Page images
PDF
EPUB

BE 729/18

BIBLIOTHÈQUESH

Los Fontaines

INTRODUCTION.60 - CHANTILLY

DANTE ALIGHIERI, the great Patriarch of Modern Literature in Europe, was born at Florence in May, 1265, and lived in Florence until he had reached the age of thirty-one. He died in exile at Ravenna in his fifty-seventh year, on the 14th of September, 1321.

Five years before Dante's birth the Florentine Guelfs had suffered disastrous defeat in battle with the Ghibellines of Sienna and Pisa. Ghibellines who before had fled from Florence, including seventeen of the principal families of the town, then returned, and the chief families of the Guelfs, the lawyer Alighieri, Dante's father, among the number, in their turn departed into exile. But when Charles of Anjou came as the Pope's ally, the banished Guelfs of Florence, now taking a red lily for badge, were the first to join his standard. The Guelfs returned to Florence and made transient peace with the Ghibellines. As for the long habitual state of armed rivalry between noble and noble, it had led to the keeping of serragli or moveable barricades, that were set up when a street quarrel had bred tumult in the street occupied by nobles of a particular faction. These barricades were besieged and defenıled until nightfall, after which each side gathered its dead, and next day peacefully apportioned honours of the fight. And still, through all the violence of faction, the independent energies of her people, claiming part in the predominance of the Guelfs, kept pace with the commercial growth of Florence. The year of the Sicilian Vespers was the year of the Constitution that expressed the political mind of this Athens of the Middle Ages. By the Constitution of 1282, established when the poet Dante was among the youth of Florence, supreme power was given to the Priores, first three in number, afterwards six. The Priors held office only for two months, and elected their successors from among the rich and noble of the city. There was retained also the year-long magistracy of the Podesta, and that of the Captain of the People. But none of these magistrates could enact laws without the assent of the Parliament or Chief Council, while, even before a law reached this assembly, there was the Council of the Priors, to which the suggestions of the Priors had to be submitted ; there were also two Councils to assist the Captain of the People and deliberate on his suggestions; and there were two Councils to assist the Podesta. All these bodies debated in accord, ance with fixed Parliamentary forms, which forbade interruption of a speaker, but also limited the duration of debate. When a law proposed by the Priors or by the Captain of the People had passed the Council of the Priors or that of the Captain, it was required that it should pass also through the Councils of the Podesta before it was submitted to the General Parliament, formed by the union of all the lesser councils, with the Podesta for a President. Such was the spirit of liberty that lay at the roots, and has ever made the sap of modern literature. The army provided by this free Constitution was a militia of all men between the ages of fifteen and seventy, organized into bodies of fifty, under twenty-four captains of war ; a system of service by proxy was established by division of the army into a stationary corps for defence of the city, and a marching combatant corps, which was maintained in time of war at the expense of those who stayed at home. The CaptainGeneral, or Commander-in-Chief, obtained his office, like the Podesta, by election, and was sometimes one of the civil magistrates, sometimes, for reasons of domestic policy, a brave or noble stranger, who had a few troops of his own to bring with him into the service of the city. The thriving traders of Florence were resolved not to leave room for the growth of a military tyrant from among themselves. How the commercial town throve while thus guarding so jealously its liberties is shown by the fact that within thirty years before the birth of Dante the streets had been paved with stone instead of brick, an invention of the famous architect Arnolfo di Lapo; the Palace of Justice, the prisons, and the Bridge of the Trinity had been built. Greek painters had also been brought to Florence, whom young

Cimabue saw at work in the chapei, and whose art was transcended by the genius of that Florentine. In the year of Dante's birth Cimabue, first of the great line of Italian painters, was twenty-five years old. Cimabue died when Dante's age was thirty-seven ; and while the poet attained mastery in song, the painter broke free from the traditional formalities of his Greek teachers, painted visions of the Virgin among angels, and of apostles, and of saints, with life in the limbs and now in the draperies. His great picture of the Virgin, for the church of Santa Maria Novella, was carried in Dante's time, with sound of trumpet and rejoicing of the people, from the painter's house to its place in the church. In that house, after Cimabue's death, his art survived him ; for there lived his pupil Giotto. Giotto was but eleven years younger than his friend Dante. From the hand of Giotto was the portrait of Dante, at the age of thirty, which was discovered in the Bargello of Fiorence some forty years ago.

