The Earliest Lives of Dante (Smith 1901)/Life of Dante (Bruni)








Having recently completed a work of great length, I was desirous to read something in the vulgar tongue to refresh my toil-spent mind, since too much sameness palls in study as in food. As I looked about with this purpose in view, there came to my hands a short work by Boccaccio, entitled: Of the Life, Habits, and Studies of the Famous Poet Dante. Although I had previously read this work with great diligence, yet on the present examination thereof I felt that our gentle and sweet Boccaccio had written the life and habits of that sublime poet as though he were writing the Filocolo, the Filostrato, or the Fiammetta. For it is filled with love and sighs and burning tears, as though man were born into this world for no other purpose save to find himself in those ten amorous Days, wherein enamored ladies and gallant youths recount the Hundred Tales. And Boccaccio is so absorbed by the love parts that he takes no notice of the serious and substantial portions of Dante's career, recording trivialities and omitting things of moment. I purpose, therefore, to write for my diversion a new life of Dante, paying greater attention to the significant events. I do this, not in disparagement of Boccaccio, but that I may compose a supplement to his work.




Dante's ancestors belonged to one of the oldest Florentine families. Indeed the poet in certain passages seems to imply that they were among those Romans who founded Florence. But this is most doubtful—mere supposition, as it seems to me. His great-great-grandfather, as I am informed, was Messer Cacciaguida, a Florentine knight who served under the Emperor Conrad. This Messer Cacciaguida had two brothers, Moronto and Eliseo. We do not read of any succession from Moronto, but from Eliseo sprang the family of the Elisei, who, however, possibly bore this name previously. From Messer Cacciaguida came the Aldighieri, so called from one of his sons, who received the name from the family of his mother.

Messer Cacciaguida, his brothers, and their ancestors, lived almost at the corner of the Porta San Piero, where it is first entered from the Mercato Vecchio, in houses still called of the Elisei, since their ancient title has remained to them. The Aldighieri, who were descended from Messer Cacciaguida, dwelt in the piazza at the rear of San Martino del Vescovo, opposite the street that leads to the houses of the Sacchetti. On the other side their dwellings extend toward those of the Donati and of the Giuochi.

Dante was born in the year of our Lord 1265, shortly after the return to Florence of the Guelfs, who had been in exile because of the defeat at Montaperti. In his boyhood he received a liberal education under teachers of letters, and at once gave evidence of a great natural capacity equal to excellent things. At this time he lost his father, but, encouraged by his relatives and by Brunetto Latini, a most worthy man for those times, he devoted himself not only to literature but to other liberal studies, omitting nothing that pertains to the making of an excellent man.

He did not, however, renounce the world and shut himself up to ease, but associated and conversed with youths of his own age. Courteous, spirited, and full of courage, he took part in every youthful exercise; and in the great and memorable battle of Campaldino, Dante, young but well esteemed, fought vigorously, mounted and in the front rank. Here he incurred the utmost peril, for the first engagement was between the cavalry, in which the horse of the Aretines defeated and overthrew with such violence the horse of the Florentines that the latter, repulsed and routed, were obliged to fall back upon their infantry.

This rout, however, lost the battle for the Aretines. For their victorious horsemen, pursuing those who fled, left their infantry far behind, so that thenceforth they nowhere fought in unison, but the cavalry fought alone without the infantry, and the infantry alone without the cavalry. But on the Florentine side the contrary took place, for, since their cavalry had retreated to their infantry, they were able to advance in a body, and easily overthrew first the horse and then the foot-soldiers of the enemy.

Dante gives a description of the battle in one of his letters. He states that he was in the fight, and draws a plan of the field. And for our better information we must understand that the Uberti, Lamberti, Abati, and all the other Florentine exiles sided with the Aretines in this battle, and that all the exiles of Arezzo, nobles and commoners of the Guelfs, all of whom were in banishment at this time, fought with the Florentines. For this reason the words in the Palace read: The Ghibellines defeated at Certomondo, and not, The Aretines defeated; to the end that those Aretines who shared the victory with the Commune might have no reason to complain.

Returning then to our subject, I repeat that Dante fought valiantly for his country on this occasion. And I could wish that our Boccaccio had made mention of this virtue rather than of love at nine, and the like trivialities which he tells of this great man. But what use is there in speaking? 'The tongue points where the tooth pains,' and 'Whose taste runs to drinking, his talk runs to wines.'

