Posted in Dante, Photography, Religion, Travel

Basilica di Santa Croce



Copyright Sailko

La Basilica di Santa Croce (The Basilica of the Holy Cross) is one of the landmarks of Florence (Firenze), and the world’s largest Franciscan church. It contains 16 chapels (many resplendent with frescoes by the famous Giotto and his pupils), and many tombs and cenotaphs of famous Florentines, such as Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo, Enrico Fermi, Guglielmo Marconi, and my love Dante.


Copyright Bkwillwm

Construction began 12 May 1294, to replace an older church, and was financed by some of the wealthiest Florentine families. Arnolfo di Cambio may have been the starting architect. Construction was completed in 1385. Pope Eugene IV consecrated it in 1442. Prior to the completion and consecration, this piece of land was a marsh outside the city walls.


Copyright RicciSpeziari~commonswiki

Over the years, the basilica was modified many times. The bell tower was rebuilt in 1842 after a lightning strike; the interior was rebuilt in 1560 upon the removal of the choir screen; a neo-Gothic façade was built from 1857–63; and several decades of repairs followed the disastrous 1966 Arno River flood. There’s a Magen David on the façade because architect Niccolò Matas was Jewish. Unfortunately, due to religious prejudices of the time, Matas was buried under the porch and not with his peers inside.


Copyright Radomil

Museo dell’Opera di Santa Croce is mostly located in the refectory. In the cloister is a statue of Florence Nightingale, who was born in and named after Florence. The Franciscan friars’ former dorm today houses the Scuola del Cuoio (Leather School), and visitors get to watch while artisans make all sorts of leather goods. These goods are sold in an adjacent shop.


Michelangelo’s tomb, Copyright Wknight94


Detail of Michelangelo’s tomb, Copyright Giovanni Dall’Orto

The back of the basilica houses old orchards and gardens. Its trees include Himalayan and Atlas cedars, and hackberry trees. It’s a giant super-complex, with many smaller structures within, not just an ordinary church.


Medici Chapel, Copyright gaspa, Source Flickr


Sacristy of Rinuccini Chapel, Copyright Sailko


Sacristy wall, Copyright Sailko

On the left side of the basilica piazza is a statue of my love Dante, erected in 1865 to mark the 600th anniversary of his birth. King Vittorio Emanuele II was there when it was inaugurated. Originally, it was in the centre of the piazza, but it was moved in 1968 to allow for the city’s historic costumed soccer games. The statue also contains the Florentine coat of arms and Marzocco lions, which symbolise the people’s power.


Copyright Giulio1996Cordignano


Copyright Lorenzo Testa

My character Caterina attempts to hide behind Dante’s empty tomb in November 1943. Since the Italians refused to hand over their Jewish community or discriminate against them, the Germans stepped in and did it for them after Italy joined the Allies in September 1943. Caterina had several offers of help, but she wanted to hide where she always felt safe and peaceful.


Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas


Pulpit, Copyright Geobia

Caterina was caught, and tried climbing further up the tomb, her arms locked around Dante’s neck in a death grip. A priest came to see what all the commotion was and begged the Nazis to respect the rule of sanctuary, but it wasn’t to be. Caterina had to be pried off of the tomb by three Nazis.


Copyright Sailko


Dante’s empty tomb, Copyright Sailko

The day Caterina and her friends leave Florence for Paris in December 1945, they visit the Basilica, with Dante’s empty tomb their final stop. The figure on the left represents Italy, and the figure on the right represents Poetry. The inscriptions on the sides were added in 1965, on the 700th anniversary of Dante’s birth.

Caterina feels a special relationship to Dante because she was born on his 600th death anniversary (called a nachala instead of a Jahrzeit in the Sephardic world), the very end of 13 September 1921.


Back view, Copyright Sailko

Dante’s tomb was built in 1829, though Ravenna has consistently refused to give back his bones over all these centuries. The inscription, Onorate l’altissimo poeta (Honor the most exalted poet), is hauntingly missing the next line, L’ombra sua torna, ch’era dipartite (His spirit, which had left us, returns). I believe Dante’s spirit rests with this tomb, even though his bones are in Ravenna.


