, as is the case with other poets of the time, the free movement of his fancy is often hampered by the necessity he felt of expressing himself in the language of the popular scholastic philosophy. All this is but to say that he was a man of his period, as well as a great genius. And even in this his first work he bettered the example of Guido Cavalcanti, Guido of Bologna, and the others whom he found, but did not long suffer to remain, the masters of Italian verse. These inherited from the Provençal and Sicilian poets much of the cant of which European poetry has been so slow to clear itself; and chiefly that of presenting all human emotion and volition under the figure of love for a mistress, who was often merely a creature of fancy, set up to act as Queen of Beauty while the poet ran his intellectual jousts. But Dante dealt in no feigned inspiration, and distinguishes himself from the whole school of philosophical and artificial poets as 'one who can only speak as love inspires.' He may deal in allegory and utter sayings dark enough, but the first suggestions of his thoughts are obtained from facts of emotion or of real life. His lady was no creature of fancy, but his neighbour Beatrice Portinari: and she who ends in the _Paradiso_ as the embodied beauty of holiness was, to begin with, a fair Florentine girl.
The instance of Beatrice is the strongest, although others might be adduced, to illustrate Dante's economy of actual experience; the skilful use, that is, of real emotions and incidents to serve for suggestion and material of poetical thought. As has been told, towards the close of the _Vita Nuova_ he describes how he found a temporary consolation for the loss of Beatrice in the pity of a fair and noble lady. In his next work, the _Convito_, or _Banquet_, she appears as the personification of philosophy. The plan of the _Convito_ is that of a commentary on odes which are interpreted as having various meanings--among others the literal as distinguished from the allegorical or essentially true. As far as this lady is concerned, Dante shows some eagerness to pass from the literal meaning; desirous, it may be, to correct the belief that he had ever wavered in his exclusive devotion to Beatrice. That for a time he did transfer his thoughts from Beatrice in Heaven to the fair lady of the window is almost certain, and by the time he wrote the _Purgatorio_ he was able to make confession of such a fault. But at the earlier period at which the _Convito_ was written, he may have come to regard the avowal in the _Vita Nuova_ as an oversight dishonouring to himself as well as to his first love, and so have slurred it over, leaving the fact to stand enveloped in an allegory. At any rate, to his gloss upon this passage in his life we are indebted for an interesting account of how, at the age of twenty-seven, he put himself to school:--
'After losing the earliest joy of my life, I was so smitten with sorrow that in nothing could I find any comfort. Yet after some time my mind, eager to recover its tone, since nought that I or others could do availed to restore me, directed itself to find how people, being disconsolate, had been comforted. And so I took to reading that little-known book by Boethius, by writing which he, captive and in exile, had obtained relief. Next, hearing that Tully as well had written a book in which, treating of friendship, he had consoled the worthy Laelius on the occasion of the loss of his friend Scipio, I read that too. And though at the first I found their meaning hard, at last I comprehended it as far as my knowledge of the language and some little command of mother-wit enabled me to do: which same mother-wit had already helped me to much, as may be seen by the _Vita Nuova_. And as it often happens that a man goes seeking silver, and lights on gold he is not looking for--the result of chance, or of some divine provision; so I, besides finding the consolation I was in search of to dry my tears, became possessed of wisdom from authors and sciences and books. Weighing this well, I deemed that philosophy, the mistress of these authors, sciences, and books, must be the best of all things. And imagining her to myself fashioned like a great lady, rich in compassion, my admiration of her was so unbounded that I was always delighting myself in her image. And from thus beholding her in fancy I went on to frequent the places where she is to be found in very deed--in the schools of theology, to wit, and the debates of philosophers. So that in a little time, thirty months or so, I began to taste so much of her sweetness that the love I bore to her effaced or banished every other thought.'
No one would guess from this description of how he grew enamoured of philosophy, that at the beginning of his arduous studies Dante took a wife. She was Gemma, the daughter of Manetto Donati, but related only distantly, if at all, to the great Corso Donati. They were married in 1292, he being twenty-seven; and in the course of the nine years that elapsed till his exile she bore him five sons and two daughters. From his silence regarding her in his works, and from some words of Boccaccio's which apply only to the period of his exile, it has been inferred that the union was unhappy. But Dante makes no mention in his writings of his parents or children any more than of Gemma. And why should not his wife be included among the things dearest to him which, he tells us, he had to leave behind him on his banishment? For anything we know to the contrary, their wedded life up to the time of his exile may have been happy enough; although most probably the marriage was one of convenience, and almost certainly Dante found little in Gemma's mind that answered to his own. In any case it is not safe to lay stress upon his silence. During the period covered by the _Vita Nuova_ he served more than once in the field, and to this none of his earlier works make any reference. In 1289, Arezzo having warmly espoused the Ghibeline cause, the Florentines, led by Corso Donati and the great merchant Vieri dei Cerchi, took up arms and met the foe in the field of Campaldino, on the edge of the upland region of the Casentino. Dante, as a young man of means and family, fought in the vanguard; and in a letter partly preserved by one of his early biographers he describes himself as being then no tiro in arms, and as having with varying emotions watched the fortunes of the day. From this it is clear that he had served before, probably in an expedition into the Aretine territory made in the previous year, and referred to in the _Inferno_. In the same year as Campaldino was won he was present at the surrender of Caprona, a fortress belonging to Pisa. But of all this he is silent in his works, or only makes casual mention of it by way of illustration. It is, therefore, a waste of time trying to prove his domestic misery from his silence about his marriage.
IV. So hard a student was Dante that he now for a time nearly lost the use of his eyes. But he was cured by regimen, and came to see as well as ever, he tells us; which we can easily believe was very well indeed. For his work, as he planned it out, he needed all his powers. The _Convito_, for example, was designed to admit of a full treatment of all that concerns philosophy. It marks an earlier stage of his intellectual and spiritual life than does the opening of the _Inferno_. In it we have the fruit of the years during which he was wandering astray from his early ideal, misled by what he afterwards came to count as a vain and profitless curiosity. Most of its contents, as we have it, are only indirectly interesting. It is impossible for most people to care for discussions, conducted with all the nicety of scholastic definition, on such subjects as the system of the universe as it was evolved out of the brains of philosophers; the subject-matter of knowledge; and how we know. But there is one section of it possessed of a very special interest, the Fourth, in which he treats of the nature of nobility. This he affirms to be independent of wealth or ancestry, and he finds every one to be noble who practises the virtues proper to his time of life. 'None of the Uberti of Florence or the Visconti of Milan can say he is noble because belonging to such or such a race; for the Divine seed is sown not in a family but in the individual man.' This amounts, it must be admitted, to no more than saying that high birth is one thing, and nobility of character another; but it is significant of what were the current opinions, that Dante should be at such pains to distinguish between the two qualities. The canzone which supplies the text for the treatise closes with a picture of the noble soul at every stage of life, to which Chaucer may well have been indebted for his description of the true gentleman:--'The soul that is adorned by this grace does not keep it hid, but from the day when soul is wed to body shows it forth even until death. In early life she is modest, obedient, and gentle, investing the outward form and all its members with a gracious beauty: in youth she is temperate and strong, full of love and courteous ways, delighting in loyal deeds: in mature age she is prudent, and just, and apt to liberality, rejoicing to hear of others' good. Then in the fourth stage of life she is married again to God, and contemplates her approaching end with thankfulness for all the past.'
In this passage it is less the poet that is heard than the sober moralist, one with a ripe experience of life, and contemptuous of the vulgar objects of ambition. The calm is on the surface. As has been said above, he was proud of his own birth, the more proud perhaps that his station was but a middling one; and to the close of his life he hated upstarts with their sudden riches, while the Philip Argenti on whom in the _Inferno_ he takes what has much the air of a private revenge may have been only a specimen of the violent and haughty nobles with whom he stood on an uneasy footing.
Yet the impression we get of Dante's surroundings in Florence from the _Vita Nuova_ and other poems, from references in the _Comedy_, and from some anecdotes more or less true which survive in the pages of Boccaccio and elsewhere, is on the whole a pleasant one. We should mistake did we think of him as always in the guise of absorbed student or tearful lover. Friends he had, and society of various kinds. He tells how in a severe illness he was nursed by a young and noble lady, nearly related to him by blood--his sister most probably; and other ladies are mentioned as watching in his sick-chamber. With Forese and Piccarda Donati, brother and sister of the great Corso Donati, he was on terms of the warmest friendship. From the _Vita Nuova_ we can gather that, even when his whole heart fainted and failed at the mere sight of Beatrice, he was a favourite with other ladies and conversed familiarly with them. The brother of Beatrice was his dear friend; while among those of the elder generation he could reckon on the friendship of such men as Guido Cavalcanti and Brunetto Latini. Through Latini he would, even as a young man, get the entry of the most lettered and intellectually active society of Florence. The tradition of his intimacy with Giotto is supported by the mention he makes of the painter, and by the fact, referred to in the _Vita Nuova_, that he was himself a draughtsman. It is to be regretted there are not more anecdotes of him on record like that which tells how one day as he drew an angel on his tablets he was broken in upon by 'certain people of importance.' The musician Casella, whom he 'woes to sing in Purgatory' and Belacqua, the indolent good-humoured lutemaker, are greeted by him in a tone of friendly warmth in the one case and of easy familiarity in the other, which help us to know the terms on which he stood with the quick-witted artist class in Florence. Already he was in the enjoyment of a high reputation as a poet and scholar, and there seemed no limit to the greatness he might attain to in his native town as a man of action as well as a man of thought.
In most respects the Florence of that day was as fitting a home for a man of genius as could well be imagined. It was full of a life which seemed restless only because the possibilities of improvement for the individual and the community seemed infinite. A true measure of its political progress and of the activity of men's minds is supplied by the changes then being made in the outward aspect of the city. The duties of the Government were as much municipal as political, and it would have surprised a Florentine to be told that the one kind of service was of less dignity than the other. The population grew apace, and, to provide the means for extending the city walls, every citizen, on pain of his testament being found invalid, was required to bequeath a part of his estate to the public. Already the banks of the Arno were joined by three bridges of stone, and the main streets were paved with the irregularly-shaped blocks of lava still familiar to the sojourner in Florence. But between the time of Dante's boyhood and the close of the century the other outstanding features of the city were greatly altered, or were in the course of change. The most important churches of Florence, as he first knew it, were the Baptistery and the neighbouring small cathedral church of Santa Reparata; after these ranked the church of the Trinity, Santo Stefano, and some other churches which are now replaced by larger ones, or of which the site alone can be discovered. On the other side of the river, Samminiato with its elegant façade rose as now upon its hill. The only great civic building was the Palace of the Podesta. The Old Market was and had long been the true centre of the city's life.
