The Contrasts in Dante

The Contrasts in Dante



ON 24th OCTOBER, 1906



Accademico Corrispondente della Crusca in Italy.


The Contrasts in the Divina Commedia, and especially that between

Count Guido da Monte-
feltro, the father, lost,
(Inf. XXVII., 1-132).
andafter 70 till death.

Guido here means that he had reached the fourth period of his life, Senility or Decrepitude. In Convivio, IV., cap, 28, there are continual allusions to the metaphor of an aged man lowering his sails that he may enter the Heavenly Port.

Guide now tells Dante the strange combination of events which brought him into the counsels of Boniface. Martin IV. was dead, and the timid Celeatine V. had given way to Boniface VIII,, who now aat upon the Papal Throne. His election had been opposed by the Cardinals Giacomo and Pietro Colonna, and the new Pope's wrath culminated in a fierce civil war, in which he proclaimed a Crusade against them. He succeeded in depriving them of all their possessions, with the exception of the mountain stronghold of Paleatrina (the mediseval name for which was Peneatrino, from the ancient name Praeneate). Being baffled in his attempts to take it by force, the Pope suddenly bethought him of the well-known cunning and strategy of the Franciscan Friar, who had been the most astute statesman and military leader of his day, and we shall hear how he sought him out, and partly by persuasion and partly by intimidation, obtained from him the counsel he required.

The Prince of the modern Pharisees, having war near the Lateran, and not with Saracens nor with Jews; for every enemy of his was Christian, and none had been to conquer Acre, nor to traffick in the Soldan's territory. Neither his exalted office, nor his Holy Orders did he regard in himself, nor in me that cord which used to render those begirt with it more emaciated.

The palaces of the Colonna with whom the Pope was at war, were near the Lateran; and the war itself was not a holy Crusade for the cause of religion, but one for Pope Boniface's own personal interests. The old Commentators believed that Count Guide's repentance had been, up to a certain time, very real. He conformed most rigidly to the rule of the Minor Friars, donning their garb, and begging his bread publicly in the streets of Ancona. It is related that on one occasion he was riding on an ass into the city of Fano, and near the gate of that town a number of asses began to bray, and the bystanders to laugh. Whereupon the Count, for all that he was a Friar, lost his temper, and said: " There was a time when I have been round Fano with more hundreds of mounted men-at-arms than there are asses here," and he spoke the truth; for as long as it had been in his power, he had always been a standing menace to Bomagna.

Guido compares the Pope's application to him for counsel to the legend that the Emperor Constantino once sought out Pope Sylvester in the caverns under Mount Soracte to cure him of his leprosy.

But as Constantine besought Sylvester within Soracte to cure him of the leprosy, so did he (Boniface) beseech me as a physician to cure him of the fever of his arrogance (i.e., to gratify his heated desire to be revenged upon the Colonna); he asked of me counsel, and I kept silence, because his words seemed drunken.

The word Maestro, in its primary sense, means an expert in anything, whether trade, or science, or handicraft. Buti and many of the old Commentators interpret it here as "medico," (a doctor), and in. the Decameron Boccaccio wes it continually in that sense.

To remove Guide's scruples, the Pope promised him absolution beforehand for any sin he might commit.

And then he said to me: "Let not thy heart misgive thee: from this moment I absolve thee, and do thou teach me so to contrive that I may hurl down Palestrina to the ground, I have the power, as thou knowest, both to close and to open Heaven; for which purpose two are the keys (committed to me) which my predecessor held not dear."

Guido goes on to relate how he yielded to the Pope's persuasions, which moreover, he hints, were of so cogent and authoritative a nature, that it would probably have cost him his life or his liberty to have resisted them.

Then did his weighty arguments impel me to that point where to be silent seemed to me to be the worst counsel, and I said; " Father, since thou dost cleanse me from that sin into which I now must fall (this is my advice). Long promise with short (i.e., only partial) keeping will make thee triumph on the High Seat."

There is a terrible irony in these words, when one thinks of the last vindictive humiliations that Boniface himself underwent at the hands of Sciarra di Colonna, and which moved even Dante to pity his fallen foe. We are left to infer that Guido deluded himself into a false security from the absolution given to him beforehand, and that he lived on in this delusion for the remaining year of his life as in a dream, from which he was rudely awakened by the reality of finding that the Fiend had triumphed over St. Francis in the contention for his sonl. If he had not been fully persuaded of the efficacy of the Pope's absolution, he would have obtained it anew after due contrition and penitence.

