Dante in Love: The World's Greatest Poem and How It Made Historyby Harriet Rubin
Dante in Love is the story of the most famous journey in literature. Rubin follows Dante's path as the poet, exiled from Florence,
In the vein of Brunelleschi's Dome, Galileo's Daughter, and Wittgenstein's Poker, Dante in Love is a geographic and spiritual re-creation of the poet's travels and the burst of creativity that produced the greatest poem ever written.
Dante in Love is the story of the most famous journey in literature. Rubin follows Dante's path as the poet, exiled from Florence, walked the old Jubilee routes that linked monasteries and all roads to Rome and Tuscany-a path followed by generations of seekers from T. S. Eliot, Sigmund Freud, and Primo Levi to Bruce Springsteen. Following Dante's route, we, too, are inspired to undertake the journey of discovering ourselves.
Los Angeles Times
"A thoughtful and enlightening analysis of the writing of The Divine Comedy that centers on the physical and spiritual journey of its author, Dante Alighieri."
"An infectious blend of accessibility, erudition, and practical wisdom."
"Rubin's enthusiasm for her subject is contagious...a drier intellect might not have written about what, in fact, is the world's greatest poem with a pleasure so infectious that readers will want immediately to read it."
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
"Almost a primer on how to find inspiration and motivation from Dante...It is sprinkled with compelling 'Dantean journeys,' anecdotes of poets and other figures from history who have turned to Dante in times of crisis and inspiration...an excellent meditation on Dante."
Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club
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Dante in LoveThe World's Greatest Poem and How It Made History
By Harriet Rubin
Simon & SchusterCopyright © 2004 Harriet Rubin
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Time Run by Dreamers and Their Dreams
On January 27, 1302, a courier on a deadly mission arrives in bone-chilling Rome off the wintry paths from Florence. He bears a message for Dante Alighieri. Alighieri, who is thirty-six, is not yet the great Dante, author of the poem that will become like a religion to artists and statesmen and other seekers of perfection. Alighieri is in Rome on a doomed diplomatic mission - a lethal pattern which seems to characterize the majority of his efforts. About most things Alighieri is cautious and indirect. Though he holds strong views, he seldom acts on them. He never told the woman he most loved of his feelings for her; and now that she is dead, words are meaningless. He expresses himself in precious verses that circulate among a small circle of his friends. He has tried everything, from law to war, and from politics to teaching, with mixed results. So why is this unthreatening father of three the object of a decree that is equivalent to a hanging - exile - and not even singling him out for a brave act, but accusing him of barratry or breach of duty along with 359 others - an undignified lottery. He has simply found himself on the wrong side of an oldpolitical skirmish. His death notice is inconsequential to an observer of 1302 - it is a tree falling in the forest.
But the consequences will surprise the world: the edict will force Dante to take no other course than the pursuit of the education of his soul over the nearly two decades of brutal exile. The sentence will unsettle us more than seven hundred years later. Genius, happiness, love and vision will hereafter be measured by how Alighieri handles the awful sentence he receives this day. He will develop self-knowledge and self-mastery, brutal honesty combined with melting sweetness. Dante Alighieri represents the height and depth of a turning point in time. The years 1300-1320 are the pinnacle of the period known as the High Middle Ages, the foundation of modern commerce, art and faith. They are aptly named for the elation they inspire - when genius ruled over laws and sometimes coursed out of control.
The essential question is: How did Dante become Dante? Why didn't his fate silence him forever, reduce him to desiccating anguish? How did a man who had been unable to express his passion reinvent the nature of love and genius? How did he reverse his failures? How does one voice become the most important voice?
Dante in Love suggests a love story, and some might expect this to be the tale of sweethearts beyond the grave: Dante and Beatrice, legendary lovers, divided by death, reunite in a poetic afterlife. In fact, it is a truer love story: that of a dispossessed soul learning the meaning of life and finding the grace to love that meaning. Attaining that kind of love depends on developing "the good of the intellect," Dante wrote.
