Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

speculations respecting the particulars of another life, which agitated the Middle Ages. In one of the sermons of Gregory the Seventh, which Dante was doubtless acquainted with, there is a remarkable passage concerning the sufferings which await the sinner in another world. When, in the little town of Arezzo, Gregory, then only cardinal, preached this sermon, he was not preoccupied with any poetic thought ; his aim was only to convince his auditory that neither prince nor baron could, with impunity, touch the possessions of the church. In order to attain his object, he recounted the following fiction in his sermon. A holy man who had descended into hell had there seen a ladder standing in the midst of the flames and fire of everlasting justice. All the men who belonged to the family of a certain German baron, who had usurped the domains of the church of Metz, were condemned to come on this ladder after their death. The latest comer placed himself on the uppermost step of the ladder, and those who had preceded him descended a step, so that one after the other they were plunged into the horrible abyss.

In the chronicle of Malaspina, Dante no doubt read the adventure of the Marquis Hugues of Brandenburg, who, having followed the Emperor Otto the Third to Italy, got lost, by the visitation of God, in a forest, in the neighbourhood of Florence, and there discovered a forge, in which several men seemed to be at work. But he soon saw that the workmen were quite black, and that, instead of iron, they were beating human beings on the anvil. He was told that these were condemned souls, and that his would be treated in the same manner, if he did not repent. On hearing this, the Marquis recommended himself to the Holy Virgin, and after his return to Germany, he sold all his property in order to found seven new monasteries. *

The Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great, however, was the classical book of Italian legendary literature ; but it would detain us too long to analyze all the legends in it, and others which were in circulation in Italy. Those that we have mentioned suffice to show the spirit of the religious poetry of that country. They are full of that energy so natural to Italian poetry of all ages, but at the same time a spirit of mildness pervades them, which is not to be found in the

* Ricordano Malaspina, Istoria, c. 48.

legends of Germany or of France. The higher degree of civilization of Italy, and the vast authority which the Catholic faith had in that land, naturally imparted more of the mild and humble spirit of the gospel to its poetry. The visions of paradise are more numerous than in the more barbarous countries of the North, and it may safely be said that such legends as that of Alberic could have been found in no other country than Italy.

We have now seen how much the works of the ancients and those of the Middle Ages contributed towards the formation of the Divina Commedia. But there remains yet another source from which Dante may have drawn much of his inspiration. During those ages when the Roman Catholic faith prevailed universally, the mysteries of a future state were not only celebrated by poets and men of letters ; they were sculptured by the great artists of the time. The cathedrals which then rose up, as if by magic, in all parts of Europe, were filled with images of another world. It is impossible that Dante should have entered any of the churches of Pisa or Rome without being powerfully impressed by all that surrounded him. On the doors of the church of Santa Maria di Orvieto, he must have seen the bas-reliefs sculptured by Nicholas of Pisa, aided by some German workmen, in which the artist had represented the last judgment, the joys of paradise, and the tortures of hell. It was very common thus to represent on the exterior of great religious monuments the visions of a future state ; it seemed as if the artist wished the passer-by to be struck by the spectacle of the sufferings which awaited him if he erred from the right path in this world, and thus to induce him to enter the church, there to prostrate himself before the altar, and humbly to acknowledge his frailty. If he actually entered, another spectacle immediately caught his eye ; consolation seemed to surround him on all sides. On the stained glass of the windows, he discovered the holy virgins who had suffered martyrdom; and above the organ he saw the rose, which generally represented the nine choruses of angels surrounding the throne of God.*

* It was, no doubt, in visiting some church that Dante conceived the idea of representing heaven in the form of a rose, on the leaves of which were seated the blessed.

6 In forma dunque di candida rosa
Mi si mostrava la milizia santa,
Che nel suo sangue Cristo fece sposa."

Paradiso, Canto XXXI.

But the imaginative people of those times would not have been satisfied to behold these supernatural images merely carved in stone or marble. They wished to see them animated, and a soul breathed into them. Hence those Mysteries in which the legends of the wise and foolish virgins, or the history of the Virgin, were performed. A Mystery representing the infernal regions was acted at Florence in 1304, at the foot of the bridge alla Carraia. Demons were seen persecuting the condemned. The number of persons assembled on the bridge caused it to give way, and a great many were drowned. “ Thus,” says Villani, “what was announced as a mere amusement became a reality, and many persons actually went to visit the invisible world." *

The subject that Dante chose was, as we have seen, far from being original. Like all men of genius, he understood, that, to be illustrious, it is not necessary to work with materials which have never before been used, but that the only subjects worthy the meditations and the labors of a great mind are those which have at all times agitated the human heart, and filled it with the strongest emotions. The materials of the Divina Commedia were everywhere to be found. Dante was surrounded by images which awakened and kept alive in him the habit of meditating on these awful subjects. The prophecies and visions of futurity were scattered throughout Europe ; they only required that a master mind should appear, capable of embodying them in one great poem. Dante appeared ; from his very youth he had deeply meditated the problem of human destiny, and in the life of an exile, where he had learnt “ how salt is the bread of others, and how hard the road is going up and down the stairs of others,” he acquired that strength of character and power of thought which adversity alone can give, and without which even the man of genius cannot bring forth all that his intelligence conceives. Nothing was wanting but to decide upon the moment when he should commence his great undertaking. This moment was at hand.

