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1 on the banks of a little river so shrunken by the suns of summer that it seems fast passing into a tradition, but swollen by the autumnal rains with an Italian suddenness of passion till the massy bridge shudders under the impatient heap of waters behind it, stands a city which, in its period of bloom not so large as Boston, may well rank next to Athens in the history which teaches come la uom s' eterna.

Originally only a convenient spot in the valley where the fairs of the neighboring Etruscan city of Fiesole were held, it gradually grew from a huddle of booths to a town, and then to a city, which absorbed its ancestral neighbor and became a cradle for the arts, the letters, the science, and the commerce2 of modern Europe. [2] For her Cimabue wrought, who infused Byzantine formalism with a suggestion of nature and feeling; for her the Pisani, who divined at least, if they could not conjure with it, the secret of Greek supremacy in sculpture; for her the marvellous boy Ghiberti proved that unity of composition and grace of figure and drapery were never beyond the reach of genius;3 for her Brunelleschi curved the dome which Michel Angelo hung in air on St. Peter's; for her Giotto reared the bell-tower graceful as an Horatian ode in marble; and the great triumvirate of Italian poetry, good sense, and culture called her mother. There is no modern city about which cluster so many elevating associations, none in which the past is so contemporary with us in unchanged buildings and undisturbed monuments. The house of Dante is still shown; children still receive baptism at the font (il mio bel San Giovanni) where he was christened before the acorn dropped that was to grow into a keel for Columbus; and an inscribed stone marks the spot where he used to sit and watch the slow blocks swing up to complete the master-thought of Arnolfo. In the convent of St. Mark hard by lived and labored Beato Angelico, the saint of Christian art, and Fra Bartolommeo, who taught Raphael dignity. From the same walls Savonarola went forth to his triumphs, short-lived almost as the crackle of his martyrdom. The plain little chamber of Michel Angelo seems still to expect his return; his last sketches lie upon the table, his staff [3] leans in the corner, and his slippers wait before the empty chair. On one of the vine-clad hills, just without the city walls, one's feet may press the same stairs that Milton climbed to visit Galileo. To an American there is something supremely impressive in this cumulative influence of the past full of inspiration and rebuke, something saddening in this repeated proof that moral supremacy is the only one that leaves monuments and not ruins behind it. Time, who with us obliterates the labor and often the names of yesterday, seems here to have spared almost the prints of the care piante that shunned the sordid paths of worldly honor.

Around the courtyard of the great Museum of Florence stand statues of her illustrious dead, her poets, painters, sculptors, architects, inventors, and statesmen; and as the traveller feels the ennobling lift of such society, and reads the names or recognizes the features familiar to him as his own threshold, he is startled to find Fame as commonplace here as Notoriety everywhere else, and that this fifth-rate city should have the privilege thus to commemorate so many famous men her sons, whose claim to pre-eminence the whole world would concede. Among them is one figure before which every scholar, every man who has been touched by the tragedy of life, lingers with reverential pity. The haggard cheeks, the lips clamped together in unfaltering resolve, the scars of lifelong battle, and the brow whose sharp outline seems the monument of final victory,— this, at least, is a face that needs no name beneath it. This is he who among literary fames finds only two that for growth and immutability can parallel his own. The suffrages of highest authority would now place him second in that company where he with proud humility took the sixth place.4 [4]

Dante (Durante, by contraction Dante) degli Alighieri was born at Florence in 1265, probably during the month of May.5 This is the date given by Boccaccio, who is generally followed, though he makes a blunder in saying, sedendo Urbano quarto nella cattedra di San Pietro, for Urban died in October, 1264. Some, misled by an error in a few of the early manuscript copies of the Divina Commedia, would have him born five years earlier, in 1260. According to Arrivabene,6 Sansovino was the first to confirm Boccaccio's statement by the authority of the poet himself, basing his argument on the first verse of the Inferno,—

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita;

the average age of man having been declared by the Psalmist to be seventy years, and the period of the poet's supposed vision being unequivocally fixed at 1300.7 Leonardo Aretino and Manetti add their testimony to that of Boccaccio, and 1265 is now universally assumed as the true date. Voltaire,8 nevertheless, places the poet's birth in 1260, and jauntily forgives Bayle (who, he says, écrivait à Rotterdam currente calamo pour son libraire) for having been right, declaring that he esteems him neither more nor less for having made a mistake of five years. Oddly enough, Voltaire adopts this alleged blunder of five years on the next page in saying that Dante died at the age of 56, though he still more oddly [5] omits the undisputed date of his death (1321), which would have shown Bayle to be right. The poet's descent is said to have been derived from a younger son of the great Roman family of the Frangipani, classed by the popular rhyme with the Orsini and Colonna:—

Colonna, Orsini, e Frangipani,
Prendono oggi e pagano domani.