At the time Dante went into exile Arnolfo was already working on the great new cathedral of St. Mary of the Flowers, the spacious Santa Croce, and the graceful Badia; and Santa Maria Novella was slowly assuming the perfection of form that was later to make it the favourite of Michel Angelo. The Palace of the Signory was already planned, though half a century was to elapse before its tower soared aloft to daunt the private strongholds which bristled, fierce and threatening, all over the city. The bell-tower of Giotto, too, was of later erection--the only pile we can almost regret that Dante never saw. The architect of it was however already adorning the walls of palace and cloister with paintings whose inspiration was no longer, like that of the works they overshadowed, drawn from the outworn motives of Byzantine art, but from the faithful observation of nature. He in painting and the Pisan school in sculpture were furnishing the world with novel types of beauty in the plastic arts, answering to the 'sweet new style' in verse of which it was Dante that discovered the secret.
Florence was now by far the leading city in Tuscany. Its merchants and money-dealers were in correspondence with every Mediterranean port and with every country of the West. Along with bales of goods and letters of exchange new ideas and fresh intelligence were always on the road to Florence. The knowledge of what was going on in the world, and of what men were thinking, was part of the stock-in-trade of the quick-witted citizens, and they were beginning to be employed throughout Europe in diplomatic work, till then almost a monopoly of churchmen. 'These Florentines seem to me to form a fifth element,' said Boniface, who had ample experience of how accomplished they were.
At home they had full employment for their political genius; and still upon the old problem, of how to curb the arrogance of the class that, in place of being satisfied to share in the general prosperity, sought its profit in the maintenance of privilege. It is necessary, at the cost of what may look like repetition, to revert to the presence and activity of this class in Florence, if we are to form a true idea of the circumstances of Dante's life, and enter into the spirit with which much of the _Comedy_ is informed. Though many of the nobles were now engaged in commerce and figured among the popular leaders, most of the greater houses stood proudly aloof from everything that might corrupt their gentility. These were styled the magnates: they found, as it were, a vocation for themselves in being nobles. Among them the true distinctive spirit of Ghibelinism survived, although none of them would now have dared to describe himself as a Ghibeline. Their strength lay partly in the unlimited control they retained over the serfs on their landward estates; in the loyalty with which the members of a family held by one another; in their great command of resources as the administrators of the _Parte Guelfa_; and in the popularity they enjoyed with the smaller people in consequence of their lavish expenditure, and frank if insolent manners. By law scarcely the equals of the full citizens, in point of fact they tyrannised over them. Their houses, set like fortresses in the crowded streets, frequently served as prisons and torture-chambers for the low-born traders or artisans who might offend them.
Measures enough had been passed towards the close of the century with a view to curb the insolence of the magnates; but the difficulty was to get them put in force. At length, in 1294, they, with many additional reforms, were embodied in the celebrated Ordinances of Justice. These for long were counted back to as the Great Charter of Florence--a Great Charter defining the popular rights and the disabilities of the baronage. Punishments of special severity were enacted for nobles who should wrong a plebeian, and the whole of a family or clan was made responsible for the crimes and liabilities of its several members. The smaller tradesmen were conciliated by being admitted to a share in political influence. If serfage was already abolished in the State of Florence, it was the Ordinances which made it possible for the serf to use his liberty. But the greatest blow dealt to the nobles by the new laws was their exclusion, as nobles, from all civil and political offices. These they could hold only by becoming members of one of the trade guilds. And to deprive a citizen of his rights it was enough to inscribe his name in the list of magnates.
It is not known in what year Dante became a member of the Guild of Apothecaries. Without much reason it has been assumed that he was one of the nobles who took advantage of the law of 1294. But there is no evidence that in his time the Alighieri ranked as magnates, and much ground for believing that for some considerable time past they had belonged to the order of full citizens.
It was not necessary for every guildsman to practise the art or engage in the business to which his guild was devoted, and we are not required to imagine Dante as having anything to do with medicine or with the spices and precious stones in which the apothecaries traded. The guilds were political as much as industrial associations, and of the public duties of his membership he took his full share. The constitution of the Republic, jealously careful to limit the power of the individual citizen, provided that the two chief executive officers, the Podesta and the Captain of the People, should always be foreigners. They held office only for six months. To each of them was assigned a numerous Council, and before a law could be abrogated or a new one passed it needed the approval of both these Councils, as well as that of the Priors, and of the heads of the principal guilds. The Priors were six in number, one for each district of the city. With them lay the administration in general of the laws, and the conduct of foreign affairs. Their office was elective, and held for two months. Of one or other of the Councils Dante is known to have been a member in 1295, 1296, 1300, and 1301. In 1299 he is found engaged on a political mission to the little hill-city of San Gemigniano, where in the town-house they still show the pulpit from which he addressed the local senate. From the middle of June till the middle of August 1300 he served as one of the Priors.
At the time when Dante entered on this office, Florence was distracted by the feud of Blacks and Whites, names borrowed from the factions of Pistoia, but fated to become best known from their use in the city which adopted them. The strength of the Blacks lay in the nobles whom the Ordinances of Justice had been designed to depress; both such of them as had retained their standing as magnates, and such as, under the new law, had unwillingly entered the ranks of the citizens. Already they had succeeded in driving into exile Giano della Bella, the chief author of the Ordinances; and their efforts--and those of the citizens who, fearing the growing power of the lesser guilds, were in sympathy with them--were steadily directed to upset the reforms. An obvious means to this end was to lower in popular esteem the public men whose policy it was to govern firmly on the new lines. The leader of the discontented party was Corso Donati, a man of small fortune, but of high birth; of splendid personal appearance, open-handed, and of popular manners. He and they who went with him affected a violent Guelfism, their chance of recovering the control of domestic affairs being the better the more they could frighten the Florentines with threats of evils like those incurred by the Aretines and Pisans from Ghibeline oppression. It may be imagined what meaning the cry of Ghibeline possessed in days when there was still a class of beggars in Florence--men of good names--whose eyes had been torn out by Farinata and his kind.
One strong claim which Corso Donati had on the goodwill of his fellow-townsmen was that by his ready courage in pushing on the reserves, against superior orders, at the battle of Campaldino, the day had been won to Florence and her allies. As he rode gallantly through the streets he was hailed as the Baron (_il Barone_), much as in the last generation the victor of Waterloo was sufficiently distinguished as the Duke. At the same battle, Vieri dei Cerchi, the leader of the opposite party of the Whites, had shown no less bravery, but he was ignorant of the art, or despised it, of making political capital out of the performance of his duty. In almost every respect he offered a contrast to Donati. He was of a new family, and his influence depended not on landed possessions, though he had these too, but on wealth derived from commerce. According to John Villani, a competent authority on such a point, he was at the head of one of the greatest trading houses in the world. The same crowds that cheered Corso as the great Baron sneered at the reticent and cold-tempered merchant as the Ghibeline. It was a strange perversion of ideas, and yet had this of justification, that all the nobles of Ghibeline tendency and all the citizens who, on account of their birth, were suspected of leaning that way were driven into the party of the Whites by the mere fact of the Blacks hoisting so defiantly the Guelf flag, and commanding the resources of the _Parte Guelfa_. But if Ghibelinism meant, as fifty years previously it did mean, a tendency to exalt privilege as against the general liberties and to court foreign interference in the affairs of Florence, it was the Blacks and not the Whites who had served themselves heirs to Ghibelinism. That the appeal was now taken to the Pope instead of to the Emperor did not matter; or that French soldiers in place of German were called in to settle domestic differences.
The Roman See was at this time filled by Boniface VIII., who six years previously, by violence and fraud, had procured the resignation of Celestine V.--him who made the great refusal. Boniface was at once arrogant and subtle, wholly faithless, and hampered by no scruple either of religion or humanity. But these qualities were too common among those who before and after him filled the Papal throne, to secure him in a special infamy. That he has won from the ruthless hatred which blazes out against him in many a verse of Dante's, and for this hatred he is indebted to his interference in the affairs of Florence, and what came as one of the fruits of it--the poet's exile.
And yet, from the point of view not only of the interest of Rome but also of Italy, there is much to be said for the policy of Boniface. German domination was a just subject of fear, and the Imperialist element was still so strong in Northern and Central Italy, that if the Emperor Albert had been a man of a more resolute ambition, he might--so contemporaries deemed--have conquered Italy at the cost of a march through it. The cities of Romagna were already in Ghibeline revolt, and it was natural that the Pope should seek to secure Florence on the Papal side. It was for the Florentines rather than for him to judge what they would lose or gain by being dragged into the current of general politics. He made a fair beginning with an attempt to reconcile the two parties. The Whites were then the dominant faction, and to them reconciliation meant that their foes would at once divide the government with them, and at the long-run sap the popular liberties, while the Pope's hand would soon be allowed to dip freely into the communal purse. The policy of the Whites was therefore one of steady opposition to all foreign meddling with Florence. But it failed to secure general support, for without being Ghibeline in fact it had the air of being so; and the name of Ghibeline was one that no reasoning could rob of its terrors.
As was usual in Florence when political feeling ran high, the hotter partisans came to blows, and the streets were more than once disturbed by violence and bloodshed. To an onlooker it must have seemed as if the interposition of some external authority was desirable; and almost on the same day as the new Priors, of whom Dante was one and who were all Whites, took office in the June of 1300, the Cardinal Acquasparta entered the city, deputed by the Pope to establish peace. His proposals were declined by the party in power, and having failed in his mission he left the city, and took the priestly revenge upon it of placing it under interdict. Ere many months were passed, the Blacks, at a meeting of the heads of the party, resolved to open negotiations anew with Boniface. For this illegal step some of them, including Corso Donati, were ordered into exile by the authorities, who, to give an appearance of impartiality to their proceedings, at the same time banished some of the Whites, and among them Guido Cavalcanti. It was afterwards made a charge against Dante that he had procured the recall of his friend Guido and the other Whites from exile; but to this he could answer that he was not then in office. Corso in the meantime was using his enforced absence from Florence to treat freely with the Pope.
Boniface had already entered into correspondence with Charles of Valois, brother of Philip, the reigning King of France, with the view of securing the services of a strongly-connected champion. It was the game that had been played before by the Roman Court when Charles of Anjou was called to Italy to crush the Hohenstaufens. This second Charles was a man of ability of a sort, as he had given cruel proof in his brother's Flemish wars. By the death of his wife, daughter of his kinsman Charles II. of Naples and so grand-daughter of Charles of Anjou, he had lost the dominions of Maine and Anjou, and had got the nickname of Lackland from his want of a kingdom. He lent a willing ear to Boniface, who presented him with the crown of Sicily on condition that he first wrested it from the Spaniard who wore it. All the Papal influence was exerted to get money for the expenses of the descent on Sicily. Even churchmen were required to contribute, for it was a holy war, and the hope was that when Charles, the champion of the Church, had reduced Italy to obedience, won Sicily for himself by arms, and perhaps the Eastern Empire by marriage, he would win the Holy Sepulchre for Christendom.
