DANTE'S SUBLIME COMEDY: PARADISE: Chapter 16
CHAPTER 16: Old Families
How daft you are, great pride in noble birth!
On earth I knew proud men deformed by you
and here in Paradise you ruled my mood. 3
Since evil could not influence my soul
I freely gloried in my noble birth.
That Cacciaguida died on a Crusade 6
as many others did is widely known.
How wonderful to find my ancestor
had once been knighted by the Emperor! 9
Pride is a splendid robe. Alas, it shrinks
as time goes round us with it’s snipping shears
cutting off hems, while pride makes us sew on 12
new widths of extra cloth. I spoke again
addressing him as Sire, once common speech
but now a title fallen out of date. 15
My lady stood apart, but near, and smiled
reminding me of something I had read.
When Lancelot was courting Guinevere 18
a waiting woman who was standing near,
hearing what hinted at adultery,
gave a wee warning cough. My lady’s smile 21
suggested that ahem, but still I spoke.
“Dear Sire, you are my great progenitor!
Sire, you embolden me to speak my mind, 24
for Sire, you lift me up so high I feel
much more than me! So many happy streams
flow down into my mind, I do not know 27
how I can entertain them and not drown!
So please dear Sire and source of all my blood,
when were you born? Who were your ancestors? 30
What people flourished in your days of youth?
I know that pagan Florence worshipped Mars,
then took the Baptist John as Patron Saint 33
and shepherd too. How many were his flock?
Which families were worthy of respect?”
As puff of breath makes red-hot coal flare up, 36
so did my Grandsire brighten at my prayer.
His voice grew gentler, sweeter as he said,
“From when the Virgin heard she was with child 39
to when my sainted mother gave me birth
Mars, moving round the starry zodiac,
had told eleven-hundred-eighty years. 42
I and my forefathers were born between
the Ponte Vecchio and Baptistry.
Where they came from before I do not know, 45
When Florence was a fifth its present size
they carried weapons to defend the town
in time of war. I know their blood was pure 48
like all in Florence then, labourers too.
None had been tainted by their intercourse
with Campi, Certaldo and Figlive. 51
If kept beyond our walls these hives of boors
would not have their offspring’s offsprings knocking
hard at your doors, if not at home inside. 54
No stinking clowns out of Aguglion
and Signa could be swindling or preside
over Florentine citizens today. 57
The priesthood who, of all the men on earth
should most uphold the laws that Caesar made
that Europe might be unified in peace, 60
undid the ties of right authority.
They let some people become Florentine
who live by lending, borrowing and pawns. 63
You have a banker who, were justice done,
would be returned to Semifonté where
his grandsire was a beggar in the streets. 66
Good Counts would still own Montemurio;
the Cerchi, Acone; the Buondelmonti,
Valdegreve. Admitting strangers begins 69
municipal decline, as too much food
destroys a body’s health. Blind bulls fall
heavier than sightless lambs. A swordsman, 72
neat and trim, can cut down five obese
oponents. Think of Urbisaglia,
of Luni too, cities that disappeared, 75
and how Chiusi and Senigallia
are following. People and cities die.
It is not strange great families fade too. 78
Don’t think it marvellous if now I name
great Florentines whose fame is dimmed by time.
I saw the Ughi, Greci, Ormanni, 81
the Filippi and Alberichi too:
illustrious, though near extinction then.
Others I saw, ancient but also great: 84
del Arca, Sannella, Soldanieri,
Ardinghi and Bostichi, also the
Ravignani, famed now for perfidy 87
soon to eclipse that line. Among them was
Count Guido, descended from the splendid
Bellincion. Della Pressa by then 90
knew how to rule. Galigaio wore
a knight’s sword. So did Galli, Sacchetti
and a few more who bore the Pigli arms. 93
So did the cheat who falsified the weights
for salt he sold. The Calfucci forebears
had grown great, but I saw pride bring them low. 96
When three gold balls flourished over Florence
Sizii, Arrigucci were officers.
So were grandsires of those who, noticing 99
vacancies in the church, fill them, grow rich:
– mean men of base blood, dragons to the weak,
lambs to those showing teeth, or a full purse! 102
That crew was rising. The Caponsacco
from Fiesole was in our market-place.
Guida and Infangato had become 105
respected citizens, Argenti too,
though Ubertino Donato was peeved
when his father-in-law made him their kin 108
by wedding his wife’s sister onto one.
I’ll tell you something strange. Those inner walls
the ancient Romans built were entered once 111
by a gate named after della Pera;
people forgotten now. Then everyone
who bore the arms of Tuscan Marquis Hugh 114
were Tory through and through, though today
one, Guiano della Bella, is a Whig
cheered by the mob. The Gualterotti and 117
Importuni still had not sunk so low
as to become the tradesmen that you know.
The Borgo district would have stayed at peace 120
had the Buondelmonte not arrived,
that family from which your tears have sprung
from just resentment of the death it brought, 123
ending your chances of a happy life.
O Buondelmonte, you were wrong to jilt
she you had sworn to wed, and take instead 126
a daughter of the Donati. Many
now sorrowful would have led happy lives
if you had drowned before you reached our town. 129
The family whose daughter you jilted
slaughtered you fittingly on Arno’s bridge
beside that wasted stone, statue of Mars, 132
thus starting endless Whig and Tory wars.
My tranquil days were passed before our strife
became continual, but then our flag 135
(never taken in battle by a foe)
became two: Tory lillies on white ground;
Whig lillies upon red. This fatal split
led to more bloodshed, many thousands dead.” 139