Thursday, June 09, 2016

Death in Florence - Paradiso 16

The history of Florence before and after Dante is so rich and fraught with conflicts, treacheries and a wide cast of players as to make it hard to keep even the general outlines clear. 

A helpful (and well written) summary can be found in the first chapter of R.W.B. Lewis's Dante: A Lifepublished years ago in the New York Times (the text might be marred by some coding, but it's worth it)

Lewis's chapter is here, and begins with Cacciaguida:
As you walk across the Ponte Vecchio in Florence today, you come upon a plaque bearing a passage from Dante's Divine Comedy. The lines are spoken by Dante's ancestor Cacciaguida, whom the poet encounters in one of the higher spheres of heaven, among the warrior saints. They reflect grimly on an event that took place on that very spot in 1216, almost fifty years before Dante's birth, and plunged the city into decades of turmoil. The event was the murder of Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti . . . more . . ..
We last encountered Buondelmonte lying dead at the feet of "the mutilated stone that guards the bridge" - the ancient statue of Mars. Cacciaguida's depiction of early Florence climaxes in the tale of the failed attempt to unite two feuding families, the Amidei and the Donati, through marriage. An alliance with the daughter of the Amidei would have forged a bond of common interest between them. All Buondelmonte had to do was to accept the daughter and dowry offered. Instead he chose another bride from the wealthier Donati. 

Remembering an earlier time, Cacciaguida spoke of dowries before they had transformed brides into commodities:
Non faceva, nascendo, ancor paura
la figlia al padre, ché 'l tempo e la dote
non fuggien quinci e quindi la misura.

Not yet the daughter at her birth struck fear
Into the father, for the time and dower
Did not o'errun this side or that the measure.
(Par. 15.103-05)
As a direct result of his open betrayal of his troth, Buondelmonte was struck as he came from his wedding. He was knocked from his horse, then stabbed to death in front of his new bride. 

Some nine decades later, the city is ruled and roiled by the irrepressible Corso Donati, fomenting faction at every turn.

In Paradiso 17, Dante will learn of his own exile, of "how hard is the way going down and up another man's stairs." The key figure behind his exile and expropriation was Corso, a relation through Dante's marriage to Gemma Donati, and the swashbuckling head of the black Guelfs, who opposed the Whites, headed by the Cerchi.

Corso married the daughter of a wealthy Ghibelline, which enraged many who had supported him. Eventually the citizens forced Corso to flee the city; he was soon captured nearby. While being led back to Florence, Corso fell or threw himself from his horse, whereupon a captor lanced him to death.

Death of Corso Donati
Dante must have pondered the striking resemblances between the fates of these two men. Both Buondelmonte and Corso chose wealthy brides, not modest maids. Their choices unhorsed them. In Cacciaguida's story, Florence itself had once been a modest maid, but now is festooned with jewelry, make-up, and dress. And the old man compares Dante to Hippolytus, exiled from his native city by a lie, dragged to his death by frightened horses.  (Dante turns out to be less Euripides' tragic Hippolytus than Ovid's, who returns from Hades to live a new life in Italy.)

Buondelmonte's death at the bridge divided the city into the factions which then first were called Guelfs and Ghibellines. Corso's death ended the contention between the city's Whites and Blacks. In both cases, Florentine blood was spilled by Florentines. 

The fates of these two men, almost a century apart, are uncannily alike -- almost as if one fate. They are root and branch of the same "seed plot." It's like an opera or Greek myth, not devised by literary artifice, but given by the history of Florence. From the same plot, but a different seed, Dante will be cut off from his city, but not from his "root." He'll complete his solar journey thanks to the clear oracles of Cacciaguida. 

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