WeWriWa—Getting new clothes

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m now sharing from a brand-new project, an alternative history with the working title A Dream of Peacocks. It starts on May Day 1274, when Dante met his great love and muse Beatrice Portinari at a party held by her parents.

This week’s excerpt opens the second section of Chapter II, “Answered Prayers.”

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Kharbine-Tapabor/Shutterstock (6051054bb)
Tailor’s workshop, facsimile of Italian manuscript illumination, 14th century, of Tacuinum Sanitatis, a Latin translation of an Arabic Health Manual by a doctor from Bagdad
Art (Manuscripts) – various

A week after my bliss first appeared to me, I came home from school to the sight of Babbo in the main hall with Landolfo Vernizzi, our tailor. Many fabrics were draped over benches, chairs, and tables, and one bench temptingly displayed glass bottles full of pigments and dyes in a rainbow of colors.

“God has been very good to us,” Babbo said with a smile. “Several very lucrative business opportunities arose during the last few days, and I decided to use some of that money for new clothes. Ser Landolfo is making six new outfits for me, and he’ll make three for you.” He looked back at the tailor. “Remember to use extra fabric for Durante’s clothes, so they can be let out multiple times as he grows. I’m not paying you for garments he can only wear for a short while.”

“Yes, Ser Alighiero.”

Ser Landolfo picked up a leather ruler and beckoned to me.

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish the scene.

“First I’ll take your measurements, and then you can select the colors you want. This time you can use more expensive dyes than usual, except royal purple.”

What a wondrous turn of events! Now I didn’t need to think of a way to suggest having new clothes made, since God answered another of my prayers so beautifully. I wasn’t even upset by how Babbo was getting twice as many outfits as I. Only royalty needed inordinate amounts of garments, and this would bring my number of outfits to nine, God’s most perfect number.

My Dantean wishlist

If I had limitless amounts of money or a generous, wealthy friend, these are some things I’d absolutely love to have.

1. An illuminated manuscript of the Commedia! Having recently read Ross King’s The Bookseller of Florence, I have such renewed love for these beautiful books. So much time and effort went into making them, and no two are alike. Many also are replete with gorgeous full-page artwork, and/or lots of illustrations around the text.

2. An early printed edition. While not holding a candle to what came before, many nevertheless are just as beautiful in their own ways, particularly if they have illustrations.

3. An edition with Bartolomeo Pinelli’s darling 1820s illustrations. Of the illustrators I’m familiar with, he’s my absolute favourite. His drawings are just so cute and sweet, and rather in my own style of cartoon-like human figures.

4. This is beyond a long shot, but it would be absolutely fantastic if we ever found Dante’s original notes and rough drafts!

5. Any one of the paintings I’ve been illustrating my Dantean posts with. There are so many I’d love to hang on my walls.

6. An edition of the Commedia with Stradanus’s illustrations of Inferno. He’s my next-fave illustrator, though sadly only illustrated the first canticle. I just love his gorgeous sepia tones.

7. The Durling-Martinez translations of Purgatorio and Paradiso. They’re so ridiculously expensive, as though they’re gold-leaf and leather-bound! With any luck, their prices will eventually drop to at least a more reasonable $15 or so.

8. The 1902 translation by Charles Eliot Norton. Despite its age, what I’ve read of it sounds pretty nice, not at all burdened by faux-archaisms and flowery Elizabethan prose.

9. The Thomas G. Bergin translation of 1948–54, which features illustrations by Leonard Baskin. I’m also very interested in this edition, since Prof. Bergin was such a renowned scholar of Italian literature.

10. The 1481 printed edition with Boticelli’s illustrations.

11. The printed edition of circa 1495 with much more successful Botticelli illustrations. While most of these pictures are unfinished, they’re still a wonder to behold, and some of his finest work.

12. The illuminated manuscript with Paradiso illustrated by Giovanni di Paolo, done circa 1444–50. Two still-unidentified artists did the other two canticles.

