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The Tragedy of Florence

Being in the Tuscan capital magnifies the lesson of Dante's Divine Comedy

I’m pleased to report that I finally found a power adapter that works with my laptop cord, so I’m back online. I’ve been anxious to write about what I saw and heard today.

My pal Casella and I walked to the Baptistery (where Dante and all the greats of medieval and Renaissance Florence were baptized) to meet Bill Stephany, a retired US professor and Dantist, in the Tuscan capital for the time being with his wife. Bill was kind enough to offer to give us a tour of the Dante sights in the city. Bill has been coming here for ages, usually with students, so he definitely knows his way around. Medieval Florence was one of the biggest cities in Europe, but it’s heart is small by modern standards; you can easily see the key Dante sites in a single morning. And we did (except for Santa Croce, to which we will go later).

One of the first places we stopped by was a building that was a medieval guild hall. Bill pointed out that for the Florentines of that era, a man who practiced his craft became a co-creator with God. Bill showed up reliefs on the building’s façade, each one celebrating a different craftsman. I better understood, then, why Dante was so harsh on usurers for being “violent against nature;” in this way of seeing things, the moneylender’s trade is unnatural.

We walked on and soon came to the house of the Guelph Cavalcante, whom you’ll remember sharing a tomb in Hell with his Ghibelline enemy Farinata degli Uberti (see our discussion of Inferno 10). “If this is where Cavalcante lived, I wonder where Farinata’s place was,” I said. Bill pointed just ahead, and led the way.

It was just up the street and around the corner — or would have been, if it were still there. After the Guelphs came back to power, they had the body of Farinata (who, recall, led the Ghibelline army in the Battle of Monteperti, in which they slaughtered 10,000 Florentine Guelphs and seized control of the city) exhumed, burned, and his ashes thrown in the Arno. Bill said they dismantled the Uberti family’s house and used the bricks to help build a city wall. And the city fathers passed a law forbidding anyone from building anything on that land, in perpetuity.

That property is still vacant, all these centuries later. It is now part of the Piazza della Signoria, next to which you’ll fine the Uffizi museum. “Think about it,” said Bill. “These men were literally neighbors in life, but even though they live in the same tomb, they won’t even recognize each other in death.”

On we walked toward the Ponte Vecchio, the old bridge, at the foot of which there occurred an infamous murder. It was Easter Sunday in the year 1215. Earlier, Buondelmonte, an arrogant young Ghibelline, had injured someone from the Amidei family, a powerful Ghibelline clan. It was decided that Buondelmonte could make reparation for his deed of dishonor if he married a young woman from the Amidei. On the day he was to ask for her hand in marriage, all gathered on the piazza for the event, but Buondelmonte passed by her, and instead asked for the hand of a Guelph girl. The Amidei swore revenge.

On Easter Sunday of that year, Buondelmonte crossed the Ponte Vecchio on horseback, coming into the city to be married later that day. Assassins from the Amidei and an allied family, the Lamberti, leaped out and murdered him in cold blood, almost at the doorstep of the Amidei family home. Do I even need to tell you that Buondelmonte’s family home was just around the corner from the Amidei? That murder set off the bloody Guelph-Ghibelline wars in Florence, which lasted for generations, and tore the city apart. Dante’s exile came almost 100 years later, as a result of the factional conflict. In the Commedia, Dante writes at length about how the fratricidal and communal hatred within families, between neighbors, and between political factions, destroyed so many lives and so much of the greatness of Florence. In Inferno 10, Dante makes the point that these men, Farinata and Cavalcante, who had been neighbors were so lost in their own worlds on earth that they couldn’t see anything they had in common. Both men were Epicureans, men who philosophically denied the afterlife, and who were therefore committed to believing that this world is all that exists. Consequently, they loved the things of this world unnaturally, to the point of destroying the peace of the city over their own passions.

The point Dante makes throughout the Commedia is that the Florentines had become so caught up in pursuing their individual, familiar, or partisan goods that they ceased to see the humanity of their fellow Florentines. Thus when one faction would fall from power, the rivals taking power would sometimes destroy the houses of the losers. It wasn’t enough for the Black Guelphs to take power in Dante’s Florence; they had to send White Guelphs like Dante into exile and seize their goods.

I knew this before I came to Florence, of course, but I don’t know that anything would have prepared me to understand the magnitude of Florence’s tragedy like coming here and seeing how intimate these associations were, and how physically close these families lived to each other. How could you do these things to someone you knew so well? They did. All of them did.

No one knows for sure where the Alighieri family home was (it’s almost certainly not the so-called Casa di Dante), but Bill says there’s a plausible theory that puts it behind the Donati family tower (Via Corso 31-33), backing up to a small courtyard called today the Piazza Donati. If this is true, then it means that as a boy, Dante Alighieri would have seen Corso, Forese, and Piccardà Donati, all of whom figure prominently in the Commedia, when they came out to play in what was their common backyard. The Portinari family’s tower was in the same street. Dante and Beatrice grew up around the corner from each other.

It’s that kind of place.

I am still a little shaken up by the intensity of all this. No wonder the later Dante, the exile who wrote the Commedia, was so prophetically harsh on factionalism within Florence, Tuscany, and all of Italy. He had seen what loving power, glory, wealth, and clan had done to people who were neighbors. To be here in Florence and to stand outside these places is to feel the pathos of the Commedia‘s moral message to a degree I hadn’t thought possible.

Love — love of God, and more importantly, love in and through God — is the only thing that could have held this place together, and restored lasting peace and unity. But they loved other goods more than the Good, and from those sins flowed an endless river of blood.

Casella and I are so grateful to Bill Stephany for his generosity this morning. His passion for Dante, and for Florence, were such a gift to us. I said to him, “Bill, my wife asked me the other day at what point one becomes saturated with Dante, and can’t take any more. What do you think?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never known it to happen to anyone.”

Bill Stephany, my Virgil today
Bill Stephany, my Virgil today


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