Dante’s Paradiso – Canto 16

Standing there with his famed ancestor, Dante admits that he took pride in his lineage. Using the formal form of “you” in Italian, he asks his great-great-grandfather to tell him about the old Florence he lived in and its citizens. In equally formal language, Cacciaguida obliges with a long and somewhat bittersweet retrospective, contrasting the old city’s great citizens with their present-day descendants who have lost their original nobility.

            To take pride in one’s noble blood is really a trivial thing! But I have to admit that it won’t surprise me in the future that we glory in our lineage here on earth. Here our appetites lead us astray, but in Heaven they are always rightly ordered. Yet even there I took glory in my blood! Nevertheless, noble blood is like a garment that quickly shrinks. Unless we nurture it continually, time will simply trim it all away.

            When I spoke again with my glorious ancestor I used the formal “voi” out of respect – a form first used by the Romans but used less often today. Beatrice, standing nearby, smiled when she heard me do this, and it reminded me of Guinevere’s maid who coughed when her mistress began to fall into temptation.

            “You are my father indeed,” I began. “You empower me to speak with boldness, and you raise me to such heights that I am more than I! My soul flows with joy and rejoices that it can still endure such happiness. But tell me now, O beloved source of my life, about your own ancestors. Who were they? What important events happened when you were young? Tell me about your Florence – the Baptist’s sheepfold, how many citizens it had, and who were the worthiest among them?”

            Just as hot coals will burst into flame with a quick puff of air, so the light of my ancestor glowed brightly when he heard my many questions. And as he shone more brilliantly he began to speak with even more refinement, sweeter to the ear than our Florentine. “From that day when the angel Gabriel greeted Mary with ‘Ave’ to the day my sainted mother gave birth to me this red star has returned to its place within the constellation of Leo five hundred and eighty times. The house of my family stood in the last district of old Florence – the first district reached by those who raced their horses in the annual games. As for my own ancestors, I would rather leave their names unspoken than boast about them.

            “Within the confines of our walls the city’s population was only one-fifth of those who live there today. In my day, the bloodlines were pure, whereas nowadays, your population is mixed with those who came there from nearby Campi, Certaldo, and Fighine. How much better it would be if your city had maintained its old borders and those outsiders with the stench of their corruption had stayed in their own towns! And if the leaders of the Church hadn’t treated the Emperor Henry so badly, a new kind of Florentine who buys and sells would be still be in Semifonte where his grandfather had to beg, Montemurlo would be in the hands of its Counts, the Cerchi would have stayed in Acone, and the Buondelmonti in Valdigreve.

            “Mixing of peoples has always been a degenerating force in cities: already sick in their stomachs, they stuff themselves with more food! A blind bull will fall more often than a blind lamb, and it often happens that a single sword will slice better than five. Think of how Luni and Urbisaglia have disappeared, and how Sinigaglia and Chiusi are soon to follow them, and it will not seem strange to you that families fade away in time just like cities. Eventually, you will die, and all your works will die as well – even cities die, though they will often last longer than you. And just as the moon causes the tides that come and go, just so Fortune does with Florence. So, do not be concerned when you hear me speak about those noble Florentines of old whose fame has disappeared among the sands of time.

            “In my time I knew the Ughi and the Catellini, the Greci, Filippi, Alberichi, and the Ormanni – notable families even in their decline. And as great and old as they were, I knew the dell’Arca and Sannella, the Soldanieri, the Ardinghi, and the Bostichi as well. Not far from Porta San Pietro – today a place filled with such evil cargo that Florence will soon sink – lived the Ravignani, whose descendants were the Count Guido and all those who took the noble family name of Bellincione.

            “The family of the della Pressa already governed well, and the noble Galigaio were honored as knights. The shield of the Pigli was now famous, and of note were the Galli, the Sacchetti, the Giuochi, the Fifanti, and the Barucci – and the Chiaramontese who carry the shame of the salt fraud. The descendants of the Calfucci had grown powerful, and the Arrigucci and Sizii families held high offices. Those who are now ruined by their pride I knew when they were great. Look what became of the great deeds of the Lamberti, who had the gold balls on their shields.

            “Thus, we see the ancestors of those who now wait to fill some office in the Church and grow fat from the profits will bring! Insolent and presumptuous, they act like dragons to those who fear them and like lambs to those who turn back and bare their teeth – or their purse! Though they are on the rise they had humble origins, and Ubertin Donato was not happy when, through marriage, he became related to them. By that time, the Caponsacchi had migrated from Fiesole down into your city, and the Guidi and the Infangati were noted citizens.

            “This might sound incredible to you, but when you entered Florence, one of its gates was  named for the ancient and honored della Perra family. Those who were knighted by Baron Hugh wore fancy adornments on their clothes and enjoyed their privileges, though today one of them takes up the cause against them.

            “In those days, members of the Gualterrotti  and the Importuni families could still be found, and their neighborhood would have remained peaceful and calm if outsiders had not moved in. And the family that became the source of your grief and exile – who would have seen to your death –  they were all highly honored citizens! O wicked Buondelmonte, what strife you let loose upon our city when  – at the instigation of another – your son ran from his own wedding to marry a different bride! What evil your family brought to our  city when they came there. How many there are now who wish that God had let the Ema flood and drown you when you first came to our peaceful city! It was fitting indeed that your son, who incited so many years of suffering, should be murdered near the old statue of Mars – a foul deed that put an end to our sacred peace!

            “So many of these families, and others like them, governed our city and fostered its prosperity in peace. Unlike now, there was no cause for grief and discord. Those families brought glory to the old Florence and ruled with justice. Never did we see the lily on our banners dragged through the dust; never because of civil strife was its color changed from white to that of blood.”