Our play is set in the Middle Ages, in Italy, the very heartland of Roman Catholicism. Yet northern Italy was beset with numerous heresies. The largest of these was that called Catharism. In neighboring Languedoc, it took decades of warfare to stamp out, and then by forces external to the region, owing to its support by leading nobles and the bulk of the populace. In northern Italy, the situation was similar, except that when the Cathars' supporters actually tookontrol of most of Northern Italy, in the 1260s, their power was tenuous enough that it took the external forces--again, the French--a much shorter time to do the job; and then, once sufficiently renumerated, they left.
At the time Catharism was being exterminated in Languedoc, Cathar priests were quite numerous in northern Italy: In 1250, One Cathar turned Dominican gave his estimate of the numbers of Cathar perfecti, the equivalent of monks, nuns, and priests: 1500 perfecti in Lombardy, 500 based in Verona, 200 in Mantua. Bergamo and Brescia, 100 in Vicenza and 100 in Tuscany (Lambert, 1998). In one study of the Cathars is a map, part of which is reproduced as Fig. 6, with the areas of Cathar strength shaded.
By this date, 1250, in southern France, Cathar numbers were down to 200 for the entire region, thanks to crusades there starting in 1212. In 1245, as the campaign in Languedoc was winding down, the Pope called for similar action in Italy. Cathars there had avoided persecution for the same reason as in Languedoc: Political power in its city-states was in the hands of families and political parties that declined to cooperate with the Pope's demands (Lambert 1998). Thus Cathar perfecti remained free to win converts, which would have included disillusioned Catholic priests and monks as well as ordinary lay people.
Da Porto, who also seems to have been the first to use the names "Romeo" and "Juliet" ("Giuletta" in Italian), said that the story was true, and of the time of Bartolomeo della Scala; a 1594 Italian history of Verona also reported it as fact. But Dante was there and never mentioned them! This is one good indicator that the couple never existed--Dante was not one to pass up a good story. But now that we are reading the story on different levels, we can ask whether perhaps other things did exist corresponding to the story.
The notes to many translations of Dante say that only the Montecchi were of Verona, while the Cappelletti were of Cremona--hence historically the two families could not have been neighbors. But that is not the end of the matter. Pietro Allegieri, Dante's son, author of one of the first commentaries on The Divine Comedy, said that his father was referring to two rival political parties, not families (Singleton, 1973). Such political parties typically covered a whole region and not simply one city, as factions in particular places looked for outside allies.
The Montecchi party did get its name from a Veronese family of that name, actually the Monticola; "Montecchi" is Dante's Tuscanization of the name (Singleton 1973). The Montecchi, most of the time, were one of a group of parties known collectively as the Ghibellines, a Florentine designation originally applied to parties allied with the Hohenstaufens, the family of Holy Roman Emperors Frederick I and Frederick II. After the rule of that family ended, the term continued to apply to the Emperors' supporters. Italy was theoretically part of the old Holy Roman Empire, a loose association of political entities founded by Charlemagne four centuries earlier. Italians who opposed the Pope's political domination of their cities looked to the Emperors for support. Dante himself had started out against the Ghibellines but switched sides when his own party condemned him to death. Canto VI of the Purgatorio, after mentioning the rival families, ends with an explicit appeal to the current Emperor, who was staying out of Italy, to support his Italian followers as his predecessors had done.
In Verona, according to Dante's son, the Montecchi's opposition was called the Cappelletti, the name taken from the family in Cremona. The Cappelletti were Guelph, a Florentine designation for parties allied with the Pope. At that time the Pope ruled the middle part of Italy directly and used the Church's enormous power to oppose the Emperor's influence elsewhere. Some areas feared both Emperor and Pope. Such areas, such around Milan, typically chose to be Guelph but also opposed letting the Inquisition into their territory, because they feared the popes would dominate through such means. Cremona, most of the time, was ruled by Ghibellines.
The contention between warring families in Verona was thus duplicated throughout northern Italy, some families in each town preferring the emperor and others wishing to be aligned with the Pope. There were also factions within each party, for example the black and the white Guelph factions in Florence, which resulted in Dante's condemnation in absentia for being of the faction that lost power when he was away. As a result each family depended mainly on itself and lived in fortress-like houses with huge towers. After the Guelph victory had been consolidated, most of the towers were ordered demolished; only a few remain, most famously in San Germaniano, where they are a tourist attraction to this day (Fig. 7, at left below). Even smaller ones look like fortresses--for example, the house traditionally identified with Romeo's family in Verona (Fig. 7a, at right below), in the Ghibelline part of the old city.
