Walking the streets of Florence it's hard to avoid the presence of Dante Alighieri. His life straddled the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and his work is both a harbinger of the Italian Renaissance and a summation of the medieval spirit. Strolling at random through the city that exiled him we find a Dante museum close by to where his house is thought to have stood. Around a corner is his old parish church, a tiny, windowless sanctuary on a narrow street. His stern visage is everywhere-- on the 2-euro piece (see above), in the painting by Domenico di Michelino prominently displayed in the Duomo, in a cenotaph at Santa Croce (though the bulk of his relics remain in Ravenna, whose citizens gave him his final refuge). Even just buying a scarf I am proudly assured that the walls of the shop go back to Dante.
Because I was trying to travel light, I took along only one book for reading--that is, aside from the guide books and the phrase books--and that book was a compact edition of the Commedia. The coin rests on the cover in the photo above. I wanted to read it in Florence, in Dante's Tuscan, and I managed a canto or two; there was not, admittedly, much time or left-over energy for reading.
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!
Tant' è amara che poco è più morte;
Everyone knows that the Divine Comedy is a journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, and that accounts for most everyone's interest in the poem--especially the journey through Hell. But in a real sense the Comedy is less about an afterlife than this one. The souls in the realm of the dead mainly tell stories, stories about their life on earth, their crimes, their weaknesses, their temptations, their triumphs. In that light the great allegory is as much about this world as the next. The three realms from this point of view constitute a sort of lens for viewing life here and now, reflecting the transitory sins and virtues of earthly man under the aspect of eternity. There is a great symmetry in its architecture. As Heraclitus says, the road up and the road down are the same road.
And I kept coming back to that idea of exile. You may be familiar with Puccini's Gianni Schicci. The opera's Florentine protagonist manages to snatch a friend's inheritance from his rapacious relatives, keeping them in check by first making them accessories to a scheme to alter the will, then reminding them that their being implicated will result in the worst possible sentence for a Florentine: exile. At key moments he reminds them of this with a little ditty:
Addio, Firenze, addio cielo divino,
io ti saluto con questo moncherino,
e vo randagio come un Ghibellino!
Through the ages, exile, for a Florentine, has been a death-in-life, the deprivation of an attachment that we who relocate at the drop of a hat can hardly imagine. It happened to Dante. It happened to Petrarca's father at about the same time. And perhaps it was that unjustly imposed uprootedness that moved Dante to tell his stories in the tripartite scheme of retribution, penance and reward.
I have no idea whether Gianni Schicci got away with his imposture. Dante, in Canto XXX of the Inferno, puts him in the eighth circle of hell. But not to end on too somber a note, I'll give the last word to the operatic, rather than the infernal, Gianni, and his plea for mitigation:
Per questa bizzarria m'han cacciato all'inferno...
e così sia;
ma con licenza del gran padre Dante,
se stasera vì siete divertiti,