Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 28 – a refugee’s sorrows

Dante and Beatrice meet the poet’s ancestor, Cacciaguida. By Giovanni di Paolo via Wikimedia

In the sphere of Mars, spiritual home of the courageous, Dante meets his great-great grandfather, Cacciaguida degli Elisei, who predicts the poet’s exile from his beloved Florence.

A 12th century nobleman who fought in the second crusade and died a martyr in the Holy Land, Cacciaguida speaks of a Florence long vanished, a city “sober and chaste” whose people lived in peace, unlike the warring factions of today. He speaks not just for himself but also for his fellow victim Dante, and his talk is full of the nostalgia for the “good old days” that is typical of refugees looking back on a prelapsarian past. Even his language is old-fashioned, not our “modern speech”.

Dante’s ancestor tells him of his coming exile. Illustration courtesy of Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery via Wikimedia

Dante asks Cacciaguida about his future. Farinata degli Uberti (Inferno 10) and Brunetto Latini (Inferno 15, see Note 9) have already warned of dark days ahead, but their predictions were vague. Caccaguida, in contrast, tells him plainly what will happen:

The pain of the refugee – the pain of all refugees – speaks to us in these poignant lines. Dante is homesick! His sudden fall from grace meant he never even returned to Florence from the diplomatic mission he was on at the time of the coup that removed his party from power: instead, he went straight into exile, without his wife and children and without any money to support himself. It came as a terrible shock, one that cut his life in two and had lasting repercussions for the 20 years that remained of it. He became “almost a beggar”, he says in the Convivio, and, in the early years at least, often went hungry. Even when he could eat, the bread tasted all wrong! (To this day the bread of Florence is made with little or no salt, a hangover from the high tax on salt in Dante’s time). And those stairs! Dante’s lassitude, in climbing them, reflects not just physical weariness but a profound alienation: he has no ownership, no integration with the households in which he is merely a passing visitor.

Where did Dante go? His movements in exile are obscure, but he probably stays in central and northern Italy – rumours of his presence in Paris and Oxford are thought to be false. According to Ian Thomson’s informative and entertaining Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Journey Without End, we have evidence of visits to the Lunigiani region of northwestern Tuscany; to Forli, in Romagna; to Sarzana, in Liguria; to Lucca, where he may have fallen in love again; to Verona, where he enjoys use of the city’s excellent library; to Arezzo (see below); and to Bologna. He wanders from patron to patron, his rootlessness painful for a man accustomed to participating fully in social and civic life. The unfairness of his conviction and the stain on his reputation weigh heavily on him. He signs his letters “exile undeservedly”.

Arezzo, where Dante quarrelled with other exiles. Photo by Sailko via Wikimedia

Dante can’t have been an easy house guest during this period. By the time he leaves Arezzo, he forms a “party by himself”, having quarrelled with most of his fellow exiles, whose “wicked and senseless company” he subsequently shuns. His proud, rebellious spirit stands alone, convinced as ever of his rightness. As Sinclair notes, there could have been two sides to this story.

Yet there are a few upsides to life as a refugee. The diverse cultures of Italy broaden Dante’s outlook and put a distance between him and his home city, creating a tension that is one of the things that makes his poetry great. He is free to write – and does so, completing four books of the Convivio, a treatise in Latin on the merits of the vulgar tongue, and two bucolic eclogues, also in Latin, in addition to the whole of the Divina Commedia. On his travels he counts 14 different dialects of Italian, some of which find their way into the Comedy. Above all, the pain of exile sharpens his desire for knowledge, his belief in a better life hereafter, and his love for Beatrice and God – all of which feed into the searing brilliance of his masterpiece.

In 1315, shortly before this canto was written, Florence granted an amnesty to all exiles, including Dante. But there was a price attached – public penance and a hefty fine. Dante, who still had his pride but little or no money, scorned the offer. This was probably his last hope of return while in this life.

Dante spent his last 10 years in Verona and Ravenna. In Verona he lived at the court of Can Grande della Scala, to whom he dedicated the Paradiso. In Ravenna he was hosted by Guido Novello da Polenta, the city’s de facto ruler. In 1321, aged 56, he died in Ravenna, probably of malaria. He is buried near the city’s basilica di San Francesco (see Note 15).   

After Dante’s death, once the greatness of his poem was known, Florence tried repeatedly to have his remains repatriated to the city of his birth, but Ravenna couldn’t agree to this and, on more than one occasion, the Franciscan monks hid his bones in the walls of the basilica adjacent to his burial place. Florence has had to content itself with an empty tomb in the church of Santa Croce, apparently often mistaken by tourists for the real thing! The bitterness engendered by Florence’s treatment of its best known son persists: as recently as 2008, one of Dante’s descendants refused an invitation to a rehabilitation ceremony in Florence that had been proposed by the city’s councillors.

Dante returns to the subject of his exile in Paradiso 25, the canto dedicated, ironically, to his catechism on hope at the hands of St James:

The ceiling mosaic of Florence’s baptistery. Did Dante’s eyes light on this as he was held on his back in the baptismal font? Photo by Leon Petrosyan via Wikimedia

Dante’s dreams of a triumphant return to Florence were never fulfilled. The cruelty of his exile was something he could not forget. He never ‘got over it’, never ‘moved on’, as we are so often enjoined to do in response to such shocks to our identity. Yet what Dante has left us is indeed a “sacred poem”, and through his poetry he returns again and again, not merely to Florence but to all of us. I know of no one who can come to the Comedy and not find something in its pages that chimes with their own experience.

“Hope,” says the poet in his catechism, is a “sure expectation of future glory” springing from “divine grace and precedent merit”. The sacred poem, so evidently the product of both grace and merit, has certainly earned its human maker lasting glory. I believe his light will shine for many centuries to come.

Genius line:
Del bello ovile ov’ io dormi’ agnello. Such a beautiful metaphor for the idealized Florence of Dante’s childhood. In later life he must have looked back longingly on that time of innocence.