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The Rehabilitation of Dante Alighieri, Seven Centuries Later

The following is a guest post by Dante Figueroa, a senior legal information analyst at the Law Library of Congress. Dante has contributed a number of In Custodia Legis blog posts, including on Resources and Treasures of the Italian Parliamentary Libraries,  Legislation Protecting Italian Cultural Heritage, and Proposed Anti-Sect Legislation in Italy: An Ongoing Debate.

On December 3, 2015, the Library of Congress held a panel discussion celebrating Dante Alighieri’s 750th birthday anniversary. While doing some reading about Alighieri, I found out that the city of Florence, Italy, had recently passed a decree lifting the sentence of exile that had been rendered against him in 1302. I decided to do more research on the topic, and here is what I discovered.

Dante Alighieri, 1265-1321 - illus. from Divine Comedy: bust portr., right profile, frontis. (v. 1. of 1727 ed), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003653394/

Dante Alighieri, 1265-1321 – illus. from Divine Comedy: bust portr., right profile, frontis. (v. 1. of 1727 ed), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003653394/

Who was Dante Alighieri?

Dante Alighieri was a Florentine, philosopher, linguist, politician, and poet who lived between 1265 and 1321 (Dante Alighièri (poeta), Sapere.it (Oct. 30, 2013)). His most important work is his acclaimed poem “the Divine Comedy” (La Divina Commedia). It was written between 1304 and 1321, while Alighieri was exiled from his native Florence.  He stirred up controversy at a time, when the centers of power –the Papacy and the Empire—vied for control and influence in the Italian peninsula. Alighieri’s opinion of the papacy was less than favorable and he put a pope in the inferno (hell), in “the Divine Comedy”. Centuries later, however, the Roman papacy overlooked this and officially recognized the Sommo Poeta (the Supreme Poet) as its own, declaring:

Among the many celebrated geniuses of whom the Catholic faith can boast who have left undying fruits in literature and art especially, besides other fields of learning, and to whom civilization and religion are ever in debt, highest stands the name of Dante Alighieri…”

(In praeclara summorum: Encyclical of Pope Benedict XV on Dante. The Holy See (Apr. 30, 1921).

Why was Alighieri Put to Trial?

A plaque on the house where Alighieri was born in Florence, photo by Dante Figueroa (1997).

A plaque on the house where Alighieri was born in Florence, photo by Dante Figueroa (1997).

In 14th century Florence, there were two main political movements, which pivoted more or less according to their loyalty to the Roman pontiff, and competed for control of the city’s politics. On the one hand, the Ghibellines sought a more independent, distant relationship from the papacy and favored the Empire; and on the other, the Guelfs carried the banner of papal influence in the city of Florence.

The Guelfs were further divided between the Black and the White Guelfs (Bianchi e Neri) (Dante condannato all’esilio da Firenze (Dante Condemned to Exile from Florence), and I segreti di firenze: un viaggio nei misteri (The Secrets of Florence: A Travel in Mistery (2012)).  The White Guelfs were closer to the Empire, while the Black Guelfs to the papacy. Alighieri was a White Guelf, as his political convictions rested in his firm belief that Florence was and had to remain an independent Italian city-state. (Mondi.It.).

In 1298 Pope Boniface VIII (Pope Boniface VIII, New Advent) sent his Cardinal D’Acquasparta to resolve the political turmoil in Florence. While the Cardinal attended the Festival of St. John, a random arrow almost killed him. At that point, the Black Guelfs pinned the responsibility for the criminal act on the White Guelfs and on the powerful Florentine Guelf Donati family. Pope Boniface VIII excommunicated the whole city of Florence, a measure which had heavy commercial consequences on that city. Later, Boniface VIII sent Charles of Valois, brother of the French King Phillip IV with a military expedition to bring the city under French and papal rule. Florence responded by sending ambassadors to Rome to confer with the pope. Alighieri was one of these ambassadors.

Then in November 1301 the Black Guelfs seized power through a coup d’état (Dante on Trial, NY Review of Books (Feb. 19, 2015), pp. 36-37), supported by Charles of Valois (Mondi.It, Id.). Once in power, among other measures, the Black Guelfs condemned the heads of the White Guelfs and the Donati family to exile.  They also accused Alighieri of antagonism against the pope and Charles of Valois, and of embezzlement during the two months when he served as prior (highest authority) of the city of Florence in the year 1300.

On January 27, 1302, while he was still in Rome, a Florentine citizens’ tribunal found Alighieri guilty of corruption, extortion, and misuse of public funds. He was then condemned to pay a large fine within three days under the penalty of confiscation of his property. In addition, Alighieri was sentenced to two years of exile (Mondi.It.). Due to his repeated refusal to appear before the tribunal, however, he was finally condemned in absentia with the confiscation of his property and permanent exile. If he was to return to Florence, he would be burned at the stake (La Reppublica.it).

Alighieri was prosecuted per inquisitionem, that is, by a court motu proprio –on its own initiative— after “public reports” about his alleged crimes had “reached the ears and notice of the court.” (Dante on Trial, NY Review of Books, id.).

The text of the sentence issued by the citizens’ tribunal stated that:

Alighieri, Dante is convicted for public corruption, fraud, falsehood, fraud, malice, unfair extortion practices, illegal proceeds, pederasty, and is sentenced to a fine of 5000 florins, perpetual disqualification from public office, permanent exile (in absentia), and if detained, condemned to die at the stake, so he dies.

(Dante Condemned to Exile from Florence, Mondi.It).

The sentence condemning Alighieri to exile can be found in the Il Libro (Book) of Chiodo, currently preserved in the Florence State Archive (Il Libro del Chiodo, Archivio di Stato di Firenze) (Mondi.It.).

The Symbolic Importance of the 2008 Decree to Rehabilitate Alighieri

In June 12, 2008 two councilmembers of the City Council of Florence presented Motion No. 319 “[i]nviting the Mayor to promote a full public rehabilitation of Dante Alighieri, formally revoking his conviction passed in the year 1302.” (Città di Firenze, Banca dati video del Consiglio Comunale di Firenze (completa), City of Florence, Video Database of the City Council of Florence). The motion sought to obtain a formal declaration by the Florentine civitas (people), revoking Alighieri’s condemnation, in the same Palace (Palazzo Vecchio, Museums of Florence) where seven centuries earlier the Florentine people had issued an edict of expulsion that removed the poet forever from his native city.

True, the decision by the city council of Florence in 2008 to rehabilitate Alighieri cannot restore him to life or give him back his property or eliminate the affronts to his honor. In my view, however, the decision restores the reputation of one of humanity’s greatest poets who had been convicted unjustly for political reasons.

The Library of Congress collections contain several items related to his life and his exile, including:

2 Comments

  1. tom
    April 13, 2016 at 11:23 am

    one of the first dc-10airplanes of alitalia was name ” dante alighieri”

  2. James Sager
    April 14, 2016 at 10:50 am

    Toda raba, Ms. Levush. I used to work in the Law Library Control Room down in the subbasement when you first came in the 1980’s. I love Dante, esp. La Vita Nuova. Political intrigue is nothing new, I work for DC Government, in the office of the Attorney General. Something about justice delayed makes it sweeter, like the scent of myrrh from an ancient tomb mixing with cherry blossoms on a breezy Spring day.

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