The salty bread

Italian bread peddler, Mulberry St., New York. Photocrome, 1902. Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920Bread peddler in the Italian quarter of New York. Photocrome, 1902. Detroit Publishing Company

Dante was banished from Firenze in November 1301, after the opposing party seized the power over the city by conspiracy.

As to which party Dante belonged and which one was the party opposing it is a tricky question even at the Italian department. The basic factor that determined the political field of 13th-century Italy was the struggle between the Papacy and the Empire, and this field was split along this fault line into the two parties of pro-Empire Ghibellines and pro-Papacy Guelfs. But as to what it means to be a Guelf or a Ghibelline in 1301, thirty-three years after the last Hohenstauf offspring was beheaded on the marketplace of Naples, was just as controversial and different from town to town as the meaning of the Left and of the Right in the countries of Eastern Europe twenty years after the end of the Cold War. Dante belonged to the so-called “white” wing of the Guelf party defending the independence of Florence, while their opponents, the “black” Guelfs advocating a much closer collaboration with the Pope robbed them of the power over the city with the support of the troops of the Ghibelline Siena. On the other hand, the white Guelfs who were immediately banished from the city, continued to fight for their return in alliance with the Ghibellines of Florence whom they had defeated at Campaldino in 1289 and banished from the city. The white Guelf Dante, who for personal reason very soon had an argument with his fellow exiles, spent most of the remaining twenty years of his life in Ghibelline courts as the most influential Italian advocate of the cause of the Empire, while it was the black Guelf Cino da Pistoia who provided him a lecturer’s position at the University of Bologna. And if the threads are not entangled enough: Corso Donati, the leader of the Black party was the brother-in-law of Dante (this is why Dante’s wife could remain in Florence), and he ordered the banishment of the White just one year after Dante – who was a Prior of Florence in the summer of 1300 – having subscribed with his own hands the document about the banishment of his own best friend Guido Cavalcanti. Albeit Cavalcanti was a White Guelf just like Dante, but he fall on the other side of another fault line: he belonged to the noblemen deprived of their citizenship after a long internal struggle by the White and Black Guelf burghers in agreement.

Every person has his own trauma that he then drags along for a life. For Dante it was this exile that he could not get over until his death. To this topic he returns again and again in his writings, the contrivers of this are inflicted by him with the most terrible punishments in the Inferno – the main conceiver Boniface VIII with more than one, as if Dante was trying where it hurts him the most painfully –, and while in the Holy Week of 1300 he arrives from Hell to Heaven, most characters foretell him about this. This is done in the most explicit form by his ancestor Cacciaguida in the 17th canto of the Paradiso:

Tu proverai sì come sa di sale
lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle
lo scendere e’l salir per l’altrui scale.

Thou shalt by sharp experience be aware

how salt the bread of strangers is, how hard
the up and down of someone else’s stair.

This “salty bread” is usually interpreted as the “bitter bread of exile”, the one “salted with tears” by the refugee. This is how it is also interpreted by the most authoritative Renaissance commentator Cristoforo Landino of the Comedy, expounding these verses of Cacciaguida like this in his commentary first published in 1498:

ma nondimeno tu nel tuo essilio sarai percosso dalla prima saetta, che trahe l’essilio: & questo è, che ti converrà lasciar le cose a te piu care, cioè, la patria, i parenti, gli amici, le case, le possessioni, & simili, & proverai, come sa di sale, cioè, quanto pare amaro.

nevertheless you will be reached too by that first arrow that means the exile: that is, you will have to leave everything that is dearest to you, your homeland, your parents, your friends, your home, your possessions and everything else, and then you will see how salty, that is, how bitter it is.


However, this verse of the Comedy also offers another possibility of interpretation. The archaic structure sì come or, in a contracted form, siccome in the sì come sa di sale was used in the old literary Tuscan language in the sense of modern che, on the model of Latin sicut. If we translate the first two verses like this, they will simply mean: You will be aware that the bread of others is salty.

What is the difference? That the bread in Florence is not salty. It was not salty already in Dante’s time. Medieval Florence had no sea, and purchased salt from the great enemy, Pisa – for an usurious price. Salt was regarded as a treasure in the city, like pepper elsewhere, and whenever it was used, it was rather added to the companaticum, that is to the things “eaten with the bread”, and omitted from the bread itself. Even today one of the specialities of Tuscan kitchen is that their bread lacks salt, while traditional smoked meat – in compensation – is much more salty than elsewhere in Italy. Salty bread – as all our Tuscan friends proudly proclaim it – is therefore per definitionem “the bread of strangers”.

Dante wrote this canto of the Paradiso almost twenty years after his banishment in Ravenna, where after so much wandering he finally received a house of his own from the lord of the city, Guido Novello da Polenta. It was here, writes Barbara Reynolds, whose excellent biography of Dante has just been translated to Hungarian by us:

where it was possible for his sons and a daughter to join him and possibly also his wife, where the bread was surely more palatable and the stairs at last familiar beneath his feet.

The stairs – for that short time he could spend in Ravenna, where his tomb today stands in the small square at the side of the church, just having enough time to complete his Comedy – perhaps yes. But salty Ravenna bread could never feel as tasty to him as twenty years earlier quello bbòno, della hhasa.