The year after Dante’s birth, in 1266, this same Manfredi received in Benevento, from the Guelphs commanded by Charles of Anjou, the mortal blow that split his eyebrow, a blow that fueled the hopes of the Guelphs for a triumphant return to Florence. These hopes were dashed by Pope Clement IV when he installed in the city a government in which the quarreling parties, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, could have equal political weight.
But in the meantime another Hohenstaufen had arrived to undermine this ephemeral harmony: Conradin, the son of Conrad IV and grandson of Frederick II, coming up the Italian peninsula to contend with the pro-papacy and pro-Anjou Guelph forces, reignited the spirits of the Ghibellines. However, after the battle of Tagliacozzo of 1268, the executioner’s axe severed the head of the young Conradin in Naples, and the Ghibelline hopes along with it. All of Tuscany was on its way to being Guelph, and in the span of a couple of years both Siena (in 1269) and Pisa (in 1270) fell to the Florentine Guelphs.
Magnates and Plebeians
Nonetheless, Florence’s overwhelming victory did not foster a reconciliation between the magnates and plebeians; in 1293 the Ordinances of Justice, with Giano della Bella, implemented a pro-plebeian measure that excluded the noble families of the magnate class from political office in the city. And yet, these same plebeians in 1295 drove Giano della Bella out of Florence for not having fought against the absolution of Corso Donati, a violent magnate who had killed not only a relative but also a plebeian. The rich patrician Florentine families tried to have the law abolished in 1293, but with little result; rather, it was decided that anyone (except magnates) could aspire to be prior of the city if they were enrolled in one of the guilds. Florence thus offered the possibility of a political career to Dante who, of noble lineage but certainly not of the magnate class, enrolled in the guild of physicians and apothecaries.
However, the city offered other things, too, to Dante as well as its other citizens: the Guelph Florence of that time, not satisfied with the earlier fights with the Ghibellines who by now had been thrown out of the city, had split again into two factions, the ‘White Guelphs’ led by the Cerchi family and the ‘Black Guelphs’ led by the Donati. The fights between these two groups, with the Blacks making no secret of their liking for Pope Boniface VIII and the Whites who seemed more and more to be the heirs of the Ghibellines, saw the Blacks prevail, with the Whites being consequently driven away; among these was Dante.
Power, Riches and Betrayal
The description given us by Cacciaguida in Canto XV of Paradise is a further tool that enables us, by contrast, to understand Florence between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Dante’s ancestor, who was born in 1091 and died in the Holy Land during the second Crusade, tells his great-grandson that he lived in a virtuous, tranquil Florence, completely foreign to the intestine strife that characterized Dante’s century, a period when the Florentines still lived comfortably “within the ancient circle,” in other words within the circle of walls that tradition dates to the time of Charlemagne.
It was a sober and honest Florence, which had not yet experienced the immigration of the people who came from the surrounding countryside into the city to infect with their stink and greed the purity of those citizens. If the Florentine women in Dante’s time went around Florence “displaying bosoms with bare paps” (Purgatory XXIII, 102) and were completely shameless, like the men, in the luxury of their clothing, the Florentines whom Cacciaguida knew shunned the vanity of ostentation and lived in virtuous moderation with healthy customs. The poet’s ancestor, in short, had not lived during the historical moment when the prospects of gain fed the art of commerce thanks to which, in the span of a century and a half, Florence became one of Europe’s major centers of economic power. Cacciaguida’s Florence, in a word, represents the alter ego of Dante’s Florence.
A Growing City
The “ancient circle” of walls of which Cacciaguida spoke was no longer sufficient to encompass the city that was in full demographic expansion well before Dante was born. The urbanization resulting from the “immigration” of people from the Fiesole area made it indispensable in 1173 to build a new circle of walls circumscribing an area of 95 hectares, five times larger than the size of the city in Roman times. And not only that: in order for the urban face of Florence to mirror the growing prestige it was gaining, it began to adorn itself with architectural works worthy of such a city. Dante could not see those proud, haughty tower houses, some of which were as tall as 130 braccia (about 76 meters) – which a law of 1258 decreed had to be lowered to a maximum of 50 – but he did see the monumental development of the layout of the city which was being adapted to the role that Florence was taking on.
Sacred and Secular Development
This was the Florence that Dante was forced to abandon after he was sentenced to exile, the Florence against which he did not hesitate to hurl accusations and invectives laden with resentment.