Dante: A bone to pick

I’ve often make my feelings about Dante Alighieri known. After being forced to study the Devine Comedy …. repeatedly I have no great love for the man. Its not just the post-traumatic stress that having my classics teacher bellow “but what did he REALLY mean” a hundred times a lecture for two years has induced. I genuinely found the trilogy extremely politically driven, with name dropping enemies of the current power and describing at length the punishment for their sins. Whilst this almost certainly gives us an insight into the author and the social and political environment in which he was writing. I don’t see how it qualifies as the “the most important work of medieval literature”. I found La Vita Nuova, another work by Alighieri, to have far more depth and tone. The themes feel more sincere and as an exploration of courtly love it feels far more personal.

However giving me a reason to amateurishly critique his epic poetry wasn’t the only thing Dante did with his life. He was a statesman in what, for the time period, is my favourite city(-state) on earth, Florence. There were conflicts between ruling houses, as well as ideological divides between those supporting the pope and those who wanted religious independence from Rome. This was two hundred years before Henry VIII was even born. Florence was described as a “festering pit, removed from the light of God and run by bankers”. However what we can see with hindsight is, walking those streets at roughly the same time were Lorenzo ‘il Magnifico’ de Medici, Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci, so it clearly had something going on. The Mediterranean’s greatest minds converged in one place and flourished, likely due to its “hedonistic” liberalism. You could do pretty much anything you liked with anyone you like as long as you paid your taxes. In a Europe getting deeper and deeper into control by the medieval catholic church this concept was huge and liberating.

That being said, as a politician in a city run by bankers, our boy Dante appears to have misappropriated some public funds and was sentenced to exile, should he return before paying off an impossible fine then they would be using him for a bonfire. This on top of all of his assets in Florence being seized.

Side Note: This seems like a really good way of managing tax dodgers. Rather than the current system of “we will issue a fine that is only a fraction of the tax you’ve neglected to pay and call it quits”. I like the idea of take all their assets and then issue a fine on top of that which they will have to pay(along with tax) on any future earnings.

So Dante heads to spend the remainder of his exile, and ultimately his life in Ravenna. This is where he starts writing, extraordinarily industriously. In only eleven years he wrote at least four works that are still considered masterpieces (by everyone except me), over seven hundred years later. He developed a fair amount of fame for these works during his life but just like the renaissance-era Kurt Cobain that he had consistently proven to be, his popularity exploded after his death.

This is where my interest in Dantes story begins…. not just because hes dead although it doesn’t considerably improve my disposition towards him. The great poets work was written in a time when most people couldn’t read. This was pretty universal in Europe. However in England this just meant that the majority of published works were written by the church, priests had a secondary role as notaries and scribes given literacy was a necessary part of their role. However in Italy during the renaissance anyone who could afford to be literate was expected to be. This meant that Dante had a very wealthy fanbase. Dantes hometown of Florence suddenly became very interested in where he should be interred.

I have heard a lot of differing stories on what happened next. What I am relaying here has no more or less chance of being the true story as any other that I have heard as it is backed up with some contemporary accounts.

Florence petitioned Ravenna, which it should be noted was a papal state, for the return of Dantes remains so that he could be properly interred in the city he loved. After many requests the Pope himself agreed to the return of Dantes remains to Florence and a sealed casket was delivered. Now it is REALLY bad form to open a casket however a number of Florentine officials were suspicious of the sudden ease with which their request was granted, so they cracked open the box to find a couple of bags of sand. They couldn’t accuse Ravenna of cheating them because that would mean admitting they had opened the casket. At which point one of the more practical minded of Florence’s leaders pointed out something like “we have the Popes guarantee what is in this box is Dante, we could bury it in a nice shiny tomb with that assurance and still get the profit from housing the remains of the great poet, the monks who cheated us will never tell anyone because that would tell the world the pope lied”. At which point, grinning from ear to ear, they buried the box of sand in Dantes tomb in Florence, whilst his remains appear to have been secreted into a false wall in a monastery in Ravenna.

In reading around this I became aware that the City of Florence, in 2008, formally apologised for exiling Dante. This gave me a headache. They obviously didn’t pardon or exonerate him …. because that would likely mean some descendant of Dantes is getting those seized assets back, with interest. But it does feed into the very twenty-first century mentality that its ok to fiddle your taxes as long as you are famous.

I have slammed Dante pretty hard here…. and in every conversation about him for the full thirty-four years of my life. This is unlikely to change however I should probably describe at least my issues with the divine comedy here. I’m only going to describe Inferno here because all of the themes are pretty constant throughout the rest of the comedy.

As described above Dante got kicked out of his hometown and in my opinion the Divine Comedy is just him whining about that. He places himself at the centre of the narrative with one of his heroes, Virgil. If he had written this today we would call it fan fiction. Virgil then takes him on a tour of hell to show him how all the people who were ever mean to him are suffering. This reads like some angsty teenage misery porn. He does name drop a few dozen famous figures from history throughout the three books all of whom are awed to be in the presence of Dante.

Before they get too far they bump into some of histories most famous poets. Titans of the oral and poetic traditions like Homer and Ovid, all of whom know Dante and they spend some time hanging out and talking about how cool Dante is.

I also have no idea what the fuck Dantes issue was with the Greeks but it turns out every Classical Greek hero has been consigned to hell. He has also co-opted a lot of their Chthonic geography. Please bare in mind that Dante is painting himself as the most pious of Catholics he exchanges banter with the stygian ferryman (who is ferrying souls over the Acheron and neglects his fundamental duty given that he gives passage to Dante who is very much not dead. Don’t worry the styx does make an appearance later. However the Greek God Plutus is occupying a comparatively menial position of passport control administrator in the fourth circle.

Later in the seventh circle a load of demons are being mean to Dante so an angel appears to make them stop because Dante is wise and noble and handsome. Again burying the first book in this work in a fan-fiction vibe.

Before leaving the Inferno and into the second book I should stress for a poem called “Inferno” very little we see is on fire. In fact its mostly ice and rain. I am unsure if this is Dantes attempt at irony, if it is then I don’t get it.

Side Note: If it hasn’t been obvious from my complete irreverence I am not a particularly religious person however theology, particularly comparative theology has always fascinated me. In particular the transition from the image of hell being a cold desolate place “bereft of Gods love” to the fire and brimstone image we are all familiar with today. I wonder now how much Dante may have had to do with solidifying the newer flamey construct of hell.

I appreciate this was meant to be a post about how Dantes bones got used as political poker chips post-mortem however I have found airing my issues with what apparently is one of histories greatest works extremely cathartic.

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