Dante watching over the basilica, Copyright Bruno Barral

Posted in 1910s, Dante, Divine Comedy, holidays, Movies, Religion, Silent film

Italy’s first feature film


I had the privilege of adding Italy’s first feature film, L’Inferno, to my list of silents seen as #1,117. I can’t believe I’d never had a chance to see it before, given how famous and important it is, and how in love with Dante I am. I went back and forth with a few versions before finally settling on the Tangerine Dream soundtrack. It seemed the most appropriate, as jarring as it was to occasionally hear singing.

Released 10 March 1911 by the Teatro Mercandante in Napoli (Naples), this film was over three years in the making and a huge international success. In the U.S. alone, it made over two million dollars. Since it was over an hour long, theatre owners felt justified in raising ticket prices.

L’Inferno is not only widely considered the first true blockbuster of film history, but the finest film adaptation of any of Dante’s writings ever. I wish they’d gone all the way and done Purgatorio and Paradiso as well!


1910s films have always been kind of hit-or-miss for me. They remind me of a gangly preteen or teenager with growing pains, in process of finding an established place in the world. Films had evolved beyond short snippets and one-reelers, but the medium couldn’t jump right into fully-blown perfect features and longer short subjects. Everyone was still learning how to tell stories via moving pictures, and that included acting techniques, camera movement and angles, and scripts.

This excellent 105-year-old film isn’t one of those 1910s films which disappointed me. It does such a wonderful job of bringing Dante’s otherworldly journey to life. The scenes and characters are based upon the famous 19th century woodcut illustrations by Gustave Doré, which were very familiar internationally.


If you’ve read The Divine Comedy, you’re probably familiar with the general outline of the story. On Good Friday in the year 1300, Dante wakes up in the Wood of Error, no idea how he got there or how he lost the way so badly. He takes heart from the rising Sun, and begins climbing the Delectable Mountain.

Dante is ambushed by a leopard (lust), a lion (pride), and a female wolf (avarice). He turns back in terror and encounters his idol, the great Roman poet Virgil. Here the film takes a turn from the book by showing Beatrice summoning Virgil to rescue Dante.


The film does such a wonderful job at bringing Dante’s rich imagination to life, and depicting each Circle and Ring of Hell. Along the way, several famous stories are told in flashback, such as the stories of murdered lovers Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, and the unfortunate Count Ugolino. Some scenes from the book are left out, and some of the geography is altered, but overall, it’s really faithful to the source material.

Some arrogant modern-day folks who can’t think outside of CGI might mock the special effects and otherworldly creatures as lame and outdated, but I really loved them. There was so much effort put into making this film, and Doré’s illustrations really are brought to stunning life.

Some of the creatures are still just as terrifying in the modern era, like Bertram de Born holding his own severed head, the giant head of Lucifer eating a person, and thieves transmogrifying into snakes.


L’Inferno contains one of film’s rare few depictions of Prophet Mohammed. His chest gapes open and his entrails hang out. Dante, like most Medieval Christians, was under the false impression that Prophet Mohammed was a schismatic, though he was never Christian to begin with!

I’ll have a future post discussing how to handle and express discomfort with things like this when reviewing older books and films.


There’s really no substitute for reading the book (all the way through, not just Part I!), but the film does a masterful job at showing many of the scenes and conveying the essence of this great work of literature. However, since film technology wasn’t yet equipped to film in the dark, we don’t get to see the stars Dante and Virgil behold again when they climb out of Hell at the end.


It’s hard to put into words just how very, very much Dante means to me, how much I love and admire him. He represents the best the human race is capable of, a beautiful antidote against all the evil, ignorance, and cruelty that exists. No matter how far we might fall, how badly we’re lost, there’s always hope of finding our way back.