Charles crossed the Alps in August 1301, with five hundred men-at-arms, and, avoiding Florence on his southward march, found Boniface at his favourite residence of Anagni. He was created Pacificator of Tuscany, and loaded with other honours. What better served the purpose of his ambition, he was urged to retrace his steps and justify his new title by restoring peace to Florence. There the Whites were still in power, but they dared not declare themselves openly hostile to the Papal and Guelf interest by refusing him admission to the city. He came with gentle words, and ready to take the most stringent oaths not to tamper with the liberties of the Commonwealth; but once he had gained an entrance (November 1301) and secured his hold on Florence, he threw off every disguise, gave full play to his avarice, and amused himself with looking on at the pillage of the dwellings and warehouses of the Whites by the party of Corso Donati. By all this, says Dante, Charles 'gained no land,' Lackland as he was, 'but only sin and shame.'
There is a want of precise information as to the events of this time. But it seems probable that Dante formed one of an embassy sent by the rulers of Florence to the Pope in the autumn of this year; and that on the occasion of the entrance of Charles he was absent from Florence. What the embassy had to propose which Boniface could be expected to be satisfied with, short of complete submission, is not known and is not easy to guess. It seems clear at least that Dante cannot have been chosen as a person likely to be specially pleasing to the Roman Court. Within the two years preceding he had made himself prominent in the various Councils of which he was a member, by his sturdy opposition to affording aid to the Pope in his Romagnese wars. It is even possible that his theory of the Empire was already more or less known to Boniface, and as that Pontiff claimed Imperial authority over such states as Florence, this would be sufficient to secure him a rough reception. Where he was when the terrible news came to him that for some days there had been no law in Florence, and that Corso Donati was sharing in the triumph of Charles, we do not know. Presageful of worse things to come, he did not seek to return, and is said to have been in Siena when he heard that, on the 27th January 1302, he had been sentenced to a heavy fine and political disabilities for having been guilty of extortion while a Prior, of opposing the coming of Charles, and of crimes against the peace of Florence and the interest of the _Parte Guelfa_. If the fine was not paid within three days his goods and property were to be confiscated. This condemnation he shared with three others. In the following March he was one of twelve condemned, for contumacy, to be burned alive if ever they fell into the hands of the Florentine authorities. We may perhaps assume that the cruel sentence, as well as the charge of peculation, was uttered only in order to conform to some respectable precedents.
V. Besides Dante many other Whites had been expelled from Florence. Whether they liked it or not, they were forced to seek aid from the Ghibelines of Arezzo and Romagna. This led naturally to a change of political views, and though at the time of their banishment all of them were Guelfs in various degrees, as months and years went on they developed into Ghibelines, more or less declared. Dissensions, too, would be bred among them out of recriminations touching the past, and charges of deserting the general interest for the sake of securing private advantage in the way of making peace with the Republic. For a time, however, the common desire of gaining a return to Florence held them together. Of the Council constituted to bring this about, Dante was a member. Once only with his associates does he appear to have come the length of formal negotiations with a view to getting back. Charles of Valois had passed away from the temporary scene of his extortions and treachery, upon the futile quest of a crown. Boniface, ere being persecuted to death by his old ally, Philip of France (1303), had vainly attempted to check the cruelty of the Blacks; and Benedict, his successor, sent the Cardinal of Ostia to Florence with powers to reconcile the two parties. Dante is usually credited with the composition of the letter in which Vieri dei Cerchi and his fellow-exiles answered the call of the Cardinal to discuss the conditions of their return home. All that had been done by the banished party, said the letter, had been done for the public good. The negotiations came to nothing; nor were the exiles more fortunate in arms. Along with their allies they did once succeed by a sudden dash in penetrating to the market-place, and Florence lay within their grasp when, seized with panic, they turned and fled from the city, which many of them were never to see again.
Almost certainly Dante took no active part in this attempt, and indeed there is little to show that he was ever heartily associated with the exiles. In his own words, he was compelled to break with his companions owing to their imbecility and wickedness, and to form a party by himself. With the Whites, then, he had little more to do; and the story of their fortunes need not longer detain us. It is enough to say that while, like Dante, the chief men among them were for ever excluded from Florence, the principles for which they had contended survived, and even obtained something like a triumph within its walls. The success of Donati and his party, though won with the help of the people, was too clearly opposed to the popular interest to be permanent. Ere long the inveterate contradiction between magnate and merchant was again to change the course of Florentine politics; the disabilities against lawless nobles were again to be enforced; and Corso Donati himself was to be crushed in the collision of passions he had evoked but could not control (1308). Though tenderly attached to members of his family, Dante bore Corso a grudge as having been the chief agent in procuring his exile--a grudge which years could do nothing to wipe out. He places in the mouth of Forese Donati a prophecy of the great Baron's shameful death, expressed in curt and scornful words, terrible from a brother. It is no figure of speech to say that Dante nursed revenge.
For some few years his hopes were set on Henry of Luxemburg, elected Emperor in 1308. A Ghibeline, in the ordinary sense of the term, Dante never was. We have in his _De Monarchia_ a full account of the conception he had formed of the Empire--that of authority in temporal affairs embodied in a just ruler, who, being already supreme, would be delivered from all personal ambition; who should decree justice and be a refuge for all that were oppressed. He was to be the captain of Christian society and the guardian of civil right; as in another sphere the Pope was to be the shepherd of souls and the guardian of the deposit of Divine truth. In Dante's eyes the one great officer was as much God's vicegerent as the other. While the most that a Ghibeline or a moderate Guelf would concede was that there should be a division of power between Pope and Emperor--the Ghibeline leaving it to the Emperor and the Guelf to the Pope to define their provinces--Dante held, and in this he stood almost alone among politicians, that they ought to be concerned with wholly different kingdoms, and that Christendom was wronged by the trespass of either upon the other's domain. An equal wrong was done by the neglect by either of his duty, and both, as Dante judged, had been shamefully neglecting it. For more than half a century no Emperor had set foot in Italy; and since the Papal Court had under Clement V. been removed to Avignon (1305), the Pope had ceased to be a free agent, owing to his neighbourhood to France and the unscrupulous Philip.
Dante trusted that the virtuous single-minded Henry VII. would prove a monarch round whom all the best in Italy might gather to make him Emperor in deed as well as in name. His judgment took the colour of his hopes, for under the awful shadow of the Emperor he trusted to enter Florence. Although no Ghibeline or Imperialist in the vulgar sense, he constituted himself Henry's apologist and herald; and in letters addressed to the 'wicked Florentines,' to the Emperor, and to the Princes and Peoples of Italy, he blew as it were a trumpet-blast of triumph over the Emperor's enemies and his own. Henry had crossed the Alps, and was tarrying in the north of Italy, when Dante, with a keen eye for where the key of the situation lay, sharpened by his own wishes, urged him to lose no more time in reducing the Lombard cities to obedience, but to descend on Florence, the rotten sheep which was corrupting all the Italian flock. The men of Florence he bids prepare to receive the just reward of their crimes.
The Florentines answered Dante's bitter invective and the Emperor's milder promises by an unwearied opposition with the arms which their increasing command of all that tends to soften life made them now less willing to take up, and by the diplomacy in which they were supreme The exiles were recalled, always excepting the more stubborn or dangerous; and among these was reckoned Dante. Alliances were made on all hands, an art which Henry was notably wanting in the trick of. Wherever he turned he was met and checkmated by the Florentines, who, wise by experience, were set on retaining control of their own affairs. After his coronation at Rome (1312), he marched northwards, and with his Pisan and Aretine allies for six weeks laid fruitless siege to Florence. King Robert of Naples, whose aid he had hoped to gain by means of a family alliance, was joined to the league of Guelfs, and Henry passed away from Florence to engage in an enterprise against the Southern Kingdom, a design cut short by his death (1313). He was the last Emperor that ever sought to take the part in Italian affairs which on Dante's theory belonged to the Imperial office. Well-meaning but weak, he was not the man to succeed in reducing to practice a scheme of government which had broken down even in the strong hands of the two Fredericks, and ere the Commonwealths of Italy had become each as powerful as a Northern kingdom. To explain his failure, Dante finds that his descent into Italy was unseasonable: he came too soon. Rather, it may be said, he came far too late.
When, on the death of Henry, Dante was disappointed in his hopes of a true revival of the Empire, he devoted himself for a time to urging the restoration of the Papal Court to Rome, so that Italy might at least not be left without some centre of authority. In a letter addressed to the Italian Cardinals, he besought them to replace Clement V., who died in 1314, by an Italian Pope. Why should they, he asked, resign this great office into Gascon hands? Why should Rome, the true centre of Christendom, be left deserted and despised? His appeal was fruitless, as indeed it could not fail to be with only six Italian Cardinals in a College of twenty-four; and after a vacancy of two years the Gascon Clement was succeeded by another Gascon. Although Dante's motives in making this attempt were doubtless as purely patriotic as those which inspired Catherine of Siena to similar action a century later, he met, we may be sure, with but little sympathy from his former fellow-citizens. They were intent upon the interests of Florence alone, and even of these they may sometimes have taken a narrow view. His was the wider patriotism of the Italian, and it was the whole Peninsula that he longed to see delivered from French influence and once more provided with a seat of authority in its midst, even if it were only that of spiritual power. The Florentines for their part, desirous of security against the incursions of the northern horde, were rather set on retaining the goodwill of France than on enjoying the neighbourhood of the Pope. In this they were guilty of no desertion of their principles. Their Guelfism had never been more than a mode of minding themselves.
For about three years (1313-1316) the most dangerous foe of Florence was Uguccione de la Faggiuola, a partisan Ghibeline chief, sprung from the mountain-land of Urbino, which lies between Tuscany and Romagna. He made himself lord of Pisa and Lucca, and defeated the Florentines and their allies in the great battle of Montecatini (1315). To him Dante is believed to have attached himself. It would be easy for the Republic to form an exaggerated idea of the part which the exile had in shaping the policy or contributing to the success of his patron; and we are not surprised to find that, although Dante's fighting days were done, he was after the defeat subjected to a third condemnation (November 1315). If caught, he was to lose his head; and his sons, or some of them, were threatened with the same fate. The terms of the sentence may again have been more severe than the intentions of those who uttered it. However this may be, an amnesty was passed in the course of the following year, and Dante was urged to take advantage of it. He found the conditions of pardon too humiliating. Like a malefactor he would require to walk, taper in hand and a shameful mitre on his head, to the church of St John, and there make an oblation for his crimes. It was not in this fashion that in his more hopeful hours the exile had imagined his restoration. If ever he trod again the pavement of his beautiful St John's, it was to be proudly, as a patriot touching whom his country had confessed her sins; or, with a poet's more bashful pride, to receive the laurel crown beside the font in which he was baptized. But as he would not enter his well beloved, well hated Florence on the terms imposed by his enemies, so he never had the chance of entering it on his own. The spirit in which he, as it were, turned from the open gates of his native town is well expressed in a letter to a friend, who would seem to have been a churchman who had tried to win his compliance with the terms of the pardon. After thanking his correspondent for his kindly eagerness to recover him, and referring to the submission required, he says:--'And is it in this glorious fashion that Dante Alighieri, wearied with an almost trilustral exile, is recalled to his country? Is this the desert of an innocence known to all, and of laborious study which for long has kept him asweat?... But, Father, this is no way for me to return to my country by; though if by you or others one can be hit upon through which the honour and fame of Dante will take no hurt, it shall be followed by me with no tardy steps. If by none such Florence is to be entered, I will never enter Florence. What then! Can I not, wherever I may be, behold the sun and stars? Is not meditation upon the sweetness of truth as free to me in one place as another? To enjoy this, no need to submit myself ingloriously and with ignominy to the State and People of Florence! And wherever I may be thrown, in any case I trust at least to find daily bread.'
