Dante (Oliphant)/Chapter 1
Dante Alighieri was born at Florence in the month of May in the year 1265, of a family not illustrious, yet occupying a place among the nobility, by right, it would appear, of the knighthood of an ancestor who was a Crusader under the Emperor Conrad; and which was sufficiently important to have already twice suffered banishment when the Ghibelline party, to which they were opposed, got the upper hand. In the usual confusion of names common to this period of Italian history, when the primitive mode of nomenclature, "John the son of Peter," seems to have been that most generally adopted by all but the great houses, it is somewhat difficult to make out why this family should have adopted the name of Alighieri, which came from the maternal side. Probably the lady who first introduced it, the wife of Dante's great-great-grandfather above mentioned—Cacciaguida, who occupies an honourable place in the "Paradiso,"—was of a race more eminent than that into which she married, and it was a distinction to her children to boast themselves degli Alighieri, of the Alighieris—as one would say, of the Howards—a custom still existing in Italy, where a man thus nobly descended is permitted to add the distinction of this "of the" nobler race, to his own family name. The name of Dante, famed above all titles or nobility whatsoever, was the poet's Christian name, or rather the abbreviation of his Christian name, which was Durante—as if we should call our Shakespeare "Will," with no cognomen added. The poet was born in the very heart of the civic strife which always prevailed in Florence, his father being, it is believed, in banishment—one of the fuori-usciti, the turned-out ones, as they were called with picturesque intensity—at the time of his birth. This misfortune happened periodically to all the notable persons in Florence, according as Guelf or Ghibelline, White or Black, the nobles or the people—as the pertinacious quarrel fluctuated, changing perpetually, yet always the same—prevailed. This, however, did not affect the education of the young Alighieri, who was well trained according to the fashion of his time under the care of the famous Brunetto Latini, and with much promise of future eminence. He learned Latin, the language of all culture at the time, and even, it is believed, a little Greek, and the scholastic philosophy of his age, and grew up an accomplished young gallant, full of faculty and ambition. The earlier part of his life is related to us in visionary detail, on its visionary side, in the 'Vita Nuova,' the story of his love, which was the chief inspiration and key-note of his poetry, if not of his entire existence. It is impossible, indeed, to know anything of Dante, either as a man or a poet, without knowing Beatrice, the one love of his life. Even if it might be only the arbitrary whim of his genius to make her the centre of his spiritual world, he has done it so effectually, that without her he can be but faintly seen, and not at all understood; and there is no real ground for supposing this, or for withdrawing from the beautiful Florentine lady the noblest and most faithful homage which man has ever paid to woman. As it will be necessary to enter into this wonderful tale in the following chapter, which will treat of the 'Vita Nuova,' we must not touch upon it here, further than to say, that even while his heart and life were absorbed in that ideal world, no sentimental weakness ever shows in Dante, nothing that could keep him from that share in the public life of his generation which became a young man of spirit and genius in a community where, more than in almost any other on record, individual character and power asserted themselves.
Florence was exceptionally peaceable through his earlier days—the Guelf party, to which his family belonged, having the unquestioned mastery; and it was only after Dante had reached maturity, when the heavenly mists of the 'Vita Nuova' were beginning to disperse, that the Guelfists themselves, weary of too much concord, began to split into parties and struggle with each other with all the fervour of fraternal hatred. Before that period he had fought at the battle of Campaldino, and had been present at the siege of Caprona, the only two warlike incidents of the time; and when the civic struggle recommenced, Dante soon became visible among his contemporaries, taking the Liberal side of the white party against that of the black—the old Conservatives, so to speak, of the Guelf faction. About three years after the death of Beatrice, he married Gemma Donati, about whom absolutely nothing is known, though some of his later biographers have gone out of their way to speak ill of her. But from this time until the moment of his exile the poet would seem to have been merged in the citizen. He threw himself into public life with all the energy of his nature, and held several public offices in succession, especially that of ambassador, representing the Republic in various important missions; and at length reached the highest office in the State, and became one of the Priors or supreme rulers of Florence in the year 1293. This elevation lasted only for the short time of two months, according to the jealous custom of Florence; but it proves that Dante had gained the highest consideration in the city, and was one of the notable personages of the period. One of the acts of the Government while he held office was a bold attempt to make peace in the city by banishing the heads of both parties,—a novelty in Florentine politics; and Dante's influence seems to have been entirely patriotic and impartial, his beloved friend Guido Cavalcanti having been one of the belligerents thus banished. It seems, however, to have been a peculiarity of Florentine statesmen that a certain sentiment of patriotism or sense of responsibility made their course of action more honourable and dignified in office than out of it—authority apparently having the good effect of taming, in the greater minds at least, the heat of faction, into which they relapsed again on resigning the active conduct of the State.
