Machiavelli on Dante on language.
Machiavelli's 'Discorso o dialogo intorno alla nostra lingua' (c. 1515) is not one of the major treatises on the 'questione della lingua'. Critics even doubt that the author is Machiavelli since the work contains injurious attacks on Dante that are believed unlikely from someone who wrote highly of him in his other works. Machiavelli scholars have tried to justify his position toward Dante in the treatise as an attempt to make a case for Italian unity. The work has also been read from the perspective of the received ideas on Dante in the Renaissance, which are echoed in Machiavelli's slanderous criticism. In my article, I would like to approach the treatise from Dante's point of view to weigh the extent to which Machiavelli's claims can be said to be valid and justified. Although Machiavelli seems to have had a limited knowledge of Dante's linguistic treatise, De vulgari eloquentia, he certainly knew the Inferno well enough to parody it in his L'Asino and to take Dante to task for his attitude toward the Florentine language, the Florentines and Florence. My aim is to show that Machiavelli's unstated objective in the treatise, and the reason for his critique of Dante, is to ingratiate himself with the Medici and be accepted into their service.
Dante, Discorso o dialogo intorno alla nostra lingua, Florentine politics, Florentine volgare, Machiavelli
Within the great debate on the 'questione della lingua' that raged in the 16th century, Machiavelli's 'Discorso o dialogo intorno alla nostra lingua' (hereafter cited as 'Discorso') (Machiavelli, 1950a) is certainly one of the most provocative and interesting --if the author, indeed, is Machiavelli (Castellani Pollidori, 1981). His strongly patriotic stance toward Florence and an unusually aggressive approach toward Dante, who elsewhere in his works was portrayed positively, has raised the issue of the authenticity of the treatise (Davis, 1988; Landon, 2005). The circumstances that led to the writing of the 'Discorso' are also a matter of conjecture. Scholars have not been able to match key data from the 'Discorso' with historical events to arrive at a precise date. As it stands, 1515 or early 1516 seem to be the generally accepted dates, most likely in response to lectures on Dante's De vulgari eloquentia by Gian Giorgio Trissino, who lectured on this work when he passed through Tuscany almost annually between 1513 and 1518 (Barbi, 1890; Pozzi, 1975). (1) Trissino, who had Dante's treatise translated into Italian, eventually printed it in 1529 (Barbi, 1890; Landon, 2005). (2) In the Introduction to the modern critical edition of De Vulgari Eloquentia, Pier Vincenzo Mengaldo (1968: xx) gives this occurrence as a fact and relates how 'il trattato viene da lui [Trissino] fatto circolare sia a Firenze nella cerchia degli Orti Oricellari, dove stimola l'intervento del Machiavelli sulla questione della lingua.' Machiavelli probably did not have direct access to the manuscript in Trissino's possession, which was known by the spurious title of De vulgari eloquio sive ydiomate, an edition composed in Padua and modeled on two of three 14th-century codices: the Trivulziano 1088 and the Grenoble 580. The modern critical edition by Mengaldo is based on the third and more correct Berlin Lat. Fol. 437. The treatise, which Dante wrote in exile between 1302 and 1305, was left unfinished. The first book treats the relation between Latin and the vernacular, and the search for the 'volgare illustre,' while the second book, left incomplete, deals with the structure of the 'canto' or song. When Machiavelli wrote the 'Discorso' he was in exile in Sant'Andrea in Percussina after having been accused unjustly by the new Medici government of conspiracy. He was arrested, imprisoned and tortured. Despite these events, if we are to believe the 'Discorso,' his love of Florence never wavered, probably fueled, as I will try to show, by political motives (Landon, 2005).
The title of Machiavelli's 'Discorso o dialogo intorno alla nostra lingua' points to another difficulty: are we dealing with a 'Discorso' or a 'Dialogo,' and is there a difference? The confusion is understandable because treatises on language such as Pietro Bembo's Prose della volgar lingua (Bembo, 1955) take the form of dialogue. In Bembo's work, four participants offer their different views on the 'volgare'. One speaks for the author, another presents a counter argument, while others are either in support or voice their independent views (Kidwell, 2004). From this perspective, Machiavelli's treatise is not a 'Dialogo,' since it does not follow this format but gives only one point of view, his own. Yet for Machiavelli it is also a 'Dialogo' because he invents a dialogue with Dante to make him acknowledge his own poetic shortcomings (1950a: 810):
Quando questo ch'io dico sia vero (che e verissimo) io vorrei chiamar Dante, che mi mostrasse il suo poema; e avendo appresso alcuno scritto in lingua fiorentina, lo domanderei qual cosa e quella che nel suo poema non fussi scritta in fiorentino. E perche e risponderebbe che molte, tratte di Lombardia, o trovate da se, o tratte dal latino.... Ma perche io voglio parlare un poco con Dante, per fuggire egli disse ed io risposi, notero gl'interlocutori d'avanti.
The shift between discourse and dialogue characterizes Machiavelli's ambivalent attitude toward Dante, whom he would like to engage in a friendly dialogue but with the intention of criticizing him, not only for his views on language but for his lack of patriotism. This charge is for Machiavelli the reason for the many invectives against Florence and the Florentines in the Commedia.