The cruelty and injustice of Florence to her greatest son have been the subject of much eloquent blame. But, in justice to his contemporaries, we must try to see Dante as they saw him, and bear in mind that the very qualities fame makes so much of--his fervent temper and devotion to great ideas--placed him out of the reach of common sympathy. Others besides him had been banished from Florence, with as much or as little reason, and had known the saltness of bread which has been begged, and the steepness of strange stairs. The pains of banishment made them the more eager to have it brought to a close. With Dante all that he suffered went to swell the count of grievances for which a reckoning was some day to be exacted. The art of returning was, as he himself knew well, one he was slow to learn. His noble obstinacy, which would stoop to no loss of dignity or sacrifice of principle, must excite our admiration; it also goes far to account for his difficulty in getting back. We can even imagine that in Florence his refusal to abate one tittle of what was due to him in the way of apology was, for a time, the subject of wondering speculation to the citizens, ere they turned again to their everyday affairs of politics and merchandise. Had they been more used to deal with men in whom a great genius was allied to a stubborn sense of honour, they would certainly have left less room in their treatment of Dante for happier ages to cavil at.
How did the case stand? In the letter above quoted from, Dante says that his innocence was known to all. As far as the charge of corruption in his office-bearing went, his banishment--no one can doubt it for a moment--was certainly unjust; and the political changes in Florence since the death of Corso Donati had taken all the life out of the other charges. But by his eager appeals to the Emperor to chastise the Florentines he had raised fresh barriers against his return. The governors of the Republic could not be expected to adopt his theory of the Empire and share his views of the Imperial claims; and to them Dante must have seemed as much guilty of disloyalty to the Commonwealth in inviting the presence of Henry, as Corso Donati had been in Dante's eyes for his share in bringing Charles of Valois to harry Florence. His political writings since his exile--and all his writings were more or less political--had been such as might well confirm or create an opinion of him as a man difficult to live with, as one whose intellectual arrogance had a ready organ in his unsparing tongue or pen. Rumour would most willingly dwell upon and distort the features of his character and conduct that separated him from the common herd. And to add to all this, even after he had deserted the party of the Whites in exile, and had become a party to himself, he found his friends and patrons--for where else could he find them?--among the foes of Florence.
VI. History never abhors a vacuum so much as when she has to deal with the life of a great man, and for those who must have details of Dante's career during the nineteen years which elapsed between his banishment and his death, the industry of his biographers has exhausted every available hint, while some of them press into their service much that has only the remotest bearing on their hero. If even one-half of their suppositions were adopted, we should be forced to the conclusion that the _Comedy_ and all the other works of his exile were composed in the intervals of a very busy life. We have his own word for this much, (_Convito_ i. 3,) that since he was cast forth out of Florence--in which he would 'fain rest his wearied soul and fulfil his appointed time'--he had been 'a pilgrim, nay, even a mendicant,' in every quarter of Italy, and had 'been held cheap by many who, because of his fame, had looked to find him come in another guise.' But he gives no journal of his wanderings, and, as will have been observed, says no word of any country but Italy. Keeping close to well-ascertained facts, it seems established that in the earlier period of his exile he sojourned with members of the great family of the Counts Guidi, and that he also found hospitality with the Malaspini, lords of the Val di Magra, between Genoa and Lucca. At a still earlier date (August 1306) he is found witnessing a deed in Padua. It was most probably in the same year that Dante found Giotto there, painting the walls of the Scrovegni Chapel, and was courteously welcomed by the artist, and taken to his house. At some time of his life he studied at Bologna: John Villani says, during his exile. Of his supposed residence in Paris, though it is highly probable, there is a want of proof; of a visit to England, none at all that is worth a moment's consideration. Some of his commentators and biographers seem to think he was so short-witted that he must have been in a place before it could occur to him to name it in his verse.
We have Dante's own word for it that he found his exile almost intolerable. Besides the bitter resentment which he felt at the injustice of it, he probably cherished the conviction that his career had been cut short when he was on the point of acquiring great influence in affairs. The illusion may have been his--one not uncommon among men of a powerful imagination--that, given only due opportunity, he could mould the active life of his time as easily as he moulded and fashioned the creations of his fancy. It was, perhaps, owing to no fault of his own that when a partial opportunity had offered itself, he failed to get his views adopted in Florence; indeed, to judge from the kind of employment in which he was more than once engaged for his patrons, he must have been possessed of no little business tact. Yet, as when his feelings were deeply concerned his words knew no restraint, so his hopes would partake of the largeness of his genius. In the restored Empire, which he was almost alone in longing for as he conceived of it, he may have imagined for himself a place beside Henry like what in Frederick's court had been filled by Pier delle Vigne--the man who held both keys to the Emperor's heart, and opened and shut it as he would.
Thus, as his exile ran on it would grow sadder with the accumulating memories of hopes deferred and then destroyed, and of dreams which had faded away in the light of a cheerless reality. But some consolations he must have found even in the conditions of his exile. He had leisure for meditation, and time enough to spend in that other world which was all his own. With the miseries of a wanderer's life would come not a few of its sweets--freedom from routine, and the intellectual stimulus supplied by change of place. Here and there he would find society such as he cared for--that of scholars, theologians, and men familiar with every court and school of Christendom. And, beyond all, he would get access to books that at home he might never have seen. It was no spare diet that would serve his mind while he was making such ample calls on it for his great work. As it proceeds we seem to detect a growing fulness of knowledge, and it is by reason of the more learned treatment, as well as the loftier theme of the Third Cantica, that so many readers, when once well at sea in the _Paradiso_, recognise the force of the warning with which it begins.
What amount of intercourse he was able to maintain with Florence during his wanderings is a matter of mere speculation, although of a more interesting kind than that concerned with the chronology of his uneasy travels. That he kept up at least some correspondence with his friends is proved by the letter regarding the terms of his pardon. There is also the well-known anecdote told by Boccaccio as to the discovery and despatch to him of the opening Cantos of the _Inferno_--an anecdote we may safely accept as founded on fact, although Boccaccio's informants may have failed to note at the time what the manuscript consisted of, and in the course of years may have magnified the importance of their discovery. With his wife he would naturally communicate on subjects of common interest--as, for instance, that of how best to save or recover part of his property--and especially regarding the welfare of his sons, of whom two are found to be with him when he acquires something like a settlement in Verona.
It is quite credible that, as Boccaccio asserts, he would never after his exile was once begun 'go to his wife or suffer her to join him where he was;' although the statement is probably an extension of the fact that she never did join him. In any case it is to make too large a use of the words to find in them evidence, as has frequently been done, of the unhappiness of all his married life, and of his utter estrangement from Gemma during his banishment. The union--marriage of convenience though it was--might be harmonious enough as long as things went moderately well with the pair. Dante was never wealthy, but he seems to have had his own house in Florence and small landed possessions in its neighbourhood. That before his banishment he was considerably in debt appears to be ascertained; but, without knowing the circumstances in which he borrowed, it is impossible to be sure whether he may not only have been making use of his credit in order to put out part of his means to advantage in some of the numerous commercial enterprises in which his neighbours were engaged. In any case his career must have seemed full of promise till he was driven into banishment. When that blow had fallen, it is easy to conceive how what if it was not mutual affection had come to serve instead of it--esteem and forbearance--would be changed into indifference with the lapse of months and years of enforced separation, embittered and filled on both sides with the mean cares of indigence, and, it may be, on Gemma's side with the conviction that her husband had brought her with himself into disgrace. If all that is said by Boccaccio and some of Dante's enemies as to his temperament and behaviour were true, we could only hope that Gemma's indifference was deep enough to save her from the pangs of jealousy. And on the other hand, if we are to push suspicion to its utmost length, we may find an allusion to his own experience in the lines where Dante complains of how soon a widow forgets her husband. But this is all matter of the merest speculation. Gemma is known to have been alive in 1314. She brought up her children, says Boccaccio, upon a trifling part of her husband's confiscated estate, recovered on the plea that it was a portion of her dowry. There may have been difficulties of a material kind, insuperable save to an ardent love that was not theirs, in the way of Gemma's joining her husband in any of his cities of refuge.
Complete evidence exists of Dante's having in his later years lived for a longer or shorter time in the three cities of Lucca, Verona, and Ravenna. In Purgatory he meets a shade from Lucca, in the murmur of whose words he catches he 'knows not what of Gentucca;' and when he charges the Lucchese to speak plainly out, he is told that Lucca shall yet be found pleasant by him because of a girl not yet grown to womanhood. Uguccione, acting in the interest of Pisa, took possession of Lucca in 1314, and Dante is supposed to have taken up his residence there for some considerable time. What we may certainly infer from his own words in the _Purgatorio_ is that they were written after a stay in Lucca had been sweetened to him by the society of a lady named Gentucca. He cannot well have found shelter there before the city was held by Uguccione; and research has established that at least two ladies of the uncommon name of Gentucca were resident there in 1314. From the whole tone of his allusion--the mention of her very name and of her innocent girlhood--we may gather that there was nothing in his liking for her of which he had any reason to feel ashamed. In the _Inferno_ he had covered the whole people of Lucca with his scorn. By the time he got thus far with the _Purgatorio_ his thoughts of the place were all softened by his memory of one fair face--or shall we rather say, of one compassionate and womanly soul? That Dante was more than susceptible to feminine charms is coarsely asserted by Boccaccio. But on such a matter Boccaccio is a prejudiced witness, and, in the absence of sufficient proof to the contrary, justice requires us to assume that the tenor of Dante's life was not at variance with that of his writings. He who was so severe a judge of others was not, as we can infer from more than one passage of the _Comedy_, a lenient judge when his own failings were concerned. That his conduct never fell short of his standard no one will venture to maintain. But what should have hindered him, in his hours of weariness and when even his hold on the future seemed to slacken, in lonely castle or strange town, to seek sympathy from some fair woman who might remind him in something of Beatrice?