Posted in Aleksey Romanov, Dante, Divine Comedy, Russian culture, Russian history, Russophilia

My 2016 A to Z themes revealed

atoz-theme-reveal-2016 v2

Once upon a time, there was a crown prince. This wasn’t just any crown prince, but a very special crown prince who was born after four girls in a row. Because the inheritance laws of his empire dictated women could only inherit the throne unless all male dynasts were dead or disqualified, his parents had been trying and longing for a boy for almost ten years.

Their desperate prayers were finally answered when their only son was born, a very robust baby of 11.5 pounds who could already hold his head up. A further good omen was when he raised his hand and extended his fingers at his baptism, as though blessing the people. The entire empire rejoiced at his birth, after waiting so long for an heir to the throne.

But unbeknownst to anyone outside of the immediate family, the newborn crown prince was very sick. He was born with a fatal flaw in his blood, a sickness originating with his maternal great-grandmother and passed along to quite a few reigning houses. Because of this illness, the already disastrous reign of his parents headed into an even more troubling trajectory. Though the crown prince had many miraculous recoveries and showed promise of living at least until his twenties if he continued being lucky and careful, the Fates had other ideas, and he was murdered a few weeks shy of his fourteenth birthday.

But what if history had turned out differently?


My A to Z posts will feature people, places, and things from my alternative history, And Aleksey Lived, a story about the greatest Tsar who never ruled, the hemophiliac prince who became a great hero against all odds. Because of the miraculous last-minute rescue which opens the book, there’s a much happier 20th century. My A to Z posts are dedicated in memory of Aleksey Nikolayevich Romanov (30 July/12 August 1904–17 July 1918).

You’ll learn about:

The Winter Palace, the beautiful, immense official home of the Imperial Family until 1905.

Aleksey’s loyal spaniel Joy, the only member of the Imperial Family who survived in real life.

Uzbek cuisine.

Why you want to use the word Tsesarevich, not Tsarevich.

Prince Vladimir Pavlovich Paley, a morganatic grandson of Tsar Aleksandr II and a very talented, sensitive young poet.

Nevskiy Prospekt, the beautiful, historic shopping thoroughfare of St. Petersburg.

How Easter was celebrated in Imperial Russia.

Grand Duke Mikhail Aleksandrovich, Aleksey’s uncle, guardian, and Regent, who has a miraculous rescue of his own.

The Fyodorovskaya Ikon of the Mother of God, the House of Romanov’s patron ikon.

The Lower Dacha of Peterhof Palace, Aleksey’s birthplace.

Grand Duchess Xenia (Kseniya) Aleksandrovna, Aleksey’s aunt.

Several posts have two or three topics, but I kept each post between about 400–800 words, and loaded each with plenty of pictures. All the non-public domain photographs are properly credited.


On my names blog, I’ll be featuring names from The Divine Comedy. Many of the names will thus be Italian, but there are also names from mythology and other regions. As some readers might remember, the opening 12 lines of this timeless work of literature were what inspired the title of my third Russian historical, and the titles of each of the four Parts:

Midway life’s journey I was made aware
That I had strayed into a dark forest,
And the right path appeared not anywhere.
Ah, tongue cannot describe how it oppressed,
This wood, so harsh, dismal, and wild, that fear
At thought of it strikes now into my breast.
So bitter it is, death is scarce bitterer.
But, for the good it was my hap to find,
I speak of the other things that I saw there.
I cannot remember well in my mind
How I came thither, so was I immersed
In sleep, when the true way I left behind.

Posted in Books, Dante

La Vita Nuova

Originally written as one of the book reviews on my old Angelfire site, sometime in the Spring of 2004.


This is a sweet underrated autobiography and poetry collection written by a young man desperately in love with the unattainable woman of his dreams. Dante first saw the beautiful Beatrice when he was nine and she was eight, and always remembered how beautiful she was even at that young age. They didn’t meet again for nine more years, and from that point on he loved her desperately, even though she never became his wife or even his lover.

Every time he sees her on the street, in church, outside of his house, walking with her friends, wherever, he’s inflamed with even more love for her, even more intoxicated with her otherworldly beauty, unable to stop thinking about her. Out of this love, which some might call obsessive, sprang some gorgeous sonnets and poems inspired by Beatrice.

