Dante thought politicians had ruined Italy. His poem takes revenge

Dante Alighieri has been dead for 700 years. The date of his death, September 14, 1321, is one of the few facts we know about him. He died of a fever while on a diplomatic mission to Venice, scholars believe, and was buried with “great honour” at the church of San Pier Maggiore in Ravenna.

Dante had been expelled from his native Florence two decades earlier, in 1302, on charges of corruption and embezzlement. The allegations were mostly false yet Dante never again set foot in the city. To this day, Florentines remain painfully conscious that Dante died in exile and that his dust deserves a proper burial in Florence. Seven hundred years on, he has still not moved from Ravenna.

Within a year of Dante’s death, at the age of 56, commentaries on The Divine Comedy had begun to appear in Florence. Commissioned by the Florentine Republic, Giovanni Boccaccio lectured 60 times on Dante within the space of a year. Boccaccio, author of The Decameron and Dante’s first biographer, saw a superhuman authorship in The Divine Comedy. He extolled Dante as a “poeta theologus”, who had championed a new literature written in the “vulgar” Florentine dialect.

Dante’s decision to write his great 14th-century poem in his own Tuscan idiom was a moment of extraordinary significance in the history of Western civilisation. It ensured that Tuscan would become Italy’s literary language and, eventually, its national language. If Dante is revered today as the patriarch of modern letters it is chiefly because of his “invention” of Italian, though it is curious to reflect that Italian today might be a quite different language had Dante come from Milan, say, or Naples.

In the 1460s, the poet’s political pre-eminence in Florence was bolstered by Lorenzo de’ Medici. Scarcely 20 when he was appointed head of the Florentine Medici clan in 1469, Lorenzo “the Magnificent” wrote Tuscan dialect sonnets after Dante’s example. Under his rule, Dante was posthumously given the Ciceronian role of optimus civis, ‘‘best citizen’’; the poet was regarded now as a civic patriot who had been selflessly active in the affairs of the Florentine Republic.

A milestone in the Medicean cult of Dante (and the Renaissance book market for printed versions of The Divine Comedy in general) was Cristofero Landino’s 1481 edition, complete with copper engravings based on Sandro Botticelli’s Dante cycle and a lengthy commentary in the Florentine volgare. A high-minded humanist scholar and poet, Landino called for the once outlawed and estranged Dante to be “returned to his homeland after a long exile”. In 1396 the Commonwealth of Florence had already petitioned Ravenna for the relocation of the poet’s remains. The request was declined, as were others made in 1430 and 1476.

In 1519, 20 years after Landino’s death, Pope Leo X considered yet another petition, made by the Medicean Academy and endorsed by none other than Michelangelo (who had agreed to design and build a monument to Dante in Florence). The request was granted. But when Florentine emissaries opened the tomb in Ravenna all they found were dusty laurel leaves and bone fragments. The monumental 19th-century tomb built for Dante in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence therefore remains empty. (It was unveiled in 1865 on the sixth centenary of the poet’s birth.)

It was not by chance that Landino’s Dante commentary appeared in Florence so soon after the April 1478 “Pazzi conspiracy” that had dared to challenge Medicean supremacy: amid a fury of dagger thrusts, Lorenzo de’ Medici had narrowly escaped assassination by the Pazzi banking clan.

The attack at High Mass only strengthened Medicean power and Lorenzo’s reputation as a strongman. In the climate of heightened pride in Florence, Dante’s name was tied ever more closely to Florentine supremacy and cultural attainment. The Landino edition was intended to bolster Lorenzo’s power and serve as a riposte to the “impudent” appropriation of Dante by non-Tuscans, among them the sly Pope Sixtus IV, who had favoured the Pazzi over the Medici as bankers to the Holy See, and probably backed the April plotters.

Having ruled despotically for two decades, Lorenzo died in 1492 at the age of 43, his physician having prescribed a concoction of pulverised pearls for gout. Dante would surely have put Lorenzo, who secretly referred to himself as Lorenzo Rex Medici, in hell as a ruler with monarchical pretensions.

One reason why Dante still speaks to us is his willingness to berate politicians and other humbugs who (he believed) had led Italy to ruin. In Dante’s age there was no such thing as a harmless political poem, or one that was incapable of injuring anybody. The dominant theme of The Divine Comedy is justice, rigidly applied. In some ways the poem is a giant judicial machine in which God’s justice is vindicated before men. It remains the greatest single work of Western literature.

Ian Thomson’s Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Journey Without End is published by Head of Zeus

This article first appeared in the September 14 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here