When, in 1316, Uguccione was driven out of Lucca and Pisa, that great partisan took military service with Can Grande. It has been disputed whether Dante had earlier enjoyed the hospitality of the Scaligers, or was indebted for his first reception in Verona to the good offices of Uguccione. It is barely credible that by this time in his life he stood in need of any one to answer for him in the court of Can Grande. His fame as a political writer must have preceded him; and it was of a character to commend him to the good graces of the great Imperialist. In his _De Monarchia_ he had, by an exhaustive treatment of propositions which now seem childish or else the mere commonplaces of everyday political argument, established the right of the civil power to independence of Church authority; and though to the Scaliger who aimed at becoming Imperial lieutenant for all the North of Italy he might seem needlessly tender to the spiritual lordship of the Holy Father, yet the drift of his reasoning was all in favour of the Ghibeline position. Besides this he had written on the need of refining the dialects of Italian, and reducing them to a language fit for general use in the whole of the Peninsula; and this with a novelty of treatment and wealth of illustration unequalled before or since in any first work on such a subject. And, what would recommend him still more to a youthful prince of lofty taste, he was the poet of the 'sweet new style' of the _Vita Nuova_, and of sonnets, ballads, and canzoni rich in language and thought beyond the works of all previous poets in the vulgar tongues. Add to this that the _Comedy_ was already written, and published up, perhaps, to the close of the _Purgatorio_, and that all Italy was eager to find who had a place, and what kind of place, in the strange new world from which the veil was being withdrawn; and it is easy to imagine that Dante's reception at Can Grande's court was rather that of a man both admired and feared for his great genius, than that of a wandering scholar and grumbling exile.
At what time Dante came to Verona, and for how long he stayed, we have no means of fixing with certainty. He himself mentions being there in 1320, and it is usually supposed that his residence covered three years previous to that date; as also that it was shared by his two sons, Piero and Jacopo. One of these was afterwards to find a settlement at Verona in a high legal post. Except some frivolous legends, there is no evidence that Dante met with anything but generous treatment from Can Grande. A passage of the _Paradiso_, written either towards the close of the poet's residence at Verona, or after he had left it, is full of a praise of the great Scaliger so magnificent as fully to make amends for the contemptuous mention in the _Purgatorio_ of his father and brother. To Can Grande the _Paradiso_ was dedicated by the author in a long epistle containing an exposition of how the first Canto of that Cantica, and, by implication, the whole of the poem, is to be interpreted. The letter is full of gratitude for favours already received, and of expectation of others yet to come. From the terms of the dedication it has been assumed that ere it was made the whole of the _Paradiso_ was written, and that Dante praises the lord of Verona after a long experience of his bounty.
Whether owing to the restlessness of an exile, or to some prospect of attaining a state of greater ease or of having the command of more congenial society, we cannot tell; but from the splendid court of Can Grande he moved down into Romagna, to Ravenna, the city which of all in Italy would now be fixed upon by the traveller as the fittest place for a man of genius, weighed down by infinite sorrows, to close his days in and find a tomb. Some writers on the life of Dante will have it that in Ravenna he spent the greater part of his exile, and that when he is found elsewhere--in Lucca or Verona--he is only on a temporary absence from his permanent home. But this conclusion requires some facts to be ignored, and others unduly dwelt on. In any case his patron there, during at least the last year or two of his life, was Guido Novello of Polenta, lord of Ravenna, the nephew of her who above all the persons of the _Comedy_ lives in the hearts of its readers.
Bernardino, the brother of Francesca and uncle of Guido, had fought on the side of Florence at the battle of Campaldino, and Dante may then have become acquainted with him. The family had the reputation of being moderate Guelfs; but ere this the exile, with his ripe experience of men, had doubtless learned, while retaining intact his own opinions as to what was the true theory of government, to set good-heartedness and a noble aim in life above political orthodoxy. This Guido Novello--the younger Guido--bears the reputation of having been well-informed, of gentle manners, and fond of gathering around him men accomplished in literature and the fine arts. On the death of Dante he made a formal oration in honour of the poet. If his welcome of Dante was as cordial as is generally supposed, and as there is no reason to doubt that it was, it proved his magnanimity; for in the _Purgatorio_ a family specially hostile to the Polentas had been mentioned with honour, while that to which his wife belonged had been lightly spoken of. How he got over the condemnation of his kinswoman to Inferno--even under such gentle conditions--it would be more difficult to understand were there not reason to believe that ere Dante went to Ravenna it had come to be a matter of pride in Italy for a family to have any of its members placed anywhere in that other world of which Dante held the key.
It seems as if we might assume that the poet's last months or years were soothed by the society of his daughter--the child whom he had named after the object of his first and most enduring love. Whether or not he was acting as Ambassador for Guido to Venice when he caught his last illness, it appears to be pretty well established that he was held in honour by his patron and all around him. For his hours of meditation he had the solemn churches of Ravenna with their storied walls, and the still more solemn pine forest of Classis, by him first annexed to the world of Romance. For hours of relaxation, when they came, he had neighbours who dabbled in letters and who could at any rate sympathise with him in his love of study. He maintained correspondence with poets and scholars in other cities. In at least one instance this was conducted in the bitter fashion with which the humanists of a century or two later were to make the world familiar; but with the Bolognese scholar, Giovanni del Virgilio, he engaged in a good-humoured, half-bantering exchange of Latin pastoral poems, through the artificial imagery of which there sometimes breaks a natural thought, as when in answer to the pedant's counsel to renounce the vulgar tongue and produce in Latin something that will entitle him to receive the laurel crown in Bologna, he declares that if ever he is crowned as a poet it will be on the banks of the Arno.
Most of the material for forming a judgment of how Dante stood affected to the religious beliefs of his time is to be gathered from the _Comedy_, and the place for considering it would rather be in an essay on that work than in a sketch of his life which necessity compels to be swift. A few words may however be here devoted to the subject, as it is one with some bearing on the manner in which he would be regarded by those around him, and through that on the tenor of his life. That Dante conformed to Church observances, and, except with a few malevolent critics, bore the reputation of a good Catholic, there can be no doubt. It was as a politician and not as a heretic that he suffered persecution; and when he died he was buried in great honour within the Franciscan Church at Ravenna. Some few years after his death, it is true, his _De Monarchia_ was burned as heretical by orders of the Papal Legate in Lombardy, who would gladly, if he could, have had the bones of the author exhumed to share the fate of his book. But all this was only because the partisans of Lewis of Bavaria were making political capital out of the treatise.
Attempts have been made to demonstrate that in spite of his outward conformity Dante was an unbeliever at heart, and that the _Comedy_ is devoted to the promulgation of a Ghibeline heresy--of which, we may be sure, no Ghibeline ever heard--and to the overthrow of all that the author professed most devoutly to believe. Other critics of a more sober temper in speculation would find in him a Catholic who held the Catholic beliefs with the same slack grasp as the teaching of Luther was held by Lessing or Goethe. But this is surely to misread the _Comedy_, which is steeped from beginning to end in a spirit of the warmest faith in the great Christian doctrines. It was no mere intellectual perception of these that Dante had--or professed to have--for when in Paradise he has satisfied Saint Peter of his being possessed of a just conception of the nature of faith, and is next asked if, besides knowing what is the alloy of the coin and the weight of it, he has it in his own purse, he answers boldly, 'Yea, and so shining and round that of a surety it has the lawful stamp.' And further on, when required to declare in what he believes, nothing against the fulness of his creed is to be inferred from the fact that he stops short after pronouncing his belief in the existence of God and in the Trinity. This article he gives as implying all the others; it is 'the spark which spreads out into a vivid flame.'
Yet if the inquiry were to be pushed further, and it were sought to find how much of free thought he allowed himself in matters of religion, Dante might be discovered to have reached his orthodox position by ways hateful to the bigots who then took order for preserving the purity of the faith. The office of the Pope he deeply revered, but the Papal absolution avails nothing in his eyes compared with one tear of heartfelt repentance. It is not on the word of Pope or Council that he rests his faith, but on the Scriptures, and on the evidences of the truth of Christianity, freely examined and weighed. Chief among these evidences, it must however be noted, he esteemed the fact of the existence of the Church as he found it; and in his inquiries he accepted as guides the Scholastic Doctors on whose reasonings the Church had set its seal of approbation. It was a foregone conclusion he reached by stages of his own. Yet that he sympathised at least as much with the honest search for truth as with the arrogant profession of orthodoxy, is shown by his treatment of heretics. He could not condemn severely such as erred only because their reason would not consent to rest like his in the prevalent dogmatic system; and so we find that he makes heresy consist less in intellectual error than in beliefs that tend to vitiate conduct, or to cause schism in societies divinely constituted. For his own part, orthodox although he was, or believed himself to be--which is all that needs to be contended for,--in no sense was he priest-ridden. It was liberty that he went seeking on his great journey; and he gives no hint that it is to be gained by the observance of forms or in submission to sacerdotal authority. He knows it is in his reach only when he has been crowned, and mitred too, lord of himself--subject to Him alone of whom even Popes were servants.
Although in what were to prove his last months Dante might amuse himself with the composition of learned trifles, and in the society and correspondence of men who along with him, if on lines apart from his, were preparing the way for the revival of classical studies, the best part of his mind, then as for long before, was devoted to the _Comedy_; and he was counting on the suffrages of a wider audience than courts and universities could supply.
Here there is no room to treat at length of that work, to which when we turn our thoughts all else he wrote--though that was enough to secure him fame--seems to fall into the background as if unworthy of his genius. What can hardly be passed over in silence is that in the _Comedy_, once it was begun, he must have found a refuge for his soul from all petty cares, and a shield against all adverse fortune. We must search its pages, and not the meagre records of his biographers, to find what was the life he lived during the years of his exile; for, in a sense, it contains the true journal of his thoughts, of his hopes, and of his sorrows. The plan was laid wide enough to embrace the observations he made of nature and of man, the fruits of his painful studies, and the intelligence he gathered from those experienced in travel, politics, and war. It was not only his imagination and artistic skill that were spent upon the poem: he gave his life to it. The future reward he knew was sure--an immortal fame; but he hoped for a nearer profit on his venture. Florence might at last relent, if not because of his innocence and at the spectacle of his inconsolable exile, at least on hearing the rumour of his genius borne to her from every corner of Italy:--
If e'er it comes that this my sacred Lay,
To which both Heaven and Earth have set their hand--
Through which these many years I waste away--
Shall quell the cruelty that keeps me banned
From the fair fold where I, a lamb, was found
Hostile to wolves who 'gainst it violence planned;
With other fleece and voice of other sound,
Poet will I return, and at the font
Where I was christened be with laurel crowned. But with the completion of the _Comedy_ Dante's life too came to a close. He died at Ravenna in the month of September 1321.