Francis came for me afterwards, as soon as I was dead, but one of the black Cherubim (interposing) said to him: "Bear him not away; defraud me not. He has got to come down among my minions, because he gave the fraudulent counsel, from which time I have been (clutching) at his hair. For he who does not repent cannot be absolved, nor is it possible to repent and to will at the same time, by reason of the contradiction which allows it not." Ah wretched me! how I' re-awakened (i.e., how my eyes were suddenly opened) when he seized me, saying to me: "Thou didst not imagine perchance that I was a logician!"

Observe the force of the fiendish dialectic! No one can be absolved from a sin unless he has repented of it. Guide could not assuredly repent by anticipation of the sin which he had the will in his soul to commit; therefore the absolution was null and void, and he died in sin. Man repents of what he would not willingly have done; but to repent of a trespass, and to will to trespass, is the same time as repenting and not repenting at the same time; which involves a contradiction.

There is little more for Guide to tell Dante. The Demon's action is exceedingly prompt, and the routine of Dante's Hell has little variation, except that even in Minos the enormity of Guide's crime would seem to have aroused especial indignation.

"To Minos he bore me: and he round his stubborn back eight times did coil his tail, and then when from great fury he had bitten it, said: This is one of the sinners of the thievish fire (i.e., the flame which conceals its prey): wherefore I, where thou seest, am lost, and going thus attired, I bemoan me."

Guido's story is now told. He has no wish to be recalled to memory, and as he utters his last mournful words, he hurries away, whereupon the Poets pass on to the top of the bridge that overhangs the next Bolgia.

When he had thus completed his tale, the flame in anguish speeded away, twisting and flapping its sharp horn.

Benvenuto da Imola thinks the chief cause of Quido's anguish was the thought of how little all his wisdom and cunning had availed him.

Among the lost souls in Hell, some have entreated Dante to mention their names on earth, as, for instance, Ciacco, in Inf, VI.; Pier delle Vigne', Canto XIII.; Brunetto Latini, Canto XV.; and the three noble Florentines in Canto XVI.; but the fallen great man, to whose grievous tale Dante has been listening, has no wish to be remembered, nor, having died apparently in the odour of sanctity, desires that his reputation should be tarnished by it being recorded that Dante had seen him in nearly the lowest depths of Hell.

Buonconte da Montefeltro.
Purgatorio V.

While Dante, in company with Virgil, is clambering up the rocky heights of Ante-Purgatory, by a path so. exceedingly steep that it reminds him of the precipitous cliffs that overhang Noli on the Comiche Boad between Nice and G^noa, his attention is arrested by the exclamations of a group of spirits, who, at the sight of his shadow, are struck with wonder and amazement. Dante is by no means displeased at the notice he is attracting, but Yirgil reproves him for giving heed to such a light wind as the praises of the populace. How does he know that he merits it?

Dante neither resents Virgil's reproof, nor makes any endeavour to excuse his fault, but reverently amends it.

It is at this point that the Poets encounter another group of spirits who, as they advance, devoutly sing the Miserere. They come along the hill-side, on the level, but not ascending it, which their penance for the nonce forbids them to do. These are they who died violent I deaths, and deferred repentance till their last hour. Again, we have the same outspoken expression of wonder on the part of the spirits at the evidence, afforded by Dante's shadow, of his being alive; and two of them issuing from the band, rush forward to question him. One of these is Jacopo del Cassero (whose conversation with Dante we shall not discuss to-day), the other is Buonconte da Montefeltro. What so greatly excites their wonder is the fact that Dante alone, among all that are present, has not deferred his repentance either until his old age, or until his death. They ask Dante to make them cognizant of his condition. Virgil replies, and tells them that if from their having noticed Dante's shadow they stood still, they are correct in assuming that his body is very flesh. Let them do him honour, and it may be of value to them. The two messenger spirits, on hearing Virgil's words, dart away, and Dante compares the rapidity with which they return to him with the whole band, to the flash of a falling star. Virgil forbids Dante to stop, but tells him he may listen to the spirits as be walks on. He evidently wishes to put a cheek on any undue delay, as Dante had expended a good deal of time in his long interview with King Manfred. The spirits, however, are cruelly disappointed by Virgil's prohibiton, and having failed to detain Dante, they appeal to his sympathy by relating their violent deaths, and their tardy repentance at the last hour. They ask him to look and see if he recognises any of them, in order that he may bear tidings of them when he returns to the world. Dante confesses that their faces are all unknown, to him, but he solemnly assures them that on his return to the world he will comply with their petitions. The spirits are much moved by this assurance, and it would seem that at this point three of them step forth from the rest, and in turn make known their identity, and request Dante's good offices with their friends on earth. Of the first of these, Jacopo del Cassero of Fano, who had been Podesta of Bologna in 1296, it is beside our purpose to speak to-day. The other two are Buonconte da Monte- feltro and Pia (born of the Tolomei) of Siena.

