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Fathers and Sons: Dante's 700th Anniversary



“Like Father.. Like Son?”

Family relationships in Dante’s Divine Comedy



“In these verses the divine Poet points to the definitive goal of existence, where the passions subside and where man discovers his end-point and his extraordinary vocation as one called to contemplate the divine Mystery.”

So declared Pope John Paul II, at a reading of Dante’s Divina Commedia, or Divine Comedy, at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo, on 31 August 1997.[1]


The Commedia, as it is known, is a classic in truest sense of the word – it is an epic poem that speaks to us of universal, eternal themes, which transcend time and culture.[2] At its simplest level, the Divine Comedy is about the journey made by Dante’s literary alter-ego, the pilgrim, down through the depths of Hell, up the seven terraces of Mount Purgatory, and through the celestial spheres of Paradise, to contemplate the Beatific Vision. In each circle, level, and sphere, Dante meets a number of souls – those who are condemned to eternal punishment, those who are in a state of purgation, and those who are enjoying everlasting bliss – many of whom were personalities of his own day, from his native city of Florence, and from throughout the Italian peninsula and beyond. They include lovers, gluttons, sodomites, suicides, thieves, soldiers, priests, bishops, artists, popes, poets, kings, nuns, monks.. the list goes on! What was revolutionary, indeed daring, was the way in which Dante placed many of the most prominent people of his time in the most abject locations.


In one circle of Hell – that of the Simonists, or fraudulent purveyors of ecclesiastical offices – we encounter the soul of Pope Nicholas III, head-down in a circular hole, with the soles of his feet sticking out, licked by tongues of flame. The hole is meant to represent an infernal pocket, mirroring the pockets of the clerics themselves, which were filled with illicitly-gained money during their lifetimes. Clearly, Dante does not hold back on making his own judgement of the rich and powerful!


Oceans of ink have been spilled in praise of this literary masterpiece over the seven centuries since Dante’s death in 1321. This present discussion will introduce one theme that has never been adequately discussed: namely, relationships between family members, particularly between father and son.


Dante was born in the Tuscan city of Florence in May or June 1265.

His Christian name – Dante – or Durante, from his maternal grandfather Durante Scolaro, means ‘enduring’. His surname – Alighieri – is taken from the Latin word ‘aliger’, meaning ‘winged’. The notion of an ancient lineage, together with a name charged with noble significance, must have inspired in him a strong sense of destiny and of family pride.


His father, Alighiero Alighieri, was around 45 years old when Dante was born. By all accounts, Alighiero was a man of property, and his income was supplemented by his practice of lending money to others at favourable rates, an activity that Dante would later condemn as usury (cf. Inferno XI, 50).

Dante’s mother, Bella, died when he was a child, between 1270 and 1275, and his father then remarried. Dante does not really mention this second family in his writings. His father died when he was in his late teens, some time between 1281 and 1283, and Dante came under the authority of a guardian until the age of 25. Perhaps the early loss of his mother, and then the loss of his father, helps to explain the images of parenthood that are present in the Commedia.

Several times, in the poem, he compares himself to a child, in need of protection.


Dante’s surrogate parent was the city of Florence – he was a Florentine to his very core, and he played an active part in the political life of the city. In 1301, he was exiled from her, when a power shift led to an opposing faction assuming control. Dante was to spend the next 20 years of his life as a homeless, stateless poet, reliant on the good will of distinguished patrons from other Italian cities, who would offer him sanctuary and a precarious living. Florence’s son had become a wanderer, permanently estranged from her. As Dante remarks in the prophecy given by his ancestor Cacciaguida, “You will leave behind everything beloved most dearly, and this is the arrow that the bow of exile first lets fly. You will experience how salty tastes the bread of another, and what a hard path it is to descend and mount by another’s stairs.” (Paradiso XVII, 55-60).

The psychological effects of this bitter blow of exile from his beloved city, compounded by a subsequent death sentence issued in absentia, cannot be over-emphasised. Dante was again bereft of a ‘loving parent’.