FOOTNOTES:  Matilda died in 1115. The name Tessa, the contraction of Contessa, was still, long after her time, sometimes given to Florentine girls. See Perrens, _Histoire de Florence_, vol. i. p. 126.  Whether by Matilda the great Countess is meant has been eagerly disputed, and many of the best critics--such as Witte and Scartazzini--prefer to find in her one of the ladies of the _Vita Nuova_. In spite of their pains it seems as if more can be said for the great Matilda than for any other. The one strong argument against her is, that while she died old, in the poem she appears as young.  See note on _Inferno_ xxx. 73.  It might, perhaps, be more correct to say that to some offices the nobles were eligible, but did not elect.  _Inf._ xiii. 75.  _Inf._ x. 119.  _Inf._ xxiii. 66.  _Inf._ x. 51.  _Purg._ vi. 144.  Dante sets the Abbot among the traitors in Inferno, and says scornfully of him that his throat was cut at Florence (_Inf._ xxxii. 119).  Villani throws doubt on the guilt of the Abbot. There were some cases of churchmen being Ghibelines, as for instance that of the Cardinal Ubaldini (_Inf._ x. 120). Twenty years before the Abbot's death the General of the Franciscans had been jeered at in the streets of Florence for turning his coat and joining the Emperor. On the other hand, many civilians were to be found among the Guelfs.  Manfred, says John Villani (_Cronica_, vi. 74 and 75), at first sent only a hundred men. Having by Farinata's advice been filled with wine before a skirmish in which they were induced to engage, they were easily cut in pieces by the Florentines; and the royal standard was dragged in the dust. The truth of the story matters less than that it was believed in Florence.  Provenzano is found by Dante in Purgatory, which he has been admitted to, in spite of his sins, because of his self-sacrificing devotion to a friend (_Purg._ xi. 121).  For this good advice he gets a word of praise in Inferno (_Inf._ xvi. 42).  These mercenaries, though called Germans, were of various races. There were even Greeks and Saracens among them. The mixture corresponded with the motley civilisation of Manfred's court.  _Inf._ xxxii. 79.  _Inf._ x. 93.  Lucera was a fortress which had been peopled with Saracens by Frederick.  Manfred, _Purg._ iii. 112; Charles, _Purg._ vii. 113.  _Purg._ xx. 67.  _Purg._ iii. 122.  For an account of the constitution and activity of the _Parte Guelfa_ at a later period, see Perrens, _Hist. de Florence_, vol. iv. p. 482.  _Purg._ xx. 68.  _Parad._ xi. 89.  _Parad._ xvi. 40, etc.  _Inf._ xxix. 31.  _Inf._ x. 42. Though Dante was descended from nobles, his rank in Florence was not that of a noble or magnate, but of a commoner.  The month is indicated by Dante himself, _Parad._ xxii. 110. The year has recently been disputed. For 1265 we have J. Villani and the earliest biographers; and Dante's own expression at the beginning of the _Comedy_ is in favour of it.  _Inf._ xxiii. 95.  _Inf._ xix. 17; _Parad._ xxv. 9.  _Purg._ xxx. 55.  _Inf._ viii. 45, where Virgil says of Dante that blessed was she that bore him, can scarcely be regarded as an exception to this statement.  In 1326, out of a population of ninety thousand, from eight to ten thousand children were being taught to read; and from five to six hundred were being taught grammar and logic in four high schools. There was not in Dante's time, or till much later, a University in Florence. See J. Villani, xi. 94, and Burckhardt, _Cultur der Renaissance_, vol. i. p. 76.  For an interesting account of Heresy in Florence from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, see Perrens, _Hist. de Florence_, vol. i. livre ii. chap. iii.  It opens with Brunetto's being lost in the forest of Roncesvalles, and there are some other features of resemblance--all on the surface--between his experience and Dante's.  G. Villani, viii. 10. Latini died in 1294. Villani gives the old scholar a very bad moral character.  _Inf._ xv. 84.  We may, I think, assume the _Vita Nuova_ to have been published some time between 1291 and 1300; but the dates of Dante's works are far from being ascertained.  So long as even Italian critics are not agreed as to whether the title means _New Life_, or _Youth_, I suppose one is free to take his choice; and it seems most natural to regard it as referring to the new world into which the lover is transported by his passion.  As, indeed, Boccaccio, _Vita di Dante_, expressly says was the case.  In this adopting a device frequently used by the love-poets of the period.--Witte, _Dante-Forschungen_, vol. ii. p. 312.  The _Vita Nuova_ contains some thirty poems.  See Sir Theodore Martin's Introduction to his Translation of _Vita Nuova_, page xxi.  In this matter we must not judge the conduct of Dante by English customs.  _Donne, ch' avete intelletto d' amore_: Ladies that are acquainted well with love. Quoted in _Purg._ xxiv. 51.  Beatrice died in June 1290, having been born in April 1266.  _Purg._ xi. 98.  _Purg._ xxiv. 52.  The date of the _Convito_ is still the subject of controversy, as is that of most of Dante's works. But it certainly was composed between the _Vita Nuova_ and the _Comedy_. There is a remarkable sonnet by Guido Cavalcanti addressed to Dante, reproaching him for the deterioration in his thoughts and habits, and urging him to rid himself of the woman who has bred the trouble. This may refer to the time after the death of Beatrice. See also _Purg._ xxx. 124.  _Convito_ ii. 13.  Some recent writers set his marriage five years later, and reduce the number of his children to three.  His sister is probably meant by the 'young and gentle lady, most nearly related to him by blood' mentioned in the _Vita Nuova_.  The difference between the Teutonic and Southern conception of marriage must be kept in mind.  He describes the weather on the day of the battle with the exactness of one who had been there (_Purg._ v. 155).  Leonardo Bruni.  _Inf._ xxii. 4.  _Inf._ xxi. 95.  _Conv._ iii. 9, where he illustrates what he has to say about the nature of vision, by telling that for some time the stars, when he looked at them, seemed lost in a pearly haze.  The _Convito_ was to have consisted of fifteen books. Only four were written.  _Wife of Bath's Tale._ In the context he quotes _Purg._ vii. 121, and takes ideas from the _Convito_.  Dies to sensual pleasure and is abstracted from all worldly affairs and interests. See _Convito_ iv. 28.  From the last canzone of the _Convito_.  In the _Vita Nuova_.  _Purg._ xxiii. 115, xxiv. 75; _Parad._ iii. 49.  _Purg._ xi. 95.  _Purg._ ii. 91.  _Purg._ iv. 123.  Sacchetti's stories of how Dante showed displeasure with the blacksmith and the donkey-driver who murdered his _canzoni_ are interesting only as showing what kind of legends about him were current in the streets of Florence.--Sacchetti, _Novelle_, cxiv, cxv.  _Purg._ xii. 101.  _Purg._ xi. 94:-- 'In painting Cimabue deemed the field His own, but now on Giotto goes the cry, Till by his fame the other's is concealed.'  Giotto is often said to have drawn inspiration from the _Comedy_; but that Dante, on his side, was indebted to the new school of painting and sculpture appears from many a passage of the _Purgatorio_.  Serfage had been abolished in 1289. But doubt has been thrown on the authenticity of the deed of abolition. See Perrens, _Hist. de Florence_, vol. ii. p. 349.  No unusual provision in the industrious Italian cities. Harsh though it may seem, it was probably regarded as a valuable concession to the nobles, for their disaffection appears to have been greatly caused by their uneasiness under disabilities. There is much obscurity on several points. How, for example, came the nobles to be allowed to retain the command of the vast resources of the _Parte Guelfa_? This made them almost independent of the Commonwealth.  At a later period the Priors were known as the Signory.  Fraticelli, _Storia della Vita di Dante_, page 112 and note.  It is to be regretted that Ampère in his charming _Voyage Dantesque_ devoted no chapter to San Gemigniano, than which no Tuscan city has more thoroughly preserved its mediæval character. There is no authority for the assertion that Dante was employed on several Florentine embassies. The tendency of his early biographers is to exaggerate his political importance and activity.  Under the date of April 1301 Dante is deputed by the Road Committee to see to the widening, levelling, and general improvement of a street in the suburbs.--Witte, _Dante-Forschungen_, vol. ii. p. 279.  Dante has a word of praise for Giano, at _Parad._ xvi. 127.  At which Dante fought. See page lxii.  Vieri was called Messer, a title reserved for magnates, knights, and lawyers of a certain rank--notaries and jurisconsults; Dante, for example, never gets it.  Villani acted for some time as an agent abroad of the great business house of Peruzzi.  _Inf._ iii. 60.  He is 'the Prince of the modern Pharisees' (_Inf._ xxvii. 85); his place is ready for him in hell (_Inf._ xix. 53); and he is elsewhere frequently referred to. In one great passage Dante seems to relent towards him (_Purg._ xx. 86).  Albert of Hapsburg was chosen Emperor in 1298, but was never crowned at Rome.  As in the days of Guelf and Ghibeline, so now in those of Blacks and Whites, the common multitude of townsmen belonged to neither party.  An interdict means that priests are to refuse sacred offices to all in the community, who are thus virtually subjected to the minor excommunication.  Guido died soon after his return in 1301. He had suffered in health during his exile. See _Inf._ x. 63.  Charles of Anjou had lost Sicily at the Sicilian Vespers, 1282.  _Purg._ xx. 76.  Witte attributes the composition of the _De Monarchia_ to a period before 1301 (_Dante-Forschungen_, vol. i. Fourth Art.), but the general opinion of critics sets it much later.  _Inf._ vi. 66, where their expulsion is prophesied.  Dante's authorship of the letter is now much questioned. The drift of recent inquiries has been rather to lessen than to swell the bulk of materials for his biography.  _Parad._ xvii. 61.  _Purg._ xxiv. 82.  See at _Purg._ xx. 43 Dante's invective against Philip and the Capets in general.  Henry had come to Italy with the Pope's approval. He was crowned by the Cardinals who were in Rome as Legates.  _Parad._ xxx. 136. High in Heaven Dante sees an ample chair with a crown on it, and is told it is reserved for Henry. He is to sit among those who are clothed in white. The date assigned to the action of the _Comedy_, it will be remembered, is the year 1300.  _Inf._ xix. 82, where the Gascon Clement is described as a 'Lawless Pastor from the West.'  The ingenious speculations of Troya (_Del Veltro Allegorico di Dante_) will always mark a stage in the history of the study of Dante, but as is often the case with books on the subject, his shows a considerable gap between the evidence adduced and the conclusions drawn from it. He would make Dante to have been for many years a satellite of the great Ghibeline chief. Dante's temper or pride, however we call it, seems to have been such as to preserve him from ever remaining attached for long to any patron.  _Inf._ x. 81.  The _Convito_ is in Italian, and his words are: 'wherever this language is spoken.'  