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May/June c.1265 - September 14, 1321
Part 2 of 13: Political Life, Part 1
We must now consider the political circumstances in which lay the activity of Dante's manhood. From 1115, the year of the death of Matilda countess of Tuscany, to 1215, Florence enjoyed a nearly uninterrupted peace. Attached to the Guelph party, it remained undivided against itself. But in 1215 a private feud between the families of Buondelmonte and Uberti introduced into the city the horrors of civil war. Villani (lib v cap 38) relates how Buondelmonte de' Buondelmonti, a noble youth of Florence, being engaged to marry a lady of the house of Amidei, allied himself instead to a Donati, and how Buondelmonte was attacked and killed by the Amidei and Uberti at the foot of the Ponte Vecchio, close by the pilaster which bears the image of Mars. "The death of Messer Buondelmonte was the occasion and beginning of the accursed parties of Guelphs and Ghibellines in Florence." Of the seventy-two families then in Florence thirty-nine became Guelph under the leadership of the Buondelmonte and the rest Ghibelline under the Uberti. The strife of parties was for a while allayed by the war against Pisa in 1222, and the constant struggles against Siena; but in 1248 Frederick II. sent into the city his natural son Frederick "of Antioch," with 1600 German knights. The Guelphs were driven away from the town, and took refuge, part in Montevarchi, part in Capraia. The Ghibellines, masters of Florence, behaved with great severity, and destroyed the towers and palaces of the Guelph nobles. At last the people became impatient. They rose in rebellion, reduced the powers of the podestà, elected a captain of the people to manage the internal affairs of the city, with a council of twelve, established a more democratic constitution, and, encouraged by the death of Frederick II. in December 1250, recalled the exiled Guelphs. Manfred, the bastard son of Frederick, pursued the policy of his father. He stimulated the Ghibelline Uberti to rebel against their position of subjection. A rising of the vanquished party was put down by the people, in July 1258 the Ghibellines were expelled from the town, and the towers of the Uberti razed to the ground. The exiles betook themselves to the friendly city of Siena. Manfred sent them a reinforcement of German horse, under his kinsman Count Giordano Lancia. The Florentines, after vainly demanding their surrender, despatched an army against them. On the 4th of September 1260 was fought the great battle of Montaperti, which dyed the Arbia red, and in which the Guelphs were entirely defeated. The hand which held the banner of the republic was sundered by the sword of a traitor (Inf. xxxii. 106). For the first time in the history of Florence the Carroccio was taken. Florence lay at the mercy of her enemies. A parliament was held at Empoli, in which the deputies of Siena, Pisa, Arezzo and other Tuscan towns consulted on the best means of securing their new war power. They voted that the accursed Guelph city should be blotted out. But Farinata degli Uberti stood up in their midst, bold and defiant as when he stood erect among the sepulchres of hell, and said that if, from the whole number of the Florentines, he alone should remain, he would not suffer, whilst he could wield a sword, that his country should be destroyed, and that, if it were necessary to die a thousand times for her, a thousand times would he be ready to encounter death. Help came to the Guelphs from an unexpected quarter. Clement IV., elected pope in 1265, offered the crown of Apulia and Sicily to Charles of Anjou. The French prince, passing rapidly through Lombardy, Romagna and the Marches, reached Rome by way of Spoleto, was crowned on the 6th of January 1266, and on the 23rd of February defeated and killed Manfred at Benevento. In such a storm of conflict did Dante first see the light. In 1267 the Guelphs were recalled, but instead of settling down in peace with their opponents they summoned Charles of Anjou to vengeance, and the Ghibellines were driven out. The meteor passage of Conradin gave hope to the imperial party, which was quenched when the head of the fair-haired boy fell on the scaffold at Naples. Pope after pope tried in vain to make peace. Gregory X. placed the rebellious city under an interdict; in 1278 Cardinal Latini by order of Nicholas III. effected a truce, which lasted for four years. The city was to be governed by a committee of fourteen buonomini, on which the Guelphs were to have a small majority. In 1282 the constitution of Florence received the final form which it retained till the collapse of freedom. From the three arti maggiori were chosen six priors, in whose hands was placed the government of the republic. Before the end of the century, seven greater arts were recognized, including the speziali, - druggists and dealers in all manner of oriental goods, and in books - among whom Dante afterwards enrolled himself. They remained in office for two months, and during that time lived and shared a common table in the public palace. We shall see what influence this