His critique of Dante is gradual and appears to be based on a political imperative. Every man ought to love one's 'patria,' one's native city, because we receive from it everything that is good and worthwhile: 'perche l'uomo non ha maggiore obbligo nella vita sua che con quella, dependendo prima da essa l'essere e, di poi, tutto quello che di buono la fortuna e la natura ci hanno conceduto' (1950a: 805). This is especially the case when the 'patria' happens to be Florence, the most noble of cities: 'patria piu nobile' (1950a: 805). The 'patria' is like our father and mother, and those who become her enemy, 'si fa nimico della sua patria' (1950a: 805), are guilty of 'parricide,' 'parricida' (1950a: 805), even if he may have just cause: 'ancora che da quella fosse suto offeso' (1950a: 805), as in Dante's case (1950a: 805, emphasis added):
Perche, se battere il padre e la madre, per qualunque cagione, e cosa nefanda, di necessita ne seguita il lacerare la patria essere cosa nefandissima, perche da lei mai si patisce alcuna persecuzione per la quale possa meritare di essere da te ingiurata, avendo a riconoscere da quella ogni tuo bene; tal che, se ella si priva di parte de' suoi cittadini, sei piuttosto obbligato ringraziarla di quelli che la si lascia, che infamarla di quelli che la si toglie. E quando questo sia vero (che e verissimo) io non dubito mai di ingannarmi per difenderla e venire contro a quelli che troppo presuntuosamente cercano di privarla de l'onor suo.
Machiavelli believes that Dante should have honored Florence despite having been exiled, 'suto offeso.' However, he not only chose to abuse her name repeatedly but by not acknowledging that he made use of the Florentine language in his poem he also deprived her of this honor. Dante's abusive stance toward Florence, Florentines and the Florentine language justifies Machiavelli's intervention in the 'Discorso' against him and all those who, out of self-importance, 'presuntuosamente,' want to deprive Florence of her honor, 'privarla de l'onor suo.'
Machiavelli's defense of Florence gradually takes precedence over his main task of taking part in the language debate, discussing how languages change or borrow from one another, or what is the best language to use: Tuscan, Florentine or curial. He engages the debate to some extent but it soon becomes clear that this is only an exercise meant to give the 'Discorso' the semblance of a linguistic treatise and he soon abandons it as unnecessary: 'Ma lasciando stare questa parte come non necessaria' (1950a: 810). The only authors worth discussing are for him Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio, who excel in the Florentine language that everyone else has adopted, 'pare che qualunque altro luogo ceda' (1950a: 806). Of these three he is only interested in debating Dante. Boccaccio is easily dismissed because he stated in the Decameron that he writes in Florentine, 'il Boccaccio afferma nel Centonovelle di scrivere in vulgar fiorentino' (1950a: 808); as for Petrarch, he wrote mainly in Latin, with the exception of his poetry, and we do not really know what he thought: 'il Petrarca non so che ne parli cosa alcuna' (1950a: 808).
Machiavelli has great praise for Dante's intellect, philosophical acumen and judgment, 'per ingegno, per dottrina e per giudizio' (1950a: 808), but he objects to his linguistic views that were becoming popular at the time thanks to Trissino: 'Dante in un suo libro ch'ei fa De vulgari eloquio, dove egli danna tutta la lingua particular d'Italia, afferma non aver scritto in fiorentino, ma in una lingua curiale' (1950a: 808, emphasis mine). If Dante did not write in Florentine, he asks, from what poet or region did he learn the language? (1950a: 808, emphasis added):
In modo che, quando e' se li avesse a credere, mi cancellerebbe l'obbiezioni che di sopra si feciono di volere intendere da loro donde avevano quella lingua imparata.
Machiavelli believes he knows the answer to this question and the 'Discorso' aims to prove it, but the reasons are not linguistic. He believes that Dante's choice is motivated by his hatred of Florence for having sent him into exile: 'tanto l'offese l'ingiuria dell'esilio! tanta vendetta ne desiderava! e pero ne fece tanta quanta egli pote' (1950a: 808). This is the reason that he relentlessly casts injuries on her: 'eccetto che dove egli ebbe a ragionare della patria sua; la quale, fuori, d'ogni umanita e filosofico instituto, perseguito con ogni specie d'ingiuria'1 (1950a: 808, emphasis added). The ensuing dialogue with Dante does not discuss the issue of which language is best to use: Tuscan, Florentine or curial, but takes the form of a confrontation where Dante is asked if he wrote in Florentine: 'e avendo appresso alcuno scritto in lingua fiorentina, lo domanderei qual cosa e quella che nel suo poema non fussi scritta in fiorentino' (1950a: 810), and at the end of the dialogue Dante is made to admit that he is wrong: 'Egli e il vero; e io ho 'l torto' (1950a: 813). When Dante agrees to all his accusations, Machiavelli can conclude contentedly that he has set Dante straight: 'le confesso vere, e si parti; e io mi restai tutto contento parendomi d'averlo sgannato' (1950a: 818).
Machiavelli's argument is compelling. One may well agree with him that Dante chose to damn Florence and the Florentines because he was unjustly sent into exile, and that the language of the Commedia is Florentine and that this is the language that other poets imitated. After all, isn't this what the majority of readers of the 'Dialogo' implicitly believes? No critic, to my knowledge, has questioned Machiavelli's assumptions or verified them against Dante's own texts. This is what I propose to do in this article: to determine to what extent Machiavelli's claims are justified and how much he owed to received ideas about Dante and to a desire to counter not only the pro-Dante stance of Trissino but also to use Dante's anti-Florence stance, which was an established fact at the time, for his own political motives (Pozzi, 1975). Machiavelli is correct when he says that Dante prefers 'una lingua curiale' to Florentine, but not for the reasons he gives, quite the contrary. As we know from the De Vulgari Eloquentia, the 'curiale' is only one of the many attributes of the 'volgare illustre:' 'Poi questo volgare, che si e mostrato essere "illustre," "cardinale," "aulico" e "curiale," affermo che e quello che si chiama "volgare italiano'" (Dante, 1996). The fact that Machiavelli never mentions the 'volgare illustre' in the 'Dialogo' is a good indication that he did not know the work directly and that he only heard mention of a 'lingua curiale.' Had Machiavelli known the treatise he would have known that 'curiale' and the 'volgare illustre' are part of a critique that Dante directs at the Tuscan poets he calls 'poeti municipali,' who believe they are using the 'volgare illustre' when they are only using Florentine. He calls them 'fools,' 'stolti,' and admonishes them for their 'foolishness,' 'dissennatezza' (Dante, 1996, emphasis added):
Dopo questo passiamo ai Toscani, i quali fatti stolti per la loro dissennatezza, mostrano di arrogarsi l'onore del volgare illustre. Ed in cio non solo folleggia la pretesa della plebe, ma so bene che alcuni uomini famosi hanno sostenuto cio; per esempio Guittone d'Arezzo, che mai si indirizzo verso il volgare illustre, Bonagiunta di Lucca, Gallo di Pisa, Mino Mocato di Siena, Brunetto fiorentino; le poesie dei quali, se si avra agio di esaminarle diligentemente, Si troveranno non curiali, ma soltanto municipali.
