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DANTE FOR BEGINNERS
By JOE LEE
Steerforth PressCopyright © 2011 Joe Lee
All rights reserved.
LOVE! Love was certainly the one thing that thirteenth century Europe could have used a little of. Let it be said that this was neither the best of times, nor the worst of times—it was a time of transition. Commerce was on the rise, pushing out the ancient regime: the feudal system. Wealth was becoming the standard of power, and those that claimed their titles from a higher power were not pleased to have upstarts stinking of savvy and lucre taking over. This struggle was becoming particularly pointed in the northern half of Italy. Geographically, Venetia, Tuscany, Lombardy, Emilia, Romagna, and the other regions were perfectly located at the crossroads of trade between north and south, east and west. Cities like Venice that might have been nothing more than fever smitten backwaters were thriving, prospering bastions of the new capitalism.
No longer would populations depend on fertile farmland or abundant fisheries for their feed. Trade in silk, perfumes, and every other commodity that might be desired could put ample quantities of food on the table. Smarts were becoming more important than mail- coated brawn. And those old hackers and slayers with tiaras on their brows and swords in their hands weren't about to stretch out on their gothic tombs just yet. The ironclad boys owned the land the caravans had to cross to get from city to city, and if you were carting goods on their roads, they demanded you pay their tolls.
The merchants balked, and where taxes pinched painfully in the wallet, death's fingers would not long be idle. The Guelph party was born to stay the miscreant hand of the Ghibelline nobs; thus city warred against city, party against party, and the gold and green landscape of northern Italy was painted red with Latin blood.
The Ghibellines were eventually defeated, for they, the noble landed class, had their day and were forced to retire to the darkness of history.
However, all was not exactly hunky-dory for the Guelphs, as they had their own painful separation into two rival factions: the whites and blacks. The white party saw the papacy as a threat to their legitimate interests and thought Rome should be the seat of religious authority and not temporal power. They longed for the return of the Roman Empire.
The blacks were not impressed with any romantic returns to "the purple" and thought rendering unto the pope was a better proposition than unto Caesar (as long as the pope was suitably reasonable in his request for rendering). So black mixed it up with white and lord, it all became a confusing shade of gray.
Florence was right smack in the center of all this turmoil, and even without this ongoing political folderol, the city had plenty of other problems to contend with. It had grown about three times as large in the thirteenth century as it had been in the preceding years, expanding far beyond the wall built during the Roman Empire.
New walls were eventually erected at the end of the century, taking fifty years to complete. Walls were very important for any polis at the time, because when visitors came to call, they often knocked with battering rams and rarely left with a cheery how-de-do. But the walls were also dangerous for what they kept inside.
Florence, so called for the abundance of flowers that grew there, was a steaming cauldron of pestilence and sewage, like any medieval city. Only the richest Florentines could afford that modern convenience: the cesspool. The rest must make do with dumping their chamber pots into the street, where errant pigs and dogs performed their work as sanitation engineers, and a good strong rain would hopefully rush it all into the river Arno, which burbled its way through the town.
Drinking water was dipped from public wells dotted through the various neighborhoods and not from the polluted waterway, but this sanitary consideration meant that when one's area drink went bad, everybody got sick. Is it any wonder that wine was not only considered a great revenant of the spirits but a miraculous panacea as well?
(It is important to know that this was a time long before "germ theory" and microbiology. We humans looking for the causes of life conditions at the time must postulate from information at hand. Sin makes sense as the causal agent of plague and destruction when no other logic will answer, and witchcraft and devilment seemed likely suspects in the absence of verifiable sin.) The houses were made of stone (a prevalent material in this mountainous region) when stone workers could be afforded. The richest became the swelling class of merchants and bankers, (the church's old proscriptions against money lending—it being a grave sin not to earn by the sweat of your brow—had finally fallen). Grand palaces with tiled floors and tapestried walls were being constructed.
The poor made due with hovels made from cast-off stone or easily secured wood, which was an extremely volatile material in a world warmed by open fires. Slum conflagrations were an ever-present danger. Streets were similarly economically distributed about the town with paved and guttered thoroughfares in the wealthy districts and stretches of mud or dust (depending on the weather) in the poorer suburbs.
The church was the one place where every Florentine, or every baptized soul in Christendom, could come together in equal abundance and grandeur.
The well-to-do—men wearing the latest gaudy silk robes and women in trés chic long- trained gowns balanced with a fetching décolletage, hair blonded by exposure to the sun in "blonding hats"—would rub shoulders with lice-ridden beggars (those little insects could also be spied cavorting between madams' exposed cleavage, as well) in churches all over the city.
The beautiful baptistery of San Giovanni and the monastery and church called La Badia still stand today, the Renaissance and other urban renewal projects having laid the others low.
