Written by: Joshua Al-Najar.
On a preliminary reading, Dante Alighieri’s Inferno seems entirely unconcerned with political realities. Its setting is a fantastical reimagining of hell, imbued with mythological creatures and terrifying landscapes: an illusory space for Dante to contend with sin’s dramatic consequences. However, behind this veneer is a deeply incisive reflection on reality, as Dante seamlessly blends his own political convictions with the Inferno’s plot. What emerges, is Dante’s intense distaste for factionalism and disdain for corruptive authorities. These views did not arise in a vacuum but were strongly shaped by Dante’s own political career and eventual banishment from his native Florence.
Much of the political subtext is centred around the Florentine Republic, which forms a model of the consequences which unbridled political infighting can bring. Dante relied on his own experience in the political institutions of Florence, having held numerous offices there prior to writing the Divine Comedy. The first explicit reference is provided by Ciacco, a Florentine, in Canto IV. Ciacco’s name is derived from the Tuscan for ‘pig’ and fits accordingly with his punishment in the circle reserved for gluttons – a thinly veiled critique at the city’s corruptive, gluttonous nature. In alluding to Florence’s gluttony, Dante sought to criticise the highly mercantile, money-driven mentality which he had characterised Florentine politics.
Though Dante had been involved in these political institutions, his disapproval of the city’s character is an ongoing thread throughout the Inferno. Dante’s journey through the Divine Commedia elevates his intellectual and spiritual standing, though this is notably whilst he is absent from Florence. For him, the civil strife and decayed moral standards of the city prevented the development of his character – as such, separation from such a place allowed him to make this process “his own”. Achieving intellectual truth was a key in attaining spiritual salvation, and Dante had achieved this truth away from Florence and its chaos.
Ciacco later compounds this vision of Florence by claiming ‘pride, envy and avarice are the three sparks that inflamed the hearts of Florentines’ (Inf. IV, 12-14). From the offset, he conjures an image of a city that is inherently bound to jealousy and infighting, referring to it as ‘your city, which is so full of envy’ (Inf. IV, 45-46). By constructing this version of Florence, Dante uses his encounter with Ciacco as a means to criticise the series of civil conflicts which ravaged the city in the preceding century. He unambiguously concentrates on two periods in particular: the drawn-out struggle between the Ghibelline and Guelf sects of the 13th century, and the inter-partisan conflict. Dante pushes Ciacco, by asking whether some of the famous Ghibelline and Guelf leaders from the city’s history were damned, or not:
Tegghaio, Farinata – men of rank – Mosca, Arrigo, Rusticucci, too,
and others with their minds on noble deeds,
tell me, so I may know them, where are they?
For I am gripped by the great desire, to tell,
if heaven holds them sweet – or poisonous hell. (Inf. VI, 79-84).
In asking such a question, Dante radically challenges Florence’s collective memory of these individuals. He prompts a revaluation of Florence’s past heroes; for much of the city’s populace, the dramatic departure of the Ghibellines in 1471 was highly formative for Florence’s identity. To many, it represented the triumph over tyranny, and its leaders were reimagined as liberators. Ciacco defies this conclusion with his response:
These dwell among the blackest souls, loaded down deep by sins of differing types. If you sink far enough, you’ll see them all. (Inf. VI, 85-87).
Here, the Inferno depicts the Ghibelline and Guelf figures as eternally damned. For Dante, their damnation had been earned by the violence and political instability that these forces had unleashed upon Florence throughout the 13th century. Their heroic status had gone unchallenged by the body politic, as the turmoil had been legitimised by a mask of patriotic fervour. Yet Dante confronts this position, and in doing so, undoes generations of societal education.
Dante’s recurrent critique of factionalism is deeply informed by his exile from Florence. Ciacco prophesises the resurgence of civil disorder of 1300-2, in which the violence between the warring black and white Guelfs reached a bloody pinnacle: the return of the banished black Guelfs with papal assistance, and mass expatriation of white Guelfs. Florence’s political institutions had been deeply fractured, and Dante became a direct victim of the sheer instability this system incurred. He was exiled in 1302, alongside numerous other politically active Florentines. The Inferno – having been begun shortly after this – is wrought with contempt for the instability that Dante saw as inherent to such a politically divided city. Dante’s decision to place the Guelf and Ghibelline leaders in hell is a clear statement that, despite any quasi-heroic status, the civil discord that these individuals had spread had negatively impacted Florence’s citizenry, such as him.
