Dante Alighieri: His Life and Works

Dante Alighieri: His Life and Works

by Paget Toynbee

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One of the most frequently cited texts on the great Florentine poet's life and writings, this invaluable study is the work of an influential Dantean scholar. Its concise, accessible account covers historical background, traces the poet's private and public life, and explores the Vita Nuova, the Convivio, the Divine Comedy, and Dante's Latin works.


One of the most frequently cited texts on the great Florentine poet's life and writings, this invaluable study is the work of an influential Dantean scholar. Its concise, accessible account covers historical background, traces the poet's private and public life, and explores the Vita Nuova, the Convivio, the Divine Comedy, and Dante's Latin works.

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DANTE ALIGHIERI His Life and Works

By Paget Toynbee

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Robert Hollander
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14642-3



Origin of the names—Distinguishing principles of the two parties in Italy—Introduction of the parties into Florence—The Ghibellines with the aid of Frederick II expel the Guelfs from Florence—Return of the Guelfs after the Emperor's death, and pacification between the two parties.

NORTHERN ITALY in the middle of the thirteenth century, at the time of Dante's birth, was divided into two great political parties, of which the one, known by the name of Guelfs, looked to the Pope as their head, while the others, the Ghibellines, looked to the Emperor. The distinctive titles of these two parties were of German origin, being merely Italianized forms (Guelfo and Ghibellino) of the two German names Welf and Weiblingen. The former of these was the name of an illustrious family, several members of which had successively been Dukes of Bavaria in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The heiress of the last of these intermarried with a younger son of the house of Este; and from them sprang a second line of Guelfs, from whom the royal house of Brunswick is descended.

Weiblingen was the name of a castle in Franconia, belonging to Conrad the Salic, who was Emperor from 1024 to 1039, and was the progenitor, through the female line, of the Swabian emperors. By the election of Lothair in 1125 in succession to Henry V (Emperor from 1106 to 1125) the Swabian family were ousted from what they had come to regard almost as an hereditary possession; and at this time a hostility appears to have commenced between them and the house of Welf, who were nearly related to Lothair. In 1071 the Emperor Henry IV had conferred the Duchy of Bavaria upon the Welfs; and in 1080 the Duchy of Swabia had been conferred upon the Counts of Hohenstaufen, who represented the Franconian line.

The accession in 1138 of Conrad III of Swabia to the Imperial throne, and the rebellion of Henry the Proud, the Welf Duke of Bavaria, gave rise to a bloody struggle between the two houses; and at the battle of Weinsberg, fought on 21 December, 1140, in which the Welf Duke was defeated by Conrad, the names Welf and Weiblingen were for the first time, it is said, adopted as warcries.

These names, which in Germany, as we have seen, distinguished the two sides in the conflict between the Welfs and the Imperial Swabian or Hohenstaufen line, in Italy acquired a different meaning, and became identified respectively with the supporters of the Church and the supporters of the Empire. Their first appearance in Italy seems to have been quite at the beginning of the thirteenth century, when they were adopted by the two leading parties which divided the towns of Lombardy during the struggle for the Imperial throne between Philip, Duke of Swabia (brother of the Emperor Henry VI), and the Welf Otto of Brunswick, many important Italian towns sympathizing with the latter, who after his rival's death in 1208 became Emperor as Otto IV.

The division between the opposing factions rapidly deepened, till not only rival towns, but also the leading families within the towns themselves, became involved in party strife, the citizens ranging themselves, ostensibly at least, under the chiefs on either side.

The main outlines of the principles which actuated the two parties in Italy, during the period covered by this book, have been ably sketched by the late Dean Church. "The names of Guelf and Ghibelline," he writes, "were the inheritance of a contest which, in its original meaning, had been long over. The old struggle between the priesthood and the Empire was still kept up traditionally, but its ideas and interests were changed. It had passed over from the mixed region of the spiritual and temporal into the purely political. The cause of the Popes was that of the independence of Italy—the freedom and alliance of the great cities of the north, and the dependence of the centre and south on the Roman See. To keep the Emperor out of Italy, to create a barrier of powerful cities against him south of the Alps, to form behind themselves a compact territory, rich, removed from the first burst of invasion, and maintaining a strong body of interested feudatories, had now become the great object of the Popes. The two parties did not care to keep in view principles which their chiefs had lost sight of. The Emperor and the Pope were both real powers, able to protect and assist; and they divided between them those who required protection and assistance. Geographical position, the rivalry of neighbourhood, family tradition, private feuds, and above all private interest, were the main causes which assigned cities, families, and individuals to the Ghibelline or Guelf party. One party called themselves the Emperor's liegemen, and their watchword was authority and law; the other side were the liegemen of Holy Church, and their cry was liberty; and the distinction as a broad one is true. But a democracy would become Ghibelline, without scruple, if its neighbour town was Guelf; and among the Guelf liegemen of the Church and liberty the pride of blood and love of power were not a whit inferior to that of their opponents.