Ironically, Dante's conclusions are similar to Machiavelli's but for the wrong reasons. While Machiavelli believes that poets write in Florentine in imitation of Dante's language, Dante is saying that that these poets believe they are imitating his 'curiale' or volgare illustre' when they are actually writing in 'volgare.' In De vulgari eloquentia, Dante sets out to prove, ironically, what Machiavelli believes, but only to show that the language used by these poets is not poetic but 'municipal,' namely, Florentine or Tuscan. In proving these poets wrong, Dante also proves Machiavelli wrong since these 'municipal' languages are not the same as the 'volgare illustre' or Italian, which is a poetic language, and is the language that he uses in the Commedia. This poetic language may have its foundation in Florentine or Tuscan but it is not like any of these 'municipal' languages.
This difference is best illustrated in Purgatorio 24, 55-57, where Dante's critique of 'municipal poets' in the De vulgari eloquentia is dramatized in the exchange between Bonagiunta da Lucca and Dante the pilgrim. In their dialogue, Bonagiunta regrets that he, together with Iacopo da Lentini and Guittone d'Arezzo, have never followed in his footsteps (Dante, 1972, emphasis added).
O frate, issa vegg'io,' diss'elli, 'il nodo che 'l Notaro e Guittone e me ritenne di qua dal dolce stil novo ch'i'odo!
If we rephrase this quotation with the language of Dante's language treatise, we can say that Bonagiunta now realizes what kept him, Lentini and Guittone this side of the 'volgare illustre.' However, Bonagiunta's realization is another example of blindness. He believes that the Dante he sees before him is the author of the Vita nuova (Dante, 1972: Purg. 24, 49-51).
Ma di' s'i' veggio qui colui che fore trasse le nove rime, cominciando 'Donne ch'avete intelletto d'amore'.
But the Dante who replies is the author of the Commedia (Dante, 1972: Purg. 24, 52-54, emphasis added):
E io a lui: T mi son un che, quando Amor mi spira, noto, e a quel modo eh'e' ditta dentro vo significando'.
The difference could not be greater because the poet of the Commedia is no longer the poet of the Vita nuova whose youthful and passionate poetry he dismissed in the Convivio in favor of the more mature and rational poetry inspired by Lady Philosophy: 'veggendo si come ragionevolmente quella fervida e passionata, questa temperate e virile esser conviene' (Dante, 1966: I, i, 16). The difference does not consist in a simple change of love object but points to a radical difference in love poetics expressed by the term 'ditta,' 'dictates,' that alludes to two different conceptions of love: a tyrannical love that makes demands on the loved one and a rational love that dictates wisdom. The former characterizes the poets of the Tuscan school, the so-called poetry of the 'dolce stil nuovo,' whose major representative is Guido Guinizzelli as well as the Dante of the Vita Nuova. This type of love, inspired by Eros, is tyrannical because it demands that those who are loved love them in return. This conception of love is dramatized and condemned in the Paolo and Francesca episode of Inf. 5 and is summarized in Francesca's speech: 'Amor ch'ai cor gentil ratto s'apprende,' 'Amor ch'a nullo amato amar perdona,' 'Amor condusse noi ad una morte' (Dante, 2002: Inf. 5, 100, 103, 106). The love that resides in Paolo, the 'cor gentile, becomes tyrannical when it demands that Francesca love him in return. Finally, this Love leads both lovers to their death (Poggioli, 1967). The latter type of love, Dante's new love for Lady Philosophy, is rational and philosophical, inspiring the poet with the knowledge and the wisdom to write the Commedia for the edification of his readers.
The shift in love poetics also implies a radical shift in poetic representation: from a symbolic to an allegorical mode of representation. The symbolic which characterizes the poetics of the Vita nuova is rejected because it leads to error. As we know, Dante writes the Convivio to resolve an error of reading (Anderson, 1980). The canzoni with a philosophical content that were addressed to Lady Philosophy were mistaken for love poems: 'si che a molti loro bellezza piu che loro bontade era in grado' (Dante, 1966: I, i, 14) Dante writes the Convivio to teach his readers how to read the canzoni, first explaining their literal meaning and then the allegorical one. Dante differentiates his new poetic allegory from that of the theologians who read Scripture according to four allegorical levels (Dante, 1966: II, i, 2-4, emphasis added):
Dico che, si come nel primo capitolo e narrato, questa sposizione conviene essere litterale e allegorica. E a cio dare a intendere, si vuol sapere che le scritture si possono intendere e deonsi esponere massimamente per quattro sensi. L'uno si chiama litterale [e questo e quello che non va oltre a cio che suona la parola fittizia, si come ne' le favole dei poeti. L'altro si chiama allegorico] e questo e quello che si nasconde sotto 'l manto di queste favole, ed e una veritade ascosa sotto bella menzogna.... Veramente li teologi questo senso prendono altrimenti che li poeti; ma pero che mia intenzione e qui lo modo de li poeti seguitare, prendo lo senso allegorico secondo che per li poeti e usato.
When Dante writes the Convivio, he has yet to write the De Vulgari eloquentia: 'Di questo si parlera altrove piu compiutamente in uno libello ch'io intendo di fare, Dio concedente, di Volgare Eloquenza' (Dante, 1966:1, v, 10, emphasis added). When he does, the allegory of poets of the Convivio is defined as 'volgare illustre' in order to contrast it with the 'municipal' language that Florentine and Tuscan poets use. When this treatise is left unfinished the 'volgare illustre' will find full expression in the allegorical language of the Commedia.