“ In painting Cimabue thought that he

Should hold the field, now Giotto has the cry,

So that the other's fame is growing dim,”wrote Dante in the 11th canto of his “Purgatory,” and added, of himself, with a strong sense of power, referring to his friend Guido Cavalcanti as a poet who had surpassed Guido Guinicelli

“ So has one Guido from the other taken
The glory of our tongue, and he perchance

Is born who from their nest shall chasc them both." The Palazzo Vecchio was built when Dante was twenty-four years old. Five years later the builders were at work on the Baptistery and Cathedral ; and Dante was but in his thirty-fifth year when there were cast for the Baptistery those brazen gates which Michael Angelo declared “worthy to be the gates of heaven.” Then also to these works the building of the city walls was added ; and for the towers and barricades of factious chiefs within the town, which were ordered to be reduced or abolished, there were set up fortress-walls for the shelter of a working commonwealth. Outside the walls an active race of husbandmen, fearless possessors of the goods they earned, tilled the ground, formed canals, and raised embankments against floods, with capital borrowed from the townspeople, who shared the harvests and paid all the land-tax.

It was in the year 1265, when Roger Bacon taught in England, being then fifty years old, that Alighieri, the jurisconsult, became, by his second wife, Donna Bella, father of that son Durante (enduring) whose name lives in its shortened form of Dante to the end of time. Although the child was born in Florence, his father, as it has been said, was among the Guelfs who had gone out after the battle of Monte Aperto. Very soon after his birth the Guelf party was again in power, but the lawyer returned to die, and the young Dante was left to the care of an affluent mother, who caused him to be liberally trained. An early friend was the daring and high-spirited poet Guido Cavalcanti, who was of a good old Florentine family, and by about fifteen years older than Dante. Dear friend of Dante's also was Casella the musician, whom he found among the spirits that sang of Israel's deliverance, as they came towards him

in the angelic pinnace. An early teacher of Dante was Brunetto Latini, a noble Florentine Guelf, who wrote in Norman French a metrical abridgment of the learning of his time, called the " Tresor,” and in Italian verse a “Tesoretto ” of philosophy, after the plan of a dream, then fashionable in courtly poetry. Brunetto dreamt that he had lost his way in a forest, where he met with Nature, by whom he was instructed concerning God and man, the five senses, the elements, the planets, the variety of animals, and navigation beyond Spain. Nature then bade him search the forest for Philosophy, the Four Virtues, the God of Love, Fortune and Fraud. He took some lessons of ihe Virtues, and at the abode of Love he met with Ovid, who became his guide. Brunetto then went to confession, received absolution, said that he would not visit

Fortune, returned to the forest, saw the world and the four elements, and questioned Ptolemy. It may have been especially through this poem that a common fashion in the courtly poetry of his day determined the form also of the “ Divine Comedy” as an allegorical vision, and caused Dante to represent himself as taking Virgil for his guide.

Lombardy was without a written language, and the choice of language for the poets of North Italy was between Provençal and Sicilian. Dante adopted the Sicilian, or, as he called it, the court language ; but Ugo Catola sang liberty, and Sordello had earned as a Mantuan, in Dante's “ Purgatory,” the embrace of Virgil by songs in the Provençal. Dante wrote in his early manhood the “ Vita Nuova

-the New or the Early Life-connecting, with a narrative of aspiration towards Beatrice, as the occasion of them, sonnets and canzoni, representing, artificially, according to the manner of that time, various moods of love. Fifty yards from the house in which Dante lived was the house of Folco Portinari, father of the little Beatrice or Bice, on whom Dante founded, not a set of personal love sonnets, but his ideal of a dawn of life and love, distinguished by the chastest purity. He was in the mystical ninth year when he met her, a child of eight in a crimson dress. From that time Love held sovereign empire over his soul. After the exact measure of another mystical nine years he saw her, arrayed in the purest white, between two noble ladies older than herself. She saluted him ; "and the hour,” he says, "at which her sweet salutation reached me was exactly the ninth hour of the day. Then follows the mystical vision expressed in the first sonnet. The narrative describes phases of a love so pure that the highest happiness it seeks is the gracious salutation of its object. But there is always the design of connecting together sonnets describing different shades of feeling, until the grief for his loss of Beatrice in that year of the calendar “ in which the perfect number was nine nines completed within the century in which she was born into the world,” she being her. self ** a Nine, in other words a miracle whose only root is the adorable Trinity.” After the grief follows the faithful recollection that withstands temptation of new beauty, strengthened by a vision of Beatrice as first seen in the crimson robe of her innocent child-beauty. When the actual Beatrice died, in the year 1290, she was the young wife of Simon dei Bardi ; but this fact nearly concerned neither Dante nor the poem. Her place in the “Vita Nuova " is that of a sublimely pure ideal, which runs through the whole inner life of the first mighty poet of the moderns. At the very outset of this work he describes his ideal as “the glorious lady of my mind ;” and says, “she was called Beatrice by many who knew not how she was