That his ancestors had been long established in Florence is an inference from some expressions of the poet, and from their dwelling having been situated in the more ancient part of the city. The most important fact of the poet's genealogy is, that he was of mixed race, the Alighieri being of Teutonic origin. Dante was born, as he himself tells us,9 when the sun was in the constellation Gemini, and it has been absurdly inferred, from a passage in the Inferno,10 that his horoscope was drawn and a great destiny predicted for him by his teacher, Brunetto Latini. The Ottimo Comento tells us that the Twins are the house of Mercury, who induces in men the faculty of writing, science, and of acquiring knowledge. This is worth mentioning as characteristic of the age and of Dante himself, with whom the influence of the stars took the place of the old notion of destiny.11 It is supposed, from a passage in Boccaccio's life of Dante, that Alighiero the father was still living when the poet was nine years old. If so, he must have died soon after, for Leonardo Aretino, who wrote with original documents before him, tells us that Dante lost his father while yet a child. This circumstance may have been not without influence in muscularizing his nature to that character of self-reliance which shows itself so Constantly and sharply during his after-life. His tutor was Brunetto Latini, a very superior man (for that age), says Aretino parenthetically. Like Alexander Gill, he [6] is now remembered only as the schoolmaster of a great poet, and that he did his duty well may be inferred from Dante's speaking of him gratefully as one who by times ‘taught him how man eternizes himself.’ This, and what Villani says of his refining the Tuscan idiom (for so we understand his farli scorti in bene parlare12), are to be noted as of probable influence on the career of his pupil. Of the order of Dante's studies nothing can be certainly affirmed. His biographers send him to Bologna, Padua, Paris, Naples, and even Oxford. All are doubtful, Paris and Oxford most of all, and the dates utterly undeterminable. Yet all are possible, nay, perhaps probable. Bologna and Padua we should be inclined to place before his exile; Paris and Oxford, if at all, after it. If no argument in favor of Paris is to be drawn from his Pape Satant13 and the corresponding paix, paix, Sathan, in the autobiography of Cellini, nor from the very definite allusion to Doctor Siger,14 we may yet infer from some passages in the Commedia that his wanderings had extended even farther;15 for it would not be hard to show that his comparisons and illustrations from outward things are almost invariably drawn from actual eyesight. As to the nature of his studies, there can be no doubt that he went through the trivium (grammar, dialectic, rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy) of the then ordinary university course. To these he afterward added painting (or at least drawing,—designavo un angelo sopra certe tavolette16), theology, and medicine. [7] He is said to have been the pupil of Cimabue, and was certainly the friend of Giotto, the designs for some of whose frescos at Assisi and elsewhere have been wrongly attributed to him, though we may safely believe in his helpful comment and suggestion. To prove his love of music, the episode of Casella were enough, even without Boccaccio's testimony. The range of Dante's study and acquirement would be encyclopedic in any age, but at that time it was literally possible to master the omne scibile, and he seems to have accomplished it. How lofty his theory of science was, is plain from this passage in the Convito: ‘He is not to be called a true lover of wisdom (filosofo) who loves it for the sake of gain, as do lawyers, physicians, and almost all churchmen (LI religiosi), who study, not in order to know, but to acquire riches or advancement, and who would not persevere in study should you give them what they desire to gain by it. . . . And it may be said that (as true friendship between men consists in each wholly loving the other) the true philosopher loves every part of wisdom, and wisdom every part of the philosopher, inasmuch as she draws all to herself, and allows no one of his thoughts to wander to other things.’17 The Convito gives us a glance into Dante's library. We find Aristotle (whom he calls the philosopher, the master) cited seventysix times;

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