When Dante returned home from this battle, he devoted himself more fervently than ever to his studies, yet omitted naught of polite and social intercourse. It was remarkable that, although he studied incessantly, none would have supposed from his happy manner and youthful way of speaking that he studied at all. In view of this, I wish to denounce the false opinion of many ignorant persons who think that no one is a student save he who buries himself in solitude and ease. I have never seen one of these muffled recluses who knew three letters. The great and lofty genius has no need of such tortures. Indeed, it is a most true and absolute conclusion that they who do not learn quickly, never learn. Therefore to estrange and absent one's self from society is peculiar to those whose poor minds unfit them for knowledge of any kind.

It was not only in social intercourse with men that Dante moved, since in his youth he took to himself a wife. She was a lady of the Donati family, called Madonna Gemma. By her he had several children, as we shall see in another part of this work. At this point Boccaccio loses all patience, and says that wives are hindrances to study, forgetting that Socrates, the noblest philosopher that ever lived, had a wife and children, and held public offices in his city. And Aristotle, beyond whose wisdom and learning it is impossible to go, was twice married, and had children and great riches. Moreover, Cicero, Varro, and Seneca, all consummate Latin philosophers, had wives, and held offices of government in the republic. So Boccaccio may pardon me, for his judgments on this matter are both false and feeble. Man, according to all the philosophers, is a social animal. The first union, by the multiplication whereof the city arises, is that of husband and wife. Nothing can be perfect where this does not obtain, for only this kind of love is natural, lawful, and allowable.

Dante, then, took a wife, and living the honest, studious life of a citizen, was considerably employed in the republic, and at length, when he had attained to the required age, was made one of the Priors, not chosen by lot as at present, but elected by vote, as was then the rule. With him in this office were Messer Palmieri degli Altoviti, Neri di Messer Jacopo degli Alberti, and others.

This priorate, of the year 1300, was the cause of Dante's banishment and of all the misfortunes of his life, as he himself states in one of his letters in the following words: 'All my troubles and hardships had their cause and rise in the disastrous meetings held during my priorate. Albeit in wisdom I was not worthy of that office, nevertheless I was not unworthy of it in fidelity and in age, since ten years had elapsed since the battle of Campaldino, wherein the Ghibelline party was almost utterly defeated and effaced, and on that occasion I was present, no child at arms, and felt at first great fear, but in the end the greatest joy by reason of the various fortunes of that battle.' These are Dante's own words. I wish now to give in detail the cause of his banishment, since it is a matter worthy our attention, and Boccaccio passes over it so briefly that perchance it was not so well known to him as it is to me by reason of the history I have written.

The city of Florence, which formerly had been divided by the many dissensions of Guelfs and Ghibellines, finally passed into the hands of the Guelfs, and remained for a long period in that condition. But now among the Guelfs themselves, who ruled the republic, another curse of parties arose, namely, the factions of the Bianchi and Neri. This infection first appeared among the Pistojans, particularly in the family of the Cancellieri. And when all Pistoja was divided, the Florentines, by way of remedy, ordered the leaders of these factions to come to Florence, in order that they might not cause further disturbance at home.

This remedy worked less good to the Pistojans by the removal of their chiefs than harm to the Florentines, who contracted this pestilence. For, since the leaders had many relatives and friends in Florence, from whom they received divers favors, they at once kindled a greater fire of discord than they had left behind them in Pistoja. And inasmuch as the affair was treated of publice et privatim, the evil seed spread to a marvelous degree, so that the whole city took sides. There was scarcely a house, noble or plebeian, that was not divided against itself, nor was there a man of any prominence or family that did not subscribe to one of these two parties. The division extended even to brothers of the same blood, one holding to this side, the other to that.

The troubles, which already had lasted several months, were multiplied not only by words, but by mean and spiteful deeds. These were begun by the youths, but were taken up by men of maturity, until the whole city was in confusion and suspense. At this point, while Dante was still of the Priors, the Neri faction held a meeting in the Church of Santa Trinità. The proceedings were profoundly secret, but the main plan was to treat with Boniface VIII, who was pope at that time, to the end that he should send Charles of Valois, of the royal house of France, to pacify and reform the city.

When the other faction, the Bianchi, heard about the conference, they immediately conceived the greatest distrust thereof. They took up arms, gathered together their allies, and, marching to the Priors, complained of the conference in that it had deliberated in private on public affairs. This was done, they declared, in order to banish them, the Bianchi, from Florence, and they therefore demanded that the Priors should punish this presumptuous outrage.

They who had held the meeting, fearing, in turn, the Bianchi, took up arms, complained to the Priors that their adversaries had armed and fortified themselves without the public consent, and affirmed that the Bianchi under various pretexts wished to banish them. They asked the Priors to punish them, therefore, as disturbers of the public peace.