"The Ghibellines as a body reflected the worldliness, the licence, the irreligion, the reckless selfishness, the daring insolence, and at the same time the gaiety and pomp, the princely magnificence and generosity and largeness of mind of the house of Swabia; they were the men of the court and camp, imperious and haughty from ancient lineage, or the Imperial cause, yet not wanting in the frankness and courtesy of nobility; careless of public opinion and public rights, but not dead to the grandeur of public objects and public services. The Guelfs, on the other hand, were the party of the middle classes; they rose out of and held to the people; they were strong by their compactness, their organization in cities, their commercial relations and interests, their command of money. Further, they were professedly the party of strictness and religion, a profession which fettered them as little as their opponents were fettered by the respect they claimed for Imperial law. But though by personal unscrupulousness and selfishness, and in instances of public vengeance, they sinned as deeply as the Ghibellines, they stood far more committed as a party to a public meaning and purpose—to improvement in law and the condition of the poor, to a protest against the insolence of the strong, to the encouragement of industry. The genuine Guelf spirit was austere, frugal, independent, earnest, religious, fond of its home and Church, and of those celebrations which bound together Church and home; but withal very proud, very intolerant ; in its higher form intolerant of evil, but intolerant always to whatever displeased it."

"Speaking generally," as another writer puts it, "the Ghibellines were the party of the Emperor, and the Guelfs the party of the Pope: the Ghibellines were on the side of authority, or sometimes of oppression; the Guelfs were on the side of liberty and self- government. Again, the Ghibellines were the supporters of a universal Empire, of which Italy was to be the head; the Guelfs were on the side of national life and national individuality."

The introduction of the Guelf and Ghibelline factions into Florence is said by the old Florentine chroniclers to have taken place in the year 1215, on the occasion of a blood- feud which arose out of the murder of one of the Buondelmonti by one of the Amidei, both of them noble Florentine families, on Easter Sunday in that year. The story of this murder, and of the incident which led to it, is related as follows by Giovanni Villani in his New Chronicle of the City of Florence, which he began to write in 1300, the year of the first Jubilee of the Roman Church.

"In the year of Christ 1215," he says, "Messer Gherardo Orlandi being Podestà of Florence, one Messer Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti, a noble citizen of Florence, having promised to take to wife a damsel of the house of the Amidei, honourable and noble citizens; as the said M. Buondelmonte, who was a very handsome and fine cavalier, was riding through the city, a lady of the house of the Donati called to him, and found fault with him on account of the lady to whom he had betrothed himself, as being neither fair enough nor a fitting match for him, and saying: I had kept my daughter here for you—whom she showed to him, and she was very beautiful. And he straightway, at the prompting of the Evil One, becoming enamoured of her, was betrothed to her and took her to wife; for which cause the kinsfolk of the lady to whom he was first betrothed, being assembled together and smarting under the shame which M. Buondelmonte had put upon them, were filled with the accursed rage, whereby the city of Florence was laid waste and divided against herself; for many families of the nobles swore together to put shame on the said M. Buondelmonte in revenge for these wrongs. And as they were in council among themselves as to how they should retaliate on him, either by beating him or by stabbing him, Mosca de' Lamberti spoke the evil word : A thing done has an end—that is, that he should be slain. And so it was done ; for on the morning of Easter Day they assembled in the house of the Amidei of Santo Stefano, and M. Buondelmonte coming from beyond Arno, bravely arrayed in new garments all white, and on a white palfrey, when he reached the foot of the Ponte Vecchio on this side, just at the foot of the pillar where stood the statue of Mars, the said M. Buondelmonte was thrown from his horse on to the ground by Schiatta degli Uberti, and set on and stabbed by Mosca Lamberti and Lambertuccio degli Amidei, and his throat cut by Oderigo Fifanti, and an end made of him; and with them was one of the Counts of Gangalandi. On these doings the city rushed to arms in tumult; and this death of M. Buondelmonte was the cause and beginning of the accursed Guelf and Ghibelline parties in Florence, albeit that before this time there had been many factions among the nobles of the city, and parties as aforesaid, by reason of the quarrels and disputes between the Church and the Empire; but on account of the death of the said M. Buondelmonte all the families of the nobles and other citizens of Florence took sides, and some held with the Buondelmonti, who joined the Guelf party and became its leaders, and some with the Uberti, who became the leaders of the Ghibellines. And from this followed great evil and ruin to our city, which is like never to have an end, unless God bring it to an end."

Villani then proceeds to give a list of the noble families in Florence who joined either side, the Guelfs, as he has already explained, under the leadership of the Buondelmonti, and the Ghibellines under that of the Uberti. "And this," he repeats, "is how these accursed parties took their origin in Florence, albeit at first not very openly, there being division among the nobles of the city, in that some loved the rule of the Church, and some that of the Empire, nevertheless as to the good estate and well-being of the commonwealth all were at one."

