Dante as we may think spent the last four years of his life in Ravenna. Those four years we shall consider presently. Here it will be enough to note that he met his death at last in the service of his host and benefactor Guido Novello. The most disastrous action of his life was, it will be remembered, the embassy he made on behalf of his own city of Florence to pope Boniface VIII. That business cost him his home and the city he loved with so cruel a passion; it made him an exile. It was upon the longest journey of all that his last embassy sent him. He set out it seems as ambassador of Guido Novello for Venice, which so far as the sea and all its business are concerned had long replaced Ravenna as mistress of the Adriatic. The recent acquisition of the city and the salt flats of Cervia by Ravenna had become a grievance with the Venetians who desired that monopoly for themselves. It seems that in some local quarrel at Cervia certain Venetian sailors had been killed and Dante went on Guide’s behalf to clear the matter up. He was to be as it happened as unsuccessful in his last embassy as he had been in his first. The old doge, according to the legend which I am bound to say is now generally regarded as a fable, received him coldly and, so the tale runs, invited him to dinner upon a fast day. “In front of the envoys of other princes who were of greater account than the Polentani of Ravenna, and were served before Dante, the larger fish were placed, while in front of Dante was placed the smallest. This difference of treatment nettled Dante who took up one of the little fish in his hand and held it to his ear as though expecting it to say something. The doge observing this asked him what his strange behaviour meant. To which Dante replied: ’As I knew that the father of this fish met his death in these waters I was asking him news of his father.’
“‘Well,’ said the doge, ‘and what did he answer?’ Dante replied: ’He told me that he and his companions were too little to remember much about him; but that I might learn what I wanted to know from the older fish, who would be able to give me the news I asked for.’
“Thereupon the doge at once ordered Dante to be served with a fine large fish.”
[Illustration: Colour Plate S. GIOVANNI BATTISTA]
Thus Dante called attention to his great achievement, by which I suppose he hoped at once to vindicate his dignity as a great man, certainly greater than any one present, and by this means to lend importance to his mission. Whatever may have been the personal result of his sally, it did his mission no good at all. When the official interview took place Dante, if we may believe something of the apocryphal “Letter of Dante to Guido da Polenta,” began to address the doge in Latin and was bidden to speak in Italian or to obtain an interpreter. His mission was a failure and Venice, who in the person of her doge did her best to show either her ignorance of the great poet who did her the honour of crossing her Piazza or of her philistine contempt of him, lives in the Divine Comedy only as an illustration of Hell.