The road the Italian poet Dante Alighieri traveled from Florence, where he was born in 1265, to Ravenna, where he died in 1321, was not a straight one. What is known beyond doubt is that Dante's exile--he was one of many victims of the toxic flow of power dominating Tuscan life in the 13th and early 14th centuries--was a painful consequence of his deep involvement in politics, an arena as divisive in medieval Florence as it is in much of the world today. Less well known are the particulars of Dante's military service in defense of his city's political interests. A narrative reconstruction of the poet-soldier's experience in warfare--and the events that shaped it--illuminates and is illuminated by his elaboration of Florentine military history in the Divine Comedy.
Feuding between two powerful Florentine families escalated in the early 1200s, with the two sides soon conforming to the larger rivalry embroiling the Italian peninsula and other parts of Europe. Two major factions arose: The Guelphs, pledging allegiance to the papacy, and the Ghibellines to the empire. Italian cities, especially in northern and central regions, were typically dominated by one or the other party. But a town's affiliation was hardly written in stone. Regional politics and warfare, as well as the latest round in the heavyweight bout between pope and emperor, frequently reset the local political scene. If one city turned Ghibelline, that alone could drive its most bitter rival into Guelph arms. When shifts did occur, however, one thing was certain: Leading families of the ousted party were banished.
Florence, on its way to becoming one of Europe's richest and most populous cities, fit that pattern to a tee. A combination of factors--control of capital and credit, land development, influx of immigrants, military supremacy, religious institutions--fueled the city's rapid economic growth in the second half of the 13th century. Reaching some 100,000 inhabitants by 1300, Florence trailed only Paris in population. Ghibellines controlled the city after military victories in 1248 and 1260, but Guelphs returned to power both times--and Dante was the proud son of a Guelph family.
A major military campaign close to home ensured the dominance of Guelph Florence in Tuscany during Dante's lifetime. He was there in the thick of the action, squarely "in the fight," as he says in a letter. Dante's intense encounters with death on the field of battle undoubtedly stood among his most memorable experiences. If a single episode from Dante's life inspired the gross carnage of his Inferno, this was it. The cultured poet was of course familiar with graphic representations of horrific violence by classical authors and in religious texts and artwork. But he also saw with his own eyes what hell could look like on earth.
In 1289, at age 24, Dante served in the cavalry, fighting in the fierce battle between Florentine Guelphs and their Ghibelline foes from Arezzo. With substantial contributions from its Guelph allies--Lucca, Pistoia, Bologna, Siena, Orvieto, and Volterra--Florence boasted a force of 2,000 horsemen and 10,000 foot soldiers. Arezzo and its Ghibelline allies had only 800 cavalry and 8,000 infantry, but they had no fear of the larger enemy army. One chronicler tells us that they scorned the Florentine soldiers as worthless men who "smoothed their hair and preened like women."
The battle was fought on June 11,1289. The feast day of Saint Barnabas was warm and muggy with storm clouds amassing as war raged below on the plain of Campaldino in the Casentino, a mountainous region between Florence and Arezzo. Many years later, when he is well along in the writing of Inferno, Dante recalls various instruments--trumpets, bells, drums--that had been used to send the Florentine and Aretine soldiers into battle. Enough time has passed that he can humorously report having never seen so strange an instrument as the "bugle made of a devil's ass" used to move troops in hell--the malebranche or "evil clawed" demons that torture sinners guilty of civic or political fraud.
There was not a trace of humor at the real battle of Campaldino. The Aretines took the upper hand by striking first with a strong surge of the cavalry. Dante, as a feditore or "striker," an elite, mounted soldier fighting in the first rank, charged straight into the panic and confusion overwhelming the routed Florentine forces. The Ghibellines, meanwhile, employed a cruel if timeworn method of cutting the superior Florentine cavalry down to size: Running alongside the charging Aretine cavalry fleet-footed soldiers, armed with short Roman-style swords, "threw themselves on all fours under the bellies of the Florentine horses, and disemboweled them." The unhorsed knights were easy prey for enemy swords and pikes. But the Aretines' success quickly became their undoing. Pressing their advantage, the Ghibelline cavalry foolishly separated from their infantry to chase the fleeing Guelphs. As the battle degenerated into a series of mano-a-mano fights, the Florentine troops--those maligned "girly men" of Ghibelline fantasy--re-grouped and launched a punishing counterattack.
Two related developments sealed the Guelph victory. Corso Donati, a Florentine knight in charge of a reserve force of 200 cavalry from Pistoia, delivered a devastating blow to the enemy. Ordered "under pain of beheading" not to attack unless called, Corso saw the Aretine infantry catching up with the cavalry and couldn't restrain himself. "If we lose this fight, I want to die with the men of my native city," he told his troops, "and if we win, whoever wants my head can come to Pistoia and try the case there." Charging from a hidden position in a wooded area above the field, Corso's squadron inflicted serious damage on the unprotected Ghibelline flank. Soon after, Count Guido Novello, leader of the Aretine reserve force, lost heart and turned anticipated defeat into reality by retreating to safety with his cavalry while the outcome was still in doubt. As a consequence of Corso's bravery and Guido's cowardice, the surging Guelph cavalry and infantry hunted down and slaughtered scores of Ghibelline soldiers. Crushing "the arrogance and pride not only of the Aretines but of the entire Ghibelline and Imperial side," as a 14th-century chronicler described it, the victory brought great joy to Guelph Florence.
