The great Tim Parks writes about the latest biography of Dante Alighieri in the London Review of Books. It’s clear that Dante was one of the world’s greatest bad propagandists, and the Divine Comedy is not really about Love or about God:
“Put real people in a work of fiction these days and you immediately face libel and privacy issues. The publishers will demand a legal report; every correspondence between your story and reality will be scrutinised. It won’t be enough simply to change names or avoid unpleasant aspersions; the mere idea that someone might recognise themselves and feel aggrieved will set alarm bells ringing and have editors demanding revisions. How would Dante’s Divine Comedy have fared in an environment like this? Large numbers of his fellow citizens are named and shamed. It’s true that most of them were dead, but by no means all. Two living characters are pronounced so evil that the devil has carried their souls off to hell leaving demons in their bodies to perpetuate a zombie life up above. Others are declared by the damned to be ‘expected shortly’.
Add to this that Dante places the prophet Muhammad in hell, launches violent insults against various cities and political and religious groupings, in many cases evidently motivated by personal resentment or self-interest, and it’s hard to imagine that The Divine Comedy would be an easy book to publish today. Reading Marco Santagata’s fascinating new biography, the reader is soon forced to acknowledge that one of the cornerstones of Western literature, a poem considered sublime and universal, is the product of vicious factionalism and packed with local scandal, much of it deployed in the hope of accruing benefits to the author.”
Dante was a Guelf of Florence, that is, a supporter of the Papacy against the Holy Roman Empire (this was a very hot issue in the 13th-14th century, but almost as confusing as our modern day Left-Right divide):
“Santagata tells us about the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, two parties with competing claims to the allegiance of Italy’s numerous feudal lords and city states in the 13th and 14th centuries. The Guelfs, the church party, dominated where people felt they had more to fear from the German-based emperor than from the Roman pope. It was the party of the nouveaux riches, the bankers and traders, anyone who had an interest in the formation of a looser, less rigidly controlled society. The Ghibellines, siding with the Holy Roman Empire, were largely made up of those who had an investment in the hierarchical structures of feudalism, or simply felt themselves uncomfortably close to a papal state bent on territorial expansion.
This is perhaps too neat. Any party or grouping was as much tribal as ideological. Families, corporations, even whole cities tended to show their allegiance collectively. If a large city was Guelf, the smaller cities around it were likely to be Ghibelline, implicitly appealing for protection from afar. And vice versa. Neither party had a stable hold on people’s identity. Divisions over commercial, religious and family issues were always on the cards. When decades of conflict between Guelfs and Ghibellines in Florence finally came to an end in 1289 (when Dante was 24), with the defeat and mass expulsion of the Ghibellines, the victorious Guelfs, now in complete control of one of Europe’s most populous and wealthy cities, lost little time in dividing themselves into Black Guelfs and White Guelfs, who would then fight each other with the same intensity and ferocity as they had previously fought the Ghibellines. Santagata’s account of how this schism came about and how the terms ‘black’ and ‘white’ (with no more content or significance, as it turns out, than the letters a or b, x or y) were borrowed from a similar schism in Pistoia – a town which, precisely in order to overcome the impasse caused by internal division, had taken the drastic course of handing over control of its affairs to Florence – requires maximum attention on the part of the reader. But it’s worth the effort. Factionalism spread like a virus and Dante wasn’t immune.”
Having sided with the White Guelfs after the victory against the common enemy, the Ghibellines, Dante ends up in exile after the Black Guelfs subsequently gain the upper hand, so he comes to miss the vanquished Ghibellines, finding common ground with them:
“In short, there’s an urgent back and forth between Dante’s personal predicament as an impoverished exile and his reflections on the nature of human society, with an inevitable tension between what it might be convenient to say and the conclusions he has genuinely reached, not to mention his feelings of resentment towards those in Florence who had destroyed his life, and of gratitude towards the growing list of those, many of them Ghibellines, on whose charity he now depended. It was out of this troubled state of mind, Santagata sets out to show, that The Divine Comedy was created.”