The Divine Comedy has exerted a shaping influence on the lives of a wide range of people: poets (T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and hundreds of others), writers (George Eliot, Primo Levi, Tom Stoppard), psychologists (Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung), philosophers (David Hume, Georg Wilhelm Hegel), rock stars (Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen), as well as butchers, bakers, air force pilots and political figures. One can ask without exaggeration: How did this poet help steer the medieval world into the modern one? In our time, we may wonder, what will the modern world coalesce into, and given that to a certain extent we can author our fortune and fate, can we look to visionaries, not merely soldiers and bureaucrats, to guide us?
What follows is a tale for those who have dreamed of creating something that seems beyond them. Its purpose is not to save you a lifetime of reading one book, The Divine Comedy, but to start you on the project.
At the beginning, the roads that link Dante to his fate are the Jubilee roads which two years earlier Pope Boniface VIII had smoothed over, summoning all the world to Rome in one massive celebration for the eternal church. The poor and the lame, the rich and the mighty, had arrived by the thousands to fill Rome's streets and, better still, Boniface's coffers. All roads lead to Rome. In October 1301, Alighieri was sent there from Florence by his political party, the White Guelfs. He had been one of the party's priors in Florence for ten years, the equivalent of a junior senator. He was there to ask for Boniface's help in stopping the fighting and threats of civil war inside Florence, but the wily and ambitious pontiff set a trap for the delegation. He has bought time for his own armies to march into Florence and claim the city as his personal treasure. These were years when artistic genius seemed to stop for papal politics and all of Roman ingenuity got channeled into a grab for land and money. Florence was a prize, and Boniface wanted it. In truth, he wanted everything. Dante, drawn into the pope's web, will realize only much later that he was duped by his hopes and dreams into believing that appeals to reason might forge a peace.
As the priors were waiting to make their appeals, the pope was masterminding a change of guard in Florence to the opposition party of Black Guelfs, "guelf" being a term perhaps derived from the German word for "wolves." News of the handover of the city will reach Alighieri and his peers in the form of the decree of exile.
The decree condemns the faction of Guelfs known as Whites on charges of opposition to the pope and of having stirred up violence in Florence. It demands that Alighieri return home immediately to defend himself in a trial. Dante does not return to Florence, and on January 27, 1302, he is condemned to two years of exile, barred from holding public office and required to pay a ruinous fine of 5,000 florins within three days. On March 10, Dante's goods are ordered confiscated and he is condemned to death by burning if he should fall into Florentine hands. The Florentine fathers prefer ashes to corpses where their enemies are concerned. They are, after all, Romans at heart and as such are believers in ghosts. "Let the earth lie lightly on you" is how they say good night rather than goodbye to their freshly buried dead. As for the threat of seizure of the accused's scant remaining assets, Alighieri has already had trouble paying his bills. Confiscating his property will reduce his family - Gemma, his wife, and their two sons and daughter - to destitution.
The sentence against Alighieri does not seem extreme in Florence, where factionalism is just one manifestation of widespread disunity. The idea of a united Italy is unimagined in 1302. The majority of Italians have never heard the word "Italy." It is a country in which only the intellectuals live, those who read the word in the great books. Unity is a dream. Divisions exist in cities, on streets and between neighbors; hatreds are acted upon. Justice is impossible to find. Rioters run loose. The prisons have been thrown open; nobles and criminals rob, kidnap and kill. Heiresses are forced to marry impromptu suitors, and fathers compelled to sign rich settlements.
Rome, the seat of emperors and popes who believed themselves masters of the world, is in the hands of the power-hungry. When Albert of Austria named himself emperor on the death of Adolphus of Nassau in 1298, Boniface, in his rage, placed the crown on his own head, seized a sword and exclaimed, "It is I who am Caesar, it is I who am emperor, it is I who will defend the rights of the empire." In May 1347, Cola di Rienzi, a washerwoman's son born in year eleven of Dante's nineteen-year exile, became tribune of Rome. He pointed his sword to the sky and three-quarters of the globe and declared, "This and this and that too is mine."
