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October 21, 2017

Divine Payback

On this day in 1300, Dante was made one of the six Priors of Florence, the top political office in the city-state. Though only a two-month term -- the legal limit, so suspicious were the citizenry of corruption and power-plays -- Dante's appointment set in motion the series of events that would eventually cause his permanent banishment, and inspire some of the most memorable lines in the Divine Comedy.

Italian politics at the time were dirty and dangerous, and to go into public life was to go armed: Florentine fought Pisan, Guelph fought Ghibillene, papist fought royalist, nobleman fought merchant, and family fought family. As a "White" Guelph and a moderate, Dante's policies of compromise were unpopular with the "Black" Guelphs and the militants; when he was out of the country in 1302 on diplomatic business to the Pope, his enemies trumped-up a conviction for graft, and he was banished.

A good deal of the Inferno is payback. Specific political enemies are assigned their place in fire or ice, and as a group, the Sowers of Discord, get one of the deeper circles in Hell. With their political and religious intrigues, they tore Dante's beloved Florence and his own life apart; a great demon now hacks at them as they track round his pit. Some have arms or faces slashed away, some have internal organs dangling behind -- one, Dante notes in horror on his tour, escorts his own severed head:
    I saw it there; I seem to see it still --
    a body without a head, that moved along
    like all the others in that spew and spill.
    It held the severed head by its own hair,
    swinging it like a lantern in its hand,
    and the head looked at us and wept in its despair.
Despite his laments and lobbies, Dante was never allowed to return to Florence -- alive, anyway. In 1865, on the 600th anniversary of his birth, some of Dante's remains were collected from his tomb in Ravenna, and given to Florence, to be displayed at a world congress of librarians. The little bag of ashes disappeared in the 1930s, and then in 1999 the national central library in Florence announced that two employees had accidentally found it, in an envelope on a dusty shelf in the rare manuscripts department.

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