The times, however, became more and more stormy, and at last a new revolution undid all that had been done by the long interval of peace. Dante was engaged on an embassy to Rome when the storm burst in the year 1301, and he never returned to the city which he loved so dearly. Whether he had any premonition of the evil days that were coming, or any fear that he might not he permitted to return to his home, we have no means of telling. He had attained high importance and influence; but he had also, it would appear, made many enemies, being a man of imperious character as well as of lofty genius, and in both senses impatient of the common crowd with all their self-seeking and petty motives. Several stories are told of him, especially by Boccaccio, which indicate a certain scornful indifference as to whether the people surrounding him knew or not his sense of superiority to them. For example, he was overheard to say, when there was question of some embassy, "If I go, who will remain? and if I stay, who will go?" showing a contempt of his fellows which a popular assembly was little likely to brook. Another story that is told of him (and told by a contemporary as one of the chief causes of his banishment) is curiously characteristic. He was requested, it is said, to intercede with one of the magistrates, who was his friend, for a young gallant of the Adimari family who had got himself into some petty scrape. It occurred to Dante, however, while on his way upon this friendly office, to reflect upon the general conduct of the young man, which was so rude, presumptuous, and unmannerly as to have produced many previous breaches of the laws of the Republic more serious than the trifling one which had got him into trouble. This did not lead the poet to abandon his mission, but modified it strangely. He went on in his abstract way—"I have come to intercede for young Adimari, he is a neighbour of mine," he said; and without other preface proceeded to set forth to the astonished magistrate the more serious faults of the young reveller, "But this is much worse than his original offence," cried the judge. "That is your affair," said Dante. "He is my neighbour, I commend him to you." The consequence was, that the young gallant had a much heavier instead of a lighter sentence, though the poet thought no more of it. The story deserves to be true, so characteristic is it of the visionary straightforwardness of the man.
Whether it was for personal reasons such as this, or for more purely political motives, it is certain that there was quite a special inveteracy in the condemnation of Dante. He was sentenced to be burnt if taken—an unusual aggravation; and all his passionate and often-repeated efforts never got him again within the gates, which were thus rigorously shut against him. From the moment of his sentence he never relinquished this attempt. Night and day he would seem to have thundered at those closed gates, seeking admittance by fair means or foul, appealing with sufficiently little discrimination to every possible saviour. The emperor, the adventurer, the chances of war, the papal advocate for peace—the exile was not too proud to seek the assistance of all these in turn; but none of them were successful. The only possibility of return which was ever within his reach came in the later years of his banishment, when it was proposed to him to come back to Florence humbly as a penitent, making avowal of guilt—a humiliation to which Dante, by this time acknowledged as the great poet of Italy, would not submit. Thus it happened that he remained fuori, "outside," all the rest of his life, joined now and then by his elder children, but never again possessing a settled home.
This life of exile and disappointment was not, it may be supposed, a happy one. He has himself described, in the stinging brevity of an allusion here and there in his great poem, how bitter it was to eat the bread of others, and to go up and down the scale or stairs (an expression always believed to refer to the Delia Scala family, in which he had found one of his most powerful patrons) of a stranger's bounty. This sharp suggestion of reproach, if really intended, as all the commentators upon Dante believe it to have been, has the cruel keenness in it of that revenge which a dependent and obliged person has it in his power to take for unconsidered slights—perhaps the bitterest and most wounding of all revenges. It was during this time of exile, however, that the great work of Dante's life was done. He had begun his "Comedy" (for the title of "Divine" is of later date), Boccaccio says, during his period of prosperity, in Latin, the legitimate vehicle, as everybody thought, for dignified composition; and he is supposed to have completed the first seven cantos of the "Inferno" before his banishment. All that is known of this, however, is the first three lines, which are halting enough. It was not till some years after (according to Boccaccio's story), that the manuscript of this unsuccessful beginning was found in one of the receptacles into which Dante's wife had hastily thrown the valuables of the family when sentence was pronounced against her absent husband. The bundle of papers caught the eye of a young spectator, Dante's nephew, himself disposed to rhyming; and by his means this first essay was sent to the poet, who had for the moment taken refuge in the castle of a friendly Baron Malaspina, in Lunigiana. The five years which had elapsed before this precious packet reached him had been spent partly in wild rushing to and fro, embassies here and there to seek help for himself and his brother exiles, conspiracies and attempts of all kinds to get back to Florence; and partly—with an impatient sickening of these less noble occupations, which is apparent by intervals in all his after-life—in Bologna, where he recommenced the graver studies of his youth, read philosophy, and is believed to have written two of his prose works, the 'Convito' and the treatise 'Sul Volgare Eloquio.' Bologna too, however, shared the vicissitudes of the time, and a revolution in her government made her no longer an asylum for the banished Florentines, who could no more settle where they liked, even "outside," than they could get back to their homes. Dante, we are told, received his manuscript, which he had thought lost, as a special indication from heaven that the work was to be continued and completed; and he immediately recommenced the composition, using this time, however, the Volgare, the common Italian mother-tongue. The story is told by Boccaccio, his contemporary, who quotes the beginning of the eighth canto, Io dico seguitando, which may be freely translated "I resume," as a proof that the work had been here interrupted; and, so far as we are aware, there is no reason for doubting Boccaccio's narrative of events which must have been generally known in his time.
