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The Cult of Dante in Sacchetti 14/02/2011

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A story (122) of Franco Sacchetti, c. 1390 relating not to Florence as such but to Dante and his ‘cult’.

Master Antonio da Ferrara was a most able man, and a poet as well, and something of a courtier; but he was a man of vice and a sinner. Being in Ravenna at the time when Bernardino da Polenta held the signory, it happened that the said Antonio, who was a great gamester, having played one day and lost about all that he possessed, in desperate mood entered the church of the Minorites, where stands the tomb of the Florentine poet, Dante; and having noticed an antique crucifix, half burned and black with smoke, on account of the great quantity of lights which had been placed before it; seeing, moreover, that many candles stood there lighted, he suddenly ran to the place, and seizing all the candles and tapers that were burning there turned to the tomb of Dante and placed them before it, saying: ‘Take them, for you are indeed more worthy of them than He.’ The people seeing this were full of amazement, and said, ‘What does he mean to say?’ and they gazed one at another. A steward of the signory, who happened to be in the church at that hour and witnessed what transpired, when he had returned to the palace, told the Signore what he had seen master Antonio do. The Signore, like all the others favourably impressed with the deed, communicated to the Archbishop of Ravenna what master Antonio had done, suggesting that he should summon him, and make a show of instituting a process against him as a heretic, on the ground of heretical depravity. The Archbishop immediately did as he was requested; Antonio appeared, and when the complaint against him was read in order that he might refute it, he denied nothing but confessed all, saying to the Archbishop: ‘Even if you should be compelled to burn me, I should say nothing else; for I have always commended myself to the crucifix, and it has never done me anything but ill, and when I saw them place so many candles before it, half burned as it was (would it were wholly so!), I took away a few lights and placed them at the tomb of Dante, who seemed to me to merit them more than the crucifix; and if you do not believe me, look at the writings of one and the other. You will conclude that those of Dante are a wonder of nature and of the human intellect; and that the gospels are stupid; and indeed, if they contain anything high and wonderful, it is not surprising, that he who sees everything and has everything, should so express himself. But that which is remarkable is, that a mere man, like Dante, who not only has not everything, but no part of everything, has nevertheless seen all and has written all. And, indeed, it seems to me that he is more worthy of the illumination than the other; and henceforward I am going to recommend myself to him; as for the rest of you, you perform your functions and look well to your comfort, and for love of it you flee all discomfort and live like poltroons. And when you wish to understand me more nearly, I will tell you about it again, for I have not yet played my last coin.’ The archbishop appeared to be perplexed and said: ‘Then you have played and you have lost? You shall return another time.’ Said master Antonio: ‘If you too had lost, you and all your kind, all that you have, I should be very glad of it. As for returning to you, that will be my affair; but whether I return or not, you will find me always so disposed or worse.’ The archbishop said: ‘Go hence with God, or if you please with the Devil, and unless I send for you we shall not see each other again. At least go and give of these fruits to the Signore which you have given to me.’ And so they parted. The Signore, informed of what had taken place and amused with the reasoning of Master Antonio, made him a present, that he might be able to go on gaming; and as for the candles placed before Dante, he took great pleasure in them for several days; and then he went away to Ferrara, perhaps better disposed than Master Antonio. At the time when Pope Urban the Fifth died and his portrait was placed in a noble church in a certain great city, he saw placed in front of it a lighted wax candle of two pounds weight, while before the crucifix, which was not very large, was a poor little penny dip. He took the wax candle, and placing it in front of the crucifix, said: ‘It is an evil hour when we wish to shift and change the rulership of the skies, as we change everywhere the powers of earth.’ And with this he turned homeward. Such a fine and notable speech was this as seldom might happen upon a like occasion.

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Dante and the Ass Driver 10/01/2011

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A story (115) of Franco Sacchetti, c. 1390.

The last novel moves me to relate another concerning the same poet, which is brief and good. One day as Dante was going along for his diversion in a certain part of the city, wearing the gorget and the armlet, as the custom then was, he encountered an ass-driver, driving before him certain loads of refuse. The driver was going behind his asses, singing the book of Dante, and every now and then as he sang he touched up an ass, and said : ‘Arri.’When Dante came up to him he gave him a sharp blow upon the shoulders with his armlet, saying: ‘I did not put that ‘Arri’ there!’ The driver did not know who Dante was, nor what he meant to say, and only struck his asses the more sharply, and again said : ‘Arri.’ When he had gone a little further he turned to Dante, and, thrusting out his tongue and putting his thumb to his nose, said, ‘Take that’. Dante, who saw him, said: ‘I would not give one of mine for a hundred of yours.’ O gentle words, full of wisdom! How many there are who would have run after the ass-driver, crying and raising a disturbance; others again who would have thrown stones; but the wise poet overwhelmed the ass-driver, winning praise from passers-by that heard him with those clever words which he hurled after so vile a man as was the ass-driver.