Further into the Inferno’s narrative, Dante relates disapproval of the elite classes to his native Florence. In Canto X, Dante encounters Farinata Degli Ulberti, an aristocratic Florentine who had championed the Ghibelline cause in the mid-thirteenth century. Initially Farinata’s portrayal could be considered relatively positive. Upon recognising Dante as a fellow Tuscan, Farinata engages in sombre reflection of Florence’s violence:
You must be a native of that noble fatherland,
to which I perhaps did too much harm. (Inf. X, 12-13).
Farinata’s ruminations are profound. His reference to a ‘noble fatherland’ demonstrates his patriotism and enduring loyalty to the nobil patria. He remorsefully re-examines his own role in the Ghibelline conflicts by pondering whether the violence unleashed at Montaperti had been detrimental. For a moment, Dante allows the damned Farinata a measure of solemn nobility; his careful, considered reproach of his own actions is a momentary pause in Dante’s criticism. However, it is short-lived.
Moments later, the situation is reversed, as Farinata becomes a mouthpiece for aristocratic factionalism. He begins by asking Dante about his heritage, and upon discovering the poet’s Guelf ancestry his entire demeanour shifts:
As soon as I was at the foot of his tomb
somewhat he eyed me, and, as if disdainful,
then asked of me, “Who were thine ancestors?”
I, who desirous of obeying was,
concealed it not, but all revealed to him;
whereat he raised his brows a little upward.
Then he said: “fiercely adverse have they been
to me, and to my fathers, and to my party;
so that two several times I scattered them. (Inf. X, 40-49).
At Dante’s revelation, the cordial relations between the two are at an end. Suddenly, Farinata appears factional and divisive: gone are his saddened affections for the city of Florence. He represents the crux of the aristocratic folly for Dante; he is used to expose the fatal blindness of the Florentine elite in its excessive devotion to party and family at the expense of broader loyalties to the city and patria.
Upon discovering Dante’s allegiances, Farinata is cutting and self-congratulatory – he boasts of his own military success during the Ghibelline and Guelf conflict, alluding to battles in 1248 and 1260. Suddenly, those events, that had caused Farinata remorse, now bloat his pride. Dante chastises this violence, lamenting its ‘staining of the flowing Arbia red’ (Inf. X, 85-6).
Dante informs Farinata that his family were exiled from Florence following his death, in an effort to wound the general – as part of his punishment, Farinata is unable to see the present, in what is perhaps a jibe at the aristocracy’s blindness to their actions. Farinata begins to ponder whether eternal damnation is a lesser punishment compared to witnessing his family’s exile from their homeland. Yet again, we see the questionable judgement of the Florentine aristocracy emerge as Farinata places his family’s status within Florence above all other considerations. That he considers ‘this bed of pain’ (Inf. X, 77-8) to be of lesser torment than mere political exclusion is emblematic of the irrationality of the upper classes. He questions the legitimacy of the city’s popular government, and the validity of its decision to banish his family – a clear display of the elite’ disdain for popular movements.
However, Farinata also enacts a measure of revenge against Dante, by informing him of his eventual exile:
And yet no more than fifty times that face,
(the moon’s, who is our sovereign here) will shine
till you shall learn how heavy that art weighs (Inf. X, 79-81).
In a reciprocal act of animosity, Farinata reveals that soon Dante will experience the ‘art’ of exile. By displaying this series of insults and verbal injuries, Dante replicates the series of conflicts between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines in the 13th century. The pettiness and the futility of the discourse mirrors what Dante saw as the pointlessness of such conflict.
To him, the civil disorder that had been so inherent to Florentine politics had stifled social progress and hastened moral decay. This conclusion had been greatly informed by his own victimhood at the hands of a deeply factionalised city – something which earned the city’s immortalisation in the depths of Dante’s imagined hellscape.
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