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Manfred, King of Sicily – the underfictionalised one, remember?

Well, of course he has the benefit of a rather unforgettable appearance in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy – which, I guess, makes up for much…

Let us see. Led by Virgil, Dante meets a bunch of souls on the shores of Purgatory – those who died excommunicated. The two poets ask them the way to Purgatory proper – and, as these things go, the exchange of information leads to a conversation, and one of the less shy souls turns out to be Manfred, king of Sicily.

Dante had placed Manfred’s father, the great Emperor Frederick II, in Hell as a heretic – as befitted the views of a staunch Guelph – a supporter of the Pope. By the time he wrote the Purgatory, though, the poet had mellowed towards the Imperial side, and was on his way to become something of a pro-Empire Ghibelline… hence the lighter punishment for Manfred – who, at all events, calls himself his grandmother’s grandson, rather than his father’s son. And indeed, Dante will place Frederick’s mother, Constance of Hauteville, in Heaven: one could say that the afterlives of Frederick’s family in the poem chart Dante’s political conversion.

Now, for Manfred himself – according to Dante. Among the various translations, I’ve chosen Longfellow’s – because it preserves a sense of the original’s linguistic distance:

And one of them began: “Whoe’er thou art,
Thus going turn thine eyes, consider well
If e’er thou saw me in the other world.”

I turned me tow’rds him, and looked at him closely;
Blond was he, beautiful, and of noble aspect,
But one of his eyebrows had a blow divided.

When with humility I had disclaimed
E’er having seen him, “Now behold!” he said,
And showed me high upon his breast a wound.

Then said he with a smile: “I am Manfredi,
The grandson of the Empress Costanza;
Therefore, when thou returnest, I beseech thee

Go to my daughter beautiful, the mother
Of Sicily’s honour and of Aragon’s,
And the truth tell her, if aught else be told.

After I had my body lacerated
By these two mortal stabs, I gave myself
Weeping to Him, who willingly doth pardon.

Horrible my iniquities had been;
But Infinite Goodness hath such ample arms,
That it receives whatever turns to it.

Had but Cosenza’s pastor, who in chase
Of me was sent by Clement at that time,
In God read understandingly this page,

The bones of my dead body still would be
At the bridge-head, near unto Benevento,
Under the safeguard of the heavy cairn.

Now the rain bathes and moveth them the wind,
Beyond the realm, almost beside the Verde,
Where he transported them with tapers quenched.

Clearly Dante admires Manfred – and thoroughly dislikes Pope Clement for a very  sour winner. So much so, indeed, that he agrees to play messenger, and let the dead king’s daughter know that Manfred will only have to suffer thirty years of Purgatory for every one he spent excommunicated – a mere matter of 120 years of punishment, before he goes to Paradise – nothing compared to Frederick’s eternal flames.

Now please notice the last tercet, the sense of forlorn regret for the poor desecrated bones, thrown by the river in darkness – and left to the elements… That first line in the original Italian (Or le bagna la pioggia e move il vento), I consider the single saddest line in all of literature.

And while we are at it, here is the original Italian:

E un di loro incominciò: “Chiunque
tu se’, così andando, volgi ‘l viso:
pon mente se di là mi vedesti unque.”

Io mi volsi ver’ lui e guardail fiso:
biondo era e bello e di gentile aspetto,
ma l’un de’ cigli un colpo avea diviso.

Quand’ io mi fui umilmente disdetto
d’averlo visto mai, el disse: “Or vedi”;
e mostrommi una piaga a sommo ‘l petto.

Poi sorridendo disse: “Io son Manfredi,
nepote di Costanza imperadrice;
ond’ io ti priego che, quando tu riedi,

vadi a mia bella figlia, genetrice
de l’onor di Cicilia e d’Aragona,
e dichi ‘l vero a lei, s’altro si dice.

Poscia ch’io ebbi rotta la persona
di due punte mortali, io mi rendei,
piangendo, a quei che volontier perdona.

Orribil furon li peccati miei;
ma la bontà infinita ha sì gran braccia,
che prende ciò che si rivolge a lei.

Se ‘l pastor di Cosenza, che a la caccia
di me fu messo per Clemente allora,
avesse in Dio ben letta questa faccia,

l’ossa del corpo mio sarieno ancora
in co del ponte presso a Benevento,
sotto la guardia de la grave mora.

Or le bagna la pioggia e move il vento
di fuor dal regno, quasi lungo ‘l Verde,
dov’ e’ le trasmutò a lume spento.

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