Had the lady to whom Dante's unstaining homage was in its material sense dedicated, like the lady of the verse of Dante da Maiano, borne the name of Nina, she could not by that, or any other merely individual name, have appeared in the verse of Dante Alighieri. The glorious lady of this Dante's rnind was the pure spirit of Love, Beatrice, the Blesser ; earthly love in the "Vita Nuova,” heavenly love in the Divine Comedy.” On earth, “when she drew near unto any, so much truth and simpleness entered into his heart, that he dared neither to lift his eyes nor to return her salutation. She went along crowned and clothed with humility, showing no whit of pride in all that she heard and saw; and when she had gone by it was said of many, * This is not a woman, but one of the beautiful angels of heaven;' and there were some that said, “This is surely a miracle ; blessed be the Lord, who hath power to work thus marvellously.' There is the most careful exclusion of all fleshly longing from Dante's picture of the Spirit of Love, that walks abroad on the same earth with us, while yet, to our hearts, the world is young. When by the spiritual eye she is seen no more in the street, but is removed to heaven, Dante's small treason to her memory is checked by a dream of her, not, be it observed, as the lost object of a fleshly love, but as the nine-year old child in the crimson dress, who represented the warm glow of love in the heart blessed with a child-like innocence. Dante's last prayer in the “ Vita Nuova” is that, when his work is done, his spirit “may go hence to behold the glory of its

called.

[ocr errors]

lady; to wit, of that blessed Beatrice who now gazeth continually on His countenance who is blessed through all ages. Glory to God ! The spiritual Beatrice in Dante's early song was a nymph dwelling on the same heights of the Christian Parnassus that were trod also by our Milton, when, at a like age, he transformed a child of fourteen, the Lady Alice Egerton, into an ideal of Purity, the Lady in Comus, and shaped her innocence into a pure allegory of man's duty in the using of the gifts of God. Each poet too, as he trod upward, sought in his chief song to justify the ways of God to man.

Dante's unfinished "Convito,” consisting of three canzoni with a commentary, continues the allegory of the “Vita Nuova,” by showing how the poet, or the soul of man, after the actual vision of love in youth and early manhood has departed, turns to a new love, and seeks consolation in philosophy.

The spiritual sense of these works proceeds thus by definite steps upward to the higher mysteries of the “ Divina Commedia.” Here, after the early days of faith and love, and when, after the first passage from emotions of youth to the intellectual enjoyments of maturer years, enthusiasm also for philosophy has passed away, Dante, or the Soul of Man represented in his person, passes thrcugh worldly life (the wood of the first canto of the “Divine Comedy") into sin, and, through God's grace, to a vision of his misery-to the “Hell.” But by repentance and penance-" Purgatory”—the marks of the seven deadly sins are effaced from his forehead, and the bright vision of Beatrice, Heavenly Love, whose handmaids are the seven virtues, admonishes him as he attains to “Paradise.” There Beatrice, the Beatifier, Love that brings the Blessing, is his guide to the end of his soul's course, the glory of the very presence of the Godhead, where a Love that is Almighty rules the Universe.

It was a part of his true gift of genius that Dante spoke with his whole soul all that was most real to it, and thus struggled Godward in his verse. This was the source of his enduring majesty and power. In his earliest verse there is no puny whimpering of boy-love ; in his crowning work he shows how a soul in earnest may reach to the light and love of God through even the gloomiest theology. He is so much in earnest, that every step he treads is among the naked souls of his own countrymen. The fate of kings, the avarice of popes, the vices and the passions of known men; hopes, aspirations, destinies of living and dead, lie as the very stones upon the road the poet travels. Of a pope whom he finds in Hell, heels uppermost, Dante utters thoughts common among men who then and in later years spoke the best mind of Europe

Because

your

avarice afflicts the world, Trampling the good, and lifting the depraved.”