The Battle of Campaldino entered the annals of medieval warfare as an especially bloody engagement. Seventeen hundred Ghibelline soldiers died that day, many leading citizens among them, with another 2,000 or more taken prisoner. The victorious Florentines also suffered heavy losses, with as many as 200 cavalry and 1,600 infantry killed in action.
In Inferno Dante tells Farinata degli Uberti, a noble who headed Florences Ghibelline faction, that Florence is still hostile to his family and party many years after the Battle of Montaperti in 1260 because the Ghibelline massacre of Guelph soldiers turned the Arbia river red with blood. In Dante's own experience in 1289, the Arno, winding its way along the southern border of the field of Campaldino, painted a similarly grim picture of Tuscan ferocity. Soldiers on both sides in the battle fled toward the river, many of them mortally wounded, others caught on the riverbank were dealt a deathblow there. Afterward, Dante saw the water stained by dozens of bloodied corpses. Seared into his brain, this nauseating sight likely moved the poet to imagine the Phlegethon, a river of boiling blood (its name means "river of fire") in which tyrants and murderers suffer eternally in hell for their violence against others.
Dante's presence at the Battle of Campaldino also inspired him to imagine an encounter in the afterlife with one of his vanquished foes. This fallen soldier's story exemplifies both the harsh, unforgiving consequences of warfare and, better than any other episode of the Divine Comedy, Dante's deep belief in repentance and mercy. In Purgatory he converses with Buonconte da Montefeltro, a prominent Ghibelline warlord. On the lower slopes of Mount Purgatory, those who turned to God and repented at the very end of their lives must wait a statutory period of time before beginning their purgatorial trials on the seven terraces. Buonconte, belonging to a group of late-repentant souls whose lives were cut short by violence, must pass the equivalent of his full lifetime before gaining entrance to the first terrace higher up on the mountain. After the shade identifies himself, Dante asks "what force or fortune" carried him so far from the battlefield that no one knew the fate of his body. In this divine realm, where the spirit of harmony and reconciliation dissolves even partisan differences, Buonconte clears up the mystery with one of the poem's most poignant stories.
Struck in the throat, Buonconte fled on foot, coloring the Campaldino plain red with blood. Laboring under the weight of his armor, disoriented from pain and blood loss, the wounded man exited the battlefield at its western end, close to where the defeated Aretines had launched their attack. He staggered toward the Castle of Bibbiena, a Ghibelline stronghold. But he reached only as far as the bank of the Archiano river, stumbling to a spot just north of where, flowing down from the Apennines, it joins the larger Arno. "I lost vision," he recalls, "I lost speech, and I died with the name of Mary; there I fell, and there my body was left, alone."
But his dead body didn't remain long on the ground. For Buonconte's lagrimetta--a "mere teardrop" of sincere repentance--a good angel won his soul for heaven. Cheated of the man's immortal part, an evil angel wreaked havoc on the corpse. Stirring up mist and wind as daylight faded, hell's angel filled the valley with fog and clouds that soon produced torrential rains. Rushing streams swept Buonconte's body into the churning Archiano, which carried it to the Arno where the man's mortal remains were buried by silt and debris. Apparently the body was never found. As horsemen on opposite sides, Dante and Buonconte fought against one another at Campaldino and could have engaged in direct combat. Dante may even have witnessed the blow that opened Buonconte's throat and took his life.
Two months after Campaldino, in August 1289, Dante saw action in a military campaign at the other end of the Arno, close to Pisa, where it empties into the Tyrrhenian Sea. After its resounding victory over Arezzo, Florence sent a sizable portion of its army to aid Lucca in battle against Pisa, the other center of Ghibelline power in Tuscany. Dante was one of 400 cavalry that, with 2,000 infantry, joined Guelphs from Lucca and other Tuscan towns to lay siege to the Castle of Caprona. Nino Visconti, leader of the Guelph exiles from Pisa, had previously controlled the castle, but the Ghibellines regained possession. Sieges in the late Middle Ages were notoriously complex operations that caused dreadful suffering on both sides of the walls--mostly for the besieged citizens and soldiers. The Siege of Caprona, like the Battle of Campaldino, made a lasting impression on the young Florentine soldier and poet.
Mercifully over in only a few days, the operation resulted in another Guelph victory. This one took a much smaller toll than the bloody battle with Arezzo. Years later while writing Inferno, Dante--imagining himself threatened with bodily harm by demons armed with flesh-tearing prongs--identifies with the Ghibelline soldiers he helped to defeat at Caprona. Frightened that the devils will break their promise not to attack him, Dante remembers the fear he saw on the faces of the Pisan troops. Unconvinced by terms of surrender guaranteeing their safe exit, they filed out of the castle into the heart of the enemy camp. The unarmed prisoners had good reason to worry: They had assisted the archbishop in driving Nino Visconti from the castle. Nino, whom Dante befriended and later imagined encountering in Purgatory, magnanimously spared the terrified men.
Campaldino and Caprona in 1289 are the only known instances of Dante's direct involvement in Florentine military campaigns. He built on this experience over the next 12 years to serve the commune as a government leader and emissary, before political enemies expelled him from Florence in 1302. He never returned. The brutal lessons of warfare, even for victors, taught Dante to appreciate the value of diplomacy and the skills required to practice it--skills that shaped the course of his life to the end: It was during a peacemaking mission to Venice on behalf of Guido Novello da Polenta, lord of Ravenna, that Dante contracted the illness that took his life the night of September 13, 1321.
Guy P. Raffa is an associate professor of Italian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches and writes on Dante's works, period, and legacy. His most recent book is The Complete Danteworlds: A Reader's Guide to the Divine Comedy.