The church was not only a building painted with frescos, jeweled with mosaics, and lavished with gold. It was the center, the soul of the medieval world community. All were ultimately judged by its standards. If you managed to stave off the judgment in this life, you would undeniably be meted out your punishment in the next.
To stand outside the church meant not only excommunication from a religious body but to place one's self against the workings of the natural world.
This is why the church in the early part of the thirteenth century under the auspices of Pope Innocent III launched a crusade against the Cathars of province. The Cathars, from the Greek word for "pure," were not some God-forsaken band of infidels in some far-off country. They were a Christian sect that had its roots in Gnostic tradition and not Roman Catholicism. The Cathars—or Albigensians as they were also called because they were headquartered in the provincial city of Albi—believed that one should bypass the dictates of a hierarchy and instead concentrate on living a "perfected" life. The more perfect the life the more simple its demands, as matter was the creation of the devil and the spirit was trapped therein. The most perfected "perfects" actually starved themselves to death.
This was not the way to Heaven according to the one, holy, and apostolic church. Many people were converting to this heretical belief and the Catholic prelates and priests in the region were not only not combating it, but in some instances, they were embracing it. Pope Innocent said enough already, unfurled the red-cross banners, conscripted the troops (primarily the King of France, who was more than ready to annex this region as his own), and blew the charge. Provence would thereafter become part of France, a budding culture of art. The troubadours were primarily a provincial creation, and tolerance was destroyed.
Dear Pope Innocent was politically shrewd, not just some iron-fisted bully. In 1223, after several years of cautious support, the Franciscans were incorporated as a new monastic order. St. Francis could easily have been seen as a heretic, sidestepping usual ritual and urging his followers to live the life of Christ (instead of just insincerely mouthing prayers and buying indulgences), but inside the church, his message could be controlled and used to bolster the faith of the radicals who viewed the New Testament as a more important missive than a papal bull. The Dominicans were also founded about this time as an order of missionaries to the already baptized, to keep the faith approved by the shepherds of the flock and not pulled away by the "wolves" lurking at its edges.
But war, pestilence, squalor, and death were not the sum total of medieval Florentine life. There was fun! Of course, death was part of the fun. Public executions like beheading muckety-mucks, burning heretics and POWs, and burning common criminals alive upside down in a hole were always diverting.
Horse races and gambling were popular pastimes that did not necessarily lead to bloodshed. Festivals, both religious and secular, were a time for singing and dancing, and jongleur, acrobat, and fool. Poetry was often a shared passion, with poets emulating the troubadours, demoting publicly and privately in witty and complicated rhyme. And of course, one must not forget the pleasures of love—not sex—as invented by the troubadours.
Love was the undying ember that burst forth in the breast and surely, eventually inflamed the entire being. Love was pure, not to be sullied by clutching fingers and spurting fluids. Love was not what a man held for his wife, as charming a companion as she may be, but for a blessed unassailable other.
Love, especially according to Dante (who was a bit more sympathetic to the carnal variety), was what made the world go 'round.
This world of love, hate, and everything between was the world that Dante entered in 1265.CHAPTER 2
ON, or about, May 30, 1265 a son was born to Bella d'Alighieri and Alighiero di Bellincione d'Alighieri in Florence. They named him Dante and as his first biographer, Giovanni Boccaccio relates, his mother had a dream in which she delivered her son in a green meadow by the mouth of a crystal spring, directly beneath the branches of a laurel tree.
This tree of "poetry" dropped its berries between the lips of the gurgling infant and the most sublime lyrics issued forth. The boy, now a shepherd (things happen so quickly while visiting in the Realm of Morpheus), stretched to pluck the leaves for his crown, stumbled, and fell down. No broken bones, but he transformed into a peacock and flew off. Well, Dante's childhood wasn't exactly like that, but you can't fault a mother for dreaming.
Dante had the rather prosaic upbringing of any medieval urbanite. His father was a notary, a minor member of the legal profession entrusted with deeds, wills, contracts, and his fellow citizens' little skirmishes with the powers that be. Both his parents were kin to families with more prominent social positions. His mother's distant family, in fact, had been driven into exile after an ancestor's treacherous deed, but she wasn't that related, so Florence was still her mailing address. Pop's family boasted the Crusader, Cacciaguida degli Elisei, who didn't quite make it to Jerusalem with the Second Crusade (of course, the crusade didn't quite make it either).
All in all, it was a pretty undistinguished childhood in his little house on the north side of the Torre di Badia. A little learning, a little adventure (he supposedly made like a boy scout and snatched another kid safe who was headed down for his third "full immersion" in one of the fonts at the Baptistery of San Giovanni), and a lot of play. In fact, it was while attending a neighbor's party that his life took a decidedly different track.