So in love is Dante that he not only writes these poems and sonnets, he also prefaces each one by explaining in detail the latest Beatrice sighting or encounter which inspired him to write it, why he wrote it, and then afterwards in italics explaining what each part of the sonnet means, if he’s broken it down into different parts, each with a different theme, and what everything means in plain Italian, as it were. Some of the sonnets, though, are so obvious in intent and meaning he doesn’t give an explanation afterwards for what it really means.

Even after Beatrice dies, sadly, on 8 June 1290, Dante keeps on writing poetry for her, including when one of her five brothers comes to visit him to ask him to write some poetry on the occasion of a certain death. Dante knows it’s her brother, though he’s disguising the reason he’s there, and tells him he knows it’s for his recently deceased sister. He’s very concerned about the impression it’ll make, so he goes through three different poems to create just the right one, and more importantly so the brother won’t think anything improper about Dante’s feelings for Beatrice.

About a year before the tragic death, Dante actually had a terrifying nightmare/vision about his belovèd dying, and he was extraordinarily upset by this, to the point of tears. When asked by Beatrice’s friends whatever was the matter with him, he told them, but didn’t provide her name, letting them think he loved some other woman madly. And of course this terrifying premonition too was “celebrated,” if one can call it that, in another beautiful and long sonnet.

After Beatrice dies, Dante is visited by a beautiful woman, who for a time cheers him up and inspires him to write some poetry in her honour, though he soon feels very ashamed he took another woman as his muse and goes back to writing just for lovely Beatrice. In the final chapter of this cute short work we see the germ of the idea that eventually became The Divine Comedy; Dante got inspired to write a much longer poem celebrating his love for Beatrice, through which he hoped to immortalise her for all time. Mission accomplished.

It’s not really an autobiography proper, and shouldn’t be read as one, since it’s more a celebration of the great love of one’s life, the love one will never have, than a proper book. The love he felt is very obvious, and the poems and sonnets are beautiful; the feelings are genuine, so who cares if it reads like a traditional book or not?

Posted in Books, Dante, Divine Comedy, Religion

The Divine Comedy, Part III

The conclusion of my 2004 review.


I can’t give it a full five stars, however, since parts of it are dated, and a lot of it would be hard to read to the average modern reader. A lot of the people referred to or featured were people, whether figures from myth, religion, or politics, who would’ve been instantly recognised by one of Dante’s contemporaries, but nowadays most people won’t know who they are unless they’re scholars of Medieval History.

Come on, how well do most people know who all the Popes are and what they did, or all the various rulers of what became the nation-states in modern-day Europe in the Middle Ages? And sad as it is to say, most people nowadays don’t know near as much about the literature and mythology of ancient Greece and Rome as the people of Dante’s time did.

I’ve read The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid, of course, just like every educated person ought to, as well as Sophocles’s three Oedipus plays, but again, unless you’ve made it your profession to study that time in history, your average person off the street isn’t very likely to be familiar with all these people being referenced, even the better-known ones.

Like most people, I’m familiar with who Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Livy, and Ovid, for example, were, but I’ve never read any of their writings yet. That’s something you usually have to do on your own nowadays; the average school isn’t going to make it mandatory anymore to spend a lot of time reading the works of these people, let alone in the original Latin and Greek.

So in other words, either you can not read most of the footnotes and just enjoy the poetry, yet not understand fully what’s going on, or else read all the footnotes yet have the flow of the story constantly interrupted by having to read the footnotes to understand what’s happening and who these people are. Either way you’re screwed.

In a way, this is a way for Dante to give the finger to his religious and political opponents. What better way to get your revenge, even if it is posthumous, than by sticking your enemies in Hell and having them undergo terrible daily tortures? He also has some of the spirits he meets “prophesy” things that are going to happen to some of his enemies and friends in future; I’m sure that also really pissed off the people who were against him in his lifetime.