During the middle third of the 13th century, when animosity between the two sides was at its height, the leading Ghibelline family in northeastern Italy was the da Romanas, originally of the minor rural nobility north of Vicenza. (See map, Fig. 7b). In 1207 this family had joined the Montecchi of Verona after losing out to Guelphs in Vicenza (Prescott, 1972). At that time Verona was ruled by the Sanbonifacios and the Estensi, powerful noble families who were traditional vassals of the emperor as well as supporters of the pope, for pope and emperor were not then in opposition.
In 1226 Ezzelino III da Romana led the Montecchi to the seizure of power in Verona. He also married a Sanbonifacio, the first of several Romeo-and-Juliet-like marriages designed to secure the peace. He was not then able to sustain his personal dominance, but in 1230 he became Lord of Verona in virtue of successfully leading the Montecchi defense against a Sanbonifacio attack (Prescott 1972, Abulafia 1988). Marriage apparently did not affect his military judgment. At that time Ezzelino was a member, for tactical reasons, of the Guelphs’ Lombard League. But because of what Ezzelino saw as Guelph betrayal in negotiations after his victory over the Sanbonifacios, he dedicated Verona to the Ghibelline cause from 1232 on.
The connection between the Montecchi and heresy is this: On two occasions Ezzelino had felt undermined by Catholic monks. In 1229 he helped his brother Alberico, who ruled the town of Bassano, put down a rebellion which they determined was instigated by Dominicans and Franciscans. From then on, Ezzelino "hated friars and refused to allow any of them into his dominions. This meant that Ezzelino was a protector of heretics, because the Dominicans were the chief inquisitors charged with rooting out heresy" (Prescott 1972, 225).
Ezzelino had to make one exception to this policy, in 1233, as a result of Guelph military attacks and pressure from his own subjects. He reluctantly let in a Dominican preacher named Fra Giovanni, who claimed to be on the side of peace between factions. The multitudes declared the preacher Lord of Verona, and Ezzelino found himself temporarily swearing allegiance to the friar. Fra Giovanni immediately had 60 men and women from Verona's leading families burned at the stake as heretics (Prescott 1972, Lambert 1998). Then he held a grand peace festival to which many thousands came from all over northern Italy, where he advocated that everyone forgive their enemies. He also announced the engagement of Ezzelino's niece to the son of Azzo d'Este, a match which would further unite the two factions in Verona--a second example of the Romeo-and-Juliet solution, this time one secretly aided by a monk. Later the preacher made the mistake of moving to Vicenza, where the ruling Guelphs found him too dictatorial and threw him in prison; he got out a month later and quietly disappeared.
Six months later, Ezzelino was Lord of Verona again. The marriage that the preacher arranged actually did take place, during a truce in 1235. The Emperor, now allied with both factions, spirited the couple away to his lands in southern Italy, to keep them safe, he said. Azzo d'Este, perhaps feeling betrayed by this act, switched over to the Guelphs and in 1236 made an unsuccessful surprise attack. Thus the fighting resumed. Ezzelino continued refusing to allow the prosecution of heresy in areas under his control (Lea, Vol. 1, 1888; Lambert 1998).
At that time Emperor Frederick II was formally allied with the pope and was on record as being in favor of persecuting heresy. But events such as the alliance with Ezzelino must have convinced the pope that the emperor was not sincere. In 1239 the pope excommunicated him and called him the anti-Christ. He excommunicated Ezzelino soon after. For its part, the Roman Inquisition ruled that Ezzelino not only protected heretics, but that all his friends and relations were heretics, and that in all likelihood he himself was one (Prescott 1972). By "heretics" the Inquisition meant Cathars, because other sects were mentioned by name (Lambert 1988). Besides his family, Ezzelino's interest in astrology, magic, and the Arabs, and his disinterest in fathering heirs (Lambert 1998), all made him suspect. It was thought that Cathars believed that births took souls out of heaven and so should be discouraged. As for the emperor, he now wished to build an alliance of all those opposed to the Pope and no longer showed any interest in persecuting heresy.
For the Pope's propagandists and chroniclers, no epithet was too strong against Ezzelino--he was not just the anti-Christ, but the spawn of Satan--one Paduan even wrote a play that enacted the tryst between his mother and the devil. Ezzelino apparently did resort to rather drastic measures. He reportedly had to build four new prisons to hold all the people he imagined conspiring against him. And when he lost Padua due to someone's opening the gates, he reportedly had every Paduan member of his army killed as a potential traitor. Dante put him (with the Tuscan spelling, "Azzolino") in one of the most vividly depicted circles of Hell, that of political leaders who were cruel to their neighbors; these souls are up to their eyebrows in a lake of boiling blood, with centaurs shooting arrows at them. In one medieval illustration, a hundred years after his death, Ezzelino is identified by name and given a recognizable portrait (Fig. 8, from Brieger et al 1969, 156). Since Dante had characterized Ezzelino as having hair “black as soot” (Inferno XII.109), he was always portrayed with thick black hair. Next to him Dante placed a member of the family he fought most against, the d’Estes: “that fair-haired one Obizzo d’Este” (XII.110-111), Lord of Ferrara, who had a similar reputation for cruelty.