May Day, 1274, the Portinaris, a very well-to-do family, were throwing their annual bash. Alighiero d'Alighieri took his son's hand in his and led him around the block to pay their respects to the big man himself, Folco. It never hurts to bow and scrape to your betters. The fiesta was in full swing. Adults and kids in their velvety best were dancing around the maypole.
Flowers garlanded and bedecked the garden and all its denizens, but in that riot of bloom, Dante, like a bee to its nectar, had attention for only one: Beatrice, daughter of Folco, who was barely a year younger than Dante, born in April, 1266. So near, yet so far, Dante ached: "From that time onward, love was the lord of my soul." Wrapped in crimson, this pearl met him with an emerald gaze. No words were exchanged, but Dante had that gaze to recall for the next nine years, as he would be in the presence of this rare blossom again in 1285.
Dante went back to his side of the block and proceeded to be a kid, but a little more serious than before. He grew more serious yet when his mother died in 1277 and his father remarried in the next year or so. The senior Alighieri's new wife, Lapa di Chiarissimo Cialuffi, in quick order provided Dante some siblings, a lack he seemed not to have noticed before, and soon his seriousness was tinged with the certain displacement that the two new half sisters and brother brought as their birthright. It is likely that Dante did not have to suffer the pitter-patter of their little feet for long and instead was regaled with the clippity-clop of hooves on the road to Bologna, the capital of higher learning, the seat of acquired European knowledge, the University.
No one knows for sure, but it has been suspected that Dante continued his studies in this august burg around the year 1279. He would have plowed his way through the Trivium— grammar, rhetoric, and logic—planted his seed with the Quadrivium arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music—and after a short season in the sun, reaped the fruit of poetry. His cornucopia spilling, he returned to Florence, possibly upon the death of his father in 1282, to share his fruits.
A young man with a little money to burn, a roof over his head and a song in his heart, Dante quickly became the artiste of artistes. He traded verse with Guido Cavalcanti, an arrogant young knight with a nose wedged firmly in the air and a pretension of learning; Manetto Portinari, a fine young fellow with an even finer young sister (Bice, or more politely, Beatrice); and Forese Donati, the sweet-tempered brother of Dante's future enemy, Corso, all the while sharpening his gifts under the tutelage of Brunetto Latini.
Brunetto was widely known as a Libertine, and even though Dante loved him and viewed him as the most civilized man in Florence, he would later see him in Hell for his practices. This was a giddy time for Dante only partially caused by the great amounts of time he spent carousing.
It is not unusual for the serious boy to come back from university the sodden youth. But once again, a fateful meeting took place.
It was 1283, and Dante was in a rush, stepping across a bridge spanning the Arno. Beatrice was crossing from the other shore with two companions. The companions were beautiful, but beautiful as the moon to the radiance of Beatrice's sun. Love for this woman, whom he had not seen in nine years, dawned anew. The day spoke through Beatrice with such graciousness that the poet reeled with a blessed intoxication, and Dante was serious again.
And he wrote, and wrote, and wrote. He wrote not of some idealized woman, some diaphanous metaphor for a grace and beauty unrealized. No, Beatrice was, not exactly with him per se, but she did appear with him in his dreams, one of which he later set down in his book, La Vita Nuova: a flame-colored mist permeated his room, and slowly a figure took solid form within the swirl, a figure of terrible beauty.
In his arms was curled a sleeping figure wrapped in a blood-colored cloth. Yes, it was she, Beatrice. Her bearer opened one hand to display a burning object and gravely intoned: "Vide cor tuum," or "behold thy heart."
Next, he roused the slumbering woman and with a gentle but unrelenting pressure, forced her to take the heart between her lips and eat. Such a meal gave her no sustenance, but much fear, and the angel, for it finally dawned on Dante that this was indeed the creature that bore his love, fell to grieving and leapt Heavenward.
Dante awakened with raw anguish holding him in its unspeakable grip. Anguish and the suffusing power of love kept Dante asway for many years. A brief meeting with Beatrice would be followed with a sweet and tender lyric, one that would become popular in the streets of Florence.
Boccaccio tells us that Dante was once traversing the work-a-day neighborhoods deep in thought when a voice broke through his mental occupation and stopped him in his tracks.
A blacksmith sang one of his most delicate poems, and not knowing all the words, he substituted some of his own. Dante sprang into the shop and furiously began tossing tools about, leaving destruction in his wake. "Madman, what are you doing?" the smith implored of this fury. Dante blankly replied, "That is my poem you have mangled. You destroy my work, I destroy yours."
Not all of Dante's encounters with the plebian classes were so high-pitched, nor were his encounters with Beatrice, as fleeting as they always were, as evocative of the most attainable reaches of love.
Excerpted from DANTE FOR BEGINNERS by JOE LEE. Copyright © 2011 Joe Lee. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
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