Boccaccio on the Plague 20/12/2010

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The ‘plague’ introduction to Boccaccio’s Decameron, c. 1350

In the year then of our Lord 1348, there happened at Florence, the finest city in all Italy, a most terrible plague; which, whether owing to the influence of the planets, or that it was sent from God as a just punishment for our sins, had broken out some years before in the Levant, and after passing from place to place, and making incredible havoc all the way, had now reached the west. There, spite of all the means that art and human foresight could suggest, such as keeping the city clear from filth, the exclusion of all suspected persons, and the publication of copious instructions for the preservation of health; and notwithstanding manifold humble supplications offered to God in processions and otherwise; it began to show itself in the spring of the aforesaid year, in a sad and wonderful manner. Unlike what had been seen in the east, where bleeding from the nose is the fatal prognostic, here there appeared certain tumours in the groin or under the arm-pits, some as big as a small apple, others as an egg; and afterwards purple spots in most parts of the body; in some cases large and but few in number, in others smaller and more numerous, both sorts the usual messengers of death.

To the cure of this malady, neither medical knowledge nor the power of drugs was of any effect; whether because the disease was in its own nature mortal, or that the physicians (the number of whom, taking quacks and women pretenders into the account, was grown very great), could form no just idea of the cause, nor consequently devise a true method of cure; whichever was the reason, few escaped; but nearly all died the third day from the first appearance of the symptoms, some sooner, some later, without any fever or other accessory symptoms. What gave the more virulence to this plague was that, by being communicated from the sick to the hale, it spread daily, like fire when it comes in contact with large masses of combustibles. Nor was it caught only by conversing with, or coming near the sick, but even by touching their clothes, or anything that they had before touched.

It is wonderful what I am going to mention, and had I not seen it with my own eyes, and were there not many witnesses to attest it besides myself, I should never venture to relate it, however worthy it were of belief. Such, I say, was the quality of the pestilential matter, as to pass not only from man to man, but, what is more strange, it has been often known, that anything belonging to the infected, temper itself and partly from the fermenting of medicines within them. Others, with less humanity, but perchance, as they supposed, with more security from danger, decided that the only remedy for the pestilence was to avoid it; persuaded, therefore, of this, and taking care for themselves only, men and women in great numbers left the city, their houses, relations and effects, and fled to the country, as if the wrath of God had been restrained to visit those only within the walls of the city, or else concluding that none ought to stay in a place thus doomed to destruction. Thus divided as they were in their views, neither did all die, nor all escape; but falling sick indifferently, as well those of one as of another opinion, they who first set the example by forsaking others now languished themselves without pity. I pass over the little regard that citizens and relations showed to each other, for their terror was such that a brother even fled from his brother, a wife from her husband, and, what is more uncommon, a parent from his own child. Hence, numbers that fell sick could have no help but what the charity of friends, who were very few, or the avarice of servants supplied; and even these were scarce and at extravagant wages, and so little used to the business that they were fit only to reach what was called for, and observe when their employers died, and this desire of getting money often cost them their lives if touched by any other creature, would certainly infect, and even kill that creature in a short space of time.

One instance of the kind I took particular notice of: the rags of a poor man, just dead, had been thrown into the street; two hogs came up, and after rooting amongst the rags and shaking them about in their mouths, in less than an hour they both turned round and died on the spot.

These facts, and others of the like sort, occasioned various fears and devices amongst those who survived, all tending to the same uncharitable and cruel end, which was, to avoid the sick and everything that had been near them, expecting by that means to save themselves. And some holding it best to live temperately, and to avoid excesses of all kinds, made parties and shut themselves up from the rest of the world, eating and drinking moderately of the best, and diverting themselves with music, and such other entertainments as they might have within doors, never listening to anything from without to make them uneasy.

Others maintained free living to be a better preservative, and would baulk no passion or appetite they wished to gratify, drinking and revelling incessantly from tavern to tavern, or in private houses (which were frequently found deserted by the owners, and, therefore, common to every one), yet strenuously avoiding, with all this brutal indulgence, to come near the infected. And such, at that time, was the public distress, that the laws, human and divine, were no more regarded; for the officers to put them in force being either dead, sick, or in want of persons to assist them, every one did just as he pleased.

A third sort of people chose a method between these two, not confining themselves to rules of diet like the former, and yet avoiding the intemperance of the latter; but eating and drinking what their appetites required, they walked everywhere with odours and nosegays to smell to, as holding it best to corroborate the brain, for the whole atmosphere seemed to them tainted with the stench of dead bodies, arising partly from the distemper itself and partly from the fermenting of medicines within them.

