The Corrupting Power of Money in late medieval Italy

In the fourteenth century, Italy was the wealthiest part of Europe. The common currency of the continent was the florin, minted in Florence; the most powerful banks were in Italy; and the peninsula was the crossroad for trade between Europe and the eastern Mediterreanean. The wealth pouring into late medieval Italy paid for building projects like town halls, civic squares, and towers to represent civic power. It lead to a rise in schools to train the sons of merchants in math and bookkeeping. And it altered the political landscape as “new money” merchants vied for political power.

But many found this new wealth troubling.

Italy was divided by war, factionalism, and upheaval, and many pointed to greed as a primary cause for Italian disfunction. Dante blamed “A new breed of people with their sudden wealth,” who had fueled Florentine pride and unrestraint (Inferno XVI, vv. 73-75). It was “the damned flower,” the florin, produced in Florence “that turns both sheep and lambs from the true course, for of the shepherd it has made a wolf” (Paradiso IX, v. 130-132).

On the heels of the growing religious poverty movements, secular Italians condemned the unholy bond between money and the church. The mid-fourteenth-century Italian poet Niccolò de Rossi made a similar argument when he pointed out how many things were for sale. 

Money makes the man,
Money makes the stupid pass for bright,
Money buys the treasury of sins,

Money brings your enemies down.
And every man seems down without it.
The world and fortune being ruled by it,
Which even opens, if you want, the doors of paradise.
-Niccolò de’ Rossi, mid-fourteenth century

Most disturbingly, to Rossi, money seemed to rule over heaven, as wealthy Italians tried to buy their way out of purgatory. A lifetime of religious devotion was worthless if salvation could be bought for a few coins. 

Another poet, Cecco Angiolieri, wrote about the dangers of money replacing blood ties. In a society where family was everything, the notion that florins might replace kin was disturbing. 

Preach what you will,
Florins are the best of kin:
Blood brothers and cousins true,
Father, mother, sons, and daughters too;
Kinfolk of the sort no one regrets
-Cecco Angiolieri, c. 1300

While wealth brought power and luxury, it came at a high price. Italians worried that money was replacing every important emotional bond, eclipsing devotion to religion, home-town, and even family. Money had the power to disrupt society and break communities apart, a terrifying prospect for an already divided peninsula. 

The Italian city-states were changing dramatically in the late medieval period: republics transformed into principalities; the boundaries of city-states expanded and shrunk in a series of never-ending battles for territory; and the most powerful institution on the peninsula, the Catholic Church, had been kidnapped by the French and relocated to Avignon. 

The influx of money was only one piece in a larger puzzle that convinced late medieval Italians that their society was crumbling, and all the bonds holding people together were failing. This breakdown of order drove many to question the very order of their society, and convinced them that they needed to remake their society along new lines—thus leading to the Renaissance.

How a Snowball Fight led to the Divine Comedy

Dante’s Divine Comedy is one of the most magnificent pieces of writing in human history. Told in terza rima over 100 cantos, Dante relates a journey through hell, Purgatory, and heaven, where he gazes upon the face of God. In the epic poem, Dante coined a number of new words and some attribute the birth of modern Italian to Dante’s writing. 

But it might never have been written at all, if not for a snowball fight in the year 1300.

Dante, as painted by his contemporary, Giotto. 

Dante, as painted by his contemporary, Giotto. 

In the city of Pistoia, a few miles from Florence, a young man threw a snowball, and his uncle scolded him. A few days later, in revenge, the nephew struck his uncle for dishonoring him. But now the uncle was dishonored—so his son attacked the snowball-thrower and cut off his hands. As if this escalation wasn’t enough, the son then went after the snowball-thower’s father and killed him. 

This feud, between members of the Pistoian Cancellieri family, created a civil war in the city, as everyone took sides. The Florentines, trying to put an end to the bloodshed, arrested the leaders of both factions and imprisoned them in Florence.

However, the Pistoian feud then exacerbated the existing rivalry between two leading Florentine families, the Cerchi and the Donati. Although Dante was married to Gemma Donati, he sided more with the new-money Cerchi family, who were neighbors to the Alighieri. And in 1302, the war between the Donati and Cerchi factions resulted in the exile of a number of supporters of the Cerchi, including Dante.

Dante’s exile was traumatic—he was banned from ever returning to his hometown of Florence, and charged with a number of crimes, including embezzlement and disturbance of the peace. For the next two decades, Dante traveled across Italy, yearning to restore his reputation and return to Florence. 

During this long exile, Dante wrote the Divine Comedy, which contained his condemnation of the factional chaos that expelled him from Florence. In Inferno, Dante throws the leaders of the factions into hell, including members of the Donati faction and one of their allies, Pope Boniface VIII. The poem was the perfect vehicle for Dante to vent his frustration at the disorderly politics of late medieval Florence. And it almost certainly never would have been written if Dante had not been exiled.

And that’s how a snowball fight led to the Divine Comedy. 

Dante and his Poem, a fresco by Michelino (1465). 

Dante and his Poem, a fresco by Michelino (1465).