The dialogue between Dante and Bonagiunta is doubly ironic not only because the latter regrets not following the obsolete love poetics of the Vita nuova, but because he believes that Dante's language is Tuscan or Florentine. This is why Bonagiunta speaks to him in the Lucca volgare (Dante, 1972): 'Gentucca' (24: 37), 'di s'i' veggio' (24: 49), 'issa vegg'io' (24: 55) 'io veggio ben' (24: 58). Bonagiunta's misunderstanding of the nature of Dante's 'nuove rime' (Dante, 1972: 24: 50) is a consequence of his poetic language which is Tuscan or 'municipal,' and symbolic. He believes, mistakenly, with Machiavelli, that Tuscan or Lucca volgare are poetic languages and that they are similar to Dante's own poetic language.
The discrepancy between Dante's poetic language and Machiavelli's attempt to reduce it to a 'municipal language' or to Florentine or Tuscan volgare accounts for most of the confusion and misunderstandings of the 'Discorso.' This is the case, for instance, with the objection to finding Brutus in the mouth of Lucifer, the five Florentine thieves, and Cacciaguida in Paradiso: 'il che tanto se li debbe credere, quanto ch'ei trovassi Bruto in bocca di Lucifero maggiore, e cinque cittadini fiorentini tra i ladroni, e quel suo Cacciaguida in Paradiso, e simili sue passioni e oppinioni' (Machiavelli, 1950a: 809).
Machiavelli's first objection is to Brutus in Lucifer's mouth. This does not come as a surprise since Machiavelli has a very positive view of Brutus as the killer of tyrants and defender of liberty, as we learn from his 'Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio' (1950b: 353, emphasis added):
Non fu meno necessaria che utile la severita di Bruto nel mantenere in Roma quella liberta che elli vi aveva acquistata, la quale e di un esemplo raro in tutte le memorie delle cose, vedere il padre sedere pro tribunali, e non solamente condannare i suoi figliuoli a morte, ma essere presente alla morte loro. E sempre si conoscera questo per coloro che le cose antiche leggeranno, come dopo una mutazione di Stato, o da republica in tirannide o da tirannide in republica, e necessaria una esecuzione memorabile contro a' nemici delle condizioni presenti. E chi piglia una tirannide e non ammazza Bruto, e chi fa uno stato libero e non ammazza ifligliuoli di Bruto, si mantiene poco tempo.
Machiavelli's conception of Brutus as a tyrant slayer and a symbol of freedom was commonplace in the Renaissance (Gilson, 2005; Parker, 1993; Peterman, 1982). (3) Machiavelli further dramatized this view by turning it into a political lesson for any despot who wished to remain in power: one must not only kill Brutus but also the sons of Brutus. This is the lesson that the Soderini government did not learn and it became the reason for its downfall and the Medici's return to Florence (Landon, 2005).
For Dante, however, Brutus is a traitor and his place is at the bottom of Hell in Lucifer's mouth with Cassius, who betrayed Caesar, together with Judas who betrayed Jesus:
'Quell'anima la su c'ha maggior pena' disse '1 maestro, 'e Giuda Scariotto, ... De li altri due c'hanno il capo di sotto, quel che pende dal nero ceffo e Bruto vedi come si storce e non fa motto; e l'altro e Cassio che par si membruto.' (Dante, 2002: Inf. 34: 61-62; 64-67)
The three traitors are grouped together with the greatest of traitors, Lucifer, who, as the chief and most beautiful of the angels is the traitor of God. All four find their rightful place at the bottom of Hell to signify the greatest evil that is born of envy. In the Inferno (Dante, 2002: Inf. 1: 94-99), envy is symbolized by the 'lupa' from which all other sins are generated:
che questa bestia, per la qual tu ride, non lascia altrui passar per la sua via, ma tanto lo 'mpedisce che l'uccide; e ha natura si malvagia e ria, che mai non empie la bramosa voglia, e dopo 'l pasto ha piu fame che pria.
The Inferno concludes appropriately with Lucifer, the personification of envy, in the persona of the traitor who concealed his evil under the cloak of love and friendship. As Virgil relates, hell and Lucipher are synonymous, since hell was created by his fall from heaven (Dante, 2002: Inf. 34: 121-125): 'Da questa parte cadde giu dal cielo;/e la terra ... e forse per fuggir lui lascio qui loco voto.' In other words, Brutus is not in hell for any anti-Republican reasons, as it was believed especially in the Renaissance (Parker, 1993). (4) His presence together with Cassius, and Judas in Lucifer's mouth, is consistent with Dante's general representation of hell that makes use of examples from Roman history as well as Scripture to form one horrific final image.
Machiavelli's critique of Dante's representation of Brutus, legitimate as it may be by being in tune with its times, is misconceived. As any reader of the Commedia, Machiavelli interprets the Brutus episode according to the dominant ideology of his times. Machiavelli is no different from those critics who in modern times criticized Dante for placing Paolo and Francesca, Brunetto Latini or Ulisse in hell. This is understandable because when we encounter these characters they are to us like 'real' people, which is part of the effect that Dante wants to achieve. For him, however, they are also symbols illustrating his allegorical vision of men and society. Theirs is the difference between writing allegorically and reading symbolically.
