WeWriWa—Dante’s empty tomb

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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 excerpts which, as you’ll see in a few weeks, are related to a new project I’m researching, an alternative history set in Medieval Italy. This comes from my hiatused WIP The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees, which follows a group of young Shoah survivors from Hungary, France, Czechoslovakia, and Italy as they readjust to the land of the living and decide where they ultimately want to settle.

It’s December 1945, and the friends have gone to the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence before departing for Paris. This was where young doctor Caterina was apprehended by the Nazis in November 1943, after attempting to hide by Dante’s empty tomb, a place she always felt safe.

They proceeded inside the basilica, and Caterina led the way to the tombs it was famous for. She had to explain who most of these Florentine luminaries were. The others were familiar with Galileo, Michelangelo, and Machiavelli, but not people like Ugo Foscolo, Leonardo Bruni, Eugenio Barsanti, and Vittorio Alfieri. Finally, they came face-to-face with Dante’s empty tomb, waiting for his bones for over a century.

On the left was a figure representing Italy, holding a scepter in her right hand and pointing up at Dante with her left arm. On the right was a figure representing Poetry, holding a crown of laurels in her right hand and prostrated, grief-stricken, over the sarcophagus. Dante himself sat atop the monument, his chin resting on his right hand.

“What does the inscription on top say?” Eszter asked. “I assume the Roman numeral on the bottom refers to either the year this was created or Dante’s lifespan.”

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

“That Roman numeral is 1829, the year this tomb was built.  The words on top are a quote from The Divine Comedy, Canto Four of Inferno, ‘Onorate l’altissimo poeta,’ ‘Honor the most exalted poet.’” Caterina traced the engraved words. “Perhaps when Dante’s bones return from Ravenna, they’ll add the following line, ‘L’ombra sua torna, ch’era dipartite,’ ‘His spirit, which had left us, returns.’ No matter where his bones are, I believe this is where his spirit resides. Souls aren’t bound by the location of their physical remains.”

***************

Eszter only asks about one Roman numeral because the ones on the left and right sides weren’t engraved there in 1945. They were only added in 1965, to mark Dante’s 700th birthday. Though I’m in no hurry to get old, I have every intention to be in Italy for his 800th birthday in 2065, when I’ll be 85.

WeWriWa—Approaching the Basilica di Santa Croce

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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.

While I’m doing preliminary research for a new project, an alternative history set in Medieval Italy, I’d like to switch to excerpts which are kind of related to its subject. This comes from my hiatused WIP The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees, which follows a group of young Shoah survivors from Hungary, France, Czechoslovakia, and Italy as they readjust to the land of the living and decide where they ultimately want to settle.

It’s now December 1945, and the friends have gone to the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence before departing for Paris. This was where young doctor Caterina was apprehended by the Nazis in November 1943, after attempting to hide in a place she always felt safe.

Copyright Sailko

Júlia stopped in her tracks when the old stone building came into view. “Is that actually a Magen David on top? I’d expect to find a cross or angel on a church, particularly in such a Catholic country.”

“That’s from the nineteenth century, not the original design,” Caterina explained. “A Jewish architect designed the façade. He’s buried under the porch, since non-Christians can’t be buried inside. I like how there’s both a star and cross. It’s a symbol of how nicely we lived together in Italy for so many hundreds of years. We generally had good interfaith relations, unlike many other countries.”

Caterina approached the stone statue of Dante on the left side, atop a pillar flanked by lions and an eagle.

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

The great poet’s likeness stared straight ahead and to his left, a very intent, serious expression on his face. He was cloaked in a cape, a crown of laurels on his head, with a book in his right hand, just as he was often depicted in artwork.

“Are you able to go inside?” Marie asked. “I don’t want you to relive bad memories if you’re not ready to revisit this place.”

“No, I wanted to come here before we left. It seems only right to return to the place where my exile began, and to leave voluntarily this time.”

Zealotry

The Zealots were a band of resistance fighters in Roman Judea, active from 6–73 CE, who sought to expel the occupying Romans by any means necessary. A subgroup, called Sicarii (Violent Men or Dagger Men) in Latin, killed people opposed to this war.

According to historian Josephus, the Zealots committed mass suicide at Masada rather than surrender to the Romans or keep fighting on under siege, but modern archaeological investigation has revealed this probably didn’t happen. Regardless, because of this probable urban legend, the word “zealot” now refers to any rigid fanatic for a political, religious, or other cause.

Medieval Italy was beset by zealots, in the form of the Guelphs and Ghibellines. They’d been fighting since 1125, the result of a German power struggle between the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor spilling over into another region. Even long after the Pope and Emperor had patched things up, people continued fighting and drawing rigid lines for the next few centuries.

