The Root of All Kinds of Evil
DANTE PROCLAIMS in De Monarchia, “Greed is the extreme opposite of justice, as Aristotle says in the fifth book of his Nicomachean Ethics. Take away greed completely and nothing opposed to justice remains in the will.”
As a Catholic and a son of the Roman Empire, Dante believed passionately in justice. But as a Florentine, he knew firsthand how much greed, graft, and gluttony stood in the way of his ideal.
Like many Italian cities, Florence boasted a well-developed economy by Dante’s day. It also featured a system of government, codified in 1293 in the ironically titled “Ordinances of Justice,” where money translated directly into political power.
In theory, the Florentine system was a popular regime, because neither popes nor nobles held sway. In practice, though, the city lay in the grip of seven commercial guilds: judges and notaries, bankers and cloth traders, money changers, silk merchants, doctors and apothecaries, wool merchants, and fur dealers. A handful of families dominated the guilds, which further consolidated power.
Members of Florence’s ruling body, the priorate, were selected solely from the guilds. Individuals could hold office only for short periods of time, with periods of ineligibility in between, but the same men were chosen over and over.
Rich business leaders, or magnates, were known for their power but not for their morality. In common speech, “magnate” often doubled for “tyrant.” To make matters worse, ruling families feuded incessantly.
Laborers, who had almost no real rights, resented the upper classes and even staged several uprisings in the fourteenth century.
The behavior of individual magnates did little to buff this image. In the 1330s, for example, members of about two-thirds of the power families were convicted of crimes against communal law, though most were able to purchase pardons.
Guild feuds and depravity touched the lives of all Florentines, but Dante observed them especially closely. His father was a banker or money changer, and his brother-in-law was a moneylender.
An inside job
In 1295 Dante joined the guild of physicians and apothecaries, an influential conglomerate that included writers (because books were sold in drugstores), painters (considered “purveyors of colors,” a subset of apothecaries), and the mighty Medicis (a name that literally means “doctors").
By joining a guild, Dante became eligible to serve in the priorate, to which he ascended in the summer of 1300. Unfortunately, by this time the prominent Florentine families had split into warring factions, and part of Dante’s job was to keep the peace.
He tried to calm the situation by banishing instigators from both sides, including one of his close friends, the poet Guido Cavalcanti, and one of his wife’s kinsmen, Corso Donati. Cavalcanti, with Dante, sided with the White Guelf political party. Donati, with Dante’s wife, sided with the Blacks.
Cavalcanti was allowed to return because he said he had been sent to an unhealthy place—a reasonable claim, since he died in August of an illness contracted during exile. This show of mercy would cost Dante dearly, however, when his Black Guelf enemies denounced it as favoritism and charged Dante with corruption.
Whatever charges were brought, the fact was that Dante represented the wrong side in the factional battle. When the Blacks took over in 1302, he simply could not stay in Florence any longer.
Because it was during his exile that he composed the Comedy, and because many of Dante’s political enemies appear in the Inferno, some commentators view the poem as an exquisite form of revenge. But political affiliation is not what has earned Dante’s Florentine sinners their places in hell. The condemned represent an array of guilds and families, but they do have something in common—fully half of them suffer punishment for money-related offenses.
Florentines in hell
Dante meets about 30 identifiable Florentines on his guided tour of hell. The group includes suicides, sodomites, heretics, and a host of other wrongdoers, but Florence is particularly well-represented among thieves and usurers. There are also lines in the poem in which Dante or one of the condemned souls castigates the city as a whole for its greed, deceptive business practices, or other misdeeds.
Early in the poem, Dante converses with a Florentine glutton nicknamed Ciacco, meaning “pig.” Ciacco describes Florence as a place “where envy teems / And swells so that already it brims the sack” (Inferno, VI.49–50). He also cites “Three sparks from Hell—Avarice, Envy, Pride” (VI.74) as the cause for the continuing strife in the city. All three relate to property.
Dante finds no familiar faces among the hoarders and spendthrifts—though he expects to—because these sinners have no faces. His guide, Virgil, explains, “Living, their minds distinguished nothing; dead, / They cannot be distinguished.”
The poet meets a whole pack of hometown “heroes” among the usurers. Their faces are scarred by raining embers, but Dante recognizes them by the family crests on the purses they wear around their necks. The Gianfigliazzi, identified by an azure lion on gold, were notorious for usury. The Ubbriachi, associated with a white goose on red, and Giovanni Buiamonte, tagged with three goats, had similar reputations.
Usury was a touchy subject in Dante’s day because, after all, interest on loans helped build the Florentine economy. Dante had personal connections to the practice, too—his name first appears in public record books as the owner of a debt.
On paper, the Roman Catholic church opposed charging any interest on loans, but its practices hardly reflected such a conviction. Several Florentine bankers grew rich by managing the pontiff’s assets and underwriting his military endeavors.
Collecting papal taxes was particularly lucrative. Firms would send loan sharks out ahead of the tax collectors to lend money, always at exorbitant interest, to peasants who could not pay their taxes. Then the tax collectors would sweep through, take the loaned money, and leave the empty-handed peasants to pay the interest.
Even though he surely knew about practices like this, Dante refrains from condemning moneylending in general. Most likely he considered banking a legitimate venture but felt that bankers who gouged their customers deserved punishment.
Dante discovers five townsmen among the thieves, most from prominent families. He has a hard time identifying them, though, because their bodies constantly collide, morph, and redivide in altered forms. Translator Dorothy Sayers explains in her notes that on earth these men had no regard for “mine” and “thine,” so in hell they cannot even keep their bodies to themselves.
The sight of these five swindlers prompts Dante’s harshest reproach of his hometown:
Florence, rejoice, because thy soaring fame
Beats its broad wings across both land and sea,
And all the deep of Hell rings with thy name!
Five of thy noble townsmen did I see
Among the thieves; which makes me blush anew,
And mighty little honor it does to thee.
The thieves, along with all other residents of the eighth circle of Hell, inhabit a region called the “Malebolges” or “Malebowges,” which means “sacks of evil.” The sack image both describes the physical landscape, concentric pocket-like trenches, and reinforces the connection between the hellish City of Dis and earthly cities, like Florence, that are obsessed with wealth.
The last major concentration of Florentines is found in canto XXX among the falsifiers—a subset, like the thieves, of the fraudulent. As the worst of the fraudulent, the falsifiers occupy a ring just above the traitors in nether hell. And while falsification is not necessarily money-related, all of the Florentines here did falsify for gain.
The story of Gianni Schicchi illustrates the depths to which some Florentines would sink for profit. Schicchi had been hired by Simone Donati to impersonate Simone’s deceased father, Buoso, and dictate a will. Buoso’s estate included a lot of stolen property, and Simone was afraid that the old man had succumbed to pangs of conscience and willed the booty back to its legitimate owners.
As requested, Schicchi dictated a sham will that bequeathed the loot to Simone. He also secured himself a tidy sum and swiped the best mare from the dead man’s stables.
By exposing his city’s corruption in the Comedy, Dante hoped, vainly, to steer Florence onto a higher path. He grieved for the city’s doom:
"A glut of self-made men and quick-got gain
Have bred excess in thee and pride, forsooth,
O Florence! till e’en now thou criest for pain.”
Dante was not alone in his concern. Many fourteenth-century humanists, including Petrarch and Salutati, argued that wealth did not lead to virtue. One Tuscan writer, Poggio Bracciolini (1380–1459) devoted an entire dialogue, On Avarice, to the problem.
Near the end of Bracciolini’s dialogue, theologian Andrea of Constantinople reflects:
"[I]t is strange that despite the counsel of many fine men, despite so many authoritative opinions and sober judgments placed before our eyes, which ought to affect the minds of mortals, still there are those who, impervious to every argument, continue to dedicate themselves to avarice and worship it as a god. Let them repent while there is still time and attend to their future life.”
Dante is not among the “fine men” Bracciolini names as critics of materialism, but Dante surely would have appreciated the younger author’s point. He also would have been disappointed that, a generation after his Comedy, Florentines still needed such a stern warning about greed. One can only imagine how discouraged he would be to see how his advice remains unheeded 700 years later. CH
By Elesha Coffman
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #70 in 2001]Elesha Coffman is associate editor of Christian History.
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