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Dante AlighieriMay/June c.1265 - September 14, 1321
Part 3 of 13: Political Life, Part 2
Dante now began to take an active part in politics. He was inscribed in the arte of the Medici and Speziali, which made him eligible as one of the six priori to whom the government of the city was entrusted in 1282. Documents still existing in the archives of Florence show that he took part in the deliberations of the several councils of the city in 1295, 1296, 1300 and 1301. The notice in the last year is of some importance. The pope had demanded a contingent of loo Florentine knights to serve against his enemies, the Colonna family. On the 19th of June we read in the contemporary report of the debate on this question in the Council of a Hundred: "Dantes Alagherius consuluit quod de servitio faciendo Domino Papae nihil fieret." Other instances of his invariable opposition to Boniface occur. Filelfo says that he served on fourteen embassies, a statement not only unsupported by evidence, but impossible in itself. Filelfo does not mention the only embassy in which we know for certain that Dante was engaged, that to the town of San Gemignano in May 1300. From the 15th of June to the 15th of August 1300 he held the office of prior, which was the source of all the miseries of his life. The spirit of faction had again broken out in Florence. The two rival families were the Cerchi and the Donati, - the first of great wealth but recent origin, the last of ancient ancestry but poor. A quarrel had arisen in Pistoia between the two branches of the Cancellieri, - the Bianchi and Neri, the Whites and the Blacks. The quarrel spread to Florence, the Donati took the side of the Blacks, the Cerchi of the Whites. Pope Boniface was asked to mediate, and sent Cardinal Matteo d'Acquasparta to maintain peace. He arrived just as Dante entered upon his office as prior. The cardinal effected nothing, but Dante and his colleagues banished the heads of the rival parties in different directions to a distance from the capital. The Blacks were sent to Città della Pieve in the Tuscan mountains; the Whites, among whom was Dante's dearest friend Guido Cavalcanti, to Serrezzano in the unhealthy Maremma. After the expiration of Dante's office both parties returned, Guido Cavalcanti so ill with fever that he shortly afterwards died. At a meeting held in the church of the Holy Trinity the Whites were denounced as Ghibellines, enemies of the pope. The Blacks sought for vengeance. Their leader, Corso Donati, hastened to Rome, and persuaded Boniface VIII. to send for Charles of Valois, brother of the French king, Philip the Fair, to act as "peacemaker." The priors sent at the end of September four ambassadors to the pope, one of whom, according to the chronicler Dino, was Dante. There are, however, improbabilities in the story, and the passage quoted in support of it bears marks of later interpolation. He never again saw the towers of his native city. Charles of Valois, after visiting the pope at Anagni, retraced his steps to Florence, entering the city on All Saints' Day and taking up his abode in the Oltr' Arno. Corso Donati, who had been banished a second time, returned in force and summoned the Blacks to arms. The prisons were broken open, the podestà driven from the town, the Cerchi confined within their houses, a third of the city was destroyed with fire and sword. By the help of Charles the Blacks were victorious. They appointed Cante de' Gabrielli of Gubbio as podestà, a man devoted to their interests. More than 600 Whites were condemned to exile and cast as beggars upon the world. On the 27th of January 1302, Dante, with four others of the White party, was charged before the podestà, Cante de' Gabrielli, with baratteria, or corrupt jobbery and peculation when in office, and, not appearing, condemned to pay a fine of 5000 lire of small florins. If the money was not paid within three days their property was to be destroyed and laid waste; if they did pay the fine they were to be exiled for two years from Tuscany; in any case they were never again to hold office in the republic. The charge in Dante's case was obviously preposterous, though ingeniously devised; for he was known to be at the time in somewhat straitened circumstances, and had recently been in control of certain public works. But of all sins, that of "barratry" was one of the most hateful to him. No doubt the papal finger may be traced in the affair. On the 10th of March Dante and fourteen others were condemned to be burned alive if they should come into the power of the republic. Similar sentences were passed in September 1311 and October 1315. The sentence was not formally reversed till 1494, under the government of the Medici.
Leonardo Bruni, who accepts the story of the embassy to Rome, states that Dante received the news of his banishment in that city, and at once joined the other exiles at Siena. How he escaped arrest in the papal states is not explained. The exiles met first at Gargonza, a castle between Siena and Arezzo, and then at Arezzo itself. They joined themselves to the Ghibellines, to which party the podestà Uguccione della Faggiuola belonged. The Ghibellines, however, were divided amongst themselves, and the more strict Ghibellines were not disposed to favour the cause of the White Guelphs. On the 8th of June 1302, however, a meeting was held at San Godenzo, a place in the Florentine territory, Dante's presence at which is proved by documentary evidence, and an alliance was there made with the powerful Ghibelline clan of the Ubaldini. The exiles remained at Arezzo till the summer of 1304. In September 1303 the fleur-de-lis had entered Anagni, and Christ had a second time been made prisoner in the person of his vicar. At the instigation of Philip the Fair, William of Nogaret and Sciarra Colonna had entered the papal palace at Anagni, and had insulted and, it is said, even beaten the aged pontiff under his own roof. Boniface did not survive the insult long, but died in the following month. He was succeeded by Benedict XI., and in March the cardinal da Prato came to Florence, sent by the new pope to make peace. The people received him with enthusiasm; ambassadors came to him from the Whites; and he did his best to reconcile the two parties. But the Blacks resisted all his efforts. He shook the dust from off his feet, and departed, leaving the city under an interdict. Foiled by the calumnies and machinations of the one party, the cardinal gave his countenance to the other. It happened that Corso Donati and the heads of the Black party were absent at Pistoia. Da Prato advised the Whites to attack Florence, deprived of its heads and impaired by a recent fire. An army was collected of 16,000 foot and 9000 horse. Communications were opened with the Ghibellines of Bologna and Romagna, and a futile attempt was made to enter Florence from Lastra, the failure of which further disorganized the party. Dante had, however, already separated from the "ill-conditioned and foolish company" of common party-politicians, who rejected his counsels of wisdom, and had learnt that he must henceforth form a party by himself. In 1303 he had left Arezzo and gone to Forli in Romagna, of which city Scarpetta degli Ordelaffi was lord. To him, according to Flavius Blondus the historian (d. before 1484), a native of the place, Dante acted for a time as secretary.
This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
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