And of course, he also puts his supporters in Paradise and Purgatory. It would be so awesome to have a modern-day sequel to this book; think of all the people since the year 1300 who’ve gone to Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise! The possibilities are endless. It reads like a who’s who of Hell. Is it really true that most people only read Inferno? Come on, that’s like only reading Part One of a book with three parts total, or never reading the next two books in a fantastic trilogy!

I know all translations are different, but mine uses that old Elizabethan crap, which, while frilly and poetic, also makes it hard to read. There’s a happy medium between a literal translation that takes away the beauty of the original poetry and a flowery one that uses distracting outdated language to make it seem more poetic. You know, all those old verb forms, like wert, wast, hast, hath, doth, makest, prepareth, shalt, and don’t forget the thees, thous, thys, and yes. Come on, even modern Bibles don’t use that type of language anymore, since no one talks like that anymore! (Except some religious groups, like the Quakers and Mennonites.)

Some of the things in the book also are outdated by now; sure you have to give it a lot of slack, since it was written in the fourteenth century, but in the modern era we know these things aren’t accurate. We have some anti-Semitic stuff, primarily the tired old lie about how the Jews killed Jesus, instead of the Romans, and the usual age-old lies about the Pharisees, who were really the good guys in that era. The few Jewish characters in Boccaccio’s Decameron are treated with more respect, and that book was composed around the same time.

There are also some theories put forward about, for example, how such and such a ruler came to his end, or was overthrown, and history has borne out that that simply isn’t true. Another big historical fault is that Mohammed (called Mahomet in my translation) is in the Seventh Circle, in the ring set aside for the Schismatics. Obviously Mohammed was never a Christian, so how could he be a Schismatic? That’s Medieval bullshit. I’m told that one translation, by Dorothy Sayers, has some very insulting notes in this part. She erroneously and blasphemously calls Islam “Mohammedanism” (falsely implying that Muslims worship him), and makes some denigrating and slanderous statements about Islam. Pass.

In a way this is Church propaganda, and for Dante’s friends and supporters, which is why some people feel it hasn’t aged as well as other old works by, say, Shakespeare or Boccaccio. Those people weren’t writing with an agenda, nor did they feel themselves answerable to some higher authority for what they were writing.

However, you’ve gotta give the man credit. We’re talking fourteenth century here, and at least Dante has enough independent thought to question a lot of the stuff he sees, such as wondering why so and so is getting punished so severely for something s/he only did under duress, such as being forced into murder or cannibalism, why so and so is only in the lowest sphere of Paradise, or why so and so belongs in Hell at all, since what s/he did doesn’t really seem like a sin at all. He buys the explanations, whether by Beatrice, Virgil, or the person he’s wondering about, but at least he thinks to question the official Church line before accepting the reasons for it.

Because of the constant barrage of carnage on the news nowadays, many modern people also are probably no longer as frightened by the descriptions of Hell as Medieval people surely must’ve been. Been there, done that. Why be scared of descriptions of devils, people frozen in ice, fire, people turning into monsters and then back into people, and all these savage punishments when we’ve seen pictures and films of brutal suicide bombings, war zones, ethnic cleansings, genocides, POW camps, dead bodies, school shootings, and so on?

Even though I’m not Christian, I’ve always liked the idea of Purgatory. It really seems to make sense to me that some people are good souls at heart, but they’ve done something or other on Earth that makes their track record less than spotless. Hence, they need to do some kind of worthwhile penance in the afterlife before they can ascend into Paradise or take on a new avatar back on Earth.

It might not be as relevant nor as easily accessable to the average modern reader as it was to someone living 700 years ago, but those aren’t the reasons we’re still studying and reading it today. It only gets more understandable and accessible the more times you read it; you can understand what’s going on and who these people are as you come to learn more about the historical times and grasp it on so many different levels.

First you read for the beautiful poetry written for all time, and then you can slowly move towards truly understanding in-depth all the stuff that’s going on and all the characters. Like fine wine, it only gets even better with age. And even if the political and religious goings-on of that long-ago era aren’t as relevant today, you can’t deny that the great love for Beatrice and Virgil are still relevant and moving almost a thousand years later.