The Secret History of Dante
Born in Blood
Dante Alighieri was born in 1265 in the region we know today as Tuscany. We know little about the ancient Etruscan civilization which lent its name to Tuscany because the Etruscans were all but wiped out by the Romans.1
It is known, however, that an Etruscan town once stood on the hill where today Fiesole overlooks Florence. According to legend, it was in 72 b.c., after Julius Caesar had crushed the Etruscans in battle in a lovely valley full of lilies, that the town itself was founded and given the name Firenze, meaning “flowering” or “flourishing.”
Dante called Florence “Rome’s most beautiful daughter.” There is a strange quality to the light surrounding it like a golden aura. The art, architecture, and literature of Florence have illumined our inner lives and fired our imaginations as much as the creations of any city.
Today Florence is overcrowded and noisy but still a life-affirming place, where almost every turn reveals a beautiful and usually ancient vista to delight the eye. I have an Irish friend who works at the European Institute in Fiesole and is something of a bon viveur, erudite and knowledgeable in all sorts of areas, including the location of the best little trattoria. Is there a better place to taste the sweetness of being alive than the banks of the Arno on a warm autumn evening when you are ambling along, slightly drunk, and the sun is no longer blazingly hot but the earth, which has been baking over several months, is warming the air and you are on your way to dinner?
There is a statue of a wild boar in the Loggia del Mercato in the middle of Florence which is a famous symbol of the city. In mythology, Adonis, a lover of Venus, was gored to death by a boar, making it also a symbol of love gone wrong and appropriate for a life of Dante. (Drawing by Tabitha Booth)
But Florence has always had a dark side. For a long time its emblem was a white lily on a field of blood.2
The first patron saint of the city was Reparata, a little girl who was tortured to death at the age of ten or eleven. As we shall see shortly, Florence in the time of Dante was a place where secret societies intrigued and sometimes openly clashed, and where hidden, heretical, sometimes occult beliefs led to maiming, torture, mass murder, and even cannibalism.
In the eighties my Irish friend used to weird us out with the latest stories of il Mostro, the Monster of Florence, a serial killer who preyed on courting couples and specialized in sexual mutilation. Il Mostro seemed to have almost supernatural powers of stealth and cleverness which enabled him to evade capture. When a culprit was eventually put on trial, Thomas Harris sat through the court sessions, assembling the character of Hannibal Lecter. Anyone who has read The Monster of Florence, a thrilling nonfiction account by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezzi; or followed the labyrinthine conspiracy that led to “God’s banker,” Roberto Calvi, being found hanged under London Bridge; or, more recently, followed the murder trial of Amanda Knox, will feel confident that special interest groups and secret societies are still at work in the higher levels of Italian society.
• • •
As a child, Dante would have gazed up at the dizzyingly high ceilings of the Baptistery of St. John, which sits right in the geometric center of Florence and where he himself had been baptized in his first year.3
We may imagine the impression made on the boy by its golden mosaics, representing the circles of heaven and hell, and its angels and demons, all dominated by a grinning green and brown Satan, who snacks happily on the damned. Later Dante needed to smash sacred marble on the facade of the Baptistery to rescue a child who had got his head stuck in one of its decorative niches, an episode which haunted him and which he remembered in the Commedia.4
He would no doubt have contemplated, too, the bloodred porphyry pillars at the entrance to the Baptistery. According to legend, these were made from the compacted and ossified flesh of the Titans, the giant enemies of the gods who had been buried underground as a punishment. It was also said that if you polished the pillars at special times of year, you could see the forms of spirits in them—and communicate with them too.
In local lore Florence thronged with supernatural beings. The bronze statue of a faun in a piazza next to the Ponte Vecchio, up against the wall in the Via Guicciardini, was said to have been seen dancing on St. John’s Eve. Just as in English folklore, fairies in Italy are sometimes thought to be the spirits or folk memories of extinct aboriginal peoples, and fairies wearing ancient costumes were reportedly seen in the vicinity of the Etruscan ruins on the hill at Fiesole. By the great Etruscan walls, still pretty much intact at the time of Dante, there were small hills made up of vaults and low walls which had gradually been covered over by earth and grass, and these were known locally as “the dens of the fairies.”
There was also a popular story of some local monks who had sung a hymn from “the old religion” in praise of Bacchus and been punished by being given the ears of an ass—a tale that may remind us both of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and, indeed, of Shakespeare’s source, The Golden Ass of Apuleius, to which we will return later, as it is one of the few accounts we have of the underground initiation ceremonies in the ancient world.5
Dante may well have also heard the local tale that was said to have originated with a cabbage seller who had a stall outside the Palazzo della Cavalleria. According to this old widow, there were underground passageways and chambers beneath the palazzo where eminent persons she knew to be witches and wizards gathered to perform their ceremonies. If a witch, or fata, died without an apparent successor, the group would meet at night to discuss the problem. Sometimes she saw finely dressed gentlemen and ladies who were not part of the secret society enter—never to be seen again. There were rumors of a swinging contraption built into the entrance gate which meant that it actually moved. When you went to exit, thinking you were about to step into the safety of the street, the contraption suddenly swung around and you were propelled into a pit.
The cabbage seller’s story will shed a surprising new light on the life of Dante.
• • •
Florence has often seemed a place where the veil between this world and the spiritual world is unusually thin, so it is not surprising that it became the place where a powerful underground river of mystical and esoteric teaching and practice burst to the surface and gave rise to that flowering of the human spirit we call the Renaissance.
It all started in 1439, when a stranger calling himself Gemistus Plethon rode into town from Byzantium. He was carrying a collection of ancient manuscripts said to have originated in the Egypt of the pyramids. The immensely wealthy Cosimo de’ Medici, ruler of Florence, had been employing scholars to translate Plato, but now he told them to put their work aside and concentrate on these scripts that he believed contained an older, deeper magic.
