The Zealots were a band of resistance fighters in Roman Judea, active from 6–73 CE, who sought to expel the occupying Romans by any means necessary. A subgroup, called Sicarii (Violent Men or Dagger Men) in Latin, killed people opposed to this war.

According to historian Josephus, the Zealots committed mass suicide at Masada rather than surrender to the Romans or keep fighting on under siege, but modern archaeological investigation has revealed this probably didn’t happen. Regardless, because of this probable urban legend, the word “zealot” now refers to any rigid fanatic for a political, religious, or other cause.

Medieval Italy was beset by zealots, in the form of the Guelphs and Ghibellines. They’d been fighting since 1125, the result of a German power struggle between the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor spilling over into another region. Even long after the Pope and Emperor had patched things up, people continued fighting and drawing rigid lines for the next few centuries.

Each side believed they were in the right and that the other side was unacceptably wrong, to the point of needing to be quashed and brought to heel. They saw no room for compromise or agreeing to disagree peacefully. When Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, a Ghibelline, married his daughter to a Guelph to try to secure his power against hostile enemies, he instantly became persona non grata and started down the tragic, violent path which ultimately led to his starvation death in prison.

Ugolino della Gherardesca and his Sons in the Tower of His Starvation, Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1830

Even after the Guelphs emerged victorious as the leaders of Florence (Firenze) after the 1289 Battle of Campaldino, it still wasn’t good enough. Before long, they began bickering among themselves and split into White and Black factions.

According to legend, it all began when someone yelled at his nephew for throwing a snowball. A few days later, the nephew hit his uncle. The uncle didn’t think it was a big deal, but his son Focaccia did. Focaccia went after his cousin, cut off his hands, and killed his cousin’s father. All because of a petty little fight about a snowball.

Black Guelphs teamed up with Prince Charles of Valois, brother of King Philippe IV (Philip the Fair) of France, to seize control of Florence while Dante was with a White Guelph delegation to the Pope in Rome. Much of Florence was destroyed during their dominance-asserting rampage, and many White Guelphs were tried on phony charges, found guilty by kangaroo courts, heavily fined, killed, and/or condemned to exile. Some, like Dante, were tried in absentia.

Dante had his property and money seized, which meant he had no way of paying that huge fine even if he’d wanted to. After he refused a 1315 offer of amnesty, on the grounds that it would mean admitting to crimes he was innocent of, orders were put out to behead him if he were caught.

When his four children came of legal age, they were sent into exile too, deemed guilty by association.

There’s a teaching that the Second Temple, while obviously physically destroyed by the Romans, was truly destroyed because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred. This internecine bickering tore apart the Jewish community from within. Sects like the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and Zealots constantly clashed, and were unable to unite as a single front against their common enemy.

Too many times throughout history, people have forgotten we’re all created in the image of God and share a common humanity, a Divine spark within each of us. They divide the world into Self and Other, and never the twain shall meet. Once zealously committed to a cause, it’s a quick leap to dehumanising and mistreating the other side.

In De Monarchia, Dante idealistically dreams of a unified world ruled by an enlightened Emperor guided by pure love, charity, justice, and selflessness. When we unite as one, we most live up to our Divine potential, since we were created in the image of God, and God is one.

Dante believed God created us to make full use of our highest intellectual potential, and that it’s easier to do this when we have universal peace. We can’t accomplish this beautiful, lofty ideal very easily if we’re beset by strife, wars, political fights, and rigid zealots who can’t accept any views but their own.

Let us strive to see beauty and truth in everything and everyone instead of behaving like zealots. Our every step should be guided by the force behind everything in creation, “the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.”

Pietro Alighieri

Pietro Alighieri’s commentary on The Divine Comedy, Copyright Mario Mancini

Pietro Alighieri, Dante’s first or second son, was born in Florence (Firenze) in the late 13th century. In 1315, he and his siblings Jacopo, Antonia, and Giovanni joined their father in exile, after not seeing him for fourteen years. Since they were of legal age, they were considered guilty of Dante’s “crimes” by extension, and had to share his sentence.