Both parties were provided with armed men and with their allies. Suspicion and terror were at their height, and the actual peril was very great. The city being in arms and in a turmoil, the Priors, at Dante's suggestion, took the precaution of fortifying themselves behind the multitude of the people. And when they were thus secured, they confined within bounds the leaders of the two factions. Of the Neri faction, Messer Corso Donati, Messer Geri Spini, Messer Giacchinotto de' Pazzi, Messer Rosso della Tosa, and others, were sent to the Castello della Pieve in the province of Perugia. Of the Bianchi faction were Messer Gentile and Messer Torrigiano de' Cerchi, Guido Cavalcanti, Baschiera della Tosa, Baldinaccio Adimari, Naldo di Messer Lottino Gherardini, and others. These men were confined within bounds at Serezzana.

This action caused much trouble to Dante. Although he defended himself as a man without a party, yet it was thought that he inclined to the Bianchi, and that he disapproved of the scheme proposed in Santa Trinità of calling Charles of Valois to Florence, believing that it was likely to bring discord and calamity on the city. To add to this ill-feeling, those citizens who were confined at Serezzana suddenly returned to Florence, while those who had been sent to the Castello della Pieve remained outside. With regard to this matter Dante explained that he was not a prior at the time when the men of Serezzana were recalled, and that therefore he was not to be held accountable. He declared, furthermore, that their return was due to the sickness and death of Guido Cavalcanti, who had fallen ill at Serezzana owing to the bad climate, and died shortly afterward.

This unequal state of things led the Pope to send Charles to Florence. Being honorably received into the city out of respect to the papacy and the house of France, he straightway recalled those citizens who were still confined within bounds, and later banished all the Bianchi faction. The reason of this was a plot that was disclosed by his baron, Messer Piero Ferranti. This man said that three gentlemen of the Bianchi party, namely, Naldo di Messer Lottino Gherardini, Baschiera della Tosa, and Baldinaccio Adimari, had requested him to try and prevail upon Charles of Valois to keep their party at the head of the State, and that they promised to make him Governor of Prato in return. The baron produced the written petition and promise with their seals affixed. This original document I have seen, since it lies to-day in the Palace with other public writings, but in my opinion it is not above suspicion, and indeed I feel quite certain that it was forged. Be that as it may, the banishment of all the Bianchi party followed, Charles professing great indignation at their request and promise.

Dante was not in Florence at this time, but at Rome, whither he had been sent shortly before as ambassador to the Pope, to offer him the peace and concord of the citizens. Nevertheless, through the anger of those Neri who had been banished during his priorate, his house was attacked, everything was pillaged, and his estate was laid waste. Banishment was decreed for him and for Messer Palmieri Altoviti, not by reason of any wrong committed, but for contumacy in failing to appear.

The manner of decreeing the banishment was this. They enacted a perverse and iniquitous law with retrospective action, which declared it the power and duty of the Podestà of Florence to recognize past offenses committed by a prior when in office, although acquittal had followed at the time. Under this law Messer Cante de' Gabbrielli, Podestà of Florence, summoned Dante to trial. And since he was absent from the city, and did not appear, he was condemned and banished, and his goods were confiscated, although they already had been plundered and laid waste.

We have given the cause and the circumstances of Dante's banishment; we shall now speak of his life in exile. When Dante heard of his ruin, he at once left Rome, where he was ambassador, and, journeying with all haste, he came to Siena. Here he learned more definitely of his misfortune, and seeing no recourse, he decided to throw in his lot with the other exiles. He first joined them in a meeting held at Gorgonza, where among the many things discussed they fixed on Arezzo as their headquarters. There they made a large camp, and created the Count Alessandro da Romena their captain, together with twelve councilors, among whom was Dante. They remained here from hope to hope till the year 1304, and then, making a great gathering of all their allies, they planned to re-enter Florence with an exceeding great multitude, assembled not only from Arezzo, but from Bologna and Pistoja. Arriving unexpectedly, they immediately captured one of the gates and occupied part of the city. But in the end they were forced to retire with no advantage.

Since this great hope had failed, Dante, deeming it wrong to waste more time, left Arezzo for Verona. Here he was most courteously received by the Lords della Scala, and tarried with them for some time. And now in all humility he endeavored by good deeds and upright conduct to obtain the favor of returning to Florence through the voluntary action of the government. Devoting himself resolutely to this end, he wrote frequently to individual citizens in power and also to the people, among others one long letter which began: Popule mee, quid feci tibi?