It has been suggested by scholars that Dante paints various compensatory portraits of father-figures in his Commedia. Certainly, the relationship between the fictional character of Dante the pilgrim and the Roman poet Virgil – who acts as his guide through the circles of Hell – has been described in terms of a son-father relationship. Dante the pilgrim’s opening words to him are those of a literary son: “O honour and light of the other poets, let my long study and great love avail me, that has caused me to search through your volume. You are my master and my author, you alone are he from whom I have taken the pleasing style that has won me honour.” (Inferno I, 82-87).


Another such relationship was with Brunetto Latini (c. 1220-1294), an eminent Florentine scholar, notary, magistrate, and man of letters. When Dante knew him, Brunetto would have been in his 60s – about the same age as his own father. Brunetto encouraged the young man in his studies, and was awarded with a sympathetic, poignant portrait of himself in the Commedia: “for in my memory is fixed, and now it weighs on my heart, the dear, kind paternal image of you when, in the world, from time to time you used to teach me how man makes himself eternal” (Inferno XV, 82-85). However, Dante’s feelings of affection and esteem for Brunetto did not stand in the way of the poet placing his former mentor in Hell, in the Circle of the Sodomites. The demands of divine justice must always take precedence over personal and familial relationships.


One area of interest for our poet was the question of heredity, and his theories on this subject were quite radical for his time: he insisted that nobility was not something that was passed on from father to son; rather, Dante believed that human worth seldom ascended from branch to branch of the family tree, but rather was “willed by him who gives it, that it may be attributed to him” (Purgatorio VII, 122-123). Dante had long been interested in this question, and had written at length on the nature of true nobility (or “gentilezza”, as it was termed) in Book 4 of his own unfinished work, the Convivio. In the Commedia he does more than write about this theme: he reveals to us how he views this matter by showing us fathers who are damned while their sons are saved.


Take the case of Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti and his son Guido. In the tenth canto of Inferno, Dante the pilgrim and his spectral guide Virgil find themselves in the sixth circle of Hell, the circle of the Heretics. In a very memorable episode, they encounter the proud but patriotic Farinata degli Uberti, the Florentine leader of the Ghibellines, the political party that supported the candidacy of the Holy Roman Emperor in the so-called ‘Investiture Contest’. This was a controversy that existed between Church (the Pope) and State (the Holy Roman Emperor) in medieval Europe, and it related to the ability to choose and install bishops, abbots of monasteries, and even the Pope himself. Next to the haughty Farinata, on his knees, is the soul of Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, a member of the opposing Guelf (pro-papacy) political party, and thus an opponent of Farinata whilst they lived on earth. Cavalcante attempted to heal the bitter political rift between the two factions by marrying off his own son Guido to Farinata’s daughter, Beatrice degli Uberti. During his life, Cavalcante denied the immortality of the soul; he is condemned to spend eternity in Hell, in a fiery tomb. The fact that Dante the poet has placed Cavalcante and Farinata next to one another in the same tomb is part of their contrapasso, or eternal punishment that is appropriate to the sin they committed. Both men feuded bitterly on earth; now they will have to endure one another’s company in Inferno, united in the same tomb that they both proclaimed with such vigour to be the end of all life. What of Guido? It is clear that the soul of Cavalcante is still greatly interested in his son, and enquires of him. The fact that Dante the pilgrim does not answer Cavalcante’s question, but refers to Guido using the past definite tense in Italian, gives the shade of the father an indication that his own son is dead. Guido does not feature in the Commedia, since the fictional action is set during Holy Week and Easter of 1300, and he did not die until August of that year.


Guido was referred to by the author as his ‘first friend’ in one of Dante’s youthful works, the semi-autobiographical Vita Nuova, or ‘New Life’.

Guido was a fellow poet, some 10 or 15 years older than Dante. The fourteenth-century Florentine writer and biographer of Dante – Giovanni Boccaccio –

described Guido de’ Cavalcanti as an epicurean and an unbeliever. One wonders whether Dante would have placed him in the same tomb as his father, had Guido died before the date of composition of the Inferno! During their time in Florence, the two young men would send each other copies of their own poetic efforts, written in the ‘dolce stil novo’, or ‘sweet new style’. Their friendship subsequently cooled, possibly due to their divergent philosophical views and spiritual beliefs. In his own writings, Dante maintained that mind and body, or sense and intellect, are integrated; Guido conceived of them as separate and opposing elements. Dante’s rejected his older friend’s theory of love as determined by the physics of the body, believing that the idea of love is deeply rooted in transcendent values.