Machiavelli's other objection concerns the portrayal of the Five Florentine Thieves in Hell (Dante, 2002: Inf. 25), probably because they are Florentines. We encounter them in the seventh circle of thieves but Dante focuses mainly on three of them: Cianfa Donati, Agnolo Brunelleschi, and Buoso Donati. The other two, Puccio Sciancato and Francesco dei Cavalcanti, also thieves, receive a brief mention. All of them were well-known thieves so it is not a question of an unfair accusation. Machiavelli, probably, took umbrage that Dante picked Florentine thieves but his choice serves a double purpose. The primary function is to serve as a double metamorphosis to better his Latin predecessors, Lucan and Ovid, who had only described a single metamorphosis from man to animal. Dante wants to go one better with a double metamorphosis from man to animal and from animal to man (Dante, 2002: Inf. 25: 94-102):
Taccia Lucano ornai la dove tocca del misero Sabello e di Nasidio, e attenda a udir quell ch'or si scocca. Taccia di Cadmo e d'Aretusa Ovidio, che se quello in serpente e quella in fonte converte poetando, io non lo 'nvidio; che due nature mai a fronte a fronte non transmuto si ch'amendue le forme cambiar lor matera fosser pronte.
The other function of the five Florentine thieves is to allude to Florence's reputation in hell as a den of thieves (Dante, 2002: Inf. 26: 1-12, emphasis added):
Godi, Fiorenza, poi che se' si grande che per mare e per terra batti l'ali, e per lo 'nferno tuo nome si spande? Tra li ladron trovai cinque cotali tuoi cittadini onde mi ven vergogna, e tu in grande orranza non ne sali. Ma se presso al mattin del ver si sogna, tu sentirai, di qua da picciol tempo, di quel che Prato, non ch'altri, t'agogna. E se gia fosse, non saria per tempo, cosi foss'ei, da che pur esser dee! che piu m'gravera, com' piu m'attempo.
For Machiavelli the apostrophe is an example of how Dante speaks ill of Florence and wishes her a future of ills and destruction. Luckily, Florence can consider herself fortunate that these evil prophecies have never come to pass: 'Fortuna' made a liar out of him ('mendace'), and covered her in glory making her prosperous and famous throughout the world. If Dante could see her now he would not only feel guilty for having spoken ill of her, he would also wish he were dead.
Ma la fortuna, per farlo mendace e per ricoprire con la gloria sua la calunnia falsa di quello, l'ha continuamente prosperata, e fatta celebre per tutte le provincie del mondo, e condotta al presente in tanta felicita e si tranquillo stato che, se Dante la vedessi, o egli accuserebbe se stesso o, ripercosso dai colpi di quella sua innata invidia, vorrebbe, essendo risuscitato, di nuovo morire. (Machiavelli, 1950a: 808-809)
However, as commentators have pointed out, Dante's prophecies are always 'true' because they usually allude to events that have just or already occurred. They are not really prophecies meant to cast injury on Florence but to act as a reminder of the evil done by those who inhabit her and rule over her. In this particular case, commentators cite as possible historical references Cardinal Niccolo of Prato's curse against the Florentines in 1304 for having in vain tried to establish peace with Florence, or Prato's rebellion in 1309 which resulted in the exile of the Blacks (see Sapegno in Dante, 2002: Inf. 26: 12). These apostrophes, as Sapegno explains, provide Dante with an opportunity to commiserate with his city for the shame and the dishonor the Florentines bring to her:
Ma il sentimento che l'anima e piu complesso, sarcastico e al tempo stesso amaro e doloroso, come sempre dove il poeta si rivolge a considerare le colpe dei suoi concittadini e l'inevitable castigo che gia incombe sulla patria amata e odiata.
However, Sapegno is also quick to add that ancient commentators did not interpret the passage as liberally as we do today: 'Ma gli antichi intendevano all'opposto: 'quanto piu invecchio, tanto piu mi sara gave che tardi ad esser soddisfatta la mia ansia di vendetta' (Sapegno in Dante, 2002: Inf. 26: 12).
The discrepancy between Dante's intentions and Machiavelli's reaction that Dante would die of envy if he knew that Florence had prospered instead, gives us pause to ask what Machivelli's real intentions were when the historical reality indicated otherwise. Nobody better than he would know the strife and the conflicts that Florence had undergone in the past and present. Furthermore, the insistence on a period of prosperity when Florence is celebrated throughout the world, 'fatta celebre per tutte le provincie del mondo,' is equally an exaggeration aimed, perhaps, at countering her 'evil' fame throughout Dante's hell. Furthermore, Florence is not the only city to be the target of Dante's critique. He also chastizes Pistoia (Inf. 24-25) and Pisa (Inf. 33). The exaggerated praise as well as the harsh condemnation point to motives that are no longer critical or rational but ideological or political. As some commentators have suggested Machiavelli's praise is directed at flattering the Medici rule, as he does in his other works, in the ceaseless but always futile attempt to be asked to return from exile and serve in their government (Dionisotti, 1980). In the 'Discorso,' Machiavelli exploits the fact that he and Dante are both exiles to demonstrate how superior to Dante is his devotion and loyalty to Florence. Ironically, the treatise never saw the light until many years later and its message as well as its critique were destined to go unnoticed (Landon, 2005).
As for the third objection to Cacciaguida: 'e quel suo Cacciaguida in Paradiso' (Machiavelli, 1950a: 809), it is difficult to guess what Machiavelli had in mind. May be he was referring to the fact that he is a fictitious character invented by Dante to condemn the civil wars that had plagued Florence since her founding (1950a: 809). (5)
Another possible veiled criticism of Dante's Commedia can be detected in Machiavelli's comments on comedy. While not directly alluding to the poem, Machiavelli gives a definition of comedy that serves as an example of how linguistic expressions that are not based on the Tuscan 'volgare' are bound to fail (1950a: 816, emphasis added):
Perche, ancora che il fine d'una commedia sia proporre uno specchio d'una vita privata, nondimeno il suo modo del farlo e con certa urbanita e termini che muovono riso, accio che gli uomini, correndo a quella delettazione, gustino poi l'esemplo utile che vi e sotto.
Comedy is defined as a form of social critique that holds a mirror to society to teach it lessons through laughter. Comedy, therefore, relies on language for its effects and unless one uses proper and easily recognizable expressions ('termini) the comic effect is lost (Machiavelli, 1950a: 816, emphasis added).