13. A verified letter Dante wrote to anyone.

14. Original notes for and/or a rough draft of any of his other works.

15. I know this is almost impossible, but I’d love to find a tiny bit of Dante’s bone dust in something like a vial or pendant. Ravenna guards his remains so closely, as discussed in Guy Raffa’s book Dante’s Bones, and wasn’t very pleased to discover some of his bone dust and the imprint of his darkened skull on paper have been in Florence and other cities for quite some time.

Reading The Divine Comedy as a non-Christian

Though Dante intended his magnum opus as primarily the story of his spiritual reformation and redemption, and presumed most of his readers would be Christians or future converts, you truly don’t have to share that religion to enjoy it. Many of the themes and lessons can be interpreted in alternate ways, just as Krishna famously tells Arjuna there are many different names and faces for God, and paths to her/him, but none are wrong, so long as one has a pure, devout heart and soul.

However, despite Dante treating righteous non-Christians very respectfully, struggling with his era’s teaching that only baptised Christians could attain Paradise, avoiding antisemitic tropes about Hell, and saving a few so-called pagans, there are certain things which are still a challenge to read. This isn’t a reflection on Dante, but rather my own background. Life gives all of us a different frame of reference based on so many things, religion included.

My family background and my own personal religious history are too complicated and private to get into here, but the most pertinent thing to know is that I’ve been living a Jewish life since I was eighteen, after years of longing to reclaim my spiritual birthright. The religions I feel closest to after my own are Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Jainism.

Theologically, Judaism is closest to Islam. They were even closer before Prophet Mohammad got pissed off that more Jews weren’t converting, and changed things like how many times a day one should pray (from three to five). Again theologically speaking, Judaism and Christianity are like oil and water. So many important things radically contradict one another; e.g., Jews don’t believe in Original Sin or the divinity of Jesus.

This is a topic for another post, but suffice it to say, interfaith relations weren’t very good until about 1950. At the heart of the antisemitism which culminated in the Shoah was the deicide charge. And while I’m really glad the only Jews depicted in Inferno are Judas and Caiaphas, thus avoiding grotesque stereotypes and slanders, it’s hard to not be bothered by the deicide charge in Paradiso VII. There’s also this tercet in Paradiso V:

“If evil covetousness cries out to you,
be men, and not foolish sheep,
so that the Jew among you does not laugh!”

YIKES!

Intellectually, I can explain and contextualise these statements to take some of the sting off. Dante cannot be divorced from his time and place, no matter how modern and relevant he feels in many ways. He also believed other things we now know to be false, like the Donation of Constantine and Prophet Mohammad originally being a Christian, since there was no widely-available information debunking these claims.

And compared to many other Medieval writings (e.g., the Prioress’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales, the chilling end of The Song of Roland), this is really tame. Out of 14,233 lines, these comments are a tiny drop in the bucket. Dante also questions why, if Christian doctrine says the Crucifixion was necessary, the Second Temple then had to be destroyed and the Jewish people forced into Diaspora.

But emotionally and personally, it’s really hard to read that, knowing the deicide charge formed the basis of almost 2,000 years of horrific antisemitism in Europe, and that even those few seemingly off-handed comments were part of a much larger picture that really added up.

Judaism and Christianity also radically differ on the subject of the Pharisees, who are mentioned in a negative light in the Commedia. Though all evidence from multiple sources attests to Pharisaic beliefs and practices forming the basis of post-Temple Judaism, and indeed being the very reason we were able to survive the loss of the Second Temple, their reputation in Christianity is far different.

Long story short, each of the four Gospels is successively less Jewish and more Christian in character. As time progressed, the two faiths diverged more and more, and it became obvious there weren’t as many Jewish converts as hoped for. Thus, it was felt necessary to draw strong lines between the two traditions and seek converts from other populations.

Judaism has no concept of Limbo. While there are many conflicting views on the afterlife, who goes where, if very wicked souls stay forever in Hell, whether Gehenna or Sheol is the place for the worst sinners, and what exactly all these places are like, one thing everyone does agree one is that the righteous of all nations have a place in HaOlam HaBa, the World to Come. We don’t believe only our people can attain Paradise.