But while he was still hoping to return by the way of pardon, the election of Henry of Luxemburg as Emperor occurred. This election, and the coming of Henry, filled all Italy with the hope of a great change, and Dante himself could no longer keep to his plan of waiting for pardon. With his pride of spirit aroused, he began to speak evil of the rulers of the State, calling them caitiffs and criminals, and threatening them at the hands of the Emperor with deserved punishment. From this, he said, there was clearly no possible escape for them.

Yet so great was the reverence he felt for his country, that when the Emperor had marched against Florence and was encamped near the gate, Dante would not be present, as he writes, although he had urged the Emperor's coming. And when Henry died the following summer at Buonconvento, Dante lost all hope, for he himself had destroyed all chance of pardon by speaking and writing against the citizens in power, and no force remained whereon he could place further assurance. Void of hope, therefore, and in great poverty, he passed the remainder of his life tarrying in divers parts of Lombardy, Tuscany, and Romagna, under the protection of various lords, until finally he settled down at Ravenna, where he died.

Since we have told of his public troubles, and under this head have shown the course of his life, we will now speak of his domestic affairs, and of his habits and studies. Previous to his banishment from Florence, although he was not a man of great wealth, yet he was not poor, for he possessed a moderate patrimony, large enough to admit of comfortable living. He had one brother, Francisco Alighieri, a wife, as already mentioned, and several children, whose descendants remain to this day, as we shall show later. He owned good houses in Florence, adjoining those of Gieri di Messer Bello, his kinsman; possessions also in Camerata, in the Piacentina, and in the plain of Ripoli; and, as he writes, many pieces of valuable furniture.

He was a man of great refinement; of medium height, and of a pleasant but deeply serious face. He spoke only seldom, and then slowly, but was very subtle in his replies. His portrait may be seen in Santa Croce, near the centre of the church, on the left hand as you approach the high altar, a most faithful painting by an excellent artist of that time. He delighted in music and singing, and drew exceedingly well. He wrote a finished hand, making thin, long, and perfectly formed letters, as I have seen in some of his correspondence. In his youth he associated with young lovers, and he, too, was filled with a like passion, not through evil desire, but out of the gentleness of his heart. And in his tender years he began to write love verses, as may be seen in his short work in the vernacular called the Vita Nuova.

His chief study was poetry: not dry, poor, or fantastic poetry, but such as is impregnated, enriched, and confirmed by true knowledge and many disciplines. For the better understanding of the reader, I say that one becomes a poet in one of two ways. The first is through his own genius, excited and aroused by some inward and hidden force, termed frenzy and possession (occupazione) of the soul. To give an illustration of what I mean—the Blessed Francis, not through knowledge or scholarly discipline, but by possession and abstraction of mind, applied his soul so intensely to God, that he became as it were transfigured beyond human sense, and knew more of God than do the theologians through study and letters. So in poetry, one becomes a poet through an inner excitement, and through a certain application of the mind. This is the highest and most perfect kind of poetry; whence some say that poets are divine, others call them sacred, and others prophets, by reason of this abstraction and the frenzy whereof I speak. We have examples of this kind of poet in Orpheus and Hesiod. Orpheus had such power that stones and forests moved to the sound of his lyre. And Hesiod, though a rude, untaught shepherd, by merely drinking of the waters of the Castalian fountain, without any study whatsoever, became a supreme poet. We possess his works to-day, and they are of such sort that no lettered or scholarly poet surpasses them.

One class, then, is formed of those who become poets through an inner abstraction of the soul. The other class create their poetry by means of knowledge and study, by discipline, art, and forethought. Of this second sort was Dante. For it was by the study of philosophy, theology, astrology, arithmetic, and geometry, the reading of history, the meditation on many and various books, and by watching and fatigue in his studies, that he acquired the knowledge which he was to adorn and unfold in his poetry.

Since we have spoken of the nature, we will now speak of the name of poetry, in which is comprehended the substance. Albeit these are difficult matters to express in the vulgar idiom, nevertheless I will undertake their explanation, because our modern poets have not, in my opinion, clearly understood them; nor is it surprising, seeing that they are ignorant of the Greek tongue.

I say, then, that this name poeta is a Greek word, meaning maker. I know that I should not be understood if I stopped here, so there is need to explain my statement more at length. Consider books, and works of poetry. Some men are readers of the work of others, and originate nothing themselves; this is the case with most people. Others are the makers of these works: as Virgil, for example, made the Æneid, Statius the Thebaid, Ovid the Metamorphoses, and Homer the Iliad and the Odyssey. These men who made the works were poets, that is makers, of these works which we others read. We, then, are the readers, and they were the makers. When we hear a man praised for his learning or for his letters, do we not ask, 'Is he producing anything? Will he leave behind any work of his own making?'