We now know that his instincts were at least partly right. The key texts of the Hermetica, as they have become known, were probably written down by priests from the Egyptian temples after they had been closed and the priests forced to go into hiding. There had long been rumors of secret societies and secret teachings that would enable you to bend the world to your will. Now here was a chance for Cosimo de’ Medici and members of his inner circle, intellectuals and artists, to read this wisdom for themselves.
In a place made dangerous by the intrigue of powerful political figures as well as by occult secrets, Cosimo de’ Medici would have a secret passageway built running from the Palazzo Vecchio across the Via della Nina as a covered bridge, through the Uffizi, and across the Arno above the shops on the Ponte Vecchio to the Boboli Gardens.6
It is because of this intense cultivation of occult secrets that Florence is the place where today many of the great masterpieces of esoteric and occult art are on display.
Botticelli is perhaps the Renaissance master in whose work the secret teachings of Neoplatonism lie closest to the surface, and he would also be an early illustrator of the Commedia.
Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (from a nineteenth-century engraving). The goddess materializes from the waters of the sea, symbolizing the great Cosmic Mind. The spermlike foam on the water hints at the role of sexuality in secret spiritual practice.
Florence also has on display several of Raphael’s greatest portraits of the Madonna and child. These paintings have a rich, emotional, and mystical intensity that has led some mystical groups to speculate that Raphael is actually painting from memory—that in a former incarnation he was John the Baptist.7
It was in Florence that Michelangelo would design his architectural masterpiece, the Medici Chapel, including somewhere in it a secret door, a passageway, and chamber, where he could hide when his life was threatened. It is sometimes rumored that his hideaway is still undiscovered and that it contains a lost hoard of paintings.
Recently, the remains of Lisa Gheradini have been excavated from a tomb in the convent of St. Orsola in Florence. She was the wife of Francesco del Giocondo and therefore held to be the model for La Gioconda, as the subject of the Mona Lisa has always been known. The British art critic and esoteric scholar Walter Pater described the Mona Lisa as a presence rising:
. . . strangely beside the waters . . . expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which all “the ends of the world are come,” and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out . . . of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. . . . She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her. . . .8
Pater is here describing the Mona Lisa as a goddess, as Isis, who appeared at the climax of initiation ceremonies that in the ancient world were designed to induce visionary states.
The painters’ guilds to which artists like Leonardo da Vinci belonged had their own craft. Like masons, the artists passed down secret techniques, tricks of the trade, but also esoteric wisdom and esoteric techniques, too—ways to give your painting supernatural power.9
The Mona Lisa (from a nineteenth-century engraving).
This then is the greatest secret of the Mona Lisa: sometimes, if you look at her in the right way, she may speak to you.10
The goddess can arrive in our lives in all sorts of unexpected ways, as Dante would discover, and we will see the source of this mysticism and this commerce with spirits—in both its light and dark aspects—in his life and work.
• • •
In 1215, fifteen years before Dante was born, a handsome young nobleman called Bondelmonte dei Buondelmonti was riding through the streets of Florence on his way to meet the woman he was betrothed to marry. She too belonged to one of the noble families of the city, the Amidei. But en route, as Bondelmonte passed a house belonging to the Donati family, a woman came out to greet him. She told him he had settled for a marriage agreement that was beneath him. She said that he didn’t value himself highly enough, that he’d been poorly advised and that the woman he’d agreed to marry was neither beautiful, nor intelligent, nor fine enough for him. Bondelmonte dei Buondelmonti was, after all, a famously gifted and handsome man, he would have to admit.
Bondelmonte dei Buondelmonti was already nodding sagely. He could see a certain amount of sense in what this good woman was saying.
Then the woman smiled and told him that she’d been saving her own daughter for him. And when she brought her out to meet him, for Bondelmonte it was like looking into a mirror. She was as beautiful as he was, and he married her without delay.
The family of the jilted bride felt this slight to their honor deeply. They plotted with other noble families to get their revenge.
On the morning of Easter Sunday, Bondelmonte dei Buondelmonti was riding over the Ponte Vecchio on a high-stepping white horse, wearing dazzlingly white new clothes and a white cape, with a jaunty garland of flowers on his head. As he reached the ancient statue of Mars, the Roman god of war, that in those days stood on the bridge, he was dragged from his horse and savagely beaten to death.11
In this way there began a vendetta between the leading families of Florence that would lead to torture, imprisonment, exiles, and beheadings. Towers and palaces were pulled down and dismantled until not a stone was standing. Sword fights regularly started up in the streets, prompted by slights, imaginary or otherwise. A nose or a hand would be sliced off. A young man would be run through with a sword. These armed gangs and the tragedies they caused, not only in Florence but also in Pisa and Verona, would inspire Shakespeare to write Romeo and Juliet. The vendetta is deeply engrained in the Italian character. Even Dante would write “great honor is gained through taking revenge.”
Often there were wider political dimensions to the conflict, as one side, called the Guelfs, supported the papacy’s claims to rule over Italy, while the other side, called the Ghibellines, supported the rival claims of the Holy Roman Emperor. At other times there were equally vicious struggles between factions within one side—the Blacks and Whites of the Guelfs.
In the thirteenth century, Florence was extremely rich, largely as a result of wool manufacture—the merchants had learned Arabian secrets brought back from the Crusades about the treating and dying of wool—and a burgeoning banking business, and there was a lot to play for, a lot at stake. The famous currency of Florence, the gold florin, first struck in the thirteenth century, was such a successful currency that the name was still being used for a coin in my childhood in 1960s Britain.
So, Florence was a place of tremendous highs and lows, made even more perilous by the rivalry with neighboring Siena, and this sometimes erupted into open warfare.