office had upon the fate of Dante. The success of the "Sicilian Vespers" (March 1282), the death of Charles of Anjou (January 1285), and of Martin IV in the following March, roused again the courage of the Ghibellines. They entered Arezzo, where the Ghibellines at present had the upper hand, and threatened to drive out the Guelphs from Tuscany. Skirmishes and raids, of which Villani and Bruni have left accounts, went on through the winter of 1288-1289, forming a prelude to the great battle of Campaldino in the following summer. Then it was that Dante saw "horsemen moving camp and commencing the assault, and holding muster, and the march of foragers, the shock of tournaments, and race of jousts, now with trumpets and now with bells, with drums and castle signals, with native things and foreign" (Inf. xxii. 1, foll.). On the 11th of June 1289, at Campaldino near Poppi, in the Casentino, the Ghibellines were utterly defeated. They never again recovered their hold on Florence, but the violence of faction survived under other names. In a letter quoted, though not at first hand, by Leonardo Bruni, which is not now extant, Dante is said to mention that he himself fought with distinction at Campaldino. He was present shortly afterwards at the battle of Caprona (Inf. xxi. 95, foll.), and returned in September 1289 to his studies and his love. His peace was of short duration. On the 9th of June 1290 died Beatrice, whose mortal love had guided him for thirteen years, and whose immortal spirit purified his later life, and revealed to him the mysteries of Paradise.
Dante had first met Beatrice Portinari at the house of her father Folco on May-day 1274. In his own words, "already nine times after my birth the heaven of light had returned as it were to the same point, when there appeared to my eyes the glorious lady of my mind, who was by many called Beatrice who knew not what to call her. She had already been so long in this life that already in its time the starry heaven had moved towards the east the twelfth part of a degree, so that she appeared to me about the beginning of her ninth year, and I saw her about the end of my ninth year. Her dress on that day was of a most noble colour, a subdued and goodly crimson, girdled and adorned in such sort as best suited with her tender age. At that moment I saw most truly that the spirit of life which bath its dwelling in the secretest chamber of the heart began to tremble so violently that the least pulses of my body shook therewith; and in trembing it said these words, `Ecce deus fortior me qui veniens dominabitur mihi.'" In the Vita Nuova is written the story of his passion from its commencement to within a year after the lady's death (June 9th, 1290). He saw Beatrice only once or twice, and she probably knew little of him. She married Simone de' Bardi. But the worship of her lover was stronger for the remoteness of its subject. The last chapter of the Vita Nuova relates how, after the lapse of a year, "it was given me to behold a wonderful vision, wherein I saw things which determined me to say nothing further of this blessed one until such time as I could discourse more worthily concerning her. And to this end I labour all I can, as she in truth knoweth. Therefore if it be His pleasure through whom is the life of all things that my life continue with me a few years, it is my hope that I shall yet write concerning her what hath not before been written of any woman. After the which may it seem good unto Him who is the master of grace that my spirit should go hence to behold the glory of its lady, to wit, of that blessed Beatrice who now gloriously gazes on the countenance of Him qui est per omnia saecula benedictus." In the Convito he resumes the story of his life. "When I had lost the first delight of my soul (that is, Beatrice) I remained so pierced with sadness that no comforts availed me anything, yet after some time my mind, desirous of health, sought to return to the method by which other disconsolate ones had found consolation, and I set myself to read that little-known book of Boetius in which he consoled himself when a prisoner and an exile. And hearing that Tully had written another work, in which, treating of friendship, he had given words of consolation to Laelius, I set myself to read that also." He so far recovered from the shock of his loss that in 1292 he married Gemma, daughter of Manetto Donati, a connexion of the celebrated Corso Donati, afterwards Dante's bitter foe. It is possible that she is the lady mentioned in the Vita Nuova as sitting full of pity at her window and comforting Dante for his sorrow. By this wife he had two sons and two daughters, and although he never mentions her in the Divina Commedia, and although she did not accompany him into exile, there is no reason to suppose that she was other than a good wife, or that the union was otherwise than happy. Certain it is that he spares the memory of Corso in his great poem, and speaks kindly of his kinsmen Piccarda and Forese.
Part 3: Political Life, Part 2
This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
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