In any attempt to deal, however briefly, with Dante’s sojourn in Ravenna we must first find out what we really know concerning it and distinguish this from what is mere conjecture or deduction. Now the first authority for Dante’s life generally, is undoubtedly Boccaccio, and as it happens he was in Ravenna, where he had relations, certainly in 1350 and perhaps in 1346. In 1350 he was the envoy of the Or San Michele Society, who by his hand sent Beatrice, the daughter of Dante, then a nun in the convent of S. Stefano dell’ Uliva in Ravenna, ten gold florins He was thus in communication with Dante’s daughter so that when he came to write the Vita di Dante, probably in 1356-1357, he was certainly in possession of facts. It will be well then if we state to begin with in his own words what he has told us of the years Dante spent in Ravenna.
But first as to the date of Dante’s coming to Ravenna. Boccaccio would seem to place it immediately after the death of Henry VII. in 1313. To modern scholarship this has seemed incredible for various reasons, and it prefers to allow Dante to visit Verona first and to come to Ravenna in 1317. Yet let us hear Boccaccio.
He begins by telling us that the too early death of the emperor, who was poisoned, as is thought, at Buonconvento in southern Tuscany on S. Bartholomew’s day in 1313, cast every one of his faction into despair “and Dante most of all; wherefore no longer going about to seek his own return from exile he passed the heights of the Apennines and departed to Romagna where his last day, that was to put an end to all his toils, awaited him.
“In those times was Lord of Ravenna (a famous and ancient city of Romagna) a noble cavalier whose name was Guido Novello da Polenta; he was well skilled in the liberal arts and held men of worth in the highest honour, especially such as excelled others in knowledge. And when it came to his ears that Dante, beyond all expectation, was now in Romagna and in such desperate plight, he, who had long time before known his worth by fame, resolved to receive him and do him honour. Nor did he wait to be requested by him to do this, but considering with how great shame men of worth ask such favours, with liberal mind and with free proffers he approached him, requesting from Dante of special grace that which he knew Dante must needs have begged of him, to wit, that it might please him to abide with him. The two wills, therefore, of him who received and of him who made the request thus uniting on one same end, Dante, being highly pleased by the liberality of the noble cavalier, and on the other side constrained by his necessities, awaited no further invitation but the first, and took his way to Ravenna, where he was honourably received by the lord thereof, who revived his fallen hope by kindly festerings; and giving him abundantly such things as were fitting, he kept him with him there for many years, yea, even to the last year of his life.