Ma perche le cose sono trattate ridiculamente, conviene usare termini e motti che faccino questi effetti; i quali termini, se non son proprii e patrii, dove sieno soli, interi e noti, non muovono ne posson muovere.
It is important to use the proper language but it is even more essential that this language be of one's own 'patria' meaning that it ought to be Tuscan. Anyone who does not write in this language cannot adequately represent a comedy, otherwise a patchwork of half-Tuscan and half-foreign language would result that would destroy the final effect (1950a: 816, emphasis added):
Donde nasce che uno che non sia toscano non fara mai questa parte bene, perche, se vorra dire i motti della patria sua, fara veste rattoppata, facendo una composizione mezza toscana e mezza forestiera; e qui si conoscerebbe che lingua egli avessi imparata, s'ella fusse comune o propria.
Machiavelli assumes that Tuscan is the only language appropriate for comedy and to prove it he gives the example of Ariosto's / Suppositi (1509) which, in his view, was a failure. The author did not want to use witty expressions ('motti') from his own Ferrara volgare and did not know Tuscan. As a result, the play lacks the comic bite ('sali') that would have made the comedy a success (1950a: 816, emphasis mine):
E a provare questo, io voglio che tu legga una commedia fatta da uno degli Ariosti di Ferrara; e vedrai una gentil composizione e uno stile ornato e ordinato; vedrai un modo bene accomodato e meglio sciolto; ma la vedrai priva di quei sali che ricerca una commedia tale, non per altra cagione che per la detta, perche i motti ferraresi non gli piacevano e ifiorentini non sapeva, talmente che gli lascio stare.
A comedy is effective if the author knows Tuscan and if the lines spoken by the actors are also in Tuscan. The words must not only be proper, 'propri,' but must also derive from the source, 'fonte,' where these words have their origin. Otherwise, the result is a mixed composition where the parts do not correspond to each other: 'altrimenti si fa una composizione dove luna parte non corrisponde all'altra (1950a: 817, emphasis mine).
It is interesting to note that in the case of / Suppositi, the comic effect does not derive so much from what is being said but by the change of identities and the misunderstandings it creates. Based on Terence's comedies, / Suppositi is set in Ferrara and contains many allusions to the social life of the city that were well-known to its spectators who could easily see reflected on stage a world familiar to them. Although Ariosto would have preferred a more 'curial' or 'courtly' language, the Ferrara 'volgare' is still the most appropriate and the most effective comically. Machiavelli's insistence that the comedy would have worked better in Tuscan does not seem to apply in this case where the topic is strictly suited to life in Ferrara and requires the Ferrara 'volgare' for its comic effect. When Ariosto changed from writing comedies, which had a strictly local appeal, to writing his great epic poem, Orlando Furioso, he felt it necessary to use a language that had wider appeal. As is well-known, he revised his poem according to the Tuscan of Pietro Bembo, whom he praises in Canto XLVI, 15: 'la veggo Pietro/Bembo, che '1 puro e dolce idioma nostro,/elevato fuor del volgare uso tetro, qual esser dee' (Kidwell, 2004).
Machiavelli's comments on comedy are not a direct criticism of Dante's poem, which is also a 'comedy,' but his critique of mixed languages is inherently a critique of the poem's language. It would not be completely off the mark to conclude that because of its mixed languages and Dante's refusal to adhere to the Florentine 'volgare,' his Commedia is not a real comedy.
Dante's 'comedy,' however, is radically different from the model that Machiavelli presents here. On the contrary, we could say that it thrives on mixed languages because his comedy does not depend on the delivery of witty expressions or changes of identity, but on demystifying the language of those who appear noble and magnanimous to reveal their concealed violence and evil. Dante explains the workings of his comedy when he swears on the poem: 'e per le note/di questa comedia lettor, ti giuro' (Dante, 2002: Inf. 16: 127-128). The episode precedes the appearance of Geryon who has the face of a just man but the trunk of a serpent to signify the violent and treacherous nature of fraud. The episode of Geryon not only functions as a prologue to the cantos on fraud that follow but also alludes to the ironic workings of the Commedia. Comedy for Dante is synonymous with irony and refers to the demystification of the deceptive facade of apparently noble characters like Ulysses or Ugolino whom we meet in the eighth and ninth circles where the sins of simony, prophecy, grafting, thievery and fraud are punished. This ironic act of demystification is what Dante means by comedy. This conception is not only radically different from Machiavelli's but comedy in Dante is nothing to laugh at. Furthermore, it is precisely in the awareness that one part does not correspond to another that the reader reaches an understanding of the hidden treachery behind a noble facade. Dante's comedy is not the comedy of either Ariosto or Machiavelli.
In another attempt to criticize Dante's language, Machiavelli compares the language of the Commedia to Luigi Pulci's Morgante Maggiore (1483) and asks Dante for their difference: 'che differenza e da quella tua lingua a questa?' (Machiavelli, 1950a: 813). Dante replies 'little': 'poca.' The example is trite not only because these works belong to different centuries but also because the Commedia is an allegorical and didactic poem while the Morgante is a narrative epic based on popular stories. The difference is not at all 'poca;' it could not be greater. The difference is similar to Bonagiunta's episode i discussed earlier: the Morgante is written in Florentine, Dante's Commedia is written in the 'volgare illustre,' or in the poetic language of allegory. For Machiavelli, however, the difference is 'poca' and it is limited to the single pronoun 'chi' in Pulci's line: 'Non chi comincia ha meritato e scritto/nel tuo santo Vangel benigno Padre' (emphasis added). In Dante's view, according to Machiavelli, Pulci's 'chi' is 'too' Florentine: 'Quel chi e troppo fiorentino' (1950a: 813). The example, of course, is a trap to demonstrate that Dante has made use of a similar 'chi': 'Io non so chi tu sia, ne per che modo/venuto se' quaggiu, ma fiorentino ...?' (Inf. 33: 10-11, emphasis added). Indeed, there is 'little' difference between 'chi' in 'volgare illustre' and 'chi' in Florentine, so Dante has to admit he is wrong: 'Egli e il vero e io ho il torto' (1950a: 813).
