Chapter 16: Mars — Cacciaguida’s Florence
Dante the Poet thought, Having pride in the noble blood of ancestors is trivial, but I will no longer be amazed that men on Earth take pride in the noble blood of ancestors. After all, on Earth people are weak, and when I was in Paradise, where no one can desire the wrong thing, I gloried in the noble blood of my ancestor Cacciaguida!
But there is a right way and a wrong way to have pride of family. A wrong way to have pride of family is to think that having special ancestors makes you special. It doesn’t. When your ancestors do something special, they deserve credit for doing that special thing. You do not deserve credit for doing something special unless in fact you do something special.
A right way to have pride of family is when you regard good ancestors as being role models to emulate. If you have an ancestor who did something especially good, and you try to emulate that ancestor, that is a good thing. Having ancestors like that is valuable because they show that it is possible to do something especially good.
Of course, having an especially good ancestor does not mean that you get a Get-Out-of-Hell-Free card. It doesn’t work that way. You still have to sincerely repent your sins and try to do good things with your life.
Nobility of character is like a coat. The coat will wear out unless it is added to and repaired. Nobility of character needs to be acquired through good thoughts and good actions day by day or it will wear out.
Dante the Pilgrim prepared to speak to Cacciaguida, and he knew that he wanted to be sure to call him “sir,” a word that he had not used when speaking to him previously. The word “sir” was used more often in earlier times than it is used now.
Beatrice smiled at Dante. Seeing the smile, Dante knew that she knew that he was feeling pride of family, and he was reminded of the moment when Guinevere first began to sin with Lancelot — seeing them together, the wife of Malehaut coughed deliberately so that they would know that she was seeing their weakness.
Dante said to Cacciaguida, “Sir, you are my ancestor. Sir, you make me confident enough to speak. Sir, you make my heart rise so that I feel that I am more than myself. My soul is joyful, and it rejoices more than I thought would be possible. Please tell me about your ancestors. Who are they? What famous events happened when you were young? Tell me about Florence. What was its size in your day, and who were the highest citizens?”
The light who was Cacciaguida grew brighter with pleasure at being able to answer Dante’s questions. The brightness was like that of glowing coals bursting into flames when a breeze blows over the coals.
Cacciaguida grew more beautiful, and with a sweet voice that was more refined than the voices of the Florentines of Dante’s day, Cacciaguida said, “From the Annunciation in which the Angel Gabriel told Mary ‘Ave’ to the day that my mother, who is now a saint in Paradise, gave birth to me, the planet Mars made 580 orbits. In other words, I was born in the year 1091 C.E.
“The house I was born in lies in the path taken by the runners in the annual race that takes place on June 24: the Feast of Saint John. To be exact, I was born at Porta San Piero.
“About my ancestors we need not talk. We need not mention their names or where they came from. I wish to avoid boasting about my ancestors.
“Florence in my day was much smaller than it is now. Two important boundaries of Florence were the statue of Mars on the Ponte Vecchio and the baptistery of St. John. Those Florentines able to bear weapons in my day numbered 6,000, which is about one-fifth of those who are able to bear weapons in the Florence of your day.
“The people who lived in the Florence of my day were actually Florentines. In the Florence of your day, many people who live in Florence originally came from Campi, Certaldo, and Fighine. They brought their small-town, impoverished, backwoods ways into what should be a great city. Florence made a mistake by growing and incorporating these small towns.
“It would be much better for Florence if it were smaller, and its boundaries reached only as far as Galluzzo and Trespiano. That way, Campi, Certaldo, and Fighine would be outside the territory controlled by Florence. If Florence had not grown, then its citizens would not include the yokel who is Baldo d’Aguglione. He is a rip-off artist who stole salt.”
Beatrice thought, Baldo d’Aguglione will be a personal enemy to Dante. After Dante and other Guelfs are banished into exile from Florence, Baldo d’Aguglione will rescind the banishment of many Guelfs and allow them back into Florence, but he will make sure that Dante remains banished from Florence.
Cacciaguida continued, “If Florence had not grown, then its citizens would also not include Fazio de’ Morubaldini of Signa, a lawyer whose more accurate job titles include swindler, barrator, and grafter.
“And if only the Pope and the Cardinals had not hated the Holy Roman Emperor so much and had not treated him the way a bad stepmother treats someone she does not consider a son, but had instead treated him the way a good mother treats a good son, then a newly minted Florentine who wheels and deals in your city and whose name I will not mention would be back in Semifonte, the place where his grandfather begged for scraps.
“In addition, if things were right in the world, then Florence would never have bought the castle of Montemurlo from the Counts Guidi. Also, the parish of Acone would still have as citizens the Cerchi, who are White Guelfs in the Florence of your time and who have caused civic disturbances by feuding with the Donati family. And Valdigreve would still have as citizens the family Buondelmonti, who have caused much trouble in Florence.
“Florence followed an aggressive policy of expansion after my day, and it has resulted in a mixed population: some Florentine, and some unassimilated. Food not properly digested is bad for you, and a population not properly digested is bad for Florence.
“A large size need not be a good size. It is better to have a small, well-governed city than a large, badly governed city. The Florence of my day was small but well governed. The Florence of your day is large but badly governed.
