Dante’s Descendant Wants to Overturn the Poet’s 1302 Corruption Conviction

More than 700 years ago, a magistrate sentenced the “Divine Comedy” author to be burned at the stake if he ever returned to Florence

Dante Alighieri, as depicted in Luca Signorelli's Orvieto Cathedral fresco
Dante Alighieri, as depicted in Luca Signorelli's Orvieto Cathedral fresco Georges Jansoone via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

While away from his hometown of Florence in 1301, Dante Alighieri’s life was forever changed.

The Black Guelphs, a political faction loyal to the pope, attacked the rival White Guelphs, who counted the Italian poet and politician among their members. Seizing control of the city, the newly emboldened Black Guelphs retaliated against their vanquished foes—including Dante, who served on the city’s six-person Council of Priors.

When Dante failed to appear in court on charges of fraud, perjury, extortion and embezzlement, Chief Magistrate Cante de’ Gabrielli sentenced him to be burned at the stake. Faced with this brutal sentence—set to be carried out should he “at any time come within the power of the commune,” according to Guy P. Raffa’s Dante’s Bones: How a Poet Invented Italy—Dante never returned to Florence. Instead, he settled in the city of Ravenna, where he completed his acclaimed poem The Divine Comedy before dying of malaria in 1321.

Seven hundred years later, one of Dante’s descendants—astrophysicist Sperello di Serego Alighieri—is pushing to have the poet pardoned. As Marco Gasperetti reports for Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Alighieri and Florentine law professor Alessandro Traversi are planning to host a May conference that will examine whether Dante’s conviction can be overturned. Italian penal code states that court judgments are subject to revision if new evidence of innocence is presented, regardless of how much time has passed since the original conviction.

Dante's Descendant Wants to Overturn the Poet's 1302 Corruption Conviction
This 1465 fresco by Domenico di Michelino depicts Dante, holding a copy of The Divine Comedy, next to the entrance to hell. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“They were politically motivated trials and the exile and death penalties inflicted on my dear ancestor are unjust,” Alighieri tells Corriere della Sera, per a translation by the Telegraph’s Nick Squire.

According to Alison Flood of the Guardian, the upcoming conference will feature historians, lawyers, linguists, and even a descendant of Gabrielli—Antoine de Gabrielli.

“We’ll be asking ourselves if the sentences against Dante were the result of regular judicial proceedings or were they the poisoned fruit of politics,” Traversi explains to Corriere della Sera.

Writing for Lapham’s Quarterly, Raffa notes that Dante had left Florence to meet with Pope Boniface VIII over the latter’s desired annexation of Tuscan lands. While Dante and the rest of the Florentine delegation tried to convince Boniface to abandon his plans, the French prince Charles of Valois—supposedly sent as the pope’s peacemaker—helped the Black Guelphs topple the White Guelph government, essentially staging a papal-sanctioned coup. Dante had yet to return by the time Charles arrived in the city.

Along with his charges of corruption, Dante was fined 5,000 florins, banished from Florence for two years and barred from seeking office in the city for the rest of his life. (The death sentence followed his failure to present himself to authorities on these charges.) Though he received permission to return to Florence in 1315, the poet declined, as doing so would have required him to admit his guilt and pay a fine. This refusal led to a second death sentence, which changed his punishment from being burned at the stake to being beheaded and included the executions of his sons Pietro and Jacopo, according to Lapham’s Quarterly.

Dante's Descendant Wants to Overturn the Poet's 1302 Corruption Conviction
A posthumous portrait of Dante by Sandro Botticelli Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In a separate opinion piece for Corriere della Serra, journalist Aldo Cazzullo argues that Alighieri’s efforts to overturn his ancestor’s conviction, while “perhaps” justified, are unnecessary.

“[H]is memory does not need it,” writes Cazzullo, per a translation by the Telegraph. “Dante is the true father of Italy because he gave us not just our language but a sense of ourselves.”

Dante’s magnum opus, The Divine Comedy, finds the poet traveling through hell and purgatory on his way to heaven. Referred to as a comedy because of its medieval-Aristotelian portrayal of misery that “culminates in joy,” as Ian Thomson explained for the Irish Times in 2018, it consists of 100 cantos, or rhymed sections, and touches on Catholic themes of redemption. Dante’s bold decision to write most of the poem in Tuscan instead of Latin is considered influential to Tuscan’s adoption as both Italy’s literary and national language.

In recognition of the 700th anniversary of “the father of the Italian language’s” death on September 14, 1321, Italian museums, galleries, and libraries are hosting a slate of virtual resources and programming, reports Rebecca Ann Hughes for Forbes. Among the offerings are rare drawings of The Divine Comedy, weekly presentations of the poet’s manuscripts and a Zoom lecture about his “dramatic love/hate relationship with Florence.”