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Among My Books - Second Series - DANTE

To R.W. EMERSON Post by :Amber_Jalink Category :Essays Author :James Russell Lowell Date :April 2012 Read :2670

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Among My Books - Second Series - DANTE To R.W. EMERSON

DANTE

To R.W. EMERSON

A love and honor which more than thirty years have deepened, though priceless to him they enrich, are of little import to one capable of inspiring them. Yet I cannot deny myself the pleasure of so far intruding on your reserve as at least to make public acknowledgment of the debt I can never repay.

 

DANTE.(1)

On the banks of a little river so shrunken by the suns of summer that it seems fast passing into a tradition, but swollen by the autumnal rains with an Italian suddenness of passion till the massy bridge shudders under the impatient heap of waters behind it, stands a city which, in its period of bloom not so large as Boston, may well rank next to Athens in the history which teaches _come l' uom s' eterna_.

Originally only a convenient spot in the valley where the fairs of the neighboring Etruscan city of Fiesole were held, it gradually grew from a huddle of booths to a town, and then to a city, which absorbed its ancestral neighbor and became a cradle for the arts, the letters, the science, and the commerce(2) of modern Europe. For her Cimabue wrought, who infused Byzantine formalism with a suggestion of nature and feeling; for her the Pisani, who divined at least, if they could not conjure with it, the secret of Greek supremacy in sculpture; for her the marvellous boy Ghiberti proved that unity of composition and grace of figure and drapery were never beyond the reach of genius;(3) for her Brunelleschi curved the dome which Michel Angelo hung in air on St. Peter's; for her Giotto reared the bell-tower graceful as an Horatian ode in marble; and the great triumvirate of Italian poetry, good sense, and culture called her mother. There is no modern city about which cluster so many elevating associations, none in which the past is so contemporary with us in unchanged buildings and undisturbed monuments. The house of Dante is still shown; children still receive baptism at the font (_il mio bel San Giovanni_) where he was christened before the acorn dropped that was to grow into a keel for Columbus; and an inscribed stone marks the spot where he used to sit and watch the slow blocks swing up to complete the master-thought of Arnolfo. In the convent of St. Mark hard by lived and labored Beato Angelico, the saint of Christian art, and Fra Bartolommeo, who taught Raphael dignity. From the same walls Savonarola went forth to his triumphs, short-lived almost as the crackle of his martyrdom. The plain little chamber of Michel Angelo seems still to expect his return; his last sketches lie upon the table, his staff leans in the corner, and his slippers wait before the empty chair. On one of the vine-clad hills, just without the city walls, one's feet may press the same stairs that Milton climbed to visit Galileo. To an American there is something supremely impressive in this cumulative influence of the past full of inspiration and rebuke, something saddening in this repeated proof that moral supremacy is the only one that leaves monuments and not ruins behind it. Time, who with us obliterates the labor and often the names of yesterday, seems here to have spared almost the prints of the _care piante that shunned the sordid paths of worldly honor.

Around the courtyard of the great Museum of Florence stand statues of her illustrious dead, her poets, painters, sculptors, architects, inventors, and statesmen; and as the traveller feels the ennobling lift of such society, and reads the names or recognizes the features familiar to him as his own threshold, he is startled to find Fame as commonplace here as Notoriety everywhere else, and that this fifth-rate city should have the privilege thus to commemorate so many famous men her sons, whose claim to pre-eminence the whole world would concede. Among them is one figure before which every scholar, every man who has been touched by the tragedy of life, lingers with reverential pity. The haggard cheeks, the lips clamped together in unfaltering resolve, the scars of lifelong battle, and the brow whose sharp outline seems the monument of final victory,-- this, at least, is a face that needs no name beneath it. This is he who among literary fames finds only two that for growth and immutability can parallel his own. The suffrages of highest authority would now place him second in that company where he with proud humility took the sixth place.(4)

Dante (Durante, by contraction Dante) degli Alighieri was born at Florence in 1265, probably during the month of May.(5) This is the date given by Boccaccio, who is generally followed, though he makes a blunder in saying, _sedendo Urbano quarto nella cattedra di San Pietro_, for Urban died in October, 1264. Some, misled by an error in a few of the early manuscript copies of the _Divina Commedia_, would have him born five years earlier, in 1260. According to Arrivabene,(6) Sansovino was the first to confirm Boccaccio's statement by the authority of the poet himself, basing his argument on the first verse of the _Inferno_,--

"Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita";

the average age of man having been declared by the Psalmist to be seventy years, and the period of the poet's supposed vision being unequivocally fixed at 1300.(7) Leonardo Aretino and Manetti add their testimony to that of Boccaccio, and 1265 is now universally assumed as the true date. Voltaire,(8) nevertheless, places the poet's birth in 1260, and jauntily forgives Bayle (who, he says, _ecrivait a Rotterdam currente calamo _pour son libraire_) for having been right, declaring that he esteems him neither more nor less for having made a mistake of five years. Oddly enough, Voltaire adopts this alleged blunder of five years on the next page in saying that Dante died at the age of 56, though he still more oddly omits the undisputed date of his death (1321), which would have shown Bayle to be right. The poet's descent is said to have been derived from a younger son of the great Roman family of the Frangipani, classed by the popular rhyme with the Orsini and Colonna:--

"Colonna, Orsini, e Frangipani,
Prendono oggi e pagano domani."

That his ancestors had been long established in Florence is an inference from some expressions of the poet, and from their dwelling having been situated in the more ancient part of the city. The most important fact of the poet's genealogy is, that he was of mixed race, the Alighieri being of Teutonic origin. Dante was born, as he himself tells us,(9) when the sun was in the constellation Gemini, and it has been absurdly inferred, from a passage in the _Inferno_,(10) that his horoscope was drawn and a great destiny predicted for him by his teacher, Brunetto Latini. The _Ottimo Comento tells us that the Twins are the house of Mercury, who induces in men the faculty of writing, science, and of acquiring knowledge. This is worth mentioning as characteristic of the age and of Dante himself, with whom the influence of the stars took the place of the old notion of destiny.(11) It is supposed, from a passage in Boccaccio's life of Dante, that Alighiero the father was still living when the poet was nine years old. If so, he must have died soon after, for Leonardo Aretino, who wrote with original documents before him, tells us that Dante lost his father while yet a child. This circumstance may have been not without influence in muscularizing his nature to that character of self-reliance which shows itself so constantly and sharply during his after-life. His tutor was Brunetto Latini, a very superior man (for that age), says Aretino parenthetically. Like Alexander Gill, he is now remembered only as the schoolmaster of a great poet, and that he did his duty well may be inferred from Dante's speaking of him gratefully as one who by times "taught him how man eternizes himself." This, and what Villani says of his refining the Tuscan idiom (for so we understand his _farli scorti in bene parlare_),(12) are to be noted as of probable influence on the career of his pupil. Of the order of Dante's studies nothing can be certainly affirmed. His biographers send him to Bologna, Padua, Paris, Naples, and even Oxford. All are doubtful, Paris and Oxford most of all, and the dates utterly undeterminable. Yet all are possible, nay, perhaps probable. Bologna and Padua we should be inclined to place before his exile; Paris and Oxford, if at all, after it. If no argument in favor of Paris is to be drawn from his _Pape Satan_(13) and the corresponding _paix, paix, Sathan, in the autobiography of Cellini, nor from the very definite allusion to Doctor Siger,(14) we may yet infer from some passages in the _Commedia that his wanderings had extended even farther;(15) for it would not be hard to show that his comparisons and illustrations from outward things are almost invariably drawn from actual eyesight. As to the nature of his studies, there can be no doubt that he went through the _trivium (grammar, dialectic, rhetoric) and the _quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy) of the then ordinary university course. To these he afterward added painting (or at least drawing,--_designavo un angelo sopra certe tavolette_),(16) theology, and medicine. He is said to have been the pupil of Cimabue, and was certainly the friend of Giotto, the designs for some of whose frescos at Assisi and elsewhere have been wrongly attributed to him, though we may safely believe in his helpful comment and suggestion. To prove his love of music, the episode of Casella were enough, even without Boccaccio's testimony. The range of Dante's study and acquirement would be encyclopedic in any age, but at that time it was literally possible to master the _omne scibile_, and he seems to