Each side believed they were in the right and that the other side was unacceptably wrong, to the point of needing to be quashed and brought to heel. They saw no room for compromise or agreeing to disagree peacefully. When Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, a Ghibelline, married his daughter to a Guelph to try to secure his power against hostile enemies, he instantly became persona non grata and started down the tragic, violent path which ultimately led to his starvation death in prison.

Ugolino della Gherardesca and his Sons in the Tower of His Starvation, Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1830

Even after the Guelphs emerged victorious as the leaders of Florence (Firenze) after the 1289 Battle of Campaldino, it still wasn’t good enough. Before long, they began bickering among themselves and split into White and Black factions.

According to legend, it all began when someone yelled at his nephew for throwing a snowball. A few days later, the nephew hit his uncle. The uncle didn’t think it was a big deal, but his son Focaccia did. Focaccia went after his cousin, cut off his hands, and killed his cousin’s father. All because of a petty little fight about a snowball.

Black Guelphs teamed up with Prince Charles of Valois, brother of King Philippe IV (Philip the Fair) of France, to seize control of Florence while Dante was with a White Guelph delegation to the Pope in Rome. Much of Florence was destroyed during their dominance-asserting rampage, and many White Guelphs were tried on phony charges, found guilty by kangaroo courts, heavily fined, killed, and/or condemned to exile. Some, like Dante, were tried in absentia.

Dante had his property and money seized, which meant he had no way of paying that huge fine even if he’d wanted to. After he refused a 1315 offer of amnesty, on the grounds that it would mean admitting to crimes he was innocent of, orders were put out to behead him if he were caught.

When his four children came of legal age, they were sent into exile too, deemed guilty by association.

There’s a teaching that the Second Temple, while obviously physically destroyed by the Romans, was truly destroyed because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred. This internecine bickering tore apart the Jewish community from within. Sects like the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and Zealots constantly clashed, and were unable to unite as a single front against their common enemy.

Too many times throughout history, people have forgotten we’re all created in the image of God and share a common humanity, a Divine spark within each of us. They divide the world into Self and Other, and never the twain shall meet. Once zealously committed to a cause, it’s a quick leap to dehumanising and mistreating the other side.

In De Monarchia, Dante idealistically dreams of a unified world ruled by an enlightened Emperor guided by pure love, charity, justice, and selflessness. When we unite as one, we most live up to our Divine potential, since we were created in the image of God, and God is one.

Dante believed God created us to make full use of our highest intellectual potential, and that it’s easier to do this when we have universal peace. We can’t accomplish this beautiful, lofty ideal very easily if we’re beset by strife, wars, political fights, and rigid zealots who can’t accept any views but their own.

Let us strive to see beauty and truth in everything and everyone instead of behaving like zealots. Our every step should be guided by the force behind everything in creation, “the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.”

Pietro Alighieri

Pietro Alighieri’s commentary on The Divine Comedy, Copyright Mario Mancini

Pietro Alighieri, Dante’s first or second son, was born in Florence (Firenze) in the late 13th century. In 1315, he and his siblings Jacopo, Antonia, and Giovanni joined their father in exile, after not seeing him for fourteen years. Since they were of legal age, they were considered guilty of Dante’s “crimes” by extension, and had to share his sentence.

Dante’s children dutifully followed him during his sojourns in various Italian cities, until they settled in Ravenna in 1318. Pietro also received ecclesiastical benefits in Ravenna.

In 1322, a year after Dante’s death, Pietro returned to Florence and discovered what a financial mess his family was in. When Dante was sentenced to exile, the city seized all his properties and assets, and they were still held hostage.

To try to improve his economic situation, Pietro began studying law in Bologna in 1323, and eventually received a doctorate. Cangrande della Scala was his benefactor. During his studies, Pietro befriended the great Petrarch.

Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch)

Unlike Jacopo, Pietro didn’t take advantage of the amnesty granted to so-called political criminals, and so was unable to return to Florence. In 1331, he decided to move to Verona, where he settled in the Palazzo Bevilacqua, a 13th century palace in the city centre.

Pietro’s relationship with his uncle Francesco (Dante’s halfbrother) completely fell apart in Verona, due to testamentary rivalries. Dante’s assets were divided between his sons and Francesco, and Francesco got the land, from which he made his living raising cattle and farming. Perhaps Pietro felt more entitled to that land, and resented his uncle making money off of it in his stead.

Palazzo Bevilacqua, Copyright Giacomo Augusto 2

Pietro worked as a lawyer in Verona, and also served as a delegate to the city’s podestà from 1332–47. Later he was a judge. After moving to Vicenza, Pietro was vicar to that city’s podestà.

