DANTE AND THE MALASPINAS

Dante Alighieri (Botticelli)


"through your domains
  

I never passed, but where is there a dwelling
  

Throughout all Europe, where they are not known?

That fame, which doeth honour to your house,
  

Proclaims its Signors and proclaims its land,
  

So that he knows of them who ne'er was there.”

(Purgatory, VIII, v. 121-126)

The evocation of the Malaspinas in the Divine Comedy by Dante, cornerstone of Italian literature, helped immortalise the memory of the noble family in European conscience. Yet the reason of this praise, rare in the poet's writings, is unclear. Anyway, the following verses, seldom quoted and quite enigmatic, suggest a particular link between Dante and the marquesses of Lunigiane.

“It is so privileged by use and nature,
  

That though a guilty head misguide the world,
  

Sole it goes right, and scorns the evil way."

(Purgatory, VIII, v. 130-132)

and particularly Conrad Malspina's answer:

“And he: "Now go; for the sun shall not lie
  

Seven times upon the pillow which the Ram
  

With all his four feet covers and bestrides,

Before that such a courteous opinion
  

Shall in the middle of thy head be nailed
  

With greater nails than of another's speech,

Unless the course of justice standeth still."

(Purgatory, VIII, v. 133-139)

In the Divine Comedy, Dante tells a mystical and allegorical journey supposed to take place in 1300. Conrad Malaspina's paralipsis of the shadow therefore heralds events which happened in 1306-1307, when indeed Dante's personal history crossed the Malaspina's.

Dante in Lunigiane

For a long time, Lunigiane was a neutral territory where the refugees from the two parties, the Black and the White Guelphs, who were tearing each other apart in Florence, could withdraw. Among the members of the two factions who were alternately exiled or found refuge there, there was not only Ugoccione della Faggiola, a white Guelph  and Dante's friend, to whom the Inferno was dedicated, but also the Buonaparte family, who took refuge at Sarzana and who later emigrated to Corsica, following the Malaspinas. This wild region eventually hosted the exiled poet.

As early as 1295, Dante acceded to high positions in the Florentine life. Willing to preserve the city from the influence of the Pope, he committed himself in a political career which involved him eventually in the bloody fight between Black Guelphs, in favour of the papal power, and White Guelphs, concerned with keeping a local democracy and whose aspirations Dante shared. The tragedy took place in October 1301, when Dante was sent to Pope Boniface VIII as an ambassador to convince him to give up his ambitions regarding Florence: backed up by the Pope, Charles of Valois, King Philip the Fair's brother, marched into the Tuscan city. With the Black Guelphs, he persecuted the most famous White Guelphs, who were then masters of the life of the city. On January 27th of the following year, while kept in Rome by the Pope, Dante was summoned in his native city and convicted with embezzlement, deprived of his civil rights and exiled. Sentenced in absentia to be burnt alive in March 1302, he never returned to Florence. Disgusted by the plottings and the mediocrity of his companions in misfortune, Dante eventually left the ranks of the White Guelphs and decided to “be his own party”.

At the end of a four-year-long wandering in Northern Italy, Dante arrived in Lunigiane, where the Malaspinas put him up. The circumstances and the date of this welcome remain mysterious. It is yet known that, on October 6th, 1306, Franceschino Malaspina, marquess of Mulazzo, in his own name and on behalf of his nephews Moroello and Corradino, Obizzino's son, officially empowered the poet to represent them to conclude Castelnuovo Peace Treaty with Antonio Nuvolone di Camilla, bishop-count of Luni, with whom the Malaspinas were in conflict about the possession of some fiefs.