have accomplished it. How lofty his theory of science was, is plain from this passage in the _Convito_: "He is not to be called a true lover of wisdom (_filosofo_) who loves it for the sake of gain, as do lawyers, physicians, and almost all churchmen (_li religiosi_), who study, not in order to know, but to acquire riches or advancement, and who would not persevere in study should you give them what they desire to gain by it.... And it may be said that (as true friendship between men consists in each wholly loving the other) the true philosopher loves every part of wisdom, and wisdom every part of the philosopher, inasmuch as she draws all to herself, and allows no one of his thoughts to wander to other things."(17) The _Convito gives us a glance into Dante's library. We find Aristotle (whom he calls the philosopher, the master) cited seventy-six times; Cicero, eighteen; Albertus Magnus, seven; Boethius, six; Plato (at second-hand), four; Aquinas, Avicenna, Ptolemy, the Digest, Lucan, and Ovid, three each; Virgil, Juvenal, Statius, Seneca, and Horace, twice each; and Algazzali, Alfrogan, Augustine, Livy, Orosius, and Homer (at second-hand), once. Of Greek he seems to have understood little; of Hebrew and Arabic, a few words. But it was not only in the closet and from books that Dante received his education. He acquired, perhaps, the better part of it in the streets of Florence, and later, in those homeless wanderings which led him (as he says) wherever the Italian tongue was spoken. His were the only open eyes of that century, and, as nothing escaped them, so there is nothing that was not photographed upon his sensitive brain, to be afterward fixed forever in the _Commedia_. What Florence was during his youth and manhood, with its Guelphs and Ghibellines, its nobles and trades, its Bianchi and Neri, its kaleidoscopic revolutions, "all parties loving liberty and doing their best to destroy her," as Voltaire says, it would be beyond our province to tell even if we could. Foreshortened as events are when we look back on them across so many ages, only the upheavals of party conflict catching the eye, while the spaces of peace between sink out of the view of history, a whole century seems like a mere wild chaos. Yet during a couple of such centuries the cathedrals of Florence, Pisa, and Siena got built; Cimabue, Giotto, Arnolfo, the Pisani, Brunelleschi, and Ghiberti gave the impulse to modern art, or brought it in some of its branches to its culminating point; modern literature took its rise; commerce became a science, and the middle class came into being. It was a time of fierce passions and sudden tragedies, of picturesque transitions and contrasts. It found Dante, shaped him by every experience that life is capable of,--rank, ease, love, study, affairs, statecraft, hope, exile, hunger, dependence, despair,--until he became endowed with a sense of the nothingness of this world's goods possible only to the rich, and a knowledge of man possible only to the poor. The few well-ascertained facts of Dante's life may be briefly stated. In 1274 occurred what we may call his spiritual birth, the awakening in him of the imaginative faculty, and of that profounder and more intense consciousness which springs from the recognition of beauty through the antithesis of sex. It was in that year that he first saw Beatrice Portinari. In 1289 he was present at the battle of Campaldino, fighting on the side of the Guelphs, who there utterly routed the Ghibellines, and where, he says characteristically enough, "I was present, not a boy in arms, and where I felt much fear, but in the end the greatest pleasure, from the various changes of the fight."(18) In the same year he assisted at the siege and capture of Caprona.(19) In 1290 died Beatrice, married to Simone dei Bardi, precisely when is uncertain, but before 1287, as appears by a mention of her in her father's will, bearing date January 15 of that year. Dante's own marriage is assigned to various years, ranging from 1291 to 1294; but the earlier date seems the more probable, as he was the father of seven children (the youngest, a daughter, named Beatrice) in 1301. His wife was Gemma dei Donati, and through her Dante, whose family, though noble, was of the lesser nobility, became nearly connected with Corso Donati, the head of a powerful clan of the _grandi_, or greater nobles. In 1293 occurred what is called the revolution of Gian Della Bella, in which the priors of the trades took the power into their own hands, and made nobility a disqualification for office. A noble was defined to be any one who counted a knight among his ancestors, and thus the descendant of Cacciaguida was excluded.

