Dante Gets a Bit of Justice, 700 Years After His Death

Italy’s most famous poet, Dante Alighieri, is the subject of a legal conference looking into whether he was the victim of a miscarriage of justice after he was sentenced to burn at the stake if he returned to Florence.

(Smithsonian Institution, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, via Courthouse News)

(CN) — Can Italy’s courts absolve Dante, 700 years after his death, of the criminal sentences his native city of Florence imposed on the famous poet, forcing him into exile until his death?

Yes, they can, legal scholars argued at a special conference on Friday examining Dante’s hapless legal fate after he found himself on the wrong side of a bloody feud between the city’s political factions.

“Even old sentences, theoretically, can be revised, even if the condemned person is no longer alive,” argued Alessandro Traversi, a lawyer and legal scholar who organized this “rehabilitation trial” of Dante Alighieri, a Florentine politician, nobleman and poet who’d later compose one of the world’s finest literary works, the “Divine Comedy,” while in exile from his beloved Florence.

The event is part of a yearlong celebration of Dante to mark the 700th anniversary of his death. The course of the Giro d’Italia, Italy’s three-week-long bicycle race that is underway this month, is dedicated to Dante and the riders are visiting many of the cities and places where Italy’s “Supreme Poet” once walked.

“A sentence, which turns out was unjust, is open to being reviewed and it can be declared, at last, tamquam non esset,” Traversi said, using a Latin legal phrase that means, literally, as though it doesn’t exist.

On May 18, 1965, Vatican City issued four stamps to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the birth of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). The 10-lire stamp features a portrait of Dante from Raphael’s fresco “Disputa,” which is in the Stanze di Raffaello, Vatican Palace. (Smithsonian Institution via Courthouse News)

As with other public events, this one too was defined by restrictions to prevent Covid-19 and some scholars and Florence’s mayor spoke via video links. The conference was broadcast live online, but the main proceedings took place in a Florentine hall largely absent of people.

In November 1301, Dante found himself in Rome when Florence was sacked and taken over by the “Black Guelphs,” a rival faction of his “White Guelphs.”

Dante was in Rome on a political mission to convince Pope Boniface VIII to not send his army to Florence. It all then went bad.

The pope betrayed Dante – who’d later get revenge by putting Boniface in a circle of Hell in his first canticle of the “Inferno” – and Florence was stormed and ransacked by the Black Guelphs, led by Count Charles, a brother of the king of France and someone the pope used to reassert control over Florence.

“What happens in Florence? The Black Guelph government takes over again, instead of the Whites, and it’s nearly a revolution: There are sackings, violence, Dante’s house was devastated,” Traversi said.

In reasserting control over the city, the Blacks also indicted Dante and others on the side of the Whites for various crimes. In January 1302, Dante was accused of mishandling funds while he was a Florentine administrator.

Fearing for what awaited him if he returned to Florence, Dante remained in Rome. But by not showing up for the trial, Traversi said, under the laws of the time he was automatically found guilty unless he showed up to face his accusers.

“For us today this rule is nearly inconceivable,” he said. But at the time, this was common, though jurists even then questioned how fair it was, he said.  

After he failed to appear to face the first charges against him, more charges and sentences were leveled against Dante. Traversi said the subsequent accusations were blatantly political by nature.

“These other accusations were even more serious. Crimes that were exclusively political,” he said.

Dante was accused of damaging Florence by seeking to separate it from the papal state in Rome and mishandling the city’s finances. He was ordered to pay a huge fine, which Traversi said amounts to between 50 million and 100 million euros today, in three days or face being burned at the stake should he return to Florence. Dante did not pay and went into permanent exile.

 “We need to ask ourselves,” he said, “was it, as we’d put it in modern terms, a fair trial?”

“Even if the trial was carried out procedurally correctly,” Traversi said, “can’t it be seen that these charges were unfair, the poisoned fruit of a political conflict, a use of justice to eliminate an adversary, in this specific case someone of the side of the White Guelphs?”

He said modern law allows for sentences to be revisited and overturned, a legal notion that didn’t exist back then.

“But today there exists the famous practice of revision, Article 630, if I remember right,” he said.  

Count Sperello di Serego Alighieri, an astronomer with a direct bloodline to Dante, took part in the event.

It remains unlikely that a full-blown retrial will materialize. Nonetheless, Traversi previously has said there is value in a symbolic gesture of reparation towards Dante, who “legally speaking, for the city of Florence is still a person with a criminal record.”

In 1315, after Dante refused the terms of an amnesty, another judge changed the sentence to death by beheading, also for the poet’s sons.

Dante survived, roaming from one Italian city to another. Although little is known about his life, scholars believe he completed the “Divine Comedy” while in exile before he died in 1321. Exile and the meaning of justice are major themes in the book.

Margherita Cassano, a judge from the Court of Cassation, Italy’s high court, will draft a final report from the conference.

Serego Alighieri – a descendant who not only carries Dante’s name, but also shares with him the distinctive family trait of an aquiline nose – previously told the AFP that it all came a little late.

“Dante was convicted, he went into exile, he was exiled all his life, he never returned to Florence,” he said. “Anything that can be done for him [today[ will not change any of that.”


Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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