Dante – at the centre – during the signing of the Treaty of Castelnuovo (fresco at Fosdinovo Castle)

 

 

A few months before, Dante was in Verona, where he was taking advantage of the hospitality of the Scaligeris, related to the Malaspinas through blood and political links.  As far as the Malaspinas were concerned, they knew Dante's poetical reputation and the dolce stil novo was appreciated in the Malaspinian courts, particularly Franceschino de Mulazzo's. As for Dante, faithful to the courtly spirit, he did not ignore that the noble family had in the past welcomed the most renowned troubadours at Oramala and that the marquess Alberto himself had brilliantly practised courtly poetry.  If these links between the Scalgeris and the Malaspinas may be a possible explanation of Dante's trip to Lunigiane, the presence of his friend, the poet Cino da Pastoia, may be related too. The latter had indeed been put up by Moroello, marquess of Giovagallo, son of Manfredi and grand-son of Corrado the Ancient, and had become friends with him. A friendship later shared by Dante and which was quite obviously paradoxical.  

Cino da Pistoia

 

 

Dante and Moroello Malaspina

Indeed, not only had Moroello been a fierce supporter of the Black Guelphs but, leading the Black troops, he had crushed the White Guelphs' resistance during the decisive battle at Campo Piceno. A victory which, as an indirect result, had led to the collapse of the White party in Florence, and which Dante sang in the Inferno, Song XXIV, where he linked Moroello to a flash-of-lightning come from the Magra Valley:

“Mars draws a vapour up from Val di Magra,
  Which is with turbid clouds enveloped round,
  And with impetuous and bitter tempest
 Over Campo Picen shall be the battle;
  When it shall suddenly rend the mist asunder,
  So that each Bianco shall thereby be smitten.
 And this I've said that it may give thee pain."
(Inferno, XXIV, v. 145-151)

This paradoxical friendship, built up thanks to Cino da Pistoia, and which eventually linked two political adversaries, was found hard to believe by many historians. It was yet ascertained by the letters sent by Dante to Moroello after the poet's first departure from the Court of the Malaspinas, among which the famous epistle IV (Ne lateant Dominum), whose text in Latin bears an allegorical shape, as if encoded, and which Moroello must have understood. Dante had included there his last canzone (nb 166) “Amor, da che convien pur ch'io mi doglia”, said Montanina. Other verses from the Divine Comedy also confirm, though less obviously, the link between the Black marquess warrior and the White poet, verses consecrated to Moroello's wife, Alagia, descendant from the counts Fieschis of Genoa and niece of Pope Adrian V, who Dante did not really esteem. The poet praised her through the Pope's words, setting her apart from the other members of her family:

 

“On earth I have a grandchild named Alagia,
  Good in herself, unless indeed our house
  Malevolent may make her by example,
 And she alone remains to me on earth."
(Purgatory, XIX, v. 142-145)

 

Incidentally, Alagia was also a cousin of the bishop of Luni who Dante had met on behalf of Franceschino and his nephews.

According to Boccace, renowned author of The Decameron and a Life of Dante, Moroello Malaspina must have also been the dedicatee of the Purgatory, like Ugoccione della Faggiola that of the Inferno and Federico III, king of Sicily that of the Paradise. Some people think that the dedicatory letter was indefinitely lost. Others believe on the contrary that it was hidden in the extract telling Dante's meeting with Corrado's shadow, where the poet praised the Malaspinas' glory and honesty, and where Corrado answered him that he would be able to experience them a few years later.

Jean Boccace

 

 

Moroello Malaspina and the Divine Comedy

 

Major event in the exiled poet's life, his friendship with the marquess of Giovagallo must have also played an essential role in the making of Dante's works. It appears that not only did Dante compose the prose of The Banquet (Convivio) during his stay with Moroello but, according to Boccace, the marquess would also be the reason why Dante would have resumed the writing of the Divine Comedy, under quite unusual occurrences.

According to some information gathered through Andrea Poggi, Dante's nephew, Boccace advocated that, after Dante's signing of Castelnuovo-Magra Peace Treaty on behalf of the Malaspinas, documents confirming claims against the seizure of his possessions would have been found in Dante's house. Among these documents were seven songs of the Inferno, written in Latin before Dante left to Rome. The manuscripts were quickly sent to Dino Frescolbaldi, a famous Florentine poet and rhyme teller, who marvelled at them. After searches, he discovered that Dante was with Moroello and he made up his mind about writing to the marquess, sending him the seven songs. The marquess showed them to Dante and encouraged him to keep on writing.