Della Bella was exiled in 1295, but the nobles did not regain their power. On the contrary, the citizens, having all their own way, proceeded to quarrel among themselves, and subdivided into the _popolani grossi and _popolani minuti_, or greater and lesser trades,--a distinction of gentility somewhat like that between wholesale and retail tradesmen. The _grandi continuing turbulent, many of the lesser nobility, among them Dante, drew over to the side of the citizens, and between 1297 and 1300 there is found inscribed in the book of the physicians and apothecaries, _Dante d' Aldighiero, degli Aldighieri, poeta Fiorentino_(20) Professor de Vericour(21) thinks it necessary to apologize for this lapse on the part of the poet, and gravely bids us take courage, nor think that Dante was ever an apothecary. In 1300 we find him elected one of the priors of the city. In order to a perfect misunderstanding of everything connected with the Florentine politics of this period, one has only to study the various histories. The result is a spectrum on the mind's eye, which looks definite and brilliant, but really hinders all accurate vision, as if from too steady inspection of a Catharine-wheel in full whirl. A few words, however, are necessary, if only to make the confusion palpable. The rival German families of Welfs and Weiblingens had given their names, softened into Guelfi and Ghibellini,--from which Gabriel Harvey(22) ingeniously, but mistakenly, derives elves and goblins,--to two parties in Northern Italy, representing respectively the adherents of the pope and of the emperor, but serving very well as rallying-points in all manner of intercalary and subsidiary quarrels. The nobles, especially the greater ones,--perhaps from instinct, perhaps in part from hereditary tradition, as being more or less Teutonic by descent,--were commonly Ghibellines, or Imperialists; the bourgeoisie were very commonly Guelphs, or supporters of the pope, partly from natural antipathy to the nobles, and partly, perhaps, because they believed themselves to be espousing the more purely Italian side. Sometimes, however, the party relation of nobles and burghers to each other was reversed, but the names of Guelph and Ghibelline always substantially represented the same things. The family of Dante had been Guelphic, and we have seen him already as a young man serving two campaigns against the other party. But no immediate question as between pope and emperor seems then to have been pending; and while there is no evidence that he was ever a mere partisan, the reverse would be the inference from his habits and character. Just before his assumption of the priorate, however, a new complication had arisen. A family feud, beginning at the neighboring city of Pistoja, between the Cancellieri Neri and Cancellieri Bianchi,(23) had extended to Florence, where the Guelphs took the part of the Neri and the Ghibellines of the Bianchi.(24) The city was instantly in a ferment of street brawls, as actors in one of which some of the Medici are incidentally named,--the first appearance of that family in history. Both parties appealed at different times to the pope, who sent two ambassadors, first a bishop and then a cardinal. Both pacificators soon flung out again in a rage, after adding the new element of excommunication to the causes of confusion. It was in the midst of these things that Dante became one of the six priors (June, 1300),--an office which the Florentines had made bimestrial in its tenure, in order apparently to secure at least six constitutional chances of revolution in the year. He advised that the leaders of both parties should be banished to the frontiers, which was forthwith done; the ostracism including his relative Corso Donati among the Neri, and his most intimate friend the poet Guido Cavalcanti among the Bianchi. They were all permitted to return before long (but after Dante's term of office was over), and came accordingly, bringing at least the Scriptural allowance of "seven other" motives of mischief with them. Affairs getting worse (1301), the Neri, with the connivance of the pope (Boniface VIII.), entered into an arrangement with Charles of Valois, who was preparing an expedition to Italy. Dante was meanwhile sent on an embassy to Rome (September, 1301, according to Arrivabene,(25) but probably earlier) by the Bianchi, who still retained all the offices at Florence. It is the tradition that he said in setting forth: "If I go, who remains? and if I stay, who goes?" Whether true or not, the story implies what was certainly true, that the council and influence of Dante were of great weight with the more moderate of both parties. On October 31, 1301, Charles took possession of Florence in the interest of the Neri. Dante being still at Rome (January 27, 1302), sentence of exile was pronounced against him and others, with a heavy fine to be paid within two months; if not paid, the entire confiscation of goods, and, whether paid or no, exile; the charge against him being pecuniary malversation in office. The fine not paid (as it could not be without admitting the justice of the charges, which Dante scorned even to deny), in less than two months (March 10, 1302) a second sentence was registered, by which he with others was condemned to be burned alive if taken within the boundaries of the republic.(26) From this time the life of Dante becomes semi-mythical, and for nearly every date we are reduced to the "as they say" of Herodotus. He became now necessarily identified with his fellow-exiles (fragments of all parties united by common wrongs in a practical, if not theoretic, Ghibellinism), and shared in their attempts to reinstate themselves by force of arms. He was one of their council of twelve, but withdrew from it on account of the unwisdom of their measures. Whether he was present at their futile assault on Florence (July 22, 1304) is doubtful, but probably he was not. From the _Ottimo Comento_, written at least in part(27) by a contemporary as early as 1333, we learn that Dante soon separated himself from his companions in misfortune with mutual discontents and recriminations.