Dante gets political and the Montagues and Capulets are there too
Illustration from Inferno canto 7 - the wrathful
Last week I said that Dante lingers on the spirits that suffered a violent death to highlight the tumultuous political climate of thirteenth-century Italy without actually saying the words.
Well, in canto 6 he says the words.
The canto opens with a simile. Dante says that just like the gambler who has won a game can barely step away from the gang of losers who follow him, begging for a share of the winnings, he could barely keep up with Virgil for the crowd of spirits asking him to remember them and make sure their families pray for them to ease their way to heaven.
Among them, he sees “the Aretine”, by which scholars think he means Benincasa da Laterino who was beheaded by the highwayman (a type of thief who robbed people while they were travelling on country roads) Ghin di Tacco of Siena.
He also mentions seeing Federigo Novello, a Tuscan man who was killed by members of an opposing clan from Arezzo, a mysterious “Pisan man”, and Count Orso degli Alberti, murdered by one of his cousins during a long-standing family feud.
You’ll notice that all the people mentioned are closely tied to a geographical specification. It’s not exactly a new thing, as Dante often situates his historical characters, presumably to strengthen his claim to realism. But in this particular canto this choice also helps him paint a picture of Italy as a patchwork of warring city-states rather than the united “garden of the Empire” he would have liked it to be.
But before he gets to the politics, Dante has a theological doubt, which he opens up to Virgil about.
Confused by how desperate to get these prayers the spirits are, Dante asks Virgil if the world of the living really is so closely connected to the realms of the afterlife.
He asks this of Virgil in particular because, in Book 6 of the Aeneid, Virgil said something like “prayer is of no avail in changing the will of the gods”, which is of course in direct contradiction to what we’re learning in Purgatorio.
In typical Virgil fashion, the poet responds that his verses were correct and their meaning obvious if you read them with a “sane mind”. What he means by this, he says, is that at the time when he was writing the Aeneid the prayers of humans had little influence on the gods (Virgil doesn’t actually find out that there is only one God - allegedly - until after his death). In Virgil’s time - namely before the Incarnation and Atonement - prayers were indeed invalid. But Christ, through his sacrifice, changed this completely.
Virgil adds that he is not the best-placed person to speak about this, given his life as a pagan, but that Beatrice, whom Dante will meet at the top of Mount Purgatory, will explain everything.
Hearing that he will see Beatrice at the end of Purgatory, Dante asks Virgil to go faster, but Virgil tells him to pace himself - going up is a lot harder than going down, so climbing Purgatory will take longer than descending into Hell did. The sun will hide behind the mountain and come back before they end their journey, so they have to find a place to rest for the night.
Virgil points to a spirit sitting by himself and says that he will tell them the way. As we’ve already seen, Purgatory-Virgil lacks the confidence we saw in Hell-Virgil and he is still looking for someone to point them in the right direction.
They approach the ghost, but unlike any other soul they’ve met thus far the man ignores them. He seems calm, but there’s a jealous territoriality in his demeanour, too.
In fact, when the poets come so close that he can’t pretend he didn’t see them anymore, instead of answering their questions, he asks them to introduce themselves.
Virgil begins by saying he is from Mantua, at which point the spirit’s demeanour changes completely. I’m your countryman, he says, Sordello. Again, we see here the geographical attachment I mentioned above. Sordello’s bond to his hometown is so strong that simply being born there, even if centuries before, makes any potential foe into a friend.
However, we will not find out who Sordello is and how he got here, because for the rest of the canto Dante goes on a rant against the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire and their severe neglect of Italian affairs.
The sight of Sordello, so keen to greet a complete stranger as a brother just because they may have once walked the same streets, creates such a great contrast to Dante’s contemporary Italy and its warring families, that he can’t help but finally condemn it.
Italy, for Dante, has become “sorrow’s resting place”, a ship without a captain and a whore.
This is because no one has stood up to the task of taking over the country* and ruling it lawfully. The emperor is distracted by his other European endeavours and has forgotten Italy, and those in power locally, he says, are making a mockery of Justinian’s law.
An interesting bit of trivia: among the local warring families that Dante mentions are the Montagues and the Capulets - yes, those Montagues and Capulets. Sort of.
It’s unclear if Shakespeare was all caught up on his Dante - although a number of his plays were set in Italy and he definitely knew Chaucer who was a big Dante fanboy, so you never know - but Dante’s portrayal could easily pass as Romeo and Juliet inspiration.
In Dante’s version of the story, the Montagues were Ghibellines and the Capulets were Guelfs, thus making the two families mortal enemies. So the storylines are not that different.
But back to us: Italy is broken and the Italians are fighting over the pieces. This is all the emperor’s fault (at the time Albert I of Habsburg had been chosen as the next Holy Roman Emperor but remained uncrowned).
By choosing not to claim the Empire and with it Italy, the would-be leader is allowing the confusion and bloodshed to continue.
There’s a lovely image in verse 112, where a personified Rome is in tears and “widowed and lonely” cries day and night asking the emperor to “say why, dear Caesar, you’re not with me now”.
In case verse 92, where he refers to the Empire as “what God intends”, was not enough indication, let me make this glaringly clear: Dante was an imperialist. At least in the 13th-century sense of the word.
The canto ends with a sarcastic attack on Florence, which, he says, is the exception to the rule. While across Italy no one wants to take a seat behind the political steering wheel, Florence and its “brilliant crew” is legislating left and right.
The comment is related to the way that various factions come into power and change the law every few months in the city. This was of course what happened to Dante himself when he was fined a sum of money he did not have for something he did not do. Safe to say that this last bit is autobiographical at best and self-serving at its worst on Dante’s part. But we love him anyway.
*Calling Dante’s Italy a “country” is anachronistic and I do it for lack of a better term. Modern Italy did not exist until 1861 and in Dante’s time the territory we refer to as Italy was divided into city-states, most of which were a part of the Holy Roman Empire.