But Florence, eternal Rome's rising competitor, is the mad and dreamy sister. Florence is gambling on the symbols of power - banking, art, science - rather than on armies or imperial tyrannies to rule Europe. For the next two hundred years, her dominance in literature, architecture, finance and technology will be unquestioned. The sword will become powerless against the thought and the florin.
Florence will become the most brilliant and the "most damned of Italian cities," the poet Ezra Pound wrote in the early twentieth century, complaining that "there is neither place to sit, stand or walk." An editorial in La Repubblica in 2000, seven hundred years after Boniface's Jubilee, complained that men were suffering heart attacks in growing numbers from climbing too many stairs for midday trysts, their daily jubilees: Why weren't city planners requiring landlords to install elevators? Annoyance is the city's steady pulse. She is often nasty with her proudest sons, demanding their best work and then excommunicating them or, if they stay, hanging or incinerating them.
Galileo, after lecturing about Dante's Commedia in universities throughout Italy in the 1500s, will be condemned to torture and death for holding the theory that the sun, not the earth, is the center of the universe. Machiavelli will be dismissed from the Medici court, sent first to prison to be stretched out on the rack, and then thrust into penury for the rest of his life. Giordano Bruno, the Renaissance freethinker who scoffed at the mysteries of faith, will be chased to Rome, where he will be burned in public, in the Campo dei Fiori. Ambition, heresy, rage - these are virtues in the cultural temperament of Florence. The Renaissance's most dangerous ideas have precedent in Dante. But ideas alone do not sharpen Florence's edges. Three classes divide its secular life: the popolo minuto, or "little people" - shopkeepers and artisans; the popolo grasso, or "fat people" - wealthy employers or businessmen; and the grandi, or big shots - the nobles. Wars are always simmering and often erupting. "The only thing that's changed in several hundred years," said one twenty-first-century Italian, "is that Lorenzo de' Medici introduced lemon trees to Italy in the 1500s."
The brawl between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines of the 1300s is more than a bit opera buffa, and even by these standards, it reaches burlesque proportions. On Easter 1215, a young married woman had flirted in public with a man not her husband. He flirted back. A vendetta was declared between Guelf and Ghibel, two rival brothers of Pistoia related to the amorous couple, and dozens of recriminations later, the fighting spun out of control.
The ancient myth of Rome's founding by twin brothers Romulus and Remus, who were nursed by a she-wolf, marked a violent beginning of brotherly murder. In medieval Tuscany, two rival brothers grew into two distinctive brotherhoods: the Guelfs, though mighty and great, were born as vassals; the Ghibellines, as gifted intellectuals. Their differences were like those of modern gangs: the Ghibellines wore feathers on the left side of their caps, the Guelfs on the right. At table, Ghibellines cut fruit crosswise, Guelfs straight down. Ghibellines wore white roses, and Guelfs red. But while there was room in the Ghibelline state for giants who preserved the might and prowess of ancient heroes, never in the Guelf state would there be mental room for Ghibelline brains. The extremes met in the contest of "the Sword" between Otto IV and Sicilian Frederick II - intellectual, poet, philosopher - who would become emperor of Rome in July 1215 after defeating Otto in the Battle of Bouvines in 1214. Otto was known as a boor who managed to anger the princes with whom he came into contact, even when his edicts were wise and just. When he was dethroned, the priests forced his confession and then beat him to death with rods. Guelf and Ghibelline became synonymous with support for the pope on the one hand and the emperor on the other. The late thirteenth century was growing too intellectual for legitimate Guelf rule, so they went on the attack, supported by the pope.
The violence kept shifting, and so did the violent. The sides were least clearly marked among the brawlers. "This is the disease of Florence at work: parthenogenesis; the splitting of simple life forms," says Dante scholar John Freccero. Factions split into atoms: the Guelfs split into two opposite factions, and Dante became a Ghibelline-Guelf, or a "White," as opposed to a member of the "Black" faction. The feud sucked in every frustration, every long-simmering antagonism from politics to money to envy. Everything got expressed in the violence that followed and, thanks to the muddy ground of politics, never seemed to end.
