A City's Infernal Dante Dispute

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Jon Arnold / Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy

The Duomo in Florence (left) and Dante (right)

Italian master poet Dante Alighieri was ruthless with the leaders of his day. Armed with the mightiest of quills, he used his epic poem the Divine Comedy to finger contemporary politicians for everything from corruption and treason, to usury and sodomy. He wrote that Venedico Caccianemico, the head of Bologna's Guelph faction, prostituted his own sister to gain political advantage. Trapped in the boiling tar pits and frozen lakes of hell, these politicos were doomed to eternal literary damnation.

Dante reserved his sharpest vitriol for the city fathers of his hometown Florence. Indeed, the poet's rancor for the ruling class came in large part from the 1302 decision by Florentine officials to exile him for life because of an ongoing political disagreement. "Joy to you, Florence, that your banners swell," wrote Dante in his masterwork, "beating their proud wings over land and sea/and that your name expands through all of Hell!"

Seven centuries on and Florence's city council is finally considering a symbolic end to the banishment by granting Dante a posthumous medal. A solid majority of council members voted last month to grant the poet the city's highest honor, the golden florin. Several leftists, though, voted 'no.' Nicola Rotondaro, from one of Italy's small Communist parties, said Dante doesn't need to be rehabilitated by the council. "If he'd been condemned to death, would we have been asked to resurrect him?," he quipped.

In a retort that may prolong the controversy, oh, another century or two, Pieralvise Serego Alighieri, 54, a Tuscan winegrower and Dante's most public descendant, this week said he will refuse the award on behalf of the family. The vote, he told Milan daily Corriere della Sera, fell well short of the clear mea culpa that his legendary forefather deserves. "When I read the statements [of the opponents], I could have wept," said Serego Alighieri, who wonders when Dante will "finally be left in peace."

Florence's provincial president Matteo Renzi, who was not involved in the vote, sympathizes with Alighieri and recognizes the sins of his fellow politicians. He also has no doubt about where the current crop of Italian leaders would end up in a Dantesque sequel. "He'd send us all to hell, that's for sure," says Renzi, who believes there are few examples today of Dante's ideal politician, Farinata degli Uberti, who did battle with courage, honesty and "an open face". (A small point worth noting: Dante also sends Farinata to hell because he fought for the forces that opposed him.)

The medal may be well deserved, says Renzi, but Dante long ago won the battle for the city's heart. School kids memorize key cantos from the Divine Comedy, regular public readings are held in the city's piazzas, and noted Tuscan filmmaker Roberto Benigni is famously crazy for the poet. "Every type of Florentine, from the worker to shop owner to the intellectual are all in love with Dante," Renzi says. "He's in our blood, and there's nothing we can do about it."

Perhaps Florentines see themselves in the poet's famously combative character. "We are prickly and contrarian and complicated people," says Renzi. "It is only fitting that the man who most embodies this city had to die in exile." Fitting too that Florentines are still fighting about whether to let him back in, even when he's been flowing through their soul for centuries.