Dante’s children dutifully followed him during his sojourns in various Italian cities, until they settled in Ravenna in 1318. Pietro also received ecclesiastical benefits in Ravenna.

In 1322, a year after Dante’s death, Pietro returned to Florence and discovered what a financial mess his family was in. When Dante was sentenced to exile, the city seized all his properties and assets, and they were still held hostage.

To try to improve his economic situation, Pietro began studying law in Bologna in 1323, and eventually received a doctorate. Cangrande della Scala was his benefactor. During his studies, Pietro befriended the great Petrarch.

Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch)

Unlike Jacopo, Pietro didn’t take advantage of the amnesty granted to so-called political criminals, and so was unable to return to Florence. In 1331, he decided to move to Verona, where he settled in the Palazzo Bevilacqua, a 13th century palace in the city centre.

Pietro’s relationship with his uncle Francesco (Dante’s halfbrother) completely fell apart in Verona, due to testamentary rivalries. Dante’s assets were divided between his sons and Francesco, and Francesco got the land, from which he made his living raising cattle and farming. Perhaps Pietro felt more entitled to that land, and resented his uncle making money off of it in his stead.

Palazzo Bevilacqua, Copyright Giacomo Augusto 2

Pietro worked as a lawyer in Verona, and also served as a delegate to the city’s podestà from 1332–47. Later he was a judge. After moving to Vicenza, Pietro was vicar to that city’s podestà.

Around 1335, Pietro married Iacopa di Dolcetto de Salerni, by whom he had three daughters, Alighiera, Gemma, and Lucia, and a son, Dante. All three of their daughters became nuns in the monastery of San Michele di Campagna.

Pietro also had an extramarital child, Bernardo, who became a notary in Verona. Bernardo’s son Niccolò was a pharmacist in Agram (now Zagreb, Croatia).

Second of the two Alighieri coats of arms, Copyright Sailko

Pietro also found time to write. He composed some poems and songs, but his major literary work consists of commentaries on his father’s writings. After 1347, Pietro wrote a 20-codex commentary on The Divine Comedy. He also wrote commentaries on Dante’s shorter poems.

In his old age, Pietro moved to Treviso. He signed his will on 21 February 1364 and died exactly two months later. Pietro was initially entombed in the Church of Santa Margherita, but his remains were later moved to the Church of San Francesco.

Brunetto Latini

Brunetto was born to a noble Tuscan family in Florence (Firenze) in 1220. His father was Buonaccorso Latini, and his grandfather was Latino Latini. By 1254, he was the scribe for the elders in the Florence municipality. Brunetto also was active in the city’s political life, and belonged to the Guelph party.

So respected and beloved was Brunetto by his fellow Florentines, he was part of a delegation sent to the court of King Alfonso X of Castile, Léon, and Galicia in 1259 or 1260, to plead for aid to the Guelphs against their Ghibelline enemies. The mission wasn’t a success, and on his way home from Spain, a student from Bologna told him about the Guelphs’ recent defeat at the Battle of Montaperti.

With this rival party in power, Brunetto was forced into exile. He lived in France from 1261–68 and worked as a notary in various cities. During his French sojourn, he wrote Tesoretto, an Italian encyclopedia, and Li Livres dou Trésor, a French encyclopedia. The latter is regarded as the very first encyclopedia in a modern European language. Brunetto also translated four of Cicero’s works into Italian.

Illuminated page from Li Livres dou Trésor

When the political situation improved in 1269, he returned to Florence and served in a variety of high offices for the next twenty years. In 1273, he received compensation for the wrong done to him, in the form of being appointed Secretary of the Council of the Republic of Florence. Brunetto was one of the most frequently appointed speakers in general councils.

Following the death of Dante’s father, Alighiero di Bellincione, between 1281–83, Brunetto became Dante’s guardian. Dante and many others identified Brunetto as his teacher. There was a clear bond of love and intellectual kinship between the two.

Brunetto passed away in 1294 or 1295, leaving a daughter, Bianca Latini. His tomb is in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Florence.