Still according to Boccace, Dante would have answered Moroello:

“I believe these manuscripts were lost or destroyed with all my other documents when my house was sacked; I had forgotten about all these. But as God did not intend they be lost and they have just been sent back to me, I shall use all my faculties to resume the task and write on this work and do better, if I can, by doing differently.”

The first version of the Inferno was in Latin. Yet, resuming the writing on Moroello's injunction, Dante would have decided to write it in common parlance, a crucial decision which would make  this long poem the cornerstone of Italian literature. It is also noticeable that, a few years earlier, another Malaspina, Ricordano, was the first to write in prose in Italian what was then the first chronicle of the history of Florence, playing a part in the acceptance of the Italian language as a Court language. Directly or indirectly, in prose or in verses, Moroello and Ricordano Malaspina were therefore major actors in this significant change in the cultural, intellectual and even political history of Italy.

Dante, Boccace & Pétrarque painted by Giorgio Vasari

 

 

Dante's stay with the Malaspinas

Dante and the marquess Moroello Malaspina (Fosdinovo)

Among the unsolved questions about Dante's stay in Lunigiane remains that of the place or places of his accommodation. For lack of corresponding literature, this mystery is mainly answered through suppositions and legends. No less than six Malaspinian castles claim this honour: Fosdinovo, Licciana-Nardi, Malnido, Mulazzo, Oramala and Castevoli.

Even if they were not the only ones – Dante stayed at least twice in Lunigiane – Fosdinovo and Mulazzo are nevertheless presumably the most plausible candidates.  Boccace's account as well as frecoes decorating the hall depict Dante's visit in Fosdinovo, passed from generation to generation. Moroello would have presumably put up Dante there rather than at Giovagallo. It is the same regarding Mulazzo, capital of the Spino Secco and residence of Franceschino Malaspina, who had commissioned the poet by the bishop of Luni. A tower still bears Dante's name.

Dante received at Fosdinovo

Trying to revive six centuries later Alighieri's feelings at Fosdinovo, the great poet Gabriele D'Annunzio wrote:
“I like to think that Dante, the Malaspinas' guest, had the sight of the City of Dite while watching the Alpi Apuane, gleaming in the sunshine, scarlet, like out of a blaze. (…) Deserved shelter for Dante, Fosdinovo Castle, on the windy heights, with its circular towers, its overgrown back, its stairs and its porches, with its inner courts of dark stone and this warlike framework untouched by the passing centuries. If the Exiled lived in this room, narrow and bare like a cell, that the warden religiously shows the visitors, he could admire through his window, at the end of every single day, the formidable crests of the marbled Alps blazing and overlooking the Magra Valley already captured in the shade and the silence.” (Orisons, Praises and Comments)

Gabriele D’Annunzio

In 1311, Dante went back to Lunigiane for a while with Franceschino Malaspina, then imperial vicar of the Emperor Henry VII at Parma. Dante had placed all his hopes in the emperor but Moroello, also imperial vicar at Brescia, also tried his best to help his poet friend, interceding in vain on behalf of Dante with the government of Florence.

Can we then approve the hard and ironic lines that Voltaire wrote about Dante and his benefactors in his Philosophical Dictionary ?

“One can add that the Emperor Henry VII did nothing to help him,although he was a Ghibelline; that he went to Frederick of Aragon's, king of Sicily, and that he came back as poor as he had left. He had to resolve to go to the marquess of Malaspina's and to the great kan of Verona. The marquess and the great kan did not compensate him; he died at Ravenna a poor man, at the age of fifty-six.”

 

A judgement which cannot be put aside from a lapidary appraisal about the Tuscan poet's works, obviously belied by posterity:

 

“It was in these different places that he composed his Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise Comedy: people has considered this hotchpotch a beautiful epic poem.”

 

Like a shy farewell, Dante recalls in 1314 his attachment to Lunigiane and to its masters in these few simple verses out of Paradise:

 

“I was a dweller on that valley's shore
  'Twixt Ebro and Magra that with journey short
 Doth from the Tuscan part the Genoese.” (Paradise, IX, 88-90)