Webster G. Tarpley
December 23, 2010
Today, December 23, 2010, marks one of the most important world-historical anniversaries of all time. Seven hundred years ago this evening, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII of Luxemburg passed through the city gates of Milan, Italy and set into motion the process leading to the most important political innovation of the past 2,000 years: the modern state.
Henry VII’s most vocal political supporter and advocate was the Florentine exile Dante Alighieri, by all odds the greatest man of the second millennium AD. Dante’s immediate goal was to end the fratricidal party strife between the Guelf (pro-papal) and Ghibelline (pro-imperial) factions by restoring imperial guidance to the northern Italian city states, which had been gripped by growing anarchy and incipient civil war since the death of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen and the end of his southern Italian kingdom 60 years earlier. One of the victims of this anarchy had been Dante himself, who was driven out of Florence in 1303 by the ascendant Black Guelf party, acting with the encouragement of the simonist pope, Boniface VIII.
Dante’s Divine Comedy, the first sustained poetic effort in Italian and the first masterpiece in a modern language, was written as an ideological handbook and justification for Henry VII’s Italian expedition and the restoration of a balance between pope and emperor in northern and central Italy. In Canto I of the Inferno, when Dante is lost in the dark wood of error, his guide Vergil foretells the coming of “il veltro” — a greyhound who will destroy the wolf of avarice, the source of all depraved desires, thought by some to represent the banking power, especially its Venetian aspect. The greyhound is a figure for Henry VII. The entire “Divine Comedy” is full of references and prophecies about Henry VII, too many to be enumerated here.
In Milan, Henry VII’s modest retinue of a few thousand troops were awaited by the hostile but politically decrepit Guelf regime of the Torriani family, who had driven the Ghibelline opposition out of the city. Henry VII’s general policy was that political exiles should be allowed to return to their homes, and in the case of Milan this included Matteo Visconti and his followers, who had originally come from the Pavia area, between Milan and the Po River. Before long, the Ghibelline Matteo Visconti had ousted the Torriani family from power and established one of the most important family regimes in all of European history.
After being crowned King of Lombardy in the church of St. Ambrose in Milan on January 6, 1310, Henry VII attempted to reconcile the factions of other northern Italian cities. Ghibelline cities like Verona, Pisa, Arezzo, Modena, and Mantua welcomed Henry, but the more numerous Guelf rulers soon formed a league to resist him, including by waging war. The prime mover of this rebellion was Guelf Florence, controlled by Dante’s mortal enemies, the Black Guelfs. Henry VII, despite his inadequate forces, responded by besieging Florence, albeit unsuccessfully.
In Cantos 8 and 9 of the Inferno, Dante and Vergil are for a time prevented from passing through the walls that surround the lower hell or City of Dis by the largest and most aggressive assembly of demons the two wayfarers ever encounter in the underworld. This is a pandemonium of pagan and other monsters, featuring Alecto, Tisiphone, and Megaera, the three furies of Greek lore, plus the severed head of the Gorgon Medusa, which these infernal guards intend to use to turn Dante into stone. The demonic resistance cannot be put down by human reason as represented by Vergil, who must wait for an angel or heavenly messenger to quell the rebellion against the divine will, which wants Dante to see the lower hell and tell the world what he was seen. This is followed by an admonition to the reader to look below the surface meaning to understand the allegorical message Dante sought to impart. According to Pietrobono and some of the better commentators, the walls of lower hell are to be understood as a metaphor for the walls of Florence during Henry’s siege of that city, with the Black Guelfs as recalcitrant demons. Hell is a city much like Florence under the Black Guelfs, says Dante.
In addition to devoting so much of the Divine Comedy to Henry VII, Dante also wrote about his hopes for the new emperor in three of his few extant Latin letters. Letter V, probably written in the fall of 1310, proclaims the coming of Henry VII as the new Moses and bridegroom of long-suffering Italy. Letter VI is an emphatic prophecy of ruin for Henry VII’s enemies, who will see their cities destroyed as punishment for their resistance, despite their contemptible fortifications (ridiculo cuiquam vallo). Letter VII exhorts Henry VII to stop wasting time with the rebellions fomented in Brescia and other cities, and to strike directly at the heart of the insurrection by launching a new attack on Florence, the stinking vixen of the Arno. Finally, Dante’s treatise on politics and government, De Monarchia, is a theoretical expression of the idea that the temporal rule of the emperor is superior to the political authority of the Roman pope, who needs to focus on spiritual matters.
Henry VII of Luxemburg died in August of 1313, just as he was preparing a new attack on Florence. He is likely to have been poisoned by political adversaries.
Dante’s detractors have never tired of deriding the failure of his attempt to restore civic peace in northern and central Italy with the help or a revivified Holy Roman Empire. But this ignores the two political powers that Henry VII helped to establish. One was Verona under the Scala family; Can Grande della Scala was one of Dante’s benefactors in exile, and for a time seemed likely to dominate northern Italy, perhaps including Venice. The other imperial vicars who became prominent were the Visconti.
By the end of 1313, the Visconti state controlled not just Milan, but also Lombard towns like Piacenza, Lodi, Bobbio, and Novara. In 1314, they added Como, Bergamo, and Tortona. In 1315, Pavia and Cremona were conquered, while Alessandria invited them in to escape the repressive rule of the French-backed Anjou overlords. In 1316, Parma and Vercelli joined the Visconti state. As the leading scholarly study of Henry VII by William M. Bowsky concludes, the Visconti power “owed its start, both militarily and legally, to Henry of Luxemburg.”