INFERNO, canto xix. There was the obvious sense and there were secondary forms of allegory which might be fitted to the whole of Dante's work, or to detached parts of it. He himself, in a letter to his patron Can Grande, written upon the completion of the

Purgatory," said that the end of the whole and of that part was to remove the living in this life from the state of misery, and lead them through to the state of happiness. The whole subject, he said, taken simply, is the state of souls after death. If taken allegorically, the subject is man deserving well and ill through free will, subject to a rewarding and punishing justice. The sense of that work is not simple but manifold. For the first sense, he says, is literal, the second allegorical and moral, distinguished into the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogic. And of its name, given before the modern drama had existence,

“The Comedy of Dante Alighieri" (Divine was a later definition), he explains that it is because comedy, derived from suun, a village, and wsń, a song, as it were a rustic song, differs from tragedy in its matter. Tragedy, as witness Seneca, begins nobly and quietly, and leads to a fetid and horrid end, being for this setidness named after Tpíyos, a goat. Comedy, as witness Terence, begins

[ocr errors]

as

In the year

roughly, but ends happily. And so his poem, which begins in hell, ends with the happiness of heaven. Again, its language is that common speech wherein women chatter together, and this familiar speech learnt from the nurse, as distinguished from the Latin taught by discipline of gramnar, was called in the literature of that day comedy, the word in its Greek derivation actually meaning a work to be sung to the people of the country. A like use of the word “comic” Dante makes when in his first eclogue to J. Virgilius, alluding to his use of the vernacular speech instead of Latin, he asks, “Comica nonne vides ipsum reprehendere verba ? '

It was of the very essence of the genius of Dante that he should join earth to heaven in his native tongue. In his unfinished treatise, “De Vulgari Eloquio," on the Common Speech, he gave to no one Italian dialect a right of domination, but claimed for the Italian of literature a common tongue from which the provincial. isms of each district had been discarded. To his country he paid every kind of honest service. He is the great type of the true Poet's relation to the life and action of the world. In the year before the death of Beatrice young Dante fought with the Guelfs against the Ghibellines of Arezzo in the battle of Campaldino, which was a victory for the Florentines. Two years after the death of Beatrice Dante married Gemma de' Donati, a lady of a powerful house of the Guelfs in Florence, and became the father of five or six boys, two of whom survived to illustrate his genius, and a girl called Beatrice, who became a nun. 1300, the year in which Dante, then thirty-five years old, places the action of his “ Divine Comedy,” the poet, who had been fourteen times intrusted with missions in the service of the Republic, was elected one of the priors, or chief magistrates of Florence. But in that same year the Florentine Guelfs had split into two parties, the “Bianchi” and “Neri”—Whites and Blacks-results of a private feud at Pistoia, in which the parties had engaged the chief rival houses of the Florentine Guelfs as their patrons. Dante as a magistrate banished chiefs of both factions, but was said—though a dear friend of his own was among the number of their exiles—to have shown excess of favour to the Whites. The Blacks engaged the goodwill of the Pope, who sent Charles of Valois with 1200 armed men to Florence in the character of “peacemaker.” He made peace in his own way by readmitting all the Neri, and by conniving at proscription, robbery, and murder of the Bianchi. Then Dante, who was at Rome pleading for justice on the part of the Whites, heard that his house had been plundered and that he also had been proscribed. In January, 1302, he was sentenced to two years' exile and a fine of Sooo florins; in the March following he, with others, accused by common report of baratry, was condemned to he burnt alive. He and the exiled Bianchi then sought to reconquer their ground by union with the Ghibellines. But the rest of the poet's days, until his death in 1321, at the age of fifty-seven, were spent in wandering and banishment. The chief patronage of the grand exile was by the Scala family that ruled at Verona, especially Can Francisco, who was called Il Grande for his deeds of war against the Paduans. To him Dante's ancestor Caccaguidi, met in Paradise, refers when he predicts the poet's bitter days of exile :

“Thou shalt have proof how savoureth of salt

The bread of others, and how hard a road
The going down and up another's stairs.'

PARADISE, canto xvii. Dante died at Ravenna, guest of its liberal lord Guido Novella da Polenta, the father of Francesca di Rimini. When Florence desired afterwards to possess his bones, the people of Ravenna would not give them up. But about fifty years after Dante's death, in the same year (1373) in which our Chaucer visited Florence, the Florentines established a public lectureship, with a yearly salary of a hundred gold florins, for the exposition of Dante's “Divine Comedy," and Boccaccio was appointed the first lecturer. July, 1885.

H. M.

« PreviousContinue »