The Inquisition also posthumously condemned Ezzelino's sister Imiglia for heresy (Lambert 1998)--but not his other sister Cunizza, whose life included four marriages and various liaisons. She had the good sense to go back to her mother's Guelph family in Florence, where she became a friend of the young Dante. Dante put her in his Paradiso, in the sphere of Venus. A medieval illustration has her floating above her husbands’ four castles (Fig. 8a). Of their father, Ezzelino II, Prescott (1972) reports only that he had retired and gone to a monastery. Lambert (1998) reports without comment an Italian scholar's claim that the father quietly became a Cathar perfectus.
In 1245 the Pope, in Lyon, in what is now France, organized a Crusade against Frederick and his allies, a war directed also at heresy, meaning primarily the Cathars. Cities which continued their support of the emperor were put under interdiction, meaning no sacraments could be performed except extreme unction, and sometimes not even that. Faced with this pressure, along with a mass of French and even German troops, the Guelphs of Milan and many other towns, most notably Florence, joined with the crusade in so-called confraternities. One Peter of Verona had shown the Guelphs what to do. In Florence he had managed to turn the Dominican convent into a base from which to launch armed attacks. The result was "in effect, a Catholic gang, which beat up its Cathar rivals in a series of street battles" (Hamilton 1981).
The convent, now part of the Church of Santa Maria Novella across from the main train station in Florence, today has as part of its display of art works a large fresco, done during the Renaissance, of St. Dominic burning Cathar writings (left side of Fig. 9, below; Roettgen 1997, 181). Another presents the Dominicans as "hounds of the lord," as they liked to be called; the painting shows hounds tearing up the flesh of wolves, the latter representing heretics. Still another (right side of Fig. 9; Roettgen 1997, 181) depicts Peter being viciously knifed by two assassins on the way to Milan. According to Papal investigators, this 1252 murder was commissioned by Cathars, conveniently ones prominent in the towns around Milan where Peter was intending to go next. This gave the Inquisition not only an excuse to move in but considerable popular support. But a recent travel guide to the region (Buckley et al, 2000) gives another account of Peter's murder: "The assassins were in the pay of a couple of Venetian businessman whose property he had confiscated" (111). Peter was canonized as "St. Peter Martyr" within the year.
As a result of the confraternities' street tactics, the Cathars could no longer be protected by their supporters among the powerful families of Florence, and the Inquisition had free rein (Lambert 1998). The families which protected Cathars did fight back, however, as Ghibellines allied with the emperor and after him his sons. In the 1260's they even ruled Florence again.
How do we know the Ghibellines protected the Cathars in Florence? I will give an example. In the Inferno, Dante puts the main Ghibelline leader, Farinata degli Uberti, in the Circle of the Heretics. The souls in this circle, he says, are those holding to the doctrine of Epicurus, by which, he carefully explains (X.13), he means people who do not believe in the immortality of the soul--not, despite a few commentators, people who eat too well. The Inquisition, however, clearly declared Farinata and his whole family to be heretics of the Cathar variety (Lambert 1998, judged by Lambert to be accurate). And although the Pope did later restore confiscated property to many Ghibelline families of Florence, he explicitly did not do so to Farinata's family.
Fortunately for Farinata's daughter, she married the son of a leading Guelph, Cavalcante dei Cavalcante, who despite his Epicureanism did not face the wrath of the Inquisition. Thus the family was spared poverty. The son, Guido Calvalcante, was a friend of Dante's; this marriage is thus a third case of marriage between warring families in 13th century northern Italy. Dante put the warring fathers together after death in the same tomb--as is duly noted in many artists' illustrations to the Inferno. Fig. 10 is a typical example, from the 15th century (Brieger et al 1969, 141).
In contrast, Blake painted Farinata as something of a sage (Fig. 10b, below); perhaps Blake knew of Farinata's Cathar leanings and applauded them. (Blake developed an elaborate Gnostic mythology in his Urizen poems and elsewhere, which I examine in another essay on King Lear.) The pair looking into the tomb in each case are Virgil and Dante.
Commentators explain that what drew Dante to Farinata is that the latter, when the Ghibellines successfully occupied Florence, succeeded in persuading his allies--mostly from Florence’s nearby rival Sienna-- not to destroy the city. (When the Guelphs got Florence back, they on the other hand leveled everything Farinata’s family owned!) By 1450, interestingly enough, Farinata seemed to have shaken off the Inquisition's bad press long enough to be included in a wealthy Florentine's portrait gallery of "famous men and women" (Fig. 10c; Roettgen 1997.)
The caption to this portrait hails Farinata as a "liberator of the fatherland" (Fig. 10d).