It was a somewhat later Milanese ruler of this line, Giangaleazzo Visconti, who in the years around 1400 created a large northern Italian state which must be considered as the first prototype of the modern state. Giangaleazzo’s state included most of northern Italy, with the key exceptions of Venice and Tuscany. He ruled Verona, Cremona, Brescia, Belluno, Pieve di Cadore, Feltre, Pavia, Novara, Como, Lodi, Vercelli, Alba, Asti, Pontremoli, Tortona, Alessandria, Valenza, Piacenza, Parma, Reggio Emilia, Vicenza, and Vigevano. Another year and Florence would have appeared on the list, and shortly thereafter, probably Venice, making the Kingdom of Italy a viable reality.
Milan was traditionally the richest city in western Europe, and its only serious competitor for first place in Europe as a whole was Constantinople. Giangaleazzo’s political method featured two aspects which have remained indispensable to the modern state. The first was an economic recovery program favoring the middle class: when Giangaleazzo seized control of Milan, he implemented a tax amnesty, cancelling the debts owed by citizens to the tax collector. This would be the modern equivalent of a debt moratorium or cancellation.
Giangaleazzo’s other hallmark was the building of modern infrastructure. For Milan, that meant a very advanced system of canals in and around Milan, and reaching down to the Po and other rivers — the navigli, many of which still exist, covered over with more recent constructions. These canals enabled Giangaleazzo to make rapid progress on the Milanese Duomo, the most ambitious late Gothic cathedral in Europe, and to build the striking Charterhouse of Pavia (Certosa di Pavia), a Carthusian monastery.
Milan was also the European leader in key areas of advanced technology, especially in steel and other metallurgy. The Milanese arms and armor industry was in demand from both England and France, the antagonists in the Hundred Years War of 1337-1453.
By 1402 Giangaleazzo was thus well on his way to accomplishing the single most important thing needed to consolidate the gains of the Italian renaissance — unifying northern and central Italy into a powerful national state capable of preventing the country from becoming a battlefield between France and Spain, as happened in the years after 1494, with the most tragic consequences. But in 1402, just as Giangaleazzo was about to add Florence and Tuscany to his emerging nation, he died in September 1402 under mysterious circumstances, just like Henry VII in 1313 and Dante in 1321.
After 1402, Giangaleazzo’s new state quickly fell apart, but was largely re-assembled by his second oldest son, Filippo Maria Visconti. After Filippo Maria, the Milanese state passed under the control of Francesco Sforza, a military leader who had married Filippo Maria’s daughter. In this latter form it was closely studied and imitated by King Louis XI of France, who successfully created the world’s first modern state, no longer a prototype, during his reign of 1461-1483.
The importance and positive potential of the Visconti has been obscured for generations of readers by the profoundly misleading work of the late historian Hans Baron, who could only regard the Visconti as tyrants and precursors of Mussolini and Hitler — a total distortion. For Baron, the positive forces were the sleazy pols of the Florentine Guelf Party and their spokesmen, oligarchs who refused to write in Italian and reverted to Latin, lest the plebs gain insight into statecraft. Francesco Petrarca, Dante’s successor in the effort of promote a renaissance out of the shipwreck of late medieval Europe, did not agree with the pedantic Baron: Petrarch thought highly enough of the Visconti to go to work for them as a diplomat for five years during the 1350s.
The Holy Roman Empire (Sacro Romano Impero, or Heiliges Roemisches Reich Deutscher Nation) was the direct descendant of the empire assembled by Charlemagne around 800 AD. It was an amalgam of much of central Europe, including Germany, Bohemia, Holland and the Low Countries, northern and central Italy, and some adjacent areas. Holy Roman Emperors like Henry VII were chosen by an electoral college of seven members, including the King of Bohemia, the archbishops of Cologne, Mainz, and Trier, plus the rulers of Saxony, the Palatinate along the Rhine, and Brandenburg-Prussia. The newly elected emperor was immediately declared King of the Romans, but he then was supposed to go to Italy to be crowned with the iron crown of Lombardy in Monza near Milan. He was then supposed to go on to Rome to be crowned as Holy Roman Emperor by the pope. This was the traditional itinerary which Henry VII was following, even as he tried to restore imperial authority south of the Alps. Matters were complicated by the fact that the pope in 1310 was the Gascon Clement V, a puppet of Philip the Fair of France (whom Dante called “the French disease”); Clement V lived in Avignon, and never came to Rome. Henry VII was crowned by a cardinal in St. John Lateran, which was controlled by the Ghibelline Colonna family, rather than in St. Peter’s, which was behind the lines of the Guelf Orsini clan.
From Thomas Carlyle and Francesco De Sanctis to the quackademics of today, modern oligarchs have mocked and reviled Dante’s efforts to restore legality to northern and central Italy with the help of Henry VII. The lesson of the story is that Dante failed in the narrow sense of restoring the empire, but succeeded in the larger project launching a process leading to the modern state, and with it modern civilization. Success does not always come in the form we expect, but we must welcome progress nevertheless.
Today, with the modern state under assault by nihilists, anarchists, and barbarians of the extreme left and the reactionary right, proponents of civilization and culture need to recommit themselves to the indispensable institution of the modern state, and to the world-historical geniuses and heroes, starting with Dante, who have worked to create it.