A poet, then, is the maker of any work. Some one may say that, according to this statement, the merchant who makes up a book of accounts is a poet, and that Livy and Sallust were poets, for each of them wrote books, and made works for perusal. To this I reply that one does not speak of making poetic works, unless they be in verse. Now verse results from excellence of style, for syllables, measure, and sound pertain to poetry alone. We are in the habit of saying in our vernacular, 'This person makes songs and sonnets;' but if he wrote a letter to a friend, we should not say that he had made a work. The name of poet connotes an excellent and admirable style in verse, veiled and adorned with gracefulness and with high imagination. But even as every presiding officer commands and governs, yet only he is emperor who is the head of all, so among those who compose works in verse, only he who is supremely excellent therein is called a poet.

This is the real and absolute truth as to the name and office of poet. Whether the composition be in the vulgar or the literary style is of no importance, nor is there any difference save as between writing in Greek and writing in Latin. Every tongue has its own perfection, its own music, and its own polished and artistic utterance. But if I were asked why Dante elected to write in the vulgar tongue rather than in Latin and the literary style, I should give the true answer that Dante knew he was far better fitted for this riming style in the vernacular than for the Latin or literary style. And certainly he has gracefully expressed in vernacular rime many things which he had neither the knowledge nor the power to set forth in the Latin tongue and in heroic verse. The proof lies in his eclogues, written in hexameters, which, good though they be, I have often seen surpassed. For the truth is that our poet's strength lay in vernacular rime, wherein he has no peer. But in Latin verse and in prose he barely reached mediocrity. The reason of this is that his own age was given up to the writing of rime, but of prose as a fine art or of Latin verse, men of that period knew nothing, being rude, uncultivated, and without literary skill; taught in these disciplines, to be sure, but after the manner of monks and scholastics.

Dante writes that riming began about one hundred and fifty years before his time. The first in Italy to practice it were Guido Guinizzelli of Bologna, the 'Joyous Knight' Guitone d'Arezzo, Bonagiunta da Lucca, and Guido da Messina [Guido delle Colonne]. Dante so far excelled all of these in knowledge, delicacy, and graceful elegance that good judges believe that in the use of rime he will never be surpassed. And truly wonderful is the sweetness and sublimity of his wise, pithy, and serious verse, with its variety and affluence, its knowledge of philosophy, its references to ancient history, and such familiarity with modern history that he seems to have been present at every event. These excellent qualities, unfolded with the gentleness of rime, take captive the mind of every reader, and especially of such as have the greatest understanding.

His invention, which was marvelous, was laid hold of with great genius, comprehending, as it does, description of the world, the heavens and the planets, of men, the rewards and punishments of human life, happiness and misery, and the middle way that lies between these two extremes. I believe that there never was any one who took a larger or more fertile subject by which to deliver the mind of all its conceptions through the different spirits who discourse on diverse causes of things, on different countries, and on the various chances of fortune.

Dante began this, his chief work, before his expulsion, and completed it afterwards in exile, as the work itself clearly reveals. He also wrote moral canzoni and sonnets. His canzoni are perfect, polished, graceful, and full of high sentiment. All of them begin in noble fashion, like the one that commences:

O Love that drawest from the Heaven thy power
Even as the sun his splendor,

wherein there is a subtle philosophical comparison between the effects of the sun and the effects of love. Another begins:

Three Ladies round about my heart have come.

Still another begins:

Ye Ladies that have cognizance of Love.

And in many other canzoni he is equally subtle, scholarly, and polished. In his sonnets he does not show the same power.

So much for his works in the vernacular; but he also wrote in Latin prose and verse: in prose, a book entitled the De Monarchia, written in unadorned fashion, with no beauty of style; also a book entitled De Vulgari Eloquentia, and many letters. In Latin verse he wrote several eclogues, and the beginning of the Commedia in hexameters, but, as he did not succeed with the style, he pursued it no further.

Dante died at Ravenna in the year 1321. He left, among others, one son by name Piero, who studied law and showed himself a man of ability. Thanks to his own powers and to the remembrance in which his father was held, he attained to great distinction and wealth, and maintained his position at Verona with considerable state. This Messer Piero had a son named Dante, who in turn had a son Lionardo, who is still living and has several children. A short time ago Lionardo came to Florence with other young men of Verona, well and honorably appointed, and visited me as a friend to the memory of his great-grandfather, Dante. I showed him the houses of the poet and of his ancestors, and called his attention to many things that were new to him because he and his family had been estranged from their fatherland. And thus Fortune turns this world, and shifts its inhabitants with the revolutions of her wheel.