Despite the powerful love and respect between mentor and mentee, Dante depicts Brunetto in Hell, in the Third Ring of the Seventh Circle. However, he’s treated more respectfully and lovingly than almost anyone else in The Divine Comedy. Brunetto is also only the second person in the poem to touch Dante (the first obviously being Virgil), and the only one who addresses Dante with the familiar form of “you.”

Dante lovingly speaks of Brunetto as his teacher and mentor, and offers to sit with him while the rest of Brunetto’s group runs off. Brunetto has to refuse because he’s condemned to keep aimlessly moving. He then tells Dante’s future.

Panel about monkey from the bestiary section of Li Livres dou Trésor

Brunetto’s section of Hell is for people who’ve been violent against God, Nature, and art, and unfortunately (given the attitudes of the era) includes gay men. But there’s zero evidence beyond rumours that Brunetto was gay or bisexual, and Brunetto himself expressed homophobic views in Tesoretto. So what is he doing there?

Some scholars believe Brunetto was truly placed in that part of Hell because he was violent against art and his native language. He did, after all, write an entire encyclopedia in French instead of Italian. Others feel it’s proof of how even the greatest of people may be guilty of private sins (whatever they may be).

Brunetto’s tomb, Copyright Sailko

In recent years, a love poem some believe Brunetto sent to poet Bondie Dietaiuti was discovered, but the intent may be open to interpretation. After all, many close friends in bygone eras expressed their love for one another (both physically and in words) in ways that suggest romantic or sexual feelings to modern people, but weren’t seen as such historically, let alone considered in that way by the friends themselves.

Dante not only doesn’t condemn gay men as deviants, degenerates, perverts, etc., he also puts an equal number of gay and straight men in the Seventh Terrace of Purgatory, for the lustful. Everyone in Purgatory is guaranteed eventual entrance to Paradise, so Dante clearly had a much more modern, nuanced view of homosexuality than most people associate with the Middle Ages.

Jacopo Alighieri

Jacopo Alighieri (Iacopo di Durante degli Alighieri), one of four kids Dante had with his wife Gemma di Manetto Donati, was born around 1290 in Florence (Firenze). Unfortunately, there are no known drawings or paintings of him, and not much of anything is known about his early life.

When he came of age, Jacopo joined his exiled father, along with his siblings Pietro, Antonia, and Giovanni. As the adult children of an exile who refused to pay the huge fine demanded of him and with a burning death awaiting him should he return, they were condemned to exile by association. Jacopo’s mother remained in Florence.

Historians believe Jacopo and his siblings went first to Verona, then Ravenna. Their father’s patrons, the da Polenta family, protected them until 1322, the year after Dante’s death.

Coat of arms of Ravenna, with the da Polenta shield, Copyright User:David_Liuzzo

Dante finished The Divine Comedy in 1320 or 1321, not long before his 13/14 September 1321 death. Since this was before even the printing press, it was all handwritten. Paper manuscripts being what they are, not all of it was gathered in the same place. In Dante’s case, the final pages were missing, and he was no longer alive to tell people where he put them. He also hadn’t left any notes about their location.

Divine Providence intervened, and Dante came to Jacopo in a dream, showing him where the rest of the poem was. Jacopo found it in exactly that place!

Jacopo sent a copy to Guido II da Polenta, lord of Ravenna, and it was distributed to the rest of Italy and the entire world from there. In those early, pre-printing press days, all the manuscripts were hand-copied. Many were also beautifully illustrated.

Jacopo safely returned to Florence in 1325, and the next year received minor religious orders enabling him to get a canonical office in Verona. He then set about settling his family’s finances, and in 1343 finally successfully regained Dante’s confiscated assets.

Like his father, Jacopo too was a writer. The first of his two major works is the Dottrinale (Doctrinal), concerned with religion, astrology, astronomy, human beauty, the virtues of the Holy Roman Empire, family, free will, love, and hate. It was inspired by ancient writers, and sometimes mimics Dante’s style. The book is divided into two sections and 60 chapters, with seven-syllable rhyming couplets. Each chapter has ten stanzas.