Buonconte da Montefeltro was the eldest son of his famous father, Count Guido. He commanded the Ghibelline forces at the battle of Campaldino, in 1289, in which battle Dante, when 24 years of age, had been one of the combatants in the Guelph army, where be fought side by with Bernardino da Polenta, brother of Francesca da Rimini, and from him Dante probably first heard the story of his unhappy sister's fate. The Guelph army, under Amerigo da Narbona, consisted of the Guelph citizens, who, having been banished from Arezzo, had formed a league with the Guelph states of Florence, Bologna,, Lucca and Pistoja; while the army of Arezzo, under Buonconte da Montefeltro, represented the Ghibellines. Dr. Moore (Dante and his early Biographers) remarks that although the battle as a whole was a decisive victory for the Guelph forces, in the part of it where Dante was fighting on horseback in the very front rank, the Aretines were successful, the Florentine cavalry being disastrously routed, and Dante very narrowly escaped with his life. Benvenuto da Imola asserts that by this victory not only was the arrogance of the people of Arezzo subdued, but, besides that, the power of the whole Ghibelline party was greatly attenuated.

We will now read the text of Buonconte's conversation with Dante:—

Poi disse un altro; "Deh, se quel disio85
Si compia che ti tragge all'alto monte.
Con buona pïetate aiuta il mio.
Io sui di Montef eltro, io son Buonconte;
Giovanna, o altri non ha di me cura;
Perch'io vo tra costor con bassa fronte."90
Ed io a lui : Qual forza, o qual ventura
Ti traviò si fuor di Campaldino,
Che non si seppe mai tua sepoltura?"—
"Oh,—" rispos'egli,—"appiè del Casentino
Traversa un'acqua che ha nome Tarchiano,90
Che sopra TErmo nasce in Apennino.
Dove il vocabol suo diventa vano
Arriva'io forato nella gola,
Fuggendo a piede e sanguinando il piano.
Quivi perdei la vista, e la parola100
Nel nome di Maria finii, e quivi
Caddi, e rimase la mia carne sola.
Io dirò il vero, e tu il ridi' tra i vivi;
L' Angel di Dio mi prese, e quel d'infemo
Gridava: "tu del ciel, perche mi privi?105
Tu te ne porti di costui Teterno
Per una lagrimetta che il mi toglie;
Ma io farò dell'altro altro govemo."—
Ben sai come neiraere si raccoglie

Quell'umido vapor che in acqua riede,
Tosto che sale dove il freddo il coglie.110
Giunse quel mal voler, che pur mal chiede,
Con l'intelletto, e mosse il fummo e il vento
Per la virtù che sua natura diede.
Indi la valle, come il di fu spento,115
Da Pratomagno al gran giogo coperse
Di nebbia, e il ciel di sopra fece intento
Si, che il pregno aere in acqua si converse:
La pioggia cadde, ed ai fossati venne
Di lei ciò che la terra non sofferse:120
E come a'rivi grandi si convenne,
Vêr lo fiume real tanto veloce
Si ruinò, che nulla la ritenne.
Lo corpo mio gelato in sulla foce
Trovo l'Archian rubesto; e quel sospinse135
Nell'Arno, e sciolse al mio petto la croce
Ch'io fei di me quando il dolor mi vinse:
Voltommi per le ripe e per lo fondo,
Poi di sua preda mi coperse e cinse."