His letter to the Florentines and that to the Emperor are dated in 1311, from 'Near the sources of the Arno'--that is, from the Casentino, where the Guidi of Romena dwelt. If the letter of condolence with the Counts Oberto and Guido of Romena on the death of their uncle is genuine, it has great value for the passage in which he excuses himself for not having come to the funeral:--'It was not negligence or ingratitude, but the poverty into which I am fallen by reason of my exile. This, like a cruel persecutor, holds me as in a prison-house where I have neither horse nor arms; and though I do all I can to free myself, I have failed as yet.' The letter has no date. Like the other ten or twelve epistles attributed to Dante, it is in Latin.  There is a splendid passage in praise of this family, _Purg._ viii. 121. A treaty is on record in which Dante acts as representative of the Malaspini in settling the terms of a peace between them and the Bishop of Luni in October 1306.  The authority for this is Benvenuto of Imola in his comment on the _Comedy_ (_Purg._ xi.). The portrait of Dante by Giotto, still in Florence, but ruined by modern bungling restoration, is usually believed to have been executed in 1301 or 1302. But with regard to this, see the note at the end of this essay.  It is true that Villani not only says that 'he went to study at Bologna,' but also that 'he went to Paris and many parts of the world' (_Cronica_, ix. 136), and that Villani, of all contemporary or nearly contemporary writers, is by far the most worthy of credence. But he proves to be more than once in error regarding Dante; making him, _e.g._, die in a wrong month and be buried in a wrong church at Ravenna. And the 'many parts of the world' shows that here he is dealing in hearsay of the vaguest sort. Nor can much weight be given to Boccaccio when he sends Dante to Bologna and Paris. But Benvenuto of Imola, who lectured on the _Comedy_ at Bologna within fifty years of Dante's death, says that Dante studied there. It would indeed be strange if he did not, and at more than one period, Bologna being the University nearest Florence. Proof of Dante's residence in Paris has been found in his familiar reference to the Rue du Fouarre (_Parad._ x. 137). His graphic description of the coast between Lerici and Turbia (_Purg._ iii. 49, iv. 25) certainly seems to show a familiarity with the Western as well as the Eastern Rivieras of Genoa. But it scarcely follows that he was on his way to Paris when he visited them.  _Inf._ xiii. 58.  'O ye, who have hitherto been following me in some small craft, ... put not further to sea, lest, losing sight of me, you lose yourselves' (_Parad._ ii. 1). But, to tell the truth, Dante is never so weak as a poet as when he is most the philosopher or the theologian. The following list of books more or less known to him is not given as complete:--The Vulgate, beginning with St. Jerome's Prologue; Aristotle, through the Latin translation then in vogue; Averroes, etc.; Thomas Aquinas and the other Schoolmen; much of the Civil and Canon law; Boethius; Homer only in scraps, through Aristotle, etc.; Virgil, Cicero in part, Livy, Horace, Ovid, Terence, Lucan, and Statius; the works of Brunetto Latini; the poetical literature of Provence, France, and Italy, including the Arthurian Romances--the favourite reading of the Italian nobles, and the tales of Charlemagne and his Peers--equally in favour with the common people. There is little reason to suppose that among the treatises of a scientific and quasi-scientific kind that he fell in with, and of which he was an eager student, were included the works of Roger Bacon. These there was a conspiracy among priests and schoolmen to keep buried. Dante seems to have set little store on ecclesiastical legends of wonder; at least he gives them a wide berth in his works.  In the notes to Fraticelli's _Vita di Dante_ (Florence 1861) are given copies of documents relating to the property of the Alighieri, and of Dante in particular. In 1343 his son Jacopo, by payment of a small fine, recovered vineyards and farms that had been his father's.--Notes to Chap. iii. Fraticelli's admirable Life is now in many respects out of date. He accepts, _e.g._, Dino Compagni as an authority, and believes in the romantic story of the letter of Fra Ilario.  The details are given by Witte, _Dante-Forschungen_, vol ii. p. 61. The amount borrowed by Dante and his brother (and a friend) comes to nearly a thousand gold florins. Witte takes this as equivalent to 37,000 francs, _i.e._ nearly £1500. But the florin being the eighth of an ounce, or about ten shillings' worth of gold, a thousand florins would be equal only to £500--representing, of course, an immensely greater sum now-a-days.  _Purg._ viii. 76.  See in Scartazzini, _Dante Alighieri_, 1879, page 552, extract from the will of her mother Maria Donati, dated February 1314. Many of these Florentine dates are subject to correction, the year being usually counted from Lady-Day. 'In 1880 a document was discovered which proves Gemma to have been engaged in a law-suit in 1332.--_Il Propugnatore_, xiii^a. 156,'--Scheffer-Boichorst, _Aus Dantes Verbannung_, page 213.  _Purg._ xxiv. 37.  _Inf._ xxi. 40.  _In questo mirifico poeta trovò ampissimo luego la lussuria; e non solamente ne' giovanili anni, ma ancora ne' maturi._--Boccaccio, _La Vita di Dante_. After mentioning that Dante was married, he indulges in a long invective against marriage; confessing, however, that he is ignorant of whether Dante experienced the miseries he describes. His conclusion on the subject is that philosophers should leave marriage to rich fools, to nobles, and to handicraftsmen.  In Purgatory his conscience accuses him of pride, and he already seems to feel the weight of the grievous burden beneath which the proud bend as they purge themselves of their sin (_Purg._ xiii. 136). Some amount of self-accusation seems to be implied in such passages as _Inf._, v. 142 and _Purg._ xxvii. 15, etc.; but too much must not be made of it.  In a letter of a few lines to one of the Marquises Malaspina, written probably in the earlier years of his exile, he tells how his purpose of renouncing ladies' society and the writing of love-songs had been upset by the view of a lady of marvellous beauty who 'in all respects answered to his tastes, habits, and circumstances.' He says he sends with the letter a poem containing a fuller account of his subjection to this new passion. The poem is not found attached to the copy of the letter, but with good reason it is guessed to be the Canzone beginning _Amor, dacchè convien_, which describes how he was overmastered by a passion born 'in the heart of the mountains in the valley of that river beside which he had always been the victim of love.' This points to the Casentino as the scene. He also calls the Canzone his 'mountain song.' The passion it expresses may be real, but that he makes the most of it appears from the close, which is occupied by the thought of how the verses will be taken in Florence.  However early the _De Monarchia_ may have been written, it is difficult to think that it can be of a later date than the death of Henry.  The _De Vulgari Eloquio_ is in Latin. Dante's own Italian is richer and more elastic than that of contemporary writers. Its base is the Tuscan dialect, as refined by the example of the Sicilian poets. His Latin, on the contrary, is I believe regarded as being somewhat barbarous, even for the period.  In his _Quæstio de Aqua et Terra_. In it he speaks of having been in Mantua. The thesis was maintained in Verona, but of course he may, after a prolonged absence, have returned to that city.  _Parad._ xvii. 70.  _Purg._ xviii. 121.  But in urgent need of more of it.--He says of 'the sublime Cantica, adorned with the title of the _Paradiso_', that '_illam sub præsenti epistola, tamquam sub epigrammate proprio dedicatam, vobis adscribo, vobis offero, vobis denique recommendo_.' But it may be questioned if this involves that the Cantica was already finished.  As, for instance, Herr Scheffer-Boichorst in his _Aus Dantes Verbannung_, 1882.  The Traversari (_Purg._ xiv. 107). Guido's wife was of the Bagnacavalli (_Purg._ xiv. 115). The only mention of the Polenta family, apart from that of Francesca, is at _Inf._ xxvii. 41.  In 1350 a sum of ten gold florins was sent from Florence by the hands of Boccaccio to Beatrice, daughter of Dante; she being then a nun at Ravenna.  The embassy to Venice is mentioned by Villani, and there was a treaty concluded in 1321 between the Republic and Guido. But Dante's name does not appear in it among those of the envoys from Ravenna. A letter, probably apocryphal, to Guido from Dante in Venice is dated 1314. If Dante, as is maintained by some writers, was engaged in tuition while in Ravenna, it is to be feared that his pupils would find in him an impatient master.  Not that Dante ever mentions these any more than a hundred other churches in which he must have spent thoughtful hours.  _Purg._ xxviii. 20.  A certain Cecco d'Ascoli stuck to him like a bur, charging him, among other things, with lust, and a want of religious faith which would one day secure him a place in his own Inferno. Cecco was himself burned in Florence, in 1327, for making too much of evil spirits, and holding that human actions are necessarily affected by the position of the stars. He had been at one time a professor of astronomy.  Gabriel Rossetti, _Comment on the Divina Commedia_, 1826, and Aroux, _Dante, Hérétique, Révolutionnaire et Socialiste_, 1854.  Scartazzini, _Dante Alighieri, Seine Zeit_, etc., 1879, page 268.  _Parad._ xxiv. 86.  _Parad._ xxiv. 145.  _Inf._ xxvii. 101; _Purg._ iii. 118.  _Parad._ xxiv. 91.  _Parad._ xxiv. 106.  _Inf._ x. and xxviii. There is no place in Purgatory where those who in their lives had once held heretical opinions are purified of the sin; leaving us to infer that it could be repented of in the world so as to obliterate the stain. See also _Parad._ iv. 67.  _Purg._ i. 71.  _Purg._ xxvii. 139.  _Purg._ xix. 134.  _Parad._ xxv. 1.
GIOTTO'S PORTRAIT OF DANTE. Vasari, in his _Lives of the Painters_, tells that in his day the portrait of Dante by Giotto was still to be seen in the chapel of the Podesta's palace in Florence. Writers of an earlier date had already drawn attention to this work. But in the course of an age when Italians cared little for Dante, and less for Giotto, it was allowed to be buried out of sight; and when at length there came a revival of esteem for these great men, the alterations in the interior arrangement of the palace were found to have been so sweeping that it was even uncertain which out of many chambers had formerly served as the chapel. Twenty years after a fruitless attempt had been made to discover whether or not the portrait was still in existence, Signor Aubrey Bezzi, encouraged by Mr. Wilde and Mr. Kirkup, took the first step in a search (1839) which was to end by restoring to the world what is certainly the most interesting of all portraits, if account be taken of its beauty, as well as of who was its author and who its subject.
On the removal from it of a layer of lime, one of the end walls of what had been the chapel was found to be covered by a fresco painting, evidently the work of Giotto, and representing a Paradise--the subject in which Dante's portrait was known to occur. As is usual in such works, from the time of Giotto downwards, the subject is treated so as to allow of the free introduction of contemporary personages. Among these was a figure in a red gown, which there was no difficulty in recognising as the portrait of Dante. It shows him younger and with a sweeter expression than does Raphael's Dante, or Masaccio's, or that in the Cathedral of Florence, or that of the mask said to have been taken after his death. But to all of them it bears a strong resemblance.
