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Patriotism is respect and devotion toward a state which brings about unity and justice. It is believed to be a positive quality. In the time of Dante, it would have been considered to be a principal quality of a person. Patriotism was held to the highest regard. In turn, the act of being “unpatriotic” was a serious offense. Early scholars such as Machiavelli believed “unpatriotic” acts or beliefs to be evil, even equivalent to the act of murder. Dante is often criticized as being “unpatriotic” toward his home town of Florence in his divine comedy Inferno. Although he does harshly criticize Florence, Dante remains patriotic because he is standing up against evils in the name of justice, which is a patriotic act.
Dante Alighieri was born in Florence, Italy in 1265. At the time of Dante's birth, Florence was a prosperous city-state, full of greedy merchants and warring political factions. The two most influential families in Florence were the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. The Guelphs were supporters of the Pope and the Ghibellines supported the German emperor, who claimed power in Italy. In 1266, the Guelphs, with whom Dante's family was associated and aided by the French, gained power. The Ghibellines were ousted from power forever. By 1295 the Guelphs were firmly established and many of the Ghibellines were in exile. At this time the Guelphs split into two factions: the Whites and the Blacks.
The White Guelphs were members of the Cerci family, and the Black Guelphs were members of the Donati family. The White faction decided to prosecute the Blacks for going to ask the Pope to intervene on their behalf. Dante was one of the White magistrates responsible for this decision. During his term Dante had to banish his own brother-in-law who was a ringleader for the Blacks. After much bloodshed the Blacks were banished from Florence. The next year the Blacks conspired with Pope Boniface VIII. Together they devised a plan to turn on the Whites and admit back the Blacks. The Blacks then tried many of the White leaders. Among them was Dante. About six hundred, including Dante, were sentenced to death if they were ever caught in Florence again. While in exile, the White Guelphs attempted to re-establish a monarchy in Italy by putting Henry of Luxemborg on the throne. Their efforts were futile. Dante was exiled in 1302 and never again returned to his home town.
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Dante criticizes his home town for being a place of corruption and evil. In his criticism there is hope for purification. Dante scolds Florence in the same manner that a father scolds a child. The father scolds the child out of love with the intention of making the child the best person possible. By making apparent the evils and corruption of Florence, Florence has a chance to be saved. In the Sixth Circle of Hell Dante notices “sepulchers” or burial vaults in which “the lids” “have all been lifted” and “no guardian is watching over them” (Alighieri 10.7-9). Within the Sixth Circle of Hell Dante comes upon a Florentine named Farinata degli Uberti. Farinata’s first question for Dante is “Who were your ancestors?” (10.42). This immediately defines the strong relationship between family and politics during the time of Dante. The relationship between Dante and Farinata is one of aversion yet respect. There is certainly no love between them and Dante show this when telling of Farinata’s family history. He states, “If they were driven out…they still returned, both times, from every quarter; but yours were never quick to learn that art” (10.49-51). Dante refers to his own family being exiled twice and both times returning to regain power. He then refers to the one and only time the Ghibellines were exiled and their inability to overcome defeat. This shows the tension between them. However, Dante refers to Farinata as “magnamino” or “great-hearted one” (10.73). This is a show of Dante’s respect for Farinata. He respects him for his courage in saving Florence from destruction by his victorious colleagues who had recently gained power. By having this included in Inferno, Dante shows that even with the political feuds that engulfed Florence at the time Dante, still loved and respected Florence. The corruption exists in the feuding factions. Florence itself is respected by Dante through his respect of Farinata for saving Florence. His attitude toward Florence as a whole is shown in Canto XXVI and it is one of love and respect.
At the beginning of Canto XXVI, Dante condemns Florence. He exclaims, “Be joyous, Florence, you are great indeed, for over sea and land you beat your wings; through every part of Hell your name extends!” (26.1-4). Dante’s condemnation is one that shows promise though. Dante shows the evils of Florence by stating that a citizen of Florence inhabits every section of Hell. He then states,
…with them, you can ascend to no high honor. But if the dreams dreamt close to dawn are true, then little time will pass before you feel what Prato and the others crave for you. Were that already come, it would not be too soon—and let it come, since it must be (26.6-11)!
In these two statements Dante identifies the evil of Florence and the actual necessity of its fall and failure. He wants Florence to be humbled. The same way Dante is on a path through Hell so too is Florence going through its own period of evil. Dante’s goal is the top of the mountain or the holy land while metaphorically his goal for Florence is to be purged. Dante’s intent when he condemns Florence is for it to be humbled and rebuilt. He wants the best for Florence and that would be an escape from the sin that engulfed it. Therefore he is a patriot through his condemnation.
Machiavelli believed that being a traitor against one’s country was more malevolent than the act of patricide, which would be turning on one’s kin. This criticism cannot be used against Dante since Dante himself agrees with this assessment. In Inferno, Dante places traitors against their homeland or party deeper within the depths of Hell then he places traitors to their kin. This shows Dante’s utmost respect and adoration to the state. Within the Ninth Circle, second ring Dante encounters Tesauro dei Beccheria. Beccheria “had his gullet sliced right through by Florence” (32.120). In the 1258 he was beheaded. Dante places a traitor to Florence within one of the deepest sectors of Hell. He views being “unpatriotic” toward Florence as a serious offense. Beccheria is immersed in ice with his head bent downward. Augustine defined evil as the absence of substance, or complete nothingness. There is no feeling, just complete numbness. Ice is the harshest of all punishments because it leads to a feeling of “nothingness.” This is what traitors suffer through and it is clearly the worst punishment of all.
Dante cannot be seen as a traitor or someone who is “unpatriotic.” He was standing up against the evils of his time for a place that he loved. He addressed the problems in his divine comedy Inferno. The American Revolution was the result of a few courageous men standing up to the evils of the British Empire. Although many could label them as rebels who were “unpatriotic” to their country, they were in fact heroes and patriots of justice. Dante’s Inferno can be compared to The Declaration of Independence in the way that they both addressed the evils of their times. Although once considered a document of rebellion, The Declaration of Independence is now considered a symbol of justice and freedom for all. The Inferno was a revelation of the evils of Florence at the time. Dante created it with the hope that its revelations would lead to change and peace for Florence.
Dante was a patriot for Florence. He wanted Florence to be purified from its evils and start fresh. Machiavelli placed the state on a pedestal. Betrayal of the state was believed to be the worst of all actions. He argues that one would be more justified in killing their parents. Dante agrees with Machiavelli and shows his concordance with him in his divine comedy Inferno. Patriotism in a person is reflected through action not just words. Dante loved his homeland enough to act and try to save it from evil engulfment. Centuries later, it can be seen that his efforts were a success.