Others, with less humanity, but perchance, as they supposed, with more security from danger, decided that the only remedy for the pestilence was to avoid it; persuaded, therefore, of this, and taking care for themselves only, men and women in great numbers left the city, their houses, relations and effects, and fled to the country, as if the wrath of God had been restrained to visit those only within the walls of the city, or else concluding that none ought to stay in a place thus doomed to destruction. Thus divided as they were in their views, neither did all die, nor all escape; but falling sick indifferently, as well those of one as of another opinion, they who first set the example by forsaking others now languished themselves without pity.

I pass over the little regard that citizens and relations showed to each other, for their terror was such that a brother even fled from his brother, a wife from her husband, and, what is more uncommon, a parent from his own child. Hence, numbers that fell sick could have no help but what the charity of friends, who were very few, or the avarice of servants supplied; and even these were scarce and at extravagant wages, and so little used to the business that they were fit only to reach what was called for, and observe when their employers died, and this desire of getting money often cost them their lives.

Dante and the Adimari 06/12/2010

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A story (114) of Franco Sacchetti, c. 1390.

That most excellent vernacular poet, whose fame will never grow less, Dante Alighieri the Florentine, was neighbour in Florence to the family of the Adimari. It came to pass that a certain young cavalier of that family fell into difficulty, I know not on account of what offence, and was about to come up for sentence, in the due course of justice, before a certain magistrate, who was, it seems, upon terms of friendship with Dante. The cavalier therefore besought the poet that he should intercede for him with the magistrate; and this Dante replied he would willingly do.

So when the poet had dined, he left home and set out upon his way to accomplish the business; but just as he was passing by the gate of San Piero, a smith, hammering an iron upon his anvil, was singing Dante, as one sings a ditty, jumbling his verses together, clipping them and adding to them, in such a manner that it seemed to Dante they were suffering the greatest injury. He said nothing, however, but approached the smithy, where were lying the various tools with which the owner plied his trade. Dante seized the hammer and threw it into the street; seized the tongs and threw them into the street; seized the balances and threw them into the street, and so on with the remaining irons. The smith, turning about with an angry gesture, cried: ‘What the devil are you doing? Are you mad?’ Said Dante: ‘And you, what are you doing?’ ‘Working at my trade,’ the smith replied, ‘and you are spoiling my tools, throwing them into the street’. Said Dante: ‘If you do not wish that I should spoil your things, do not spoil mine.’ ‘How am I injuring you?’ said the smith. Said Dante: ‘You sing my book, but not as I have made it. I also have a trade, and you are spoiling it for me.’ The smith, swelling with rage, knew not what to reply, but gathered together his scattered tools and returned to his forge, and when he wished again to sing, he sang of Tristan and of Launcelot, but left Dante alone; and Dante went his way to the magistrate.

But when he came into the presence of that official, it occurred to him that the cavalier of the Adimari, who had asked the favour of him, was a haughty youth with scant courtesy, who, when he went through the city, especially on horseback, rode with his legs outspread, until they filled the street, if it happened to be narrow, so that passers-by were compelled to brush the toes of his shoes; and to Dante, who was a close observer, such behaviour was always displeasing. Thereupon Dante said to the magistrate: ‘You have before your court a certain cavalier, charged with a certain offence. I wish to speak a word for him. His manners however are such that he deserves a severe penalty, for I believe that to trespass upon the rights of the public is the greatest of offences.’

Dante did not speak to deaf ears, and the magistrate asked in what respect the young man has trespassed upon the rights of the public. Dante replied: ‘When he rides through the city, he rides with his legs wide from his horse, so that whoever encounters him has to turn back, and cannot continue upon his way.’ Said the judge : ‘This may appear to you a trifle, but it is a greater offence than the other of which he is accused.’ ‘But see,’ said Dante, ‘I am his neighbour. I intercede for him with you.’

And Dante returned home, where he was asked by the cavalier how the affair stood. ‘He replied favourably,’ said Dante. Some days afterwards the cavalier was summoned to appear and answer the charge against him. He made his appearance, and after he had been informed of the nature of the first charge, the judge ordered that the second charge, concerning the loose manner of his riding, be read to him. The cavalier, feeling that the penalty would be doubled, said to himself: ‘I have done a fine thing indeed, when through Dante’s visit I believed I should go free, and now I am to be doubly fined!’ Having been dismissed, accused as he was, he returned home, and finding Dante, said: ‘You have indeed done me a good turn. Before you went to him the judge was disposed to condemn me for one offence, and after your visit he wished to condemn me for two’; and much angered at Dante, he added : ‘If he condemns me I am able to pay, and when it is over I will settle with him who is the cause of it.’ Said Dante: ‘I have given you such a recommendation that if you were my own child I could not have given you a better. If the judge is ill-disposed toward you, I am not the cause of it.’ The cavalier, shaking his head, went home. A few days afterward he was condemned to pay a thousand lire for the first offence and another thousand for the careless riding; and neither he nor any of the house of Adimari were able to forget the injury. And this was one of the chief reasons that a short time after he was driven as a Bianco from Florence, not without disgrace to the city, and died an exile in the city of Ravenna.