It is difficult to see the purpose of this example except that it demonstrates, once again, Machiavelli's hidden political agenda. Pulci's patrons were the Medici, in particular Lorenzo de' Medici, and his Morgante was written under their patronage. This comic poem, which told of the giant Morgante who was converted to Christianity by Orlando and followed him in many adventures, was a parody based on popular literature, and provided amusement for the Medici court where it was read in progress. The poem was begun at the urging of Lorenzo's mother Lucrezia Tornabuoni and was meant to be a poem of chivalry but with Pulci it soon became a parody. The quotation appears at first to be a trite example to force Dante to admit that he also wrote in Florentine, although the full quotation spoken by Conte Ugolino, not given by Machiavelli, simply identifies Dante as a Florentine: 'ma fiorentino/mi sembri veramente quand'io t'odo' (Inf. 33: 11-12). The example, as in all other instances, is an excuse to celebrate Lorenzo and the Medici family to endear himself to Florence's new rulers (Nigro, 1972).
When we address the question of Dante's patriotism there is no question of Dante's love for Florence and the Florentine language. The example of Brunetto Latini who was mentioned earlier among the 'poeti municipali' should suffice. Latini is one of those poets, like Bonagiunta da Lucca, who believed they were using the 'volgare illustre' when they were only using their Tuscan 'volgare.' However, Brunetto Latini deserves special attention because he promoted the language of another country over his own 'volgare' (Dante, 1966: I, xi, 1-2, emphasis added):
A perpetuale infamia e depressione de li malvagi uomini d'Italia che commendano lo volgare altrui e lo loro proprio dispregiano, dico che la loro mossa viene da cinque abominevoli cagioni. La prima e cechitade di discrezione; la seconda, maliziata escusazione; la terza, cupidita di vanagloria; la quarta, argomento d'invidia; la quinta e ultima, vilta d'animo, cioe pusillanimita. E ciascuna di queste retadi ha si grande setta, che pochi sono quelli che siano da esse liberi.
Latini belongs to the third group, those guilty of 'cupidita di vanagloria' that Dante describes as follows (Dante, 1966:1, xi, 15, emphasis added):
La terza setta contro nostro volgare si fa per cupiditate di vanagloria. Sono molti che per ritrarre cose poste in altrui lingua e commendare quella, credono piu essere ammirati che ritraendo quelle de la sua. E sanza dubbio non e sanza lode d'ingegno apprendere bene la lingua strana; ma biasimevole e commendare quella oltre la verita, per farsi glorioso di tale acquisto.
Latini's guilt consists not so much in having learned a foreign language, which can be a case of 'lode d'ingegno,' but in having praised a foreign language, French, as more deserving than Florentine, for his own glory, 'per farsi glorioso.' Dante concludes with a condemnation of all these sects that are responsible for denigrating the vernacular (Dante, 1966: I, xi, 21, emphasis added):
onde molti per questa viltade dispregiano lo proprio volgare, e l'altrui pregiano. E tutti questi cotali sono Il' abominevoli cattivi d'Italia che hanno a vile questo prezioso volgare, lo quale, s'e vile in alcuna cosa, non e se non in quanto elli suona ne la bocca meretrice di questi adulteri; a lo cui condutto vanno li ciechi de li quali ne la prima cagione feci menzione.
This paragraph alone would suffice to damn to hell anyone included in this invective, and not only Brunetto Latini. Bonagiunta da Lucca, as we have seen, was dispatched to Purgatory. Dante condemns the bad faith of these writers who blame their shortcomings on the 'volgare' and, in Latini's case, choose another language to make themselves more important. The condemnation of Brunetto Latini for betraying the Florentine 'volgare' demonstrates Dante's passion not only for his language but also for his 'patria,' Florence. To be sure, the difference is that Dante's language is the 'volgare illustre,' a poetic language that incorporates other languages, including Florentine, but it is not Florentine.
In all the examples mentioned by Machiavelli of Dante's lack of patriotism and of deliberately taking vengeance on his 'patria' for having been sent unfairly into exile, Machiavelli's main motivation is not linguistic but political, and prompted by a desire to ingratiate himself to the Medici to return to Florence at their service. Besides the 'Discorso,' all the works of this period, from the Prince to the Discourse on Livy to the Art of War, had one principal aim: to prove that he was a faithful servant of Florence and that he could still be useful to its rulers. However, all these efforts proved futile until he finally secured a commission from Giuliano de' Medici to write a history of Florence, Le Istorie Fiorentine (Landon, 2005). In the 'Discorso,' Machiavelli's political agenda takes the form of a critique of Dante's patriotism enhanced by the striking parallels between them as Florentine exiles where one (Dante) chose to vilify Florence, its citizens and its language in retaliation, while the other (Machiavelli), despite the abuses, the false accusations, the torture, remained loyal to the city, to its government and to its language. 'Sempre che io ho potuto onorare la patria mia, eziandio con mio carico e pericolo, l'ho fatto volentieri' (1950a: 805, emphasis added). This is a powerful political statement for a treatise to make while claiming to be a contribution to the language debates of its day. As I have tried to show, the treatise dissimulates behind this claim a strong desire to be recalled from exile and to be called to public service. The extolling of Florence, saved by Fortuna from the ills and injuries that Dante had prophesied for her, should be read, then, as another form of flattery that calls attention to the period of prosperity that Florence was enjoying under the Medici rule: 'Ma la fortuna ... l'ha continuamente prosperata, e fatta celebre per tutte le Provincie del mondo, e condotta al presente in tanta felicita e si tranquillo stato' (1950a: 808, emphasis added). Machiavelli's hidden agenda is never clearer than in the pointless comparison with Pulci's Morgante. The 'poca' difference between the two poems can be seen as a further pretext to celebrate the Medici family that promoted and supported Pulci's work. Although Machiavelli had shown the greatest respect for Dante throughout his works, in the 'Discorso' he uses Dante as a ploy for his political ambitions (Ascoli and Capodivacca, 2010). (6) This strategy takes the form of a damning critique of every aspect of his work but also of his character (1950a: 813):
e vedrai che se alcuno s'ara da vergognare, sara piuttosto Firenze che tu; perche se considererai bene a quel che tu hai detto, tu vedrai come ne' tuoi versi non hai fuggito il goffo ... l'osceno ... e non avendo fuggito questo che disonora tutta l'opera tua, tu non puoi aver fuggito infiniti vocaboli patrii che non s'usano altrove che in quella, perche l'arte non puo mai in tutto repugnare alla natura.