Dante Alighieri writes to set the record straight, in Italian rather than Latin so that the People can understand and follow his political guidance:
“Santagata’s method from here on is to map Dante’s movements around Italy in relation to the characters who appear in The Divine Comedy, inviting us to imagine him sharing his work in progress with his various, often poorly educated protectors, each of whom would be pleased to see their enemies, or enemies’ ancestors, appear in hell – or themselves praised as instruments of divine predestination. More generally, though, it’s the biography’s evocation of the factional world of the time and the values sustaining it that throws light on the great poem and helps us to read it with fresh awareness. Embarking on the Inferno around 1306, Dante dated the action in 1301, just before his exile, thus allowing the dead to foresee all that will occur in the intervening years and creating an impression of prophetic powers. The decision also has the effect of suggesting that the moment when, in the middle of life’s path, the poet loses his way is not unrelated to his loss of his home, of Florence. So hell presents itself first and foremost as a place of exile. To an extraordinary degree death is annulled, in the sense that the dead are to be considered dead only insofar as they are not among the living. Otherwise, however awful their punishments, they are hardly changed. All are recognisable, in possession of their wits, perfectly able to speak. And what they want to speak about is home, which for most means Florence.
Dante meanwhile can be distinguished from the dead above all by his hope to return to the world of the living, to Florence. The power he boasts, as he meets each of the damned and asks them to tell him their story, is his ability, as a poet, to affect their reputations among their Florentine peers, a gift of greater value to them than the theological considerations underpinning divine justice. It’s this that gives so many of the conversations in the Commedia their dreamlike quality. Always condemning the destructive consequences of factionalism when such matters are discussed, the poem as a whole upholds the values of a society where inclusion is the supreme good, and exclusion hell.
No sooner is Dante through the infernal gates than he is met by the crowds of those who failed to take sides in life, a group epitomised by the angels who refused to support either God or Lucifer in the quarrel that split the heavenly powers. Neither heaven nor hell wants these pusillanimous souls, while they envy both the blessed and the damned. Worst of all, ‘the world does not permit report of them.’ They are excluded and forgotten. In short, it is established that whatever mistakes Dante may have made, being an active member of a faction isn’t one of them.”
Few people really understood Dante’s complex political message, and even fewer cared. He ended up writing praise for his noble protectors into his work, even though they couldn’t really do much for him in the end:
“Dante took refuge at the Ghibelline court of Cangrande della Scala in Verona, praising the feudal lord and his family extravagantly in the Paradiso, only to drop all further mention of them after being invited in 1319 to enjoy the protection of the more congenial and artistically inclined court of Guido Novello da Polenta in Ravenna. Guido was himself a poet and Dante’s relationship with him, Santagata says, was such that there was no need to engage in ‘the shameless courtly praises lavished on Cangrande’. It was just as well, since Dante would soon be embarking on the last cantos of the Paradiso and it was important finally to turn his attention away from ‘the little threshing floor that makes us so fierce’. That did not mean, however, that he had given up all hope of swaying minds in Florence. The simple quality of the writing might be enough on its own. This is from canto XXV:
If it ever happens that the sacred poem
to which Heaven and earth have set their hand,
making me thin for many years,
wins over the cruelty that locks me out
of the fair fold where I slept as a lamb,
foe to the wolves that make war against it;
with other voice then, with other fleece
I will return …
In 1321, with the poem finished but still unpublished, Dante paid for his host’s hospitality by accepting a diplomatic mission to Venice; on his way back he fell ill and died. Guido Novello promised he would build a noble tomb for him, but almost at once Dante fell victim to the kind of conflict that had dogged him throughout his life. Guido briefly left the city, handing over control to his brother. The brother was assassinated by a cousin who exiled Guido in perpetuity. The noble tomb was never built.”