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where is the difficulty of believing that a creature of superior beauty and excellence, who in her life-time inspired Dante with so deep a passion, should, at her death, have prompted him to view her, clothed with angelic brightness, and exalted to the mansions of heaven?
From this time Beatrice is transformed into a purely ideal Being, and becomes not only the guardian Angel of Dante, but in his poem assumes a most exalted character as the personification of Heavenly Wisdom. Henceforth she is a theme on which the Poet descants in descriptions of endless variety and beauty.* And worthy of the “Beauty of Holiness” are the divine lays in which Dante has enshrined his sainted Beatrice; thus holding with her an uninterrupted intercourse, and soaring on the wings of poetry and devotion to the highest realms of bliss and glory.
His gratitude to her for descending to his assistance he thus pours forth :
“ O Lady, upon whom my hopes are placed,
And who to work out my security,
Hast left Hell's precincts with thy footsteps traced-
My gratitude and praise are due to thee,
By whom have grace and power accorded been:
By every art and mode that could be tried,
Didst win the freedom that I cherish now.
So that my soul, which thou hast purified,
Paradiso, xxxi. 79.
* See Par. xviii, 16, &c.; xxvji.91; xxx. 19.
The factions of the Guelfs and Ghibellines had long distracted Italy—the former, partisans of the Pope—the latter, of the Emperors, to whom, as heirs of the Cæsars, Italy belonged ; and whose right had been acknowledged, till the Pope, enriched by the gifts of succeeding Emperors, set himself in opposition to them, and assumed a temporal as well as a spiritual dominion.
By birth Dante was a Guelf, and to this party he had hitherto been attached ;-attaining such reputation as a Statesman, that he was employed on several embassies, and looked up to for advice in all emergencies. When he was thirty-five years of age, and acting as one of the Priors or chief magistrates of Florence in the year 1300, the Guelfs quarrelled among themselves, and divided into the factions of the Neri and Bianchi.
The Bianchi being in some measure inclined to the Ghibellines, ancient animosities were revived with increased fury, and the two parties soon came to blows. By the advice of Dante, whose impartiality and disregard for all private feelings were remarkably evinced in this crisis, the leaders of both parties were banished. Another set of Magistrates, however, shortly coming into office, recalled the Bianchi; when the Neri had recourse to Pope Boniface VIII., who was well pleased to embrace any opportunity of restoring the ascendancy of the Guelfs.
At the instigation of Boniface, Charles of Valois, brother to the King of France, undertook an expedition against Florence. Making the most solemn promises to the Republic that he would act as a mediator only, he was admitted into the city. By flattery and deceit he cajoled both parties, till he had acquired power ; and then threw the leaders of the Bianchi into prison, and permitted the Neri, who returned with him, to commit the most atrocious outrages. Houses were pillaged to gratify the avarice of Charles; and sentence of exile and confiscation passed on 600 citizens. Among these was Dante, who having excited the hostility of Pope Boniface by resisting the introduction of foreigners into Florence, and being at this time on an embassy to Rome, fell a victim to the machinations of his enemy. Thus he suddenly found himself a banished man, condemned to be burnt to death, and without even the power of returning to bid a last adieu to his family.
Driven from his country, Dante was now necessarily thrown among the Bianchi who were exiled at the same time with himself, and induced to side with a party composed chiefly of the Ghibellines, to whom he had been for the greater part of his life opposed. And hence arises the monstrous injustice which Dante's Biographers have successively been guilty of, in calling him the fierce Ghibelline, and the vindictive assailant of the Guelfs. As a true patriot, he had exposed himself to the enmity of his former friends. But, if in supporting the Bianchi he supported the Ghibellines, to brand him as a violent and revengeful partizan is the greatest of calumnies. Not only does he observe the strictest impartiality, as in passing through the several circles of Hell he assigns to each individual his deserved station, without respect to party, and according to the character of their crimes, but even treats Pope Boniface, his bitterest foe, in his spiritual capacity, with extreme respect.* If, on the one hand, he condemns his avarice, so far as to call him an Usurper,” and to declare that in the eyes of the Almighty, the Papal chair was actually “ vacant--on the other, he rebukes, in the strongest terms Philip le Bel for the indignities he offered to Boniface, and even avows that in the person of his Vicar, our Saviour had been crucified a second time.* Such a confession, on behalf of one who caused his exile, savours little of that spleen and indulgence of personal feeling which have been attributed to Dante. His indignation against Boniface, as the scandal of Christendom, and the destroyer of the liberties of his country, he pours forth without measure. But this he does, not as the disappointed member of a faction, but as a sincere Christian, and ardent patriot. Guelfs and Ghibellines he condemns alike-the former for opposing the Emperors, whom he supported as heirs of the Cæsars, and for want of any domestic Sovereign,—the latter, for siding with the Emperors, merely to promote their party interests, and without caring for the “ sacred standard," round which he wished to rally the whole nation.t As for the Ghibellines, he scruples not to declare his utter 'contempt for them in that well known passage, where describing the miseries of his exile, he denounces them as the “ foul and senseless company," with whom he was for awhile condemned to associate.
* Purg. xx. 88.
+ Par. xxvii. 23.
“ 'Tis thine to part from all thou lovest best -
From all most cherish'd:-Exile's bow shall send
This self-same arrow first, to pierce thy breast. 'Tis thine to prove what bitter savour bears
The bread of others; and how hard to wend
Upward and downward by another's stairs.
Shall be the foul and senseless company
* Purg. xx. 88.
+ Par, vi. 31-35, and 97—109.
For most ungrateful, loathsome, impious—all
Shall set themselves against thee; but full nigh
Paradiso xvii. 55. And he proceeds to tell us that he gloried in being a party by himself+-i.e. that he was neither a Guelf nor a Ghibelline, but a true Italian, anxious to reconcile the contending factions, and to hoist the national standard, for the purpose of uniting the various States of Italy under one Monarch, and thus defeating the selfish intrigues of the Pope, whose policy it was to acquire power by the dissensions he created.
Quitting his unworthy associates, after a vain attempt to re-enter Florence by force of arms, Dante had recourse to his pen, with the view of showing his countrymen how party strife and Papal misgovernment, had corrupted and degraded Italy.t Hence he conceived the idea of a poem, which, representing this world under an allegory of the next, should enable him to unfold the corruptions of the Church, and the venality of its Pastors. And he has executed his design with wonderful skill and impartiality,-looking forward, as he says, to posterity for his due reward:
“ But if the truth I timidly unfold,
I fear to die in the esteem of those
Paradiso, xvii. 119. To that love of justice which prompted him to punish the heads of both factions to that unbending spirit which would not permit him to become subservient to the traitorous designs of his friends, Dante owed his misfortunes. But
*“Si ch'a te fia bello averti fatta parte per te stesso."- Par. xvii. 68.
+ Purg. vi. 76 to end; xvi. passim.