Fra Dolcino Inferno xxiii ~ Dante Alighieri

Stigmata of St Francis (detail)

"Then you, who will perhaps soon see the sun,
tell Fra Dolcino to provide himself
with food, if he has no desire to join me

here quickly, lest when snow besieges him,
it bring the Novarese the victory
that otherwise they would not find too easy."
Inferno xxiii

Princeton Dante Project

Toynbee "Dolcin, Fra"
Dolcino de' Tornielli of Novara, said to have been the natural son of a priest born in the latter half of cent. xiii near Romagnano in the Valsesia, about 20 miles N. of Novara in Piedmont. He was known as Fra Dolcino because of his connexion with the sect of the Apostolic Brothers, founded in 1260 by Gherardo Segarelli of Parma, with the object of bringing back the Church to the simplicity of the apostolic times. After the death of Segarelli, who was burned alive at Parma in 1300, Fra Dolcino became the acknowledged head of the sect. He was one of the many social and religious fanatical reformers who arose from time to time in the Middle Ages, and was credited by his opponents with the most heretical and abominable doctrines, especially with regard to women; but most of the charges against him appear to have been baseless calummies.

Fra Dolcino became prominent in 1305, when, on the promulgation of a bull of Clement V for the total extirpation of his sect, he with some thousands of followers withdrew to the hills between Novara and Vercelli, where he occupied a strong position and defied for more than a year the repeated attacks of the Church authorities, aided by 'crusaders' not only from the immediate neighbourhood, but from Lombardy, Savoy, Provence, and other parts as well. Finally, after they had tried in vain to support themselves by robbery, they were reduced by starvation; large numbers were massacred on the mountains; others were burned. Fra Dolcino and his companion, the beautiful Margaret of Trent, who was asserted to be his mistress, were taken prisoners and burned alive at Vercelli (June 1307), the former having first been paraded through the streets in a wagon, after being horribly tortured and mutilated.

D. assigns, by implication, to Fra Dolcino, who was still alive at the time he was writing, a place among the Schismatics and Sowers of discord in Bolgia 9 of Circle VIII of Hell (Malebolge), [Inf. xxviii. 55]. [Scismatici.]

As D. and Virgil pass through the Bolgia a number of the spirits, hearing that D. is alive, stop and look at him in wonder, [Inf. xxviii. 46-54]; one of them (Mohammed) addresses D. and bids him, when he returns to the upper world, to tell Fra Dolcino that, unless he wishes quickly to join him in Hell, he had better provision himself, so that he may not 'by stress of snow' give the victory to the Novarese, who otherwise would not gain it easily ([Inf. xxviii. 55-60]). Mohammed's interest in Fra Dolcino may be due, as Philalethes suggests, to the similarity of their doctrines in the matter of women and marriage. Benvenuto remarks:

. . .autor sub ista pulcra fictione vult ostendere quod Macomethus erat sollicitus de evasione Dulcini, quia vere Dulcinus fuit simia Macomethi.

A contemporary account of Fra Dolcino and his doctrines is given by Villani, who probably had this passage of the D.C. in mind when he wrote it:

Nel detto anno 1305 del contado di Novara in Lombardia fu uno frate Dolcino, il quale non era frate di regola ordinata, ma fraticello sanza ordine, con errore si levò con grande compagnia d'eretici, uomini e femmine di contado e di montagna di piccolo affare, proponendo e predicando il detto frate Dolcino, se essere vero apostolo di Cristo, e che ogni cosa dovea essere in carità comune, e simiie le femmine essere comuni, e usandole non era peccato. E più altri sozzi articoli di resia predicava, e opponeva che 'l papa, e' cardinali, e gli altri rettori di santa Chiesa non osservavano quello che doveano nè la vita vangelica, e ch'egli dovea essere degno papa. Ed era con seguito di più di tremila uomini e femmine, standosi in su le montagne vivendo a comune a guisa di bestie; e quando falliva loro vittuaglia, prendevano e rubavano dovunque nè trovavano; e così regnò per due anni. Alla fine rincrescendo a quelli che seguivano la detta dissoluta vita, molto scemò sua setta, e per difetto di vivanda, e per le nevi ch'erano, fu preso per gli Noaresi e arso con Margherita sua compagna, e con più altri uomini e femmine che con lui si trovaro in quegli errori. ({Villani. viii. 84}.)

Benvenuto, who derived his information from a nephew of the physician who attended Fra Dolcino, gives a long and interesting sketch of his personality and career. He testifies to his great learning and wonderful eloquence, wherein doubtless lay the secret of his influence with the multitude, and speaks with admiration of his fortitude under torture; but he confirms the current reports as to the profligacy of his teaching.

The author of the Ottimo Commento states that he himself witnessed the execution of some of Fra Dolcino's followers at Padua:

. . . io scrittore nè viddi de' suoi ardere a Padova in numero di ventidue ad una volta; gente di vile condizione, idioti, e villani.

[For a review of the literature on Fra Dolcino, see BSDI, x (1903), 383; see also Historia Fratris Dulcini, edited by A. Segarizzi, in RIS, N.S. ix (Città di Castello, 1906); M. T. Rossi Di Fra Dolcino, Dante e Novara (Novara, 1921); and A. Aspesi, L'angelo di Tintira, studio sul movimento dolciniano (Torino, 1932).]


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