One might wonder at this epithet. Preventing destruction of some architecture is hardly liberation. Who did this ally of a German emperor liberate anybody from?--just the Pope and the Inquisition. In Renaissance Florence, sentiment against the popes' secular authority was awakening anew. In today’s' secular Italian state, it is perhaps noteworthy that in both Florence and Verona, and many other cities, important streets are named for Farinata.
In 1250 Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, already suffering militarily, died of dysentery. His son Conrad continued the fight but died in 1254. The next heir-apparent, Frederick II's illegitimate son Manfred, was still consolidating his power in southern Italy when the pope approved a crusade against Ezzelino. It was led from Venice and quickly included his traditional enemies, the Estensi and the Sanbonifacios. Most critically, one of his own allies turned against him, Uberto Pallavicini of Cremona. In 1259, at the age of 64, Ezzelino was trying to capture Milan but ended up wounded and captured by the Guelph alliance. A painting in the d'Este library in Modena commemorates the event (Fig. 11; Deiss 1966).On his deathbed Ezzelino reportedly refused all medical and spiritual aid from the Guelphs and their priests (Prescott 1972). But in the short run it was not the Guelphs but the Ghibelline Uberto who benefited, soon becoming the major power in the region. He continued Ezzelino's policies of allying with the empire and protecting heretics. He also attained what Ezzelino had died trying to achieve, taking Milan away from the Guelphs.
By the early 1260's most of northern Italy was in Ghibelline hands, from west of Milan to east of Verona, and south through most of Tuscany. Even south of Tuscany in Umbria, where the popes ruled directly, leading families protected the Cathars, in Orvieto and other cities. In danger of losing everything, the pope struck a deal with Charles of Anjou, the French king's brother. His armies joined the Guelphs to defeat and kill Manfred in 1266. The Guelphs returned to power in Tuscany, and French troops paid with Florentine money quickly took over the emperor's domains in southern Italy, defeating and in 1268 killing Conradin, the emperor's grandson, who had continued the fight even though still a boy.
In the occupation that followed, Florence enjoyed special monopolies in the conquered lands, arranged by the Pope, in return for their financing the French army. Dante, who despised the new rulers of Florence, made a point of putting in his Paradiso Folco of Marseilles, former troubadour and later Catholic Bishop of Toulouse, not for his unswerving persecution of Cathars there but for speaking out against money-hungry Florence. One illuminated manuscript of the Paradiso shows the red Guelph lily (as opposed to the white Ghibelline lily) flying above Florence, while the devil showers its leaders in money (Fig. 12). For Folco the "cursed flower" of Florence was the florin, with which it corrupted the Church. Sienna, Florence’s main rival during the period, was relegated to a backwater existence from which it never recovered.
In Verona the Guelphs had defeated Ezzelino but were unable to consolidate their gains. Ezzelino's party, the Montecchi, not only retained power, but chose one of his lieutenants to succeed him, Mastino della Scala. His family reigned another century and a half. Its monuments are still everywhere, most prominently at the della Scala tombs (Fig. 13 below; Santini 1998, 48), right off the main piazzas, where any visiting Elizabethan noble could hardly miss them.
When Mastino took over Verona in 1260, he pledged himself to end the factional warfare, meaning he would let in the Inquisition and so end the interdiction. But the Pope still did not do his part; apparently the heretics were not being rounded up. A witness testified in 1273 that a large number lived tranquil lives on the promontory of Sirmione, on Lake Garda (Fig. 13a below, photograph by author), including the Cathar Bishop of Toulouse, Bernard Oliba, and a number of other refugees from Languedoc and elsewhere (Lambert 1998).
Not only did Mastino not arrest the Cathars there, but at the start of his reign, in 1260, he rebuilt a large castle at the narrow entrance to Sirmione (Fig. 13b), which might have intimidated the Inquisition's confraternities from taking independent action.
At the late date of 1276, Mastino's forces finally did assist in the arrest of 174 Cathar perfecti at Sirmione (Hamilton 1981, Lambert 1998). According to Prescott, Mastino still refused to let these Cathars be burned; so the Pope continued the interdiction. In 1277 Mastino was assassinated riding through the main piazza of Verona; the next day his younger brother Alberto was elected Lord of Verona in mass assembly of the people (Prescott 1972). Prescott reports that Alberto had 200 people beheaded for being implicated in Mastino's death, and also had 200 Cathar prisoners burned at the stake in Verona's old Roman arena (Fig. 13c below; it is now a summer theater for Shakespeare and opera). That the two numbers are the same suggests the Lord's effort to appear above the fray, while at the same time getting rid of the main sources of unrest. The date was February 1278 (Lambert 1998). After that no one in political authority challenged the Pope. By 1300, the date of Dante's imaginary journey to the afterlife, the feud between Montecchi and Cappelletti was virtually nonexistent (Singleton 1973).