Casentino, a valley that is both gentle and rugged, conserves precious memories of Dante, like a treasure chest of history. The first that comes to mind is the major Battle of Campaldino, fought on June 11, 1289 between Guelph Florence and Ghibelline Arezzo, with the latter being utterly defeated. During the battle, Dante fought on the Florentine side, and in the Comedy, when he meets his old enemy Bonconte da Montefeltro, he doesn’t miss the opportunity to ask Bonconte how it could be possible that he never knew about his death (Purgatory, V, 115-129):
And I to him: “What violence or chance
so dragged you from the field of Campaldino
that we know nothing of your burial place?”
“Oh,” he replied, “across the Casentino
there runs a stream called Archiano—born
in the Apennines above the Hermitage.
There, at the place where that stream’s name is lost,
I came—my throat was pierced—fleeing on foot
and bloodying the plain; and there it was
that I lost sight and speech; and there, as I
had finished uttering the name of Mary,
I fell; and there my flesh alone remained. [...]”
The plain of Campaldino still exists, green in the spring and summer and just a bit more muted in colour during the autumn and winter, with the crown of surrounding hills and mountains just as they were in Dante’s day (the Pratomagno on one side, the Apennines on the other and the Verna acting as a strict guard in the background). A commemorative column put up in 1921 is the only evidence today of the battle, surrounded by just a few buildings dotting the harmonious plain, none of which show any traces of past violent clashes… Even if at times, as if caling to mindl the historical event, sounds of the clatter of weapons and armour are said to be heard, as well as the heavy breathing of men and horses. The story of the Bonconte’s extreme conversion continues with him praying to Mary in his final moments, despite being pierced through the neck, thus escaping the devil, who was ready to drag his soul to Inferno. The evil entity, angry over being fooled, caused a furious storm on the battle field that night, which pushed Bonconte’s body into the Archiano creek, merging with the River Arno (the royal river), and this is why he was never found (Purgatory, V, 115-123).
“[...] And then, when day was done, he filled the valley
from Pratomagno far as the great ridge
with mist; the sky above was saturated.
The dense air was converted into water;
rain fell, and then the gullies had to carry
whatever water earth could not receive;
and when that rain was gathered into torrents,
it rushed so swiftly toward the royal river
that nothing could contain its turbulence. [...]”
Even Poppi has traces of Dante. This is where the Poet was hosted by the generous Guidi Counts, who, it’s said, welcomed him into the beautiful Romena Castle, behind Pratovecchio.
It’s worth remembering that Poppi Castle – also known as Palazzo dei Conti Guidi – is, according to Vasari, the work of Lapo, father of Arnolfo di Cambio, who used this building as inspiration when designing the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.
The passage in the Comedy that speaks of the famous forger Master Adam recalls with nostalgia the nature and castles of Casentino, where the man worked as an state-sponsored expert conman (Inferno, XXX, 73-79).
“[...] There is Romena, there I counterfeited
the currency that bears the Baptist’s seal;
for this I left my body, burned, above.
But could I see the miserable souls
of Guido, Alessandro, or their brother,
I’d not give up the sight for Fonte Branda. [...]”
Romena Castle, an imposing fortress with triple defense walls, was the so-called theatre, and probably a location that once hosted Dante, where Master Adam swiftly carried out his work forging money. And although he lived amongst great wealth, when sent to Inferno, he was punished with eternal thirst in the bolgia for falsifiers (where they are distorted as punishment for their sins and made to suffer from horrible diseases), desperately longing for just one drop of water flowing from one of Casentino’s fresh streams (Inferno, XXX, 58-69).
(Just one drink of water from the Fonte Branda, the fountain mentioned in the excerpt below, would probably be equally as good, and perhaps it’s not a coincidence if still today we can admire the very fountain, even if it is permanently dried up and empty.
“O you exempt from every punishment
in this grim world, and I do not know why,”
he said to us, “look now and pay attention
to this, the misery of Master Adam:
alive, I had enough of all I wanted;
alas, I now long for one drop of water.
The rivulets that fall into the Arno
down from the green hills of the Casentino
with channels cool and moist, are constantly
before me; I am racked by memory—
the image of their flow parches me more
than the disease that robs my face of flesh.”