The conflict between the Guelfs and Ghibellines in Florence, thus commenced by the murder of Buondelmonte, continued, with varying fortune to either side, for a period of fifty-two years, from 1215 to 1267, when the Guelf party finally remained masters of the situation. In 1248 the Emperor Frederick II, wishing to retaliate upon the Papacy for the unjust sentence of deposition pronounced against him by Innocent IV three years before at the Council of Lyons, and anxious to weaken the Church party, made offers to the Uberti, the leaders of the Florentine Ghibellines, to help them to expel from their city his enemies and their own. His offer being accepted, he dispatched a force of German horsemen under his son, Frederick of Antioch, by whose aid, after a fierce struggle, the Guelfs were driven out.

Villani gives a vivid account of the street-fighting which took place on this occasion. Being a Guelf, he naturally has no sympathy with Frederick and his allies. "In these times," he writes, "Frederick being in Lombardy, after his deposition from the title of Emperor by Pope Innocent, set himself, so far as he was able, to destroy in Tuscany and Lombardy the faithful sons of Holy Church in every city where he had power. And inasmuch as our city of Florence was not among the least notable and powerful of Italy, he desired to pour out his venom upon her, and to breed further strife between the accursed parties of the Guelfs and Ghibellines, which had begun some time before through the murder of Buondelmonte, and even earlier, as we have already related. But although since then the said parties had continued among the nobles of Florence, and they had at sundry times been at war among themselves on account of their private enmities, and were divided by reason of the said parties and held to their several sides, those who were called Guelfs preferring the government of the Pope and Holy Church, and those who were called Ghibellines favouring the Emperor and his following, nevertheless the people and commonwealth of Florence were steadfast in unity, to the well-being and honour and good estate of the republic.

"But now the Emperor sending letters and ambassadors to the family of the Uberti, who were the heads of his party, and to their following who called themselves Ghibellines, invited them to drive from the cities their enemies the Guelfs, offering some of his horsemen to help them. And thus he caused the Uberti to begin dissension and civil warfare in Florence, whereby the city fell into great disorder, and the nobles and all the people were divided, some holding to one side and some to the other; and in several quarters of the city there was fighting for a long time. The chief of it was among the houses of the Uberti, where the great palace of the people now stands; there they gathered with their followers and fought against the Guelfs of San Piero Scheraggio; and the Guelfs from beyond Arno crossed over by the river dams and came and helped to fight the Uberti. The next place was in Porte San Piero, where the Tedaldini were the chief Ghibellines, as having the strongest buildings, palaces, and towers; and they and their allies fought against the Donati, the Adimari, and others. And the third fight took place in Porte del Duomo, by the tower of Messer Lancia de' Cattani of Castiglione, with the Brunelleschi and other Ghibelline leaders, and many of the populace on the same side, against the Tosinghi and others. And another was in San Brancazio, where the Lamberti were the Ghibelline leaders, with many of the people on their side, against the Guelfs of that quarter. And the Ghibellines in San Brancazio made their stand at the tower of the Soldanieri, where a bolt from the tower struck the Guelf standard-bearer (their standard being a crimson lily on a white field) in the face, so that he died. And on the day the Guelfs were driven out they came in arms and buried him in San Lorenzo; and when they were gone the canons of San Lorenzo removed the body, for fear the Ghibellines should dig it up and do it violence, inasmuch as this M. Rustico Marignolli was a great captain among the Guelfs. And the Ghibellines made another attack in the Borgo, where the Soldanieri and Guidi were their leaders, against the Buondelmonti, Cavalcanti, and others. And there was fighting between the two sides beyond Arno as well, but here it was chiefly among the populace.

"So it came about that this warfare went on for some time, as they fought at the barriers or barricades, from one quarter to another, and from one tower to another (for there were many towers in Florence in those days, a hundred cubits and more in height), and they used mangonels and other engines of war, and kept up the fighting day and night. In the midst of the struggle the Emperor sent his bastard son Frederick to Florence, with sixteen hundred of his German horsemen. And when the Ghibellines heard that they were at hand, they took heart and fought more stoutly and with greater boldness against the Guelfs, who had no other help, and looked for none, seeing that the Pope was at Lyons on Rhone, beyond the mountains, and that the power of Frederick was far too great in every part of Italy. And at this time the Ghibellines made use of a device of war, for they collected the greater part of their force at the house of the Uberti, and when the fighting began in the quarters named above, they went in a body to oppose the Guelfs, and by this means overpowered them in nearly every part of the city, save in their own quarter, against the barricade of the Guidalotti and Bagnesi, who held out for a time; and to that place the Guelfs repaired, and the whole force of the Ghibellines against them. At last the Guelfs, finding themselves hard pressed, and learning that the Emperor's horsemen were already in Florence (King Frederick having arrived with his men on the Sunday morning), after holding out until the Wednesday, abandoned the defence, the force of the Ghibellines being too strong for them, and fled from the city on Candlemas night (2 February), in the year 1248."


Excerpted from DANTE ALIGHIERI His Life and Works by Paget Toynbee. Copyright © 2005 Robert Hollander. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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