WeWriWa—Trouble on Via Santa Elisabetta


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 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, and will give them an eventual happy ending, with lots of Sturm und Drang.

This week’s excerpt right after last week’s, and begins the chapter’s third section. Dante is on his way to spend the florins his father recently gave him when he runs into some of his friends. Corso Donati was a real-life villain who led the enemy Black Guelphs and, before that, kidnapped his sister Piccarda from her convent to force her into a politically advantageous marriage.

Piccarda Donati fatta rapire dal convento di Santa Chiara dal fratello Corso (Piccarda Donati was kidnapped from the convent of St. Clare by brother Corso), Raffaello Sorbi

Saturday afternoon, I tucked the bag of florins into my tunic pocket, picked up a basket, and set out for Pasquini Apothecary on Via Santa Elisabetta. This was one of my favorite neighborhood stores, since they carried a lot of exotic sweets and spices from places like Persia, Spain, the Holy Land, and Byzantium. They also sold beautiful imported papers that looked like marble, with a rainbow of swirled colors. Someday I hoped to buy one of their blank bound books with a marbled cover.

Along the way, I passed a tempting array of stalls offering spices, carpets, flowers, roasted meat, dyed fabrics, fruit, silver and gold bowls, furs, honeycombs, and parrots. Had I a giant cart full of florins instead of merely a small bag, I would’ve bought something from every merchant.

Several blocks away from the apothecary, I caught sight of my friends the Donatis. Corso was eating a greasy skewer of goat meat as he walked, picking his teeth as always, while Maso and Sinibaldo carried a Persian rug with a bold pattern of black, red, and white. Ravenna, Piccarda, and their cousin Gemma wore glove puppets and were animatedly making up a story about characters with nonsense names. Only Forese wasn’t walking with them, being occupied at a honeycomb stall.

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

Before I had a chance to call out greetings to them, a herd of pigs came stampeding down the street. This was an unavoidable annoyance of city life, pigs permitted to run freely through town. Complaining about it to the authorities or farmers never accomplished anything.

Faster than anyone could react, Corso stepped forward and laughingly pushed Piccarda right into the path of the pigs, who promptly knocked her down into a filthy puddle. Piccarda began loudly crying as Corso walked off, still laughing. Without a moment’s hesitation, I rushed to help her up. Forese pulled her up on the other side.

A Medieval-style rap battle and a stone woman

Between about 1283–1308, according to the estimations of scholars, Dante wrote about 102 poems, called the Rime (rhymes). While there are 109 transcribed at the Princeton Dante Project, some of the ones included were written to Dante as part of a poetic correspondence. Among these are three poems by his childhood buddy Forese Donati, seen above behind the rock.

Numbering LXXIII–LXXVIII (73–78) and written between about 1293–96, these are a really fun portion of the Supreme Poet’s literary canon. So many people can only think of him as someone who was very serious all the time, with no lighthearted concerns. Yet in these playfully insulting canzone, the Medieval version of a rap battle, Dante emerges as a fun young man with a great sense of humour.

Translation: Forese sucks in bed, and doesn’t even sleep with his wife that often either.

Tana (Gaetana) and Francesco were Dante’s much-younger halfsiblings.

I love how this fun exchange of jestingly insulting one another’s shortcomings ends with Forese essentially saying, “Let’s call the whole thing off and go down to the pub for a drink.”

These are the kinds of poems which should be used to introduce young people to Dante. So many teachers immediately throw students into the deep end with the densest, most sophisticated and advanced masterworks instead of gradually easing them in with poems and stories that are more lightweight and easier to understand.

A lot of negative first impressions stay with people for years, sometimes forever, and they have no interest in trying to read a book or author again with more mature eyes, nor to check out less intense works. The damage is already done, and you get clowns who leave simplistic, childish 1-star reviews bashing a book because they were forced to read it in school and decided they hated it.

Then we have a whole other cycle of poems painting Dante in a much different light than his popular image—the Rime Petrose (Stone Rhymes), written around 1296. Scholars haven’t figured out if Petra, the woman they’re dedicated to, were an actual woman, a fictional creation, or mere symbolism.

Whomever this Petra may be, Dante’s feelings for