Boccaccio said of Dante that he would have been unable to create his work if he had not been a Ghibelline, inspired by the legendary secular and intellectual light that bordered, often, on heresy. This was the price they paid: three hundred and fifty-nine White Guelfs, the intellectual aristocracy of which Dante numbered himself, were sentenced to death in 1302, but most were allowed to escape into exile. Fourteen hundred houses were destroyed, leaving the center of Florence in ashes.
Alighieri is no hero. He is no Aeneas chased by winds of destiny to found a new nation; he is no Paul who can organize resistance into a religion. He is to be pitied. He is gauche. He doesn't know how to behave, how to act, what to say. He often loses himself in books and ideas. If Dante thought he could survive on his wits alone outside of Florence as he had inside the city, he would have been the only one to place a bet. At the time of his exile, he is a second-rate poet, the author of some ballads and one book, La Vita Nuova, which few would remember had he not written the Comedy. The Vita Nuova is written in a sentimental style typical of its time. It reminds modern readers of the damp allegories of John Bunyan's Christian sweating his way through the Valley of Death. An indifferent provider for his family, a diplomat whose strong suit is not diplomacy and a love poet who never professed his love: now he adds fugitive to his rsum. Following the order of the decree, he leaves Rome, we don't know how or exactly when. But he takes cover in Siena, a mighty rival of Florence, in whose narrow and crooked streets he would be safe. There he plots with his fellow exiles how they might defy the pope and return to Florence. When they cannot agree on an approach, Alighieri splits off from the pack.
Exile is the death of identity. This death is as real as actual death. Home, career, history: all that defines a man suddenly seems an illusion. Even his age of thirty-six years seems untethered by certainty. Some days on the open road, he must feel as unsure as a ten-year-old; other days as weak as an old man of a hundred.
Exile is the punishment reserved for the largest transgressions. Cities were walled to protect against madmen, beasts, enemies and even some of the ravages of weather. The world was a frightening place. The men and women of the time were much more exposed to nature than we are, and nature was much less tamed. Nights were darker; animals, prowling and fierce. Wolves from the mountains starve in the cold and birds stick to the trees in the frost. Wanderers are vulnerable to hailstorms, and a cloudless heaven can raise a plague of beetles from the cracked dry earth. The weather was already growing disastrously colder in 1300, and the growing seasons were becoming shorter - the first signs of economic trouble in Europe, though no one knew then of the catastrophe that loomed. The plague, forty years hence, will take a devastating toll on an already hungry population.
The exile straying from his native town in Italy in 1302 would lose his speech because there was no common language by which he could be understood. To move from one town to another less than thirty miles away called for sharp revision of attitudes and knowledge.
The roads Alighieri walked often gave way to overgrown paths, dense with briars, thick with trees hiding thieves. The paths led to swamps, where travelers would sicken and die in hours. A road might end at a rough bridge built by a hermit who lived on the charity of the passersby. Alighieri would have to have a coin for the crossing. Adept travelers would not leave home without a hen or two under their arm, or a flagon of homemade wine to use for tariffs. If the tolls were high, they would have to retrace their steps home and come back with a pig or calf.
For the next five of his nineteen years in exile, it will be as if Dante Alighieri, like the ancient Roman wanderer Ethico, had vanished into the bleak mountain fastness. The road he took from Rome was the road by which hordes of boys and girls in 1212, nearly ninety years earlier, had poured into Italy, seized with a blind and passionate fanaticism known as the Children's Crusade - ill-starred youngsters moving to their inevitable destruction. His epic life now begins. Dante - from this point he needs only one name - will live at large, "begging my life," as he said. "How many pairs of sandals did he wear out on the narrow goat paths of Italy?" the prisoner-poet Osip Mandelstam wondered from inside his Stalinist gulag, where his own shoes were confiscated.
Excerpted from Dante in Love by Harriet Rubin Copyright © 2004 by Harriet Rubin. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Harriet Rubin was the founder of Doubleday Currency and has published dozens of bestsellers. She is the author of The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women, which has been translated into twenty-three languages. She is on USA TODAY's editorial board and is a consultant to media companies. She currently lives in Manhattan and Portland, Oregon.
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