Many vicissitudes and many wanderings occurred after this in the poet's life. He would appear to have finished the 'Inferno' in Malaspina's castle among the hills, and he left the completed manuscript with the prior of the convent of Santa Croce del Corvo, near Spezia, when apparently on his way to Paris, where he spent two years in great poverty, studying at the Sorbonne. At the end of this dim and peaceful period, however, the accession of the new Emperor Henry VII. seemed to afford a new hope for the exiles, and Dante rushed back to Italy to stir up his brothers in banishment, and to address impassioned appeals to the monarchy who had it in his power to open Florence to them, and reinstate them in their rights, as they fondly hoped. The changes wrought by time and trouble, and those strange new companions with whom misfortune makes us acquainted, which had converted a born Guelfist into a Ghibelline, relying utterly upon the emperor, had been long at work upon Dante's mind; but our space forbids any discussion of the differences between those two parties, which have produced as many books as they did wars, and in which few of our readers, we believe, will take any very lively interest. Those who do, will find abundant means of studying the question in other ways. The emperor was willing enough to interfere—very willing, indeed, to establish a power of arbitration and partial sovereignty over the great independent cities who owned allegiance to no king—but his power was not equal to his will; and though he was able temporarily to restore the exiles of some other small towns (until his back was turned, when they were re-banished summarily), he could not even succeed to this extent in Florence. And thus Dante's last hope of triumphant restoration came to an end.
It was after this that he took up his residence at Verona, in the palace of the Scaligeri or Della Scala family, with the splendid young prince called Can' Grande—Cane the Great—whom the poet loved deeply, and quarrelled with bitterly, but never, it would seem, ceased to love. He was received here with open arms, and treated at first with the greatest honour, but either fell from favour on account of his uncourtierlike independence and pride, or at least thought he did so; and after some painful preliminaries of recrimination and mutual wounding, such as so often mark the breaking of a friendship, went away into the coldness of the outer world again, sore and bitter, directing his fierce counter-thrust about the scale, which it was so hard to go up and down, even from the blessed circles of his "Paradise." His last host, who seems to have been a most generous one, was the Lord of Ravenna—Guido da Polenta. Even there, at the last, a lingering fancy seemed to have remained in his mind—half a hope—that he might still be recalled to Florence, and receive the laurel crown of supreme poetic fame within the walls of his beloved San Giovanni, the solemn and beautiful old church now known as the Baptistry, in which he and all Florentines after him have been baptised. Florence, however, obstinately and bitterly rejected, to his latest breath, the poet who is her greatest glory, and he died at Ravenna in the year 1321, aged fifty-six, and still lies there, the people of Ravenna having indignantly rejected the tardy inclination of the Florentines to do honour to their greatest countryman. Dante Alighieri, so much as remains of his mortal frame, is an exile still.
But it is with Florence that his memory is linked, as it is Florence that is foremost in all that he has done. He himself, in his fantastic, visionary, poetic youth, is not more clearly revealed to us in the lovely phantasmagoria of the 'Vita Nuova,' than is the dream-city, all in a dimness and haze of sunshine, where Beatrice, "the youngest of the angels," moves silent in her white robes. Florence is the scene and background of this delicate picture. When Beatrice dies, "How doth the city sit solitary!" are the words that burst from the mourner's lips. And in the graver and greater poem of his mature life, Florence is the key-note of every strain. Heaven and hell, and the hopeful sadness of the green slopes between, are all crowded with Florentines. There is talk of the city in the highest circles of heaven, where blessed spirits, with the sound of tears in their voice, denounce her for very love of her, rather than leave in silence her beloved name. We are never allowed to forget the Tuscan town, in which all the universe seems to take a burning interest, whose vices convulse the spiritual world, and whose inhabitants are to be found everywhere. Though half of his manhood was spent in banishment from her dear walls, and his bones are laid far from the Arno, yet it is impossible to dissever Florence from Dante, or Dante from Florence. They are united more closely than any bridegroom and bride.
The prose works of Dante were all written after his banishment. The 'Convito,' the 'Discourse upon the Use of the Vulgar Tongue,' the 'Treatise on Monarchy,' are the chief of these works. They will be always interesting to the student, as showing the mind of the poet in other ways of working than that most congenial to him; but we do not think they will ever be found to possess great attractions of any kind for the general reader. They will, however, along with the greater productions of his genius, be noticed briefly in another chapter.