Around 1335, Pietro married Iacopa di Dolcetto de Salerni, by whom he had three daughters, Alighiera, Gemma, and Lucia, and a son, Dante. All three of their daughters became nuns in the monastery of San Michele di Campagna.

Pietro also had an extramarital child, Bernardo, who became a notary in Verona. Bernardo’s son Niccolò was a pharmacist in Agram (now Zagreb, Croatia).

Second of the two Alighieri coats of arms, Copyright Sailko

Pietro also found time to write. He composed some poems and songs, but his major literary work consists of commentaries on his father’s writings. After 1347, Pietro wrote a 20-codex commentary on The Divine Comedy. He also wrote commentaries on Dante’s shorter poems.

In his old age, Pietro moved to Treviso. He signed his will on 21 February 1364 and died exactly two months later. Pietro was initially entombed in the Church of Santa Margherita, but his remains were later moved to the Church of San Francesco.

Brunetto Latini

Brunetto was born to a noble Tuscan family in Florence (Firenze) in 1220. His father was Buonaccorso Latini, and his grandfather was Latino Latini. By 1254, he was the scribe for the elders in the Florence municipality. Brunetto also was active in the city’s political life, and belonged to the Guelph party.

So respected and beloved was Brunetto by his fellow Florentines, he was part of a delegation sent to the court of King Alfonso X of Castile, Léon, and Galicia in 1259 or 1260, to plead for aid to the Guelphs against their Ghibelline enemies. The mission wasn’t a success, and on his way home from Spain, a student from Bologna told him about the Guelphs’ recent defeat at the Battle of Montaperti.

With this rival party in power, Brunetto was forced into exile. He lived in France from 1261–68 and worked as a notary in various cities. During his French sojourn, he wrote Tesoretto, an Italian encyclopedia, and Li Livres dou Trésor, a French encyclopedia. The latter is regarded as the very first encyclopedia in a modern European language. Brunetto also translated four of Cicero’s works into Italian.

Illuminated page from Li Livres dou Trésor

When the political situation improved in 1269, he returned to Florence and served in a variety of high offices for the next twenty years. In 1273, he received compensation for the wrong done to him, in the form of being appointed Secretary of the Council of the Republic of Florence. Brunetto was one of the most frequently appointed speakers in general councils.

Following the death of Dante’s father, Alighiero di Bellincione, between 1281–83, Brunetto became Dante’s guardian. Dante and many others identified Brunetto as his teacher. There was a clear bond of love and intellectual kinship between the two.

Brunetto passed away in 1294 or 1295, leaving a daughter, Bianca Latini. His tomb is in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Florence.

Despite the powerful love and respect between mentor and mentee, Dante depicts Brunetto in Hell, in the Third Ring of the Seventh Circle. However, he’s treated more respectfully and lovingly than almost anyone else in The Divine Comedy. Brunetto is also only the second person in the poem to touch Dante (the first obviously being Virgil), and the only one who addresses Dante with the familiar form of “you.”

Dante lovingly speaks of Brunetto as his teacher and mentor, and offers to sit with him while the rest of Brunetto’s group runs off. Brunetto has to refuse because he’s condemned to keep aimlessly moving. He then tells Dante’s future.

Panel about monkey from the bestiary section of Li Livres dou Trésor

Brunetto’s section of Hell is for people who’ve been violent against God, Nature, and art, and unfortunately (given the attitudes of the era) includes gay men. But there’s zero evidence beyond rumours that Brunetto was gay or bisexual, and Brunetto himself expressed homophobic views in Tesoretto. So what is he doing there?

Some scholars believe Brunetto was truly placed in that part of Hell because he was violent against art and his native language. He did, after all, write an entire encyclopedia in French instead of Italian. Others feel it’s proof of how even the greatest of people may be guilty of private sins (whatever they may be).

Brunetto’s tomb, Copyright Sailko

In recent years, a love poem some believe Brunetto sent to poet Bondie Dietaiuti was discovered, but the intent may be open to interpretation. After all, many close friends in bygone eras expressed their love for one another (both physically and in words) in ways that suggest romantic or sexual feelings to modern people, but weren’t seen as such historically, let alone considered in that way by the friends themselves.

Dante not only doesn’t condemn gay men as deviants, degenerates, perverts, etc., he also puts an equal number of gay and straight men in the Seventh Terrace of Purgatory, for the lustful. Everyone in Purgatory is guaranteed eventual entrance to Paradise, so Dante clearly had a much more modern, nuanced view of homosexuality than most people associate with the Middle Ages.