The question of when this portrait was painted will easily be seen to be one of much importance in connection with Dante's biography. The fresco it belongs to is found to contain a cardinal, and a young man, who, because he wears his hair long and has a coronet set on his cap, is known to be meant for a French prince. If, as is usually assumed, this prince is Charles of Valois, then the date of the event celebrated in the fresco is 1301 or 1302. With regard to when the work was executed, Messrs Crowe and Cavalcaselle, in their valuable book, say as follows:--
'All inferences to be deduced from the subject and form of these frescos point to the date of 1301-2. It may be inquired whether they were executed by Giotto at the time, and this inquiry can only be satisfied approximatively. It may be inferred that Dante's portrait would hardly have been introduced into a picture so conspicuously visible as this, had not the poet at the time been influent in Florence.... Dante's age in the fresco corresponds with the date of 1302, and is that of a man of thirty-five. He had himself enjoyed the highest office of Florence from June to August 1300. In the fresco he does not wear the dress of the "Priori," but he holds in the ranks of those near Charles of Valois an honourable place. It may be presumed that the frescos were executed previous to Dante's exile, and this view is confirmed by the technical and artistic progress which they reveal. They exhibit, indeed, the master in a higher sphere of development than at Assisi and Rome.'
This account of the subject of the work and the probable date of its execution may, I think, be accepted as containing all that is to be said in favour of the current opinion on the matter. That writer after writer has adopted that opinion without a sign of doubt as to its credibility must surely have arisen from failure to observe the insuperable difficulties it presents.
Both Charles of Valois and the Cardinal Acquasparta were in Florence during part of the winter of 1301-1302; but the circumstances under which they were there make it highly improbable that the Commonwealth was anxious to do them honour beyond granting them the outward show of respect which it would have been dangerous to refuse. Earlier in the year 1301 the Cardinal Acquasparta, having failed in gaining the object which brought him to Florence, had, as it were, shaken the dust of the city from off his feet and left the people of it under interdict. While Charles of Valois was in Florence the Cardinal returned to make a second attempt to reconcile the opposing parties, failed a second time, and again left the city under an interdict--if indeed the first had ever been raised. On the occasion of his first visit, the Whites, who were then in power, would have none of his counsels; on his second, the Blacks in their turn despised them. There would therefore have been something almost satirical in the compliment, had the Commonwealth resolved to give him a place in a triumphal picture.
As for Charles of Valois, though much was expected from an alliance with him while he was still at a distance, the very party that invited his presence was soon disgusted with him owing to his faithlessness and greed. The earlier part of his stay was disturbed by pillage and bloodshed. Nor is it easy to imagine how, at any time during his residence of five months, the leading citizens could have either the time or the wish to arrange for honouring him in a fashion he was not the man to care for. His one craving was for money, and still more money; and any leisure the members of public bodies had to spare from giving heed to their own interests and securing vengeance upon their opponents, was devoted to holding the common purse shut as tightly as they could against their avaricious Pacificator. When he at last delivered the city from his presence no one would have the heart to revive the memory of his disastrous visit.
But if, in all this confusion of Florentine affairs, Giotto did receive a commission to paint in the palace of the Podesta, yet it remains incredible that he should have been suffered to assign to Dante, of all men, a place of honour in the picture. No citizen had more stubbornly opposed the policy which brought Charles of Valois to Florence, and that Charles was in the city was reason enough for Dante to keep out of it. In his absence, he was sentenced in January 1302 to pay a ruinously heavy fine, and in the following March he was condemned to be put to death if ever he was caught. On fuller acquaintance his fellow-citizens liked the Frenchman as little as he, but this had no effect in softening their dislike or removing their fear of Dante. We may be sure that any friends he may still have had in Florence, as their influence could not protect his goods from confiscation or him from banishment, would hardly care to risk their own safety by urging, while his condemnation was still fresh, the admission of his portrait among those of illustrious Florentines. It is true that there have been instances of great artists having reached so high a pitch of fame as to be able to dictate terms to patrons, however exalted. In his later years Giotto could perhaps have made such a point a matter of treaty with his employers, but in 1301 he was still young, and great although his fame already was, he could scarcely have ventured to insist on the Republic's confessing its injustice to his friend; as it would have done had it consented that Dante, newly driven into exile, should obtain a place of honour in a work painted at the public cost.
These considerations seem to make it highly improbable that Giotto's wall-painting was meant to do honour to Charles of Valois and the Cardinal Acquasparta. But if it should still be held that it was painted in 1302, we must either cease to believe, in spite of all that Vasari and the others say, that the portrait is meant for Dante; or else confess it to be inexplicable how it got there. A way out of the difficulty begins to open up as soon as we allow ourselves some latitude in speculating as to when Giotto may have painted the fresco. The order in which that artist's works were produced is very imperfectly settled; and it may easily be that the position in Vasari's pages of the mention made by him of this fresco has given rise to a misunderstanding regarding the date of it. He speaks of it at the very beginning of his Life of Giotto. But this he does because he needs an illustration of what he has been saying in his opening sentences about the advance that painter made on Cimabue. Only after making mention of Dante's portrait does he begin his chronological list of Giotto's works; to the portrait he never returns, and so, as far as Vasari is concerned, it is without a date. Judging of it by means of Mr. Kirkup's careful and beautiful sketch--and unfortunately we have now no other means of knowing what the original was like--it may safely be asserted to be in Giotto's ripest style. Everything considered, it is therefore allowable to search the Florentine chronicles lower down for an event more likely to be the subject of Giotto's fresco than that usually fixed upon.
We read in John Villani that in the middle of the year 1326 the Cardinal Gianni Orsini came to Florence as Papal Legate and Pacificator of Tuscany. The city was greatly pleased at his coming, and as an earnest of gratitude for his services presented him with a cup containing a thousand florins. A month later there arrived Charles Duke of Calabria, the eldest son of King Robert of Naples, and great-grandson of Charles of Anjou. He came as Protector of the Commonwealth, which office--an extraordinary one, and with a great salary attached to it--he had been elected to hold for five years. Never before had a spectacle like that of his entry been offered to Florence. Villani gives a long list of the barons who rode in his train, and tells that in his squadrons of men-at-arms there were no fewer than two hundred knights. The chronicler pauses to bid the reader note how great an enterprise his fellow-citizens had shown in bringing to sojourn among them, and in their interest, not only such a powerful lord as the Duke of Calabria was, but a Papal Legate as well. Italy counted it a great thing, he says, and he deems that the whole world ought to know of it. Charles took up his abode in the Podesta's palace. He appears to have gained a better place in the hearts of the Florentines than what they were used to give to strangers and princes. When a son was born to him, all the city rejoiced, and it mourned with him when, in a few weeks, he lost the child. After seventeen months' experience of his rule the citizens were sorry to lose him, and bade him a farewell as hearty as their welcome had been. To some of them, it is true, the policy seemed a dangerous one which bore even the appearance of subjecting the Republic to the Royal House of Naples; and some of them could have wished that he 'had shown more vigour in civil and military affairs. But he was a gentle lord, popular with the townsfolk, and in the course of his residence he greatly improved the condition of things in Florence, and brought to a close many feuds.' They felt that the nine hundred thousand gold florins spent on him and his men had, on the whole, been well laid out.
One detail of the Duke's personal appearance deserves remark. We have seen that the prince in the fresco has long hair. John Villani had known the Duke well by sight, and when he comes to record his death and describe what kind of man he was to look upon, he specially says that 'he wore his hair loose.' A subject worthy of Giotto's pencil, and one likely to be offered to him if he was then in Florence, we have therefore found in this visit of the Duke and the Cardinal. But that Giotto was in Florence at that time is certain. He painted a portrait of the Duke in the Palace of the Signory; and through that prince, as Vasari tells, he was invited by King Robert to go down to work in Naples. All this, in the absence of evidence of any value in favour of another date, makes it, at the very least, highly probable that the fresco was a work of 1326 or 1327.
In 1326 Dante had been dead for five years. The grudge his fellow-townsmen had nourished against him for so long was now worn out. We know that very soon after his death Florence began to be proud of him; and even such of his old enemies as still survived would be willing that Giotto should set him in a place of honour among the great Florentines who help to fill the fresco of the Paradise. That he was already dead would be no hindrance to his finding room alongside of Charles of Calabria; for the age was wisely tolerant of such anachronisms. Had Dante been still living the painter would have been less at liberty to create, out of the records he doubtless possessed of the features of the friend who had paid him beforehand with one immortal line, the face which, as we look into it, we feel to be a glorified transcript of what it was in the flesh. It is the face of one who has wellnigh forgotten his earthly life, instead of having the worst of it still before him; of one who, from that troubled Italy which like his own Sapia he knew but as a pilgrim, has passed to the 'true city,' of which he remains for evermore a citizen--the city faintly imaged by Giotto upon the chapel wall.
FOOTNOTES:  It is best known, and can now be judged of only through the lithograph after a tracing made by Mr. Seymour Kirkup before it was restored and ruined: published by the Arundel Society.  Antonio Pucci, born in 1300, in his _Centiloquio_, describes the figure of Dante as being clothed in blood-red. Philip Villani also mentions it. He wrote towards the close of the fourteenth century; Vasari towards the middle of the sixteenth.  In the Munich collection of drawings, and ascribed to Masaccio, but with how much reason I do not know.  Painted by Domenico Michelino in 1465, after a sketch by Alessio Baldovinetto.  'Wearing over the long hair of the Frenchmen of the period a coroneted cap.'--Crowe and Cavalcaselle, _History of Painting in Italy_ (1864), i. 264.  Vol. i. p. 269.  The Priorate was the highest office to which a citizen could aspire, but by no means the highest in Florence.  I suppose the meaning is 'immediately previous.'  John Villani, _Cronica_, viii. 40 and 49; and Perrens, _Hist. de Florence_, under date of 1301. Charles entered Florence on the 1st of November of that year, and left it in the following April.  Who the other Florentines in the fresco are does not greatly affect the present question. Villani says that along with Dante Giotto painted Corso Donati and Brunetto Latini.  Only twenty-five, if the commonly accepted date of his birth is correct. In any case, he was still a young man.  It is true that, on technical grounds, it has been questioned if it is Giotto's at all; but there is more than sufficient reason to think it is. With such doubts however we are scarcely here concerned. Even were it proved to be by a pupil, everything in the text that applies to the question of date would still remain in point.  J. Villani, ix. 353.  J. Villani, x. 1.  _Ibid._ x. 49.  J. Villani, x. 107.  Long since destroyed.  An anachronism of another kind would have been committed by Giotto, if, before the _Comedy_ was even begun, he had represented Dante as holding the closed book and cluster of three pomegranates--emblematical of the three regions described by him and of the completion of his work.--I say nothing of the Inferno found on another wall of the chapel, since there seems good reason to doubt if it is by Giotto.
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