Buonconte tells Dante his name, at the same time complaining of the apathy of his wife and his kindred, who seemingly had as yet done nothing to extricate him from his detention in Ante-Purgatory. His desire is that Dante should go to Urbino, and get prayers and masses offered up for his soul, in order that thereby he may be allowed to enter the gates of Purgatory, and after due purgation obtain further permission to win his way up to Paradise, It was by such intercessions that Dante's great personal friend, Forese de 'Donati (in Purgatario XXIII., 85, et seq.) tells Dante that his wife Nella "with her-overflowing tearw, brought him to drink the sweet wormwood of these torments."

Buonconte continues:—

"I was a Montefeltro, I am Buonconte: Neither Giovanna nor others give heed to me; therefore must I go among these spirits with downcast brow."

It was known that Buonconte had fallen in the battle of Campaldino, but as his body had never been identified among the slain, Dante, anxious to ascertain the true facts, represents himself as seeking the information from Buonconte himself.

And I to him: " What force or what chance caused thee to stray so far from Campaldino, that thy place of sepulture never was known?"

Buonconte, in reply, gives Dante circumstantial details as to the manner and place of his death, and how his soul was saved at the last moment by the powers of good prevailing over the powers of evil; and it is at this special point that we see, strongly accentuated, the contrast between the fate of two members of the same family. The father. Count &uido, as we have read above, was carried away by a Devil out of the very hands of St. Francis himself for a single speech of evil counsel which annulled all the fruits of his penitence. We now hear of a similar contest between the Angel and the Devil for the spirit of the son, where a single sigh uttered to the Virgin Mary, and the arms folded into the sign of the Cross upon the dying warrior's breast decides the contest in favour of the Angel, leaving the Devil to wreak his disappointment and wrath upon the dead body.

"Oh," answered he, " at the foot of the Casentino there takes its course a stream that is named the Archiano, which rises above the Hermitage (i.e., Camaldoli) in the Apennines. There, where its name comes to an end (i.e., at the point, two miles from Campaldino, where the Archiano flows into the Amo) I arrived, pierced through the throat, fleeing away on foot, and staining the plain with my blood. There my sight failed me, and I ended my power of utterance with the name of Mary, and there I sank down, and my flesh alone was left. I will speak the truth, and do thou report it again among the living; the Angel of God took me, and the one from Hell exclaimed: 'O thou from Heaven, why dost thou rob me? Thou bearest away the eternal portion of him for one small tear that snatches him from me? I will, however, deal in another fashion with the other (i.e., with the mortal portion) .'"

And now Dante, in order to relate how the Devil raised a tempest which filled the livers to overflowing, bo that they should sweep away and conceal the body of Buonconte, gives a description of the formation of rain, and makes Buonconte show how the Fiend used his diabolical intelligence to adapt the elements to his evil purposes.

Thou knowest well how there gets collected in the atmosphere that humid vapour which is re-converted into water, ao soon as it rises up to where the cold condenses into rain. He (the Devil) joined that malign will, which desires naught but ill, to his demoniacal intelligence, and stirred np the smoky mist and the wind, by that power which his (angelic) nature imparted to him. Then as soon as the day was spent, he covered with mist the (whole) valley from Pratomagno to the great mountain chain (i.e., the Apennines), and made the sky above to be so compressed, that the charged air was converted into water: down poured the rain, and what of it the earth could not absorb ran into the watercourses; and as it joined with the mighty torrents, it rushed headlong towards the kingly river (the Amo) with such impetuosity that nothing could check its course. The impetuous Archiano found my frozen body near its outfall, and swept it into the Amo, and loosened from my breast the Cross that I had made of myself (by folding my arms across my breast) when the deathagony overcame me: it (the Amo) rolled me along its banks, and over its bottom, after which it covered and entangled me with its spoils (i.e., with the mud, gravel, weeds and branches which were being swept along by the swollen current).

The old Commentator Benvenuto da Imola launches out into a burst of admiration at the beauty of the above passage, in which Dante represents himself as having been ignorant of the place where Buonconte was buried, but puts the revelation of the mystery into that warrior's own mouth, and begs his readers to consider with what art the Poet has elevated a subject which was, in itself, humble and of no great importance.