Dante heavily leans towards this view too, as he struggles all through the poem with the idea that only baptised Christians (plus the righteous people of the Bible) are worthy of Paradise. What about people who live in places like India, where Christianity had no presence, or who lived before Jesus, like his dear Virgil? Indeed, he saves a few so-called pagans (Cato, Trajan, Statius, Ripheus the Trojan), and depicts a few Muslims among the righteous in Limbo.

He also says many people of other faiths, or of no faith, are closer to God than actual baptised Christians.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s prayer to Mary, which opens Paradiso XXXIII, is pure beauty, power, emotion, and devotion. Remembering back to Inferno II, Mary is the one who ultimately set Dante’s journey in motion. And given that Dante lost his mother when he was five or six years old, it’s easy to understand why he felt such devotion to Mary.

Despite not being Christian myself, I’m very moved by the image of Mary as a loving, universal mother figure. Many people who lost their mothers are particularly devoted to her for this very reason.

While specifically Christological beliefs do nothing for me and have no parallels in Judaism, most of the poem is a rich, fertile ground for inspiration. Dante intended his magnum opus as a spiritual guidebook, and despite his own strong Catholic faith, he frequently thinks of other kinds of people. Indeed, the penultimate word is l’altre, the other (in plural form). The Love he believes in, which powers everything in existence, includes a vast rainbow of perspectives and experiences, not just one.

Why everyone should read The Divine Comedy

Beginning on 8 September, Baylor Honors College, in conjunction with five other schools, will kick off 100 Days of Dante. The objective is to read one canto a day, until finishing on 17 April (the Catholic and Protestant Easter). Though I just reread the Commedia earlier this year, in the Mark Musa translation, I’m really excited to begin all over again.

I got the much-lauded Durling-Martinez translation of Inferno, which is dual-language and has excellent essays and notes. Though I’m pissed that less than 24 hours after I ordered it, the price dropped by five dollars, to $9.95, and I was unable to be refunded despite it not having shipped yet! I’m keeping an eagle eye on the price of Purgatorio and Paradiso. They’re extraordinarily, unacceptably, ridiculously high ($24 and $33), but if they sink to $15 or lower, I’m jumping on them.

If they remain high, I’ll get the Allen Mandelbaum translation for the other two canticles. That’s another edition I’m really eager to read for myself. I really like what I’ve heard of it so far.

So why should everyone, regardless of religion, read the Commedia?

1. It’s one of the greatest works of literature ever written. Right up there with Shakespeare, The Decameron, The Mahabharata, The Odyssey, The Iliad, The Tale of Genji, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Aeneid, Don Quixote, and any other work of classic world literature.

2. You can read it a hundred times and still discover something new each time. This isn’t a one and done book. There are so many delicious layers and nuances, you can’t discern or digest them all with a single reading.

3. It’s a priceless compendium of Medieval history, politics, and religion, as well as Classical Antiquity. There are also a lot of astronomical, geographical, and mathematical references and calculations. This truly was a continuation of Dante’s discontinued encyclopedia Il Convivio. Without Dante serving as the historian of record for many of these people, particularly the women, even hardcore Medieval history scholars wouldn’t know or care about them.

4. Despite being over 700 years old, it feels so modern and relevant, not like a book tied entirely to the Middle Ages. Yes, there are many other great works of Medieval literature with forward-thinking characters (e.g., the awesome Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales, many of the women in my belovèd Decameron). However, they ultimately belong to the world in which they were created.

5. The teacher and student relationship between Dante and Virgil is a joy to read and watch developing.

6. The use of language is nothing short of genius. Terza rima is so complex, even in a language with a plethora of rhyming words. Dante had to think so many steps ahead to ensure he stuck to that rhyme scheme through 14,233 lines and found the right words to end each line on. There are also times when he uses repetition of certain letters to evoke things like running water and dried, snarling tree branches.

7. The poetry gets more and more beautiful as the work wears on. Yes, many people do find it more difficult to comprehend or care about as theology comes more and more to the forefront, but don’t let that scare you away from the beautiful language. This is one of many reasons you should read the Commedia in Italian, even if you don’t have fluency!

8. Who hasn’t had an unrequited love like Dante had for Beatrice? Almost everyone can relate to that feeling of longing and grieving for a lost love.