There are many other souls of the damned in the Circle of Heretics (’twas ever thus, we might say!). One of them is the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, a direct contemporary of Farinata, and around whose banner he rallied, and whose claim to supremacy he supported. It is surely only fitting that both their souls now spend all of eternity in the same circle of Hell. Frederick II was the son of Constance of Sicily, the Norman heiress to the Kingdom of Sicily, and of Henry VI, the German Holy Roman Emperor. Frederick, known as ‘stupor mundi’ (‘the wonder of the world’), was a true polymath, whose intellectual knowledge and breadth of interests was indeed impressive. Frederick was crowned emperor at Rome in 1220, but because of his failure to keep a crusade vow, he was excommunicated by Pope Gregory IX in 1127. He was known to espouse the philosophy of Epicurus, hence his location in this particular circle of Hell.

What is interesting from the perspective of this present discussion is the fact that Dante the poet damns the father, and pardons the son. Whilst the soul of Frederick II endures eternal suffering, his (albeit illegitimate) son Manfred is held in higher esteem by the poet: we come across Manfred not in Inferno, but in Purgatorio; he is located at the foot of Mount Purgatory, along with the other souls of the contumacious but repentant. As Manfred recounts to Dante the pilgrim and Virgil: “After I had my body broken by two mortal thrusts, I gave myself up, weeping, to him who gladly pardons. Horrible were my sins; but the infinite Goodness has such open arms that it takes whatever turns to it” (Purgatorio III, 121-23). Little wonder that scholar Mark Balfour commented on this scene in the following manner: “the damnation of the one adds to the narrative surprise of the other’s salvation.”


Balfour’s statement was also made in relation to another father-son relationship in the Commedia, that of Guido and Bonconte da Montefeltro. Again, like Farinata, Guido da Montefeltro was a renowned Ghibelline captain, who dominated much of the Romagna region in the last quarter of the thirteenth century. We meet him lower down in Inferno, in the eighth circle of Hell, in one of the lowest evil pockets, or malebolge, assigned to those who were fraudulent counsellors (cf. Inferno XXVII). After an early career as an excommunicated military leader and a shrewd strategist, he was readmitted back into the fold of Holy Mother Church by Pope Boniface VIII in 1296, in order that Guido could enter the Franciscan Order, and retreat from the secular world. His newfound spiritual tranquillity did not last long; the same pope who readmitted him to the Church now called in his favour and asked Guido for his advice on how to storm the fortress of an opposing noble family. Guido suggested that Pope Boniface promise his enemies an amnesty, in order to draw them out of their defensive position, so that they would then be vulnerable and easy to eliminate. For this fraudulent counsel, Guido is consigned to Hell.


The supreme irony here is that Boniface VIII proves himself to be a more fraudulent counsellor than even Guido: Dante the poet portrays the pontiff as an unscrupulous and deceitful ruler who convinces Guido to assent to his request by promising him absolution for his transgressions – even for those sins that he has not yet committed! This is only a small part of a larger condemnatory character study of Boniface VIII, whose worldly ambitions Dante blamed for the contemporary political chaos and factional bloodshed in his native lands.

It is clear that this particular ‘Holy Father’ was certainly not considered a positive paternal role-model by our Florentine poet. Clearly, not all fathers in the Divine Comedy are to be lauded or imitated.


At the moment of Guido’s death there is a rather macabre struggle between St. Francis of Assisi and a dark angel for possession of his soul; needless to say, the demon wins. This scene is reversed in Purgatorio, when a similar incident is described in relation to the soul of Guido’s son, Bonconte, who can be found in

Ante-Purgatory, along with other souls of the Late-Repentant – those who turned to the Lord at the very last moment of their lives. Bonconte followed in his father Guido’s footsteps, and became a Ghibelline military leader of considerable reputation. He met his end at the battle of Campaldino in 1289, a conflict in which Dante himself fought, on the opposing Guelf side. Bonconte tried to flee from the field of battle, fatally wounded in the throat, and he expired, repentant in extremis, with the name of the Virgin Mary on his dying lips. One single little tear of contrition was all that was needed to save his immortal soul.


