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Dante in Siena: Inferno 10-14

Dante's Inferno:

Canto 10 | Canto 11 | Canto 12
Canto 13 | Canto 14

Ma fu' io solo, là dove sofferto
fu per ciascun di tòrre via Fiorenza,
colui che la difesi a viso aperto.

But I alone, there where all others
would have suffered Florence to be razed,
was the one who defended her openly.

Featured Dante Link:
Sandro Botticelli, Drawings of Dante
In Canto 10, we meet another of the most vivid characters in the Commedia, the disdainfully proud Florentine aristocrat Farinata degli Uberti. Just as the virtuous heathen are punished at the entrance of upper hell, the heretics are found just within the ramparts of Dis, as if theological sins are the least noxious of their respective categories. Virgil takes Dante on a slight detour through a cemetery of sarcophagi, heated with fire and with their open lids waiting on the ground. These heretics all believed in some way as Epicurus did, that the soul dies with the body, that all happiness occurs in life and one should enjoy all of life's pleasures without concern for the afterlife. According to the law of contrapasso, in which the sin becomes the punishment, these shades will be reunited with their bodies at the Last Judgment, after which soul and body will be sealed in the sarcophagi for eternity. In effect, as they believed, their souls will die with their bodies.

Farinata was condemned posthumously as a heretic for holding a version of this belief. The citizens of Florence dug up his family tomb, burned his remains, and spread them on unblessed ground. They razed all of his family's property and pledged that nothing would be allowed to stand there: in fact, much of the open space of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence today is on the site of Uberti property. Epicureanism is not at all the subject of Canto 10, however, and what Dante and Farinata speak about is the civil conflict that consumed Florence and all of Tuscany in the 13th and 14th centuries. Farinata was the scion of a powerful noble family and a member of the Ghibelline party, mostly the landed families who allied themselves with the Holy Roman Emperor against the Pope's claims on territory in central Italy.

The Ghibellines drove their opponents, the Guelfs (mostly urban families not of the old aristocracy), out of Florence, but the pendulum swung back and forth between the two sides for many years, with disastrous consequences for the city. In a scene that parodies the Gospel account of the resurrection of Jesus, Farinata rises up from his sarcophagus, having recognized Dante's Florentine accent. Using the informal tu, which means he is quite certain that Dante, whoever he is, is his social inferior, Farinata imperiously summons Dante to his side. In a hostile exchange, the Guelf Dante and the Ghibelline Farinata exchange verbal attacks. Farinata reminds Dante that twice he drove the Guelfs out of Florence, and Dante thinks he has won the confrontation because he can inform Farinata that the Guelfs have now finally defeated the Ghibellines after Farinata's death.

Gustave Doré, Virgil and Dante speak with Farinata
After another soul interrupts them briefly, for a different and also interesting conversation, which Farinata scornfully does not even seem to recognize as having happened, Farinata has the last laugh. Another Florentine, the glutton Ciacco in Canto 6, has already hinted at the trouble that awaits Dante in the near future. Although written a few years later, the poem supposedly takes place on Easter 1300, just before the conflict between the rival Guelf factions in Florence, the Whites and the Blacks, broke out that spring. Ultimately, with the help of Pope Boniface VIII, the victory of the Blacks in 1302 included a trial that found Dante and the other White leaders guilty of treason. Dante would spend the rest of his life in shameful exile, a fate that Farinata connects to a specific date.

The irony is that, while trying to disapprove of the spirit of factionalism represented by Farinata, the old Ghibelline, Dante engages in the very same party-based division that leads to his own downfall. Dante was not only a member of the Whites, but shortly after the supposed date of the journey described in the Commedia, he was elected as one of the Priors of Florence, the six-member council that acted as the city's chief executive. It is the hardening of political opposition into violent factions that undoes Florence, and Dante with it, no matter which side is up. The Ghibellines expel the Guelfs; the Guelfs expel the Ghibellines. Farinata's forces slaughtered the Florentine Guelfs at the Battle of Montaperti in 1283, which stained the Arbia red (che fece l'Arbia colorata in rosso) as Dante memorably puts it. The Ghibellines nearly decided to raze all of Florence to the ground, which was prevented only because Farinata opposed it (see the quote featured above). The ultimate Guelf victory led to the destruction of Farinata's property and his condemnation as a heretic. Yet even here at the edge of lower hell, Farinata and Dante continue to argue.

In Canto 11, as the pilgrims pause to let their noses adjust to the stench rising up from below, Virgil helps Dante understand the divisions of lower hell, where violence, fraud, and treachery are punished. The scenes of violence in the seventh circle (Canto 12) seem to be evoked in Lorenzetti's Fresco of Bad Government in Siena's Palazzo Pubblico (more on that soon), where the figure of Timor (Fear) hovers over a city and countryside terrorized by armed men. The centaurs recall the condottieri, or mercenary soldiers who alternately defended and terrorized the city-states of Italy. Also in the seventh circle are the suicides (Canto 13), who commit violence against themselves, represented chiefly by Pier della Vigna, another vivid character in the Commedia, and the blasphemers, usurers, and Sodomites (Canto 14), who commit violence against God. More about that in the next post.

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