Dante’s Florence

The year that Dante was born, 1265, Florence was going through one of the most difficult, but also most dynamic, periods of its history. Five years earlier, at Montaperti, the Ghibelline troops of Siena, allied with Manfredi, son of Frederick II of Sicily, had routed the Guelph faction that now had to go into exile, leaving the city in the hands of the victorious side.

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

Dante’s Florence, a dynamic and complex city, was also torn apart internally and constantly subject to civil strife. While the Guelph party was taking control of the city, the contrasts grew increasingly acute between the magnates, the rich Florentine merchants who belonged to the major guilds (the Arti Maggiori), and the plebeians who made up the minor guilds, the Arti Minori. The tensions created by these two sides accompanied Dante’s youth, and he fought with the Guelphs at Campaldino in 1289 against the Ghibelline city of Arezzo.

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


This was the Florence that Dante personally experienced, and this was the Florence that he stigmatized in the canticles of the Divine Comedy, a Florence corrupted by the lust for power and money, but above all a Florence that had betrayed his love for his native city. Power, riches, betrayal – these are the town’s three social ills. Nonetheless, Dante’s Florence is not just this, because another Florence exists, that is to say the Florence the poet wanted it to be and which really did exist before his time, a city that we could call utopian and that acts as a counterbalance to the one he knew.

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 poet, as we have said, lived the first thirty-five years of his life in a city in open turmoil, and not only from the political standpoint: also in terms of urban development, the city in the final decades of the thirteenth century was a veritable open-air building site which reflected, in a certain sense, its social dynamism.

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


Development in both the sacred and secular realms: in 1284 the Florentine government decided to build another circuit of walls, finished only in 1333, which brought the city to a total area of 506 hectares. In that same year 1284, the four city gates were built: the Porta al Prato, Porta San Gallo, Porta alla Croce, and Porta a Faenza. In 1294 the decision was made to build what is now Palazzo Vecchio, which was then begun in 1299. In 1286 Folco Portinari founded Santa Maria Nuova hospital for public benefit in the same span of time in which the religious side of Florence was building and enlarging its most important religious architecture for the care and salvation of souls. In those years the marble sheathing of “beautiful San Giovanni” was finished, and in 1289 attention turned to enlarging the square where the baptistery stood. In 1296, a solemn ceremony marked the commencement of renovations to the cathedral of Santa Reparata facing it. Construction work by religious orders kept up the pace, with the Franciscans building the church of Santa Croce and the Dominicans Santa Maria Novella.
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.