“Imagine people with swords. One well-trained swordsman is much more effective than five amateur swordsmen.
“Cities do not always remain healthy. Luni and Urbisaglia and Sinigaglia and Chiusi are either dead or dying and almost extinct.
“Families also do not always remain healthy. A city can die out, and so can a family.
“The works of Humankind — such as a city — must come eventually to an end. To individual human beings, whose life is so short, it may seem as if a city will last forever, but the city will not. And so with families.
“Let me mention some formerly great families who are not great now. They were noble in my day, and they are nonexistent or weak in your day.
“The Wheel of Fortune turns, and its turning affects Florence and the families of Florence.
“I knew many illustrious families: the Ughi, the Catellini, the Greci, the Filippi, the Aberichi, the Ormanni. Even when these families were declining, their members were illustrious. These were good families in the Florence of my day, but the citizens of the Florence of your day do not know them.
“I also knew the families that were both great and old: the dell’Arca, the Sannella, the Soldanieri, the Ardinghi, the Bostichi.
“The good Ravignani family once lived near the Gate at the Porta Dan Piero, which is now controlled by a family who is bringing much destructiveness to Florence. The Ravignani family birthed Guido the Count and the good people bearing the name Bellincione.
“The della Pressa family knew how to govern well in the Florence of my day, and the Galigaio family were noble.”
Dante thought, Both families declined. The della Pressa family, who were Ghibellines, betrayed Florence at Montaperti. In 1260, five years before I was born, the Ghibellines fought the Guelfs in the Battle of Montaperti. The Ghibellines defeated the Guelfs and stained the Arbia River red with Guelf blood. In the Florence of my day, the Galigaio family is no longer noble.
Cacciaguida continued, “In the Florence of my day, the great families included the Galli, the Sacchetti, the Giuochi, the Fifanti, and the Barucci, and the family whose members blush in the Florence of your day because they committed fraud and stole salt.
“Another great family in the Florence of my day was the Calfucci, which is extinct in the Florence of your day but from whom sprang the Donati family. Other great families in the Florence of my day were the Arrigucci and the Sizii.
“These families were great, but they were proud, and pride ruined them. One such proud family was the Lamberti, whose arms bore golden balls against a field of blue. Mosca, who is now in the Inferno, was a member of this family.
“These families have descendants who let livings remain vacant so that they can benefit from the income. Those livings ought to be filled by religious who can help the people.
“In my day, a family that became notorious for greed and cowardice in your day was beginning to rise, although it was of such a lower class that Ubertino Donati was not pleased when his father-in-law married Ubertino’s wife’s sister to a member of that family. That family is like a dragon to anyone who is weak, and it is like a lamb to anyone who is strong.”
Beatrice thought, That family includes a person who will take possession of Dante’s property when Dante is exiled. That person will oppose Dante’s being allowed to return to Florence. After Dante is exiled, he will never again see Florence.
Cacciaguida continued, “Other families who were notable in my day but have declined in your day include some Ghibelline families: the Caponsacchi, the Guidi, and the Infangati. The della Pera family — incredible! — were once so well known in Florence that a city gate was named after it.
“Hugh of Brandenburg honored six Florentine families by conferring knighthood upon them. All of these families adopted coats of arms that were variants of Hugh’s own coat of arms. Giano della Bella, a descendant of one of these families, however, tried to reform the nobles in 1293 and was banished in 1295. All of these great Florentine noble families should support the Holy Roman Emperor.
“In my day the Gualterrotti and the Importuni were great families, but their new neighbors were the Buondelmonti, who created great strife in Florence.
“I wish that the Buondelmonti family had never come to Florence because it is the family whose coming started the factionalism in Florence.
“Buondelmonte of the Buondelmonti family was engaged to be married to a woman of the Amidei family, but he had a chance to make a better marriage to a woman of the Donati family, so he jilted his bride-to-be on the wedding day. This was, of course, a major insult to her and her family, and members of her family murdered Buondelmonte — Mosca instigated the murder. This led to factionalism in Florence, and the split of its citizens into the Guelf and the Ghibelline groups.
“If only Buondelmonte had died by drowning in the Ema River before he came to Florence, Florence and its citizens — and you — would be much better off.
“The first Guelf is Buondelmonte, and the first Ghibelline is his murderer.
“Buondelmonte, who is the founder of your own political party, did the wrong thing by jilting the woman he was engaged to. Of course, the man who murdered him also did the wrong thing. The main point is this: Political factionalism can be a very bad thing.
“Buondelmonte was murdered at the foot of the statue of Mars in Florence on Easter morning in 1215 C.E. — a fitting sacrifice to the god of war because of all the blood that was shed them and in the years following.
“Because of the action of Buondelmonte, a Florence that was peaceful in my own time is now filled with civic strife for no good reason.
“When the good families of my day ruled Florence, I saw only glory and justice.
“I did not see the civic strife of your day. I did not see the wars between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines. I did not see the Ghibelline standard of a white lily against a red field. I did not see the Guelf standard of a red lily against a white field. I did not see the victor drag the standard of the loser in the dust. I did not see the civic strife that plagues the Florence of your day.”
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce
This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:
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