9. There are lots of funny moments to lighten the intense mood.

10. Though most of the souls Dante encounters are men, he also meets a number of women, and they’re no shrinking violets. He gives them moral agency to tell their own stories, and contrary to the prevailing attitudes of his day, his sympathies lie with victims of domestic violence, not their abusers. And you have to love how he flips the trope of a damsel in distress being rescued by a man. Beatrice is the one who saves him.

11. Many of the lessons Dante learns along the way can easily apply to every reader. Yes, he primarily intended it as a story of his redemption and spiritual awakening, but you can find parallels to things in your own faith or life if you don’t share his exact beliefs. It’s just like how Shakespeare’s stories translate so well to other eras and cultures; e.g., Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and Throne of Blood.

12. It’s one of those works of literature which has massively influenced society. So many books, plays, poems, films, TV shows, video games, songs, musical compositions, and works of art directly reference it, were inspired by it, and/or depict events from it. My own Journey Through a Dark Forest and each of its four volumes got their titles from the famous opening lines!

13. It’s jam-packed with drama, beauty, intensity, power, and emotion.

14. His views on religious minorities and gay men are lightyears ahead of those of most of his contemporaries.

15. Many times throughout life, we find ourselves lost in a dark forest, no idea how we got there or lost the way so badly, overwhelmed by hopelessness and despairing of ever escaping. And just like Dante, sometimes we have to sink to the lowest, saddest, most hopeless point possible before we can begin slowly rising up to happier, more hopeful, more beautiful places and get back on track with our life. We also can’t do it alone, and need our own Virgil and Beatrice to help and guide us.

And don’t forget to find a translation that works for you, read it carefully instead of mindlessly powering through, and take advantage of extratextual sources.

WeWriWa—Mass at Santa Margherita

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m now sharing from a brand-new project, an alternative history with the working title A Dream of Peacocks. It starts on May Day 1274, when Dante met his great love and muse Beatrice Portinari at a party held by her parents.

This week’s excerpt comes a bit after last week’s, which takes place the morning after the party. Dante ran across the Portinaris while both were walking to church, and was easily convinced to go to Santa Margherita with them instead of his usual San Martino.

Church of Santa Margherita, Copyright Sailko

When we passed through the doors of the church, I looked back and forth between the men’s and women’s sides. Though I was young enough to stand with the ladies and children, Babbo preferred I stand with the men and older boys to avoid developing soft habits. At the same time, it would be rude to spurn the people who’d invited me to church with them, and I couldn’t pass up the chance to be close to the youngest of God’s angels even for just an hour. Monna Cilia also possibly already thought poorly of Babbo because he let me attend Mass alone, and I didn’t want to give her more reasons to dislike him and disseminate gossip. Building a stronger friendship between our families was imperative if I wanted to marry my dream girl. I remained on the side for ladies and children.

To impress Beatrice and her mother, I followed along in perfect Latin. There were a few words and lines here and there I didn’t fully understand, even after a lifetime of hearing them, but I still knew how to pronounce them correctly. By the time I was old enough to start taking Communion in a few years, I’d be fluent in Latin.

I barely paid attention to the priest’s sermon, and immediately forgot his subject as soon as he finished speaking and began leading us in the Nicene Creed.

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish the scene.

This was a prayer I often struggled with reciting perfectly, since it was so long. Today, however, all the words came out just as they should, without any stumbling. When I prayed my own prayers privately, I spoke to God, Christ, and the saints in Italian, but I was obligated to use Latin in church.

As usual, only a few people besides the priests took Communion. Ricovero nudged me when a young man in turquoise robes went up with two ladies and an elderly man.

“That’s Pietro Tonelli, and he takes Communion at least once a week,” Ricovero whispered. “A lot of people suspect he’s falling into heresy, is losing his mind, or thinks he’s so much holier than everyone else. I’d advise you to avoid him.”

With this comment, I knew Ricovero was destined to be a genuine friend, not just a convenience or surface friend. As undesirable a habit as it is, I’ve long had a weakness for listening to entertaining gossip. Besides, not all gossip is falsehood.