Wednesday, March 25, 2015


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            but now a title fallen out of date.                       15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


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