Thursday, May 26, 2016

Paradiso 16: Some help from John S. Carroll

The dense texture of Florentine family names in Paradiso 16 is truly a thick wood, yet there are traces in it of an argument developed by Cacciaguida that has larger implications. Here's one particularly thorny passage, followed by a comment found among the Dartmouth commentaries.
Had not the folk, which most of all the world
Degenerates, been a step-dame unto Caesar,
But as a mother to her son benignant,
Some who turn Florentines, and trade and discount,
Would have gone back again to Simifonte
There where their grandsires went about as beggars
At Montemurlo still would be the Counts,
The Cerchi in the parish of Acone,
Perhaps in Valdigrieve the Buondelmonti.
Ever the intermingling of the people
Has been the source of malady in cities,
As in the body food it surfeits on;
And a blind bull more headlong plunges down
Than a blind lamb; and very often cuts
Better and more a single sword than five. (16.58-72)

Robert Hollander helpfully points to the Expositions by John S. Carroll on this passage from Paradiso 16. Carroll adduces several other sources, including Villani, Villari, and John Richard Green:


It is to this 'confusion of persons' – this contamination of a pure citizenship by the introduction of inferior blood from the surrounding country , . . .  that Cacciaguida traces the evil that had befallen the city, and the blame of this he lays upon the Church, 'the people that on earth degenerates most.' Had the Church acted the part of a mother instead of a stepmother to Caesar, there had been no need for the Cerchi, the Buondelmonti, and others to have been brought within the city walls [Par. xvi. 58-66]. 

It is not known who was the incomer from Simifonti, now a Florentine banker and merchant, but whose grandfather went round begging in his native village. Simifonti is in the Val d'Elsa. For the taking and destruction by the Florentines in 1202, see Villani, Chron. v. 30; Villari, Flor. History, 163-166

The Cerchi came from Acone, a village near Florence whose exact stituation is uncertain. They rapidly became one of the richest families, lived in grand style, yet remained rustic and uncultured in manners: Villani calls them 'luxurious, inoffensive, uncultured and ungracious, like folk come in a short time to great estate and power' (viii. 39). As the leaders of the White Guelphs, Dante calls that party la parte selvaggia (Inf. vi. 65), the savage, rustic, boorish party. For the futher reference to them in the present Canto (94-99) see note* [below]. 

The Montemurlo of l. 64 was a castle near Pistoja, which the Conti Guidi were forced to sell to Florence because they were not able to hold it against the Pistojans. See Villani, v. 31]. To understand this, we must remember that the strife in Florence sprang from the existence within her of two races. Villani and Dante alike trace the origin of this difference to the conquest of Fiesole by Florence, and the consequent mingling of the two peoples. According to Villani, 'the Florentines are to-day descended from two peoples so diverse in manners, and who ever of old had been enemies, as the Roman people and the people of Fiesole; and this we can see by true experience, and by the divers changes and parties and factions which, after the said two people had been united into one, came to pass in Florence from time to time' [Chronicle, iv. 7. See also i. 38]. In the denunciation of the Florentines which Dante puts into the mouth of Brunetto Latini, the same view is taken of the contrast between
'That ungrateful and malignant people
Which of old time from Fiesole descended,
And smacks still of the mountain and the granite,'
[Inf. xv. 61-78.]

and 'the holy seed of the Romans,' from which the poet undoubtedly believed himself descended. Even if we put aside much of this as legendary, it remains true, as Prof. Villari says, that 'the diversity between the Germanic strain in the nobility and the Latin blood of the people, really constituted a strong element of discord.... Its whole territory bristled with the castles of feudal barons of Germanic descent, all hostile to Florence, and many of whom, safely ensconced on the neighbouring hill of Fiesole, were always ready to swoop down on Florentine soil' [The First Two Centuries of Florentine History, p. 73 (Eng. transl.) – an invaluable book for the understanding of the ever-changing factions of early Florence]. 

As the commerce of the city grew, it became necessary to make the roads safe for traffic, and the only way of doing this seemed to be by compelling the robber-barons to come inside the city-walls. But, as Green says, 
'it was equally perilous for an Italian town to leave its nobles without the walls or to force them to reside within. In their own robber-holds or their own country estates they were a scourge to the trader whose wains rolled temptingly past their walls.  

Florence, like its fellow Italian States, was driven to the demolition of the feudal castles, and to enforcing the residence of their lords within its own civic bounds. But the danger was only brought nearer home. Excluded by civic jealousy, wise or unwise, from all share in municipal government, their huge palazzi rose like fortresses in every quarter of the city. Within them lay the noble, a wild beast all the fiercer for his confinement in so narrow a den, with the old tastes, hatreds, preferences utterly unchanged, at feud as of old with his fellow-nobles, knit to them only by a common scorn of the burghers and the burgher life around them, stung to madness by his exclusion from all rule in the commonwealth, bitter, revengeful, with the wilfulness of a child, shameless, false, unprincipled' [John Richard Green, Stray Studies from England and Italy, p. 162]. 

And this terrible state of things Dante traced to the Papacy. Had the Church given the temporal power to Caesar as it ought to have done, the Emperor, in Dante's belief, would have proved strong enough to have brought the territorial nobles under the restraint of law, and thus have obviated the necessity to which the cities were reduced of adding a new and dangerous element of discord to those already existing within their walls. (emphasis added)

*Note on the Cerchi: 

ll. 94-99 refer to the Cerchi (see note {in comm. to vv. 58- 66}). Their houses were above the Porta San Piero, and had been acquired by this wealthy family from the Conti Guidi, who sprang from the ancient house of the Ravignani, the head of which was the Bellincion Berti of Par. xv. 112. The fellonia or treason charged against the Cerchi seems to be their failure as leaders of the Whites to defend the city against the Blacks in Nov. 1301. Dino Compagni says 'their hearts failed them through cowardice': the Priors gave them orders to prepare for defence and urged them 'to play the man.' But 'from avarice' they refused to pay the hired troops, made practically no preparations, and so handed over the city to six terrible days of outrage and pillage. The exile of the Whites which followed is the 'lightening of the barque' to which Dante refers in l. 96. For a full account of this disastrous struggle between the Bianchi and the Neri, see Dino Compagni's Chronicle, Bk. II. and Villani's, viii. 38-49.

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