We have now brought to a conclusion the striking contrast between the death-scene of Guide, the father, and Buonconte, the son, noticing the dissimilarity in the subsequent fate of each ; and here my Lecture would end, were it not that the last seven lines of the Canto contain an episode which, some think, surpasses in beauty any in the Commedia, and I have ventured to include it in our subject.

We mentioned above that seemingly three spirits had stepped forward out of the band. The narrative of Jacopo del Cassero we omitted; we have given full consideration to that of Buonconte da Montefeltro; and now we find that the third spirit of the three makes her petition to Dante. This is Pia, generally reported to have been of the Tolomei family of Siena, a statement which is supported by Benvenuto and the Anonimo Fiorentino. This Pia must not be confused with Pia Guastelloni, widow of Baldo Tolomei, who was still living in 1318. The name of her husband was Paganello (shortened into Nello) deTannocchieschi, lord of the Castle of la Pietra, nine miles to the east of Massa Marittima. He was Podesta of Volterra in 1277 and of Lucca in 1313. He was alive, and made a will, in 1318. It is said that Nello wanted to get rid of Pia in order that he might be free to marry the beautiful Margherita degli Aldobrandeschi, the widow of Guy de Montfort. According to some, he caused his retainers to hurl her out of a window of his castle in the Maremma down the tremendous precipice below. Another account says that Nello simply waited until the pestilential air of the district, so fatal to life, should destroy her. But Dante has not chosen, in her case to lift the veil that hangs over her mysterious fate, as he has done in the case of Buonconte da Montefeltro.

Pia tells her sad story in a few simple sentences, hut so clearly and so tersely, that the passage has always been reputed to be one of those that demonstrates to the fullest extent Dante's marvellous power of condensed narrative.

"Deh, quando tu sarai tomato al mondo,130
     E riposato della lunga via,
     Seguito il terzo apirito al secondo,
"Ricorditi di me, che son la Pia:
     Siena mi fe', disfecemi Maremma :
     Salsi colui che innanellata, pria135
Disposanda, m'avea con la sua gemma."

"Ah, when thou shalt have returned to the world, and rested thyself from the long journey," the third spirit followed on to the second, " Remember me who am Pia: Siena made me, Maremma unmade me; that man, my husband, knows it, who, first plighting troth, had wedded me with his ring."

Some read disposata, but whichever reading be adopted, the passage is an exceedingly difficult one to translate correctly. Construe it thus: "Salsi colui, he knows it, che who pria disposando first plighting troth, innanellata m'avea had wedded me con la sua gemma with his ring." Jacopo del Caasero wishes to be remembered by the people of Fano; Buonconte by his wife, the Countess Giovanna; but Pia has no name in her domestic sanctuary, and can only rely on the compassionate feelings of Dante. Observe, too, the womanly tenderness as well as the high-bred politeness of Pia, who only begs Dante to think of her on earth, after that he shall be able to do ao without inconvenience to himself. Neither of the male spirits had made any such reservation in their eager requests that Dante would urge their friends to pray for them.

I am anxious to add to this lecture an expression of my deep sense of the honour which the Council of the Manchester Dante Society have done me by inviting me to deliver the first lecture out of the many which I trust that they will listen to in the future.

In a conversation which I was privileged to have this morning with the Dean of Manchester, the Right Rev. Bishop Welldon, he cordially agreed with me in the strong conviction that in the cultured city of Manchester,—which I may be permitted to term the Athens of North England, as Edinburgh is said to be of North Britain,—there ought not only to be a Dante Society, but also a good and a permanent one—one that should be attended by those who really study Dante, and not only by audiences assembled to listen to an interesting discourse. Really to know Dante is to love him—but the study of him without such love is but an arid pursuit, and one doomed to disappointment.

  1. furo : Compare furto in Inf. xxxvi 41, where furto signifies the thing "stolen away from sight "hidden"; as in Racine's Athalie, Act 1. sc. 2. where the High Priest Jehoiada (Joad) tells Princess Jehosheba (Juabel) that the time is come to reveal existence of the young King Josah, whom she has so fortunately hidden awaay from the venngenace of Athaliah. He speaks of the King as her "happy theft:"

    "Les temps sont accomplis. Princesse, Il Faut parler,
    Et votre heureux laryin ne peut plus ne cacher."

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1919, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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