This critique, which led scholars to doubt the authenticity of the 'Discorso,' is the result, precisely, of a political agenda that disregards the linguistic and the literary for the the sake of the political (Oppenheimer, 2011). (7) The trigger, in this case, was the circulation of the De vulgari eloquentia, the argument that by promoting a 'curial' language that was not Florentine undermined the linguistic supremacy of Florence and the Florentine language (Dionisotti, 1980). Our interest today in the 'Discorso' is, for this reason, not so much in what Machiavelli has to contribute to the debate on our language, but in how, in pretending to do so, the ideological and the political can distort the reality of events for its own purposes.
There is irony in the fate of these two giants of Italian culture. As a poet, Dante certainly benefited from being sent into exile. Only then, free from political and social ties, could he come to terms with his vision of man and his world that he represents in the Commedia. Had he lived in Florence he probably would have completed the Convivio, which is a kind of Machiavellian treatise where he panders to the public of Florence to accept him as their 'wise man,' just as Machiavelli wants to be recognized by his Florentines for his political savvy. If Dante had remained in Florence he probably would not have written the Commedia, not the way we have it. This is probably the sense of what Machiavelli means when he concludes that Dante was blind, 'cieco,' when he went into exile and he lost all sense of measure and judgment, 'ogni sua gravita, dottrina e giudicio, e divenne al tutto un altro uomo' (1950a: 809). If he had lived in Florence, Dante would not have written about Brutus, the Florentine thieves or even Cacciaguida, or spoken abusively of Florence, as he did. If he did, as Machiavelli suggests, he would either have remained forever in Florence (under house arrest?) or he would have been thrown out as a madman: 'talmente che, s'egli avessi giudicato cosi ogni cosa, o egli sarebbe vivuto sempre a Firenze o egli ne sarebbe stato cacciato per pazzo' (1950a: 809). Although the Florence of Dante's time was not that of Machiavelli, there would still have been great social and political repercussions. (8) For Machiavelli, the situation is precisely the opposite. Machiavelli suffered being in exile because he longed to serve his country in any political office where he felt he could make a valuable contribution. His writings in exile were always meant to serve as a platform to return him to political life (Najemy, 2010). As in Dante's case, we should be thankful to Machiavelli's exile that provided him with the leisure to write his great works.
As Florentines, Dante and Machiavelli were 'true' sons of their 'patria.' They both loved Florence and the Florentine language and in both cases very strongly so. Their difference is that one was a great poet and the other a great political writer and a man of letters. They also shared the same fate: the fate of being misunderstood by their peers and by future generations. Machiavelli's 'Dialogo' is an instance among many of Dante's 'negative' reception throughout the ages down to our own day. As for Machiavelli, those who first read the Prince thought it was an evil work because it advocated that the prince should govern by lies and treachery to remain in power. Machiavelli did not expect this reaction just as today he would be dismayed if he heard the term 'Machiavellian' as a synonym for cunning and deceit.
The 'Discorso o dialogo intorno alla nostra lingua,' whether Machiavelli is the author or not, is an example of how discourse and dialogue, criticism and ideology, interweave to create a mystified and desultory portrait of one of our greatest poets. What is forgotten in this case is the essentially figural or metaphorical aspect of language, whether Florentine, Tuscan or Italian, that literalizes and mystifies meaning, both in Dante and Machiavelli.
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or non-profit sectors.
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University of Alberta, Canada
Massimo Verdicchio, Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies, University of Alberta, 239-C Arts and Convocation Hall, Edmonton AB, T6G 2E6, Canada.
(1.) Pozzi dates the work to around 1520 after the publication of Machiavelli's Mandragola.
(2.) Barbi believed that Trissino made a mistake in translating Dante's De Vulgari Eloquentia into Italian for its many mistakes, 'la traduzione riusci infedele' led Florentines to suspect that Dante was not the author.
(3.) Parker does not deal with the 'Discorso' but her discussion stops at Landino's commentary that Machiavelli probably knew.
(4.) In the Renaissance, the punishment of Brutus in hell was interpreted as a consequence of Dante's imperialist sympathies. See Parker (1993).
(5.) Anderson (1980: 29) suggests the possibility that Cacciaguida was Dante's fabrication 'to dissociate himself from the new families whom he, in common with many other writers, blamed for disorders in the republic'
(6.) Machiavelli's respect for Dante did not prevent him from parodying the Inferno in 'L'Asino.' On this issue, see Ascoli and Capodivacca (2010: 204), who read this work as a warning to princes like Lorenzo who have repeatedly ignored his appeal for patronage that 'their regime is subject to the subversive critique of the poetic imagination and that the ingratitude of princes is not without consequences.'
(7.) Versions of the political vary. Oppenheimer (2011: 246) believes that Machiavelli's criticism is aimed at Dante's 'unhealthy influence on the political development of Italy and the West' that requires an 'annihilation of [his] self-delusion,' which is one of the goals of The Prince.
(8.) My hypothesis is based on the differences between the Convivio and the Commedia. The former was meant solely for a Florentine audience, the latter for a wider public. See Anderson (1980) and Leo (1951).
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|Date:||Nov 1, 2013|
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