(28) During the nineteen years of Dante's exile, it would be hard to say where he was not. In certain districts of Northern Italy there is scarce a village that has not its tradition of him, its _sedia, rocca, spelonca, or _torre di Dante_; and what between the patriotic complaisance of some biographers overwilling to gratify as many provincial vanities as possible, and the pettishness of others anxious only to snub them, the confusion becomes hopeless.(29) After his banishment we find some definite trace of him first at Arezzo with Uguccione della Faggiuola; then at Siena; then at Verona with the Scaligeri. He himself says: "Through almost all parts where this language (Italian) is spoken, a wanderer, wellnigh a beggar, I have gone, showing against my will the wound of fortune. Truly I have been a vessel without sail or rudder, driven to diverse ports, estuaries, and shores by that hot blast, the breath of grievous poverty; and I have shown myself to the eyes of many who perhaps, through some fame of me, had imagined me in quite other guise, in whose view not only was my person debased, but every work of mine, whether done or yet to do, became of less account."(30) By the election of the emperor Henry VII. (of Luxemburg, November, 1308), and the news of his proposed expedition into Italy, the hopes of Dante were raised to the highest pitch. Henry entered Italy, October, 1310, and received the iron crown of Lombardy at Milan, on the day of Epiphany, 1311. His movements being slow, and his policy undecided, Dante addressed him that famous letter, urging him to crush first the "Hydra and Myrrha" Florence, as the root of all the evils of Italy (April 16, 1311). To this year we must probably assign the new decree by which the seigniory of Florence recalled a portion of the exiles, excepting Dante, however, among others, by name.(31) The undertaking of Henry, after an ill-directed dawdling of two years, at last ended in his death at Buonconvento (August 24, 1313; Carlyle says wrongly September); poisoned, it was said, in the sacramental bread, by a Dominican friar, bribed thereto by Florence.(32) The story is doubtful, the more as Dante nowhere alludes to it, as he certainly would have done had he heard of it. According to Balbo, Dante spent the time from August, 1313, to November, 1314, in Pisa and Lucca, and then took refuge at Verona, with Can Grande della Scala (whom Voltaire calls, drolly enough, _le grand can de Verone_, as if he had been a Tartar), where he remained till 1318. Foscolo with equal positiveness sends him, immediately after the death of Henry, to Guido da Polenta(33) at Ravenna, and makes him join Can Grande only after the latter became captain of the Ghibelline league in December, 1318. In 1316 the government of Florence set forth a new decree allowing the exiles to return on conditions of fine and penance. Dante rejected the offer (by accepting which his guilt would have been admitted), in a letter still hot, after these five centuries, with indignant scorn. "Is this then the glorious return of Dante Alighieri to his country after nearly three lustres of suffering and exile? Did an innocence, patent to all, merit this?--this, the perpetual sweat and toil of study? Far from a man, the housemate of philosophy, be so rash and earthen hearted a humility as to allow himself to be offered up bound like a school-boy or a criminal! Far from a man, the preacher of justice, to pay those who have done him wrong as for a favor! This is not the way of retaining to my country; but if another can be found that shall not derogate from the fame and honor of Dante, that I will enter on with no lagging steps. For if by none such Florence may be entered, by me then never! Can I not everywhere behold the mirrors of the sun and stars? speculate on sweetest truths under any sky without first giving myself up inglorious, nay, ignominious, to the populace and city of Florence? Nor shall I want for bread." Dionisi puts the date of this letter in 1315.(34) He is certainly wrong, for the decree is dated December 11, 1316. Foscolo places it in 1316, Troya early in 1317, and both may be right, as the year began March 25. Whatever the date of Dante's visit to Voltaire's great Khan(35) of Verona, or the length of his stay with him, may have been, it is certain that he was in Ravenna in 1320, and that, on his return thither from an embassy to Venice (concerning which a curious letter, forged probably by Doni, is extant), he died on September 14, 1321 (13th, according to others). He was buried at Ravenna under a monument built by his friend, Guido Novello.(36) Dante is said to have dictated the following inscription for it on his death-bed:--

JVRA MONARCHIAE SVPEROS PHLEGETHONTA LACVSQVE
LVSTRANDO CECINI VOLVERVNT FATA QVOVSQVE
SED QVIA PARS CESSIT MELIORIBVS HOSPITA CASTRIS
AVCTOREMQVE SVVM PETIIT FELICIOR ASTRIS
HIC CLAVDOR DANTES PATRIIS EXTORRIS AB ORIS
QVEM GENVIT PARVI FLORENTIA MATER AMORIS.

Of which this rude paraphrase may serve as a translation:--

The rights of Monarchy, the Heavens, the Stream of Fire, the Pit,
In vision seen, I sang as far as to the Fates seemed fit;
But since my soul, an alien here, hath flown to nobler wars,
And, happier now, hath gone to seek its Maker 'mid the stars,
Here am I Dante shut, exiled from the ancestral shore,
Whom Florence, the of all least-loving mother, bore.(37)

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