I read Italian military historian Alessandro Barbero’s book on the lead-up to the battle of Adrianople, The Day of the Barbarian, and it was a fair, but eye-opening explication on the insanity of civic nationalism and the insidious danger of pro-immigrant elites. He has a new book out on Dante that I’ve been reading; unfortunately, it’s newly released in Italian so you’ll have to wait for it.
FLORENCE. It is only a little less mysterious than Cleopatra’s: but in short, Professor, did Dante have a hooked nose or not? “And who knows? All the portraits we have of him were made by people who had never seen him” smiles the historian Alessandro Barbero in the cloister of Santa Croce. We talk a stone’s throw from Alighieri’s cenotaph: that empty tomb that for centuries has been claiming the mortal remains of the Supreme unheeded, tenaciously guarded in Ravenna. In the statue that surmounts the Florentine sarcophagus, Dante has the usual frowning air. What made him so grim were the torments of exile or a temper enhanced by the proverbial Tuscan irascibility? “When I think of Dante, sympathy is not the first thing that comes to mind” admits Barbero. “But if they invited me to have a coffee with him, I would rush. A historian always falls in love with the subject he studies. Passion is to discover. Like a cop trying to catch a criminal. “
And in fact the Dante by Barbero, published by Laterza, is a 360-page stalking following a genius who remains elusive seven centuries after his death. Otherwise what genius would that be? Starting the book is enthralling. Also because the two great passions of Alessandro Barbero get married there: the Middle Ages and military history.
Saturday 11 June 1289: the Florentine troops move towards the clash with the Aretini in what will be remembered as the Battle of Campaldino. Dante is 24 years old. It is in the front row. He throws himself into the fray, but during the slaughter – he himself tells it – he is assailed by fear and runs away. A behavior that at the time was not necessarily considered dishonorable.
Was the principle that “soldier running away is good for another time” already valid?
“In a certain sense, yes. Let’s be clear: even in the Middle Ages the brave were appreciated and cowards were despised. But it was not thought that if you are brave you will not run away. Above all, the competence, the professionalism of those who understand what during the battle counted. is happening around. We are talking about people who knew wars well, who really waged them. We invented the knights without blemish and without fear much later. “
Dante belonged to the Florentine elite. His ancestors had made money by lending money. But even on the sinfulness of usury, the medieval people had elastic opinions. If you lent to a poor man you were a loan shark. While if you lent to a rich man you moved capitalism, you made GDP grow, you were a respectable businessman.
“Dante’s ancestors lent to everyone. But at the time a usurer was the one who lived only on loans. If he also did other activities, the matter changed. Both on the theological and on the social level, Dante’s world wonders about the problem of wear always looking for a balance, pragmatic solutions “.
Florence is the Wall Street of the time.
“More than Wall Street, a city-bank. In Italy in general and in Florence in particular, more cash circulated than in any other place in Europe. By itself, Florence had revenues comparable to those of a kingdom. Not even the comparison with New York gives an idea of what its economic and financial power was then “.
Until he abandons it, Dante lives as a rentier in Florence .
“Yes, the income field. And its condition already refers to what will be the dramatic crisis of Italian capitalism in the Middle Ages”.
Crisis triggered by what?
“From the idea that once you become rich you no longer continue to invest, but you buy land and become lords. Dante belongs to the generation of those who stop working to sit down on income”.
He too is borrowing money.
“In those days, those who ask for it are not necessarily in economic difficulties. Usually, those who make large debts are because they can afford them. Even today, a poor person does not get loans of five hundred thousand euros”.