In each of the cases highlighted above, the father is condemned, whilst the son is saved. This pattern is surely significant from a psychological perspective, and may help to shed some light on Dante’s state of mind during the difficult years of his exile. Could his punishment of these infernally-bound fathers be a reflection of his own ambivalent, not to say negative, attitude towards absent fatherhood, whether it be in literal terms, or in a figurative sense, with regard to the Florentine fatherland that rejected him, and then sentenced him to death? The work of Canadian psychoanalyst and Jungian expert Guy Corneau, in particular his volume Absent Fathers, Lost Sons: The Search for Masculine Identity is particularly instructive in this regard.


There are numerous other family relationships to be explored in the Commedia, but the constraints of the current discussion do not permit further analysis here. One final encounter that ought to be considered, though, is the meeting between Dante the pilgrim and Cacciaguida in Paradiso. Although not his father – according to family tradition, Cacciaguida is Dante’s great-great-grandfather on his father’s side – he nevertheless represents a positive male role-model for the pilgrim (and the poet). Dante and his celestial guide Beatrice Portinari, the inspiration for much of Dante’s poetry during her life, encounter Cacciaguida in the very centre of Paradiso (the fifth Heaven), in the sphere of Mars, inhabited by the souls of the courageous, who have given their lives in defence of the faith.


The inspiration for this encounter can be found in the Aeneid of the Roman poet Virgil, one of Dante’s literary heroes, and – as we have already seen – his guide in Inferno. In Book VI of Virgil’s poem, Aeneas meets the soul of his ancestor Anchises, who prophecies to him about his future, and the founding of Rome.


In a very evident instance of familial pride, Dante informs us that Cacciaguida could trace his origins to the Elisei, one of the great Roman families who were reputed to have founded Florence. Once again, we see an instance of nobility of character matching nobility of lineage. Cacciaguida was born towards the end of the eleventh century; he served in the Second Crusade, was knighted by Emperor Conrad III (1138-1152), and was subsequently killed in battle.


The meeting with Cacciaguida takes up the three central cantos of Paradiso – an indication of its importance to the author, and to the poem as a whole.

It offers us the most biographical and political portrait in the Commedia. Cacciaguida looks back with longing to the period of pre-decadent Florence, a city with a smaller population and a greater sense of dignity and civic pride. This has been jeopardised by the arrival of ‘gente nova’, or new people, and it has contributed to the decline of the great Florentine families and to a corresponding increase in political factionalism and violence. Cacciaguida turns his attention to his descendant, and warns Dante the pilgrim of his future fall from grace, his exile from his beloved city, and his precarious existence as a poet without a patron. Thankfully for Dante, he was supported by yet another surrogate father-figure, Can Grande della Scala, the Lord of Verona.


Dante’s debt of gratitude to this particular nobleman is evident, not least by his careful placing of the ‘gran Lombardo’ (‘the great man from Lombardy’) in the exact midpoint of the central canto of Paradiso, as if to underline his immense influence. Indeed, Dante went so far as to dedicate the Paradiso to Can Grande.


Cacciaguida’s prophecy ends on an optimistic note: despite the bitter difficulties and challenges that Dante will face in his future life, the poet will emerge victorious, through the divinely-ordained mission that he has received to record in verse what he has witnessed in the infernal, purgative, and celestial realms, and to awaken the conscience of the world to eternal life, and to the “Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”


It is clear from this cursory examination that the theme of father-son relationships is a significant one for Dante, both in terms of his personal life and in his poetic masterpiece, the Commedia. The most important aspect of the paternal-filial theme is, of course, Dante’s relationship with the Eternal Father, in which he distinguishes himself not only as a loyal son of Florence, but as a loyal son of Holy Mother Church. However, this is a discussion for another time.


[1] http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/speeches/1997/august/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19970831_dante.html [2] All references and quotations in his essay are taken from the three-volume edition of the Divine Comedy, edited and translated by Robert M. Durling (Oxford University Press, 1996, 2003, 2011).


Fr Domenico Zanre | St Columba's Inverness

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