In A Nutshell
Dante may well be the greatest poet in history. As the author of the Divine Comedy, he inspired everyone from Giovanni Boccaccio to T.S. Eliot, while also creating our modern trope of Hell’s “ironic punishments.” However, he was less well thought of in his lifetime. In 1302, he was exiled from Florence under penalty of being burned at the stake. It wasn’t until 2008 that the city finally rescinded this order.
The Whole Bushel
Medieval Italy wasn’t the easiest place to live. Across the various city-states, political machinations and brazen grabs for power made life difficult for everyone from poets to peasants. In Florence, things were particularly bad. The Black Guelphs were allied to the Papacy and locked in a war of attrition with the White Guelphs—who believed that the Pope should lead in spiritual matters only. Dante was one of these White Guelphs. After a lot of scheming and double-crossing that would put Machiavelli to shame, Pope Boniface VIII finally succeeded in crushing the White Guelphs.
For Dante, it was the beginning of the end of his political career—and the rise of his poetic one. Sentenced to death in absentia by the Black Guelph government, he was left to wander Italy, on pain of a public burning if he ever returned to Florence. During that time, he wrote the Divine Comedy and secured his place as Italy’s greatest poet. His stature grew so much that in 1315, the Florentines even relented and invited him to return home. When Dante refused they reinstated the death penalty. This time, they extended it to his children. It was a sentence that was to last nearly 700 years.
In 2008, someone in Florence realized that Dante had never been officially forgiven. Quickly, the city council passed a motion to “rehabilitate” the poet into Florentine life. Unfortunately, it turned out that modern Florence wasn’t that different from its medieval counterpart. The “pardon” became a political football, with the center-right party using it as a shameless self-promotion tool, the socialists actually voting against it, and Dante’s sole surviving descendant refusing to turn up for the ceremony.
Yet the motion was ultimately carried. Nearly seven centuries after his exile and 687 years after his death, Dante was finally allowed back to his hometown, the order to burn him at last lifted.