A Very Florentine Problem - Ending Dante's Exile

| Tue, 07/29/2008 - 07:08

Florence is certainly not a city short on important historical figures. From the Medici to Machiavelli and from Michelangelo to Da Vinci, few places in Europe can compete with Florence when it comes to name dropping. It is perhaps the fault of this long and distinguished history that some historical figures still receive a rather severe treatment even centuries after their death.

Just recently two Florentine city councillors, Massimo Pieri and Enrico Bosi, tabled a motion to 'rehabilitate' Dante Alighieri, Italy's most famous poet whose "Divine Comedy" is one of the great works of world literature. The city council approved the motion on June 16th, calling on the mayor to organise ''a public rehabilitation'' of the author, but the process was not without controversy and the heir of Dante is now refusing to attend the rehabilitation ceremony.

Dante was exiled from Florence after ending up on the loosing side of the battle between the White and Black Guelphs. Following a comprehensive victory of the Black Guelphs Dante was condemned to exile for two years, and ordered to pay a large fine. He did not pay the fine, in part because he believed he was not guilty, and in part because all his assets in Florence had been seized by the Black Guelphs. He was, therefore, condemned to perpetual exile, and if he returned to Florence without paying the fine, he could be burned at the stake.

Dante never managed to go back to Florence, even when his sentence of death was reduced to house arrest and the last canto of the Divine Comedy, Paradiso, refers to the plight of exiles.

Centuries later, the 'rehabilitation' of Dante was meant to be a largely symbolic action, that was expected to cause little controversy. The Florence of 2008, however, still retains some of the political intrigue of the Florence of medieval and renaissance times, as latter-day Guelphs and Ghibellines fought it out across one more barricade.

Historians say the sentence, based on charges of fraud, perjury and extortion, was trumped up by the enemies of the poet, who was very active in the politics of his day.

Presenting the motion, centre-right politicians called it ''a decisive step towards Dante's complete rehabilitation''.

Opposing it, leftwing councillors called it a ''stunt'' and argued that Dante's ''sublime poetic dimension'' was ''intimately linked'' to his suffering in exile and his portrayal of former rivals.

The last heir of Dante, Count Pieralvise Serego Alighieri, is now refusing to attend the formal ceremony planned for later this summer. Serego Alighieri was to have been awarded the city's highest honour, the Golden Florin, as a sign of its regret for forcing Dante into exile for the rest of his life.

Pieri and Bosi called on the aristocrat to ignore some of the ''silly'' things opponents of the motion said when it was passed by majority vote in June. ''I hope the count reconsiders because the motion was, after all, approved and it is an expression of the city council's will,'' said Pieri. Bosi said an allegation that the count was trying to use the occasion to publicise the wine he makes was ''beneath contempt''.

Serego Alighieri is the leading member of the 20th generation of Dante's descendants. He runs a Valpolicella vineyard near Verona which was originally bought by the poet's son Pietro in 1353.

In an interview with the Corriere della Sera daily Monday, Serego Alighieri explained he had decided to pull out because of ''petty polemics''.

''When I read about the council session I realised it wouldn't be a heartfelt, collective 'mea culpa' at all,'' the count was quoted as saying.

''My heart sank when I read certain remarks from the Communist and Green councillors who voted against the motion.

''One argued that the event should be used to celebrate all the political exiles all over the world as well as immigrants and the power of their ideas against dictatorial regimes.

''Another said the whole thing was just a publicity stunt, another said the Florin should also be awarded to (witch-hunting monk Girolamo) Savanarola, and another said Dante's heirs didn't deserve to be called Alighieri,'' he said.

''It's as if the citizens of Stratford-on-Avon were squabbling over an event commemorating Shakespeare,'' the Corriere said.

Dante spent the last 19 years of his life in exile, dying in Ravenna in 1321.

He had just finished the last canto of the Divine Comedy, Paradiso, which contains the famous couplet:

''tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta piu' caramente

tu proverai si' come sa di sale lo pane altrui''

('You will leave all the things you have most dearly loved/You will see how the bread of others tastes of salt')

The Ravenna monks who guard Dante's ashes have refused several pleas from Florence to return the poet's remains.

Dante's tomb in the northeastern Italian city is a big tourist draw, rivalling the lure of its Byzantine mosaics.

Florence has had to be content with an empty tomb in the Santa Croce church, built in the early 19th century, which some tourists think is the real thing.