The Commento is a line-by-line commentary on the Inferno canticle of The Divine Comedy. Jacopo was among the first to write a commentary on the poem. By 1340, there were six major commentaries available. Jacopo’s accompanied the copy of the full poem he sent to Guido da Polenta.

Copyright Sailko; Courtesy Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana

Later in life, Jacopo had a troubled relationship with Jacopa de Biliotto degli Alfani, from a Florentine banking family. They had two kids, Alighiera and Alighiero.

Jacopo is believed to have died in Florence in 1348, probably of Bubonic Plague.

The Guelphs and the Ghibellines

Fight in Bologna ca. 1369, created ca. 1400 by Giovanni Sercambi

The Guelphs and Ghibellines (Guelfi e Ghibellini) were two rival factions involved in a long-running power struggle in Medieval Italy. The Guelphs took their name from the House of Welf (a Bavarian dukedom), and the Ghibellines were named from the German battle rallying cry “Wibellingen” (from Swabia’s Waiblingen Castle). It’s believed these names were introduced to Italy during the reign of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa.

What began as a fight between Germans in 1125 spilled over into Italy, along the same party lines. Guelphs supported the Pope, and Ghibellines backed the Holy Roman Emperor. Guelphs usually came from wealthy merchant families, while Ghibellines derived their income from agriculture.

Guelphs were mostly centred in areas where the Emperor was more of a threat to local interests, whereas Ghibellines usually lived in places where enlargement of the Papal States was a bigger threat. Small cities also tended to go Ghibelline if the nearest large city were Guelph. However, sometimes traditional Ghibelline cities backed the Pope.

Long after the Pope and Emperor had patched things up, the conflict continued at a heated pace.

Diorama of the 1289 Battle of Campaldino, Copyright Sailko

The names Guelph and Ghibelline weren’t much used till about 1250, and then only within Tuscany. It was more common to call them the “Church party” and “Imperial party.”

Their power struggle, and the sharp lines between factions, were most keenly felt in Florence (Firenze) and Genoa. In Genoa, Guelphs were called Rampini (grappling hooks), and Ghibellines were Mascherati (masked). Besides fighting one another, they also eventually began fighting German influence in Italy.

Things came to a bloody, brutal head at the Battle of Montaperti on 4 September 1260. The Ghibellines brought 17,000 troops, and the Guelphs came with 33,000. Over 10,000 soldiers were slain in this bloodiest of all Medieval Italian battles, and another 15,000 were taken hostage. Four thousand more went missing, and everyone else fled for their lives.

Battle of Montaperti, 13th century, created by Giovanni Villani

The Battle of Campaldino was fought on 11 June 1289, with over 1,700 casualties, 2,000 hostages, and many wounded. Dante, age 24, took part in this fight, but panicked and fled during the first, most violent assault.

Trouble was far from over after the Guelphs’ decisive victory at Campaldino. Though they now had full control of Florence, they began their own infighting and split into Black and White factions. Black Guelphs backed the Pope, and Whites opposed Papal influence.

According to legend, it all began when someone yelled at his nephew for throwing a snowball. A few days later, the nephew hit his uncle. The uncle didn’t think it was a big deal, but his son Focaccia did. Focaccia went after his cousin, cut off his hands, and killed his cousin’s father. All because of a petty little fight about a snowball.

Dante became a White Guelph, though he nevertheless was sent on a diplomatic mission to Rome in 1301. While he was away, Black Guelphs seized control of Florence, tried him on phony charges in absentia, sentenced him to exile, and ordered him to pay a huge fine (which he never did). They also declared he’d be burnt at the stake if he tried to return home.

Another battle was fought in Zappolino on 13 November 1325, after months of border clashes and property destruction. The Ghibellines brought 5,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry to the fight, and the Guelphs came with 30,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry. There were about 2,000 casualties.

Because the Ghibellines had won the battle, they experienced an increase in power, popularity, and fortune. Then, in 1334, Pope Benedict XII threatened everyone with excommunication if they used either the Guelph or Ghibelline name.

Finally, these divisions were rendered obsolete during the Italian Wars of 1494–1559. The political landscape had changed too radically.