Divine Payback

On this day in 1300, Dante was made one of the six Priors of Florence, the top political office in the city-state. Though only a two-month term — the legal limit, so suspicious were the citizenry of corruption and power plays — Dante’s appointment set in motion the series of events that would eventually cause his permanent banishment and inspire some of the most memorable scenes in the Divine Comedy.

Italian politics at the time was dirty and dangerous: Florentine fought Pisan, Guelph fought Ghibillene, papist fought royalist, nobleman fought merchant, and family fought family. As a “White” Guelph and a moderate, Dante’s policies of compromise were unpopular with the “Black” Guelphs and the militants; when he was out of the country in 1302 on diplomatic business to the Pope, his enemies trumped-up a conviction for graft, and he was banished.

A good deal of the Inferno is payback. Specific political enemies are assigned their place in fire or ice, and many are included as a group, the Sowers of Discord, who get one of the deeper circles in Hell. Their political and religious intrigues tore Dante’s beloved Florence and his own life apart; a great demon now hacks at them as they track around his pit. Some have arms or faces slashed away, some have internal organs dangling behind — one, Dante notes in horror, escorts his own severed head:

I saw it there; I seem to see it still –

a body without a head, that moved along

like all the others in that spew and spill.

It held the severed head by its own hair,

swinging it like a lantern in its hand,

and the head looked at us and wept in its despair.

Despite his laments and lobbies, Dante was never allowed to return to Florence. Not alive, anyway: in 1865, on the 600th anniversary of his birth, some of Dante’s remains were collected from his tomb in Ravenna, and given to Florence, to be displayed at a world congress of librarians. The little bag of ashes disappeared in the 1930s, and then in 1999 the national central library in Florence announced that two employees had accidentally found it, in an envelope on a dusty shelf in the rare manuscripts department.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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