On the 21st of February, 1300, Boniface the Eighth pub

*

Villani, Storia. Dante was already banished from his native land when this Mystery was performed. It is nevertheless probable, that this tragical event may

have had some influence on his ardent imagination, and some persons have even gone so far as to suppose that this Mystery first gave rise to his immortal poem.

lished a bull, granting plenary indulgence to all those who should visit the tombs of the blessed apostles St. Peter and St. Paul during a fortnight. The capital of the Christian world was thronged with strangers from all parts of Europe. Not less than two millions of persons are said to have visited Rome during this period. Among the strangers who then went to that city were two Florentines, both of whom were forcibly struck by this extraordinary spectacle. One of them was Giovanni Villani, who there first conceived the plan of his great historical work ; * the other was Dante,f who, amazed and confounded at the sight of this vast multitude crowding round the tombs of the two great apostles, to seek for the pardon of their sins, then resolved to put in execution the plan he had so long meditated. He felt how much he required the pardon of his own faults, for he too “had lost the straight path.” He resolved to repent, and to make known his repentance to the world ; he determined to write the Divina Commedia. Thus, having for years studied the works of the ancients and the poetic legends of his own times, having long meditated upon the mysteries of eternal life, a single event sufficed to induce him to commence his immortal task. The death of Beatrice had first given him the idea of describing the terrors and selicities of another world ; the Jubilee of 1300 filled his soul with that ardent faith and spirit of penitence so necessary for the execution of this design. Thus it is with the man of genius ; events which to ordinary minds bear no peculiar stamp impress his imagination ; and things, which seem in general to be of no importance, receive from him a life which they did not before possess.

Michel Angelo could shape the rude stone into a Venus or an Apollo ; Dante could compose the Divina Commedia out of the discordant materials which he collected, and make the world forget the sources from which he had gathered them, till the curious researches of a later generation should again rescue them from oblivion.

* Storia Fiorentina.

+ There can be no doubt that Dante was at Rome at this time. We know that he was several times intrusted with diplomatic missions to the papal court, and many passages of his poem prove that he was an eyewitness of the imposing spectacle of the Jubilee.

HiH. Torrey.

ART. IV. - The Life and Letters of Phomas à Becket,

now first gathered from the Contemporary Historians. By the Rev. J. A. GILES, D. C. L., late Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. London : Whittaker & Co. 1846. 2 vols. 8vo.

There are three great names in the history of the twelfth century, - Abelard, St. Bernard, and Thomas à Becket. Two of these were entered in the same year on the Calendar of Saints. But this is almost the only coincidence between their lives or characters. The ascetic enthusiast, Bernard, had little in common with the splendid dignitary of the English court and church. Both were, indeed, great sufferers ; but the heroic “passion” of the English saint has eclipsed the daily martyrdom of the recluse in the “valley of wormwood."

Thomas à Becket was a man of no vulgar qualities. The remarkable combination of an iron will with the most supple versatility, of towering arrogance with companionable grace, of courily diplomacy with rugged violence, required no less than the friendship and the hatred of a king to afford it full scope. Exile, martyrdom, and canonization enlarged the circle of his influence, and domesticated his name in every cottage of England. Translation and jubilee, miracle and pilgrimage, * kept fresh the godly savor of his memory ; and though the dearest saint of the English people could not preserve his too precious shrine nor his canonized bones from England's most brutal despot, the furrowed floor of his cathedral yet records the devotion of kneeling thousands, and his tenure of renown cannot quite expire, till the Canterbury Tales shall cease to be read.

A character of this stamp, with history and tradition,

* In the year 1220, the famous Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canter. bury, renoved the body of Becket and placed it in a splendid shrine. This was called the “ Translation of the Martyr.". Not only did the 7th of July, the day on which it took place, become a holyday, but every fiftieth year a jubilee was held for fifteen days together, and indulgence was granted to all the pilgrims to the shrine. From the record of the sixth jubilee it appears, that about one hundred thousand strangers came to visit the tomb. 'The ornaments of the shrine were of immense value; “gold,” according to Erasmus,“ being the least precious thing.” The cupidity of Henry the Eighth did not overlook this prize ; in 1538, it was plundered by his agent, Cromwell, and the martyr's bones wer burnt.

« ZurückWeiter »