Dante on Trial

Dante recognizing his former teacher Brunetto Latini among the damned; engraving by Gustave Doré for Canto 15 of Dante’s Inferno

When the Black Guelfs seized power in Florence in November 1301 through a coup d’état backed by Pope Boniface VIII, their first order of business was to liquidate their political enemies among the White Guelfs.1 Dante Alighieri, who was away on a diplomatic mission at the time, was one of them. On January 27, 1302, he was found guilty of corruption, extortion, and misuse of public funds during his two-month term as city prior (the highest office in Florentine government) in 1300. After failing to challenge the court order against him, Dante was condemned in absentia to permanent exile.

The transcripts of his sentence state that Dante had been prosecuted per inquisitionem, or according to inquisitorial procedures, after “public reports” about his crimes had “reached the ears and notice of the court.” The proceedings were politically motivated, without doubt, yet the court that sentenced him had followed legal protocol; and in Dante’s time criminal convictions were far more difficult to nullify than political banishments. He never set foot in Florence again.

For Dante the injury of exile went deeper than the hardships of poverty, homelessness, and loss of social status, about which he complained bitterly in his letters and the works he wrote after being exiled.2 It also went deeper than the loss of citizenship, which he cherished more than any other earthly blessing (see Paradiso 8: 115–117). What hurt Dante the most was the “infamy” of his conviction, based as it was on hearsay evidence that resulted in a permanent defamation of his character. Alluding to the way many Florentines simply assumed he was guilty as charged and unleashed a public outcry against him, Dante would later write about wandering all around Italy “displaying against my will the wound of fortune for which the wounded one is often unjustly accustomed to be held accountable.”

The shame and indignation Dante felt at being chased from his nest by his fellow citizens never diminished with time. At the end of his life the wound remained as raw in his psyche as when disaster first struck in 1301. The Divine Comedy was conceived and completed within the dark, lacerated depths of a pain that Dante transmuted into a poetic rage against the machine—the defective machine of earthly justice that had unjustly condemned him and that he believed stood in desperate need of rescue, the way his pilgrim needed rescue in the dark wood of Inferno 1. (Dante soon became convinced that only a sovereign emperor who was above partisan politics and did not share temporal power with the church could administer justice properly throughout Europe).

In the best book on Dante to appear in years, Justin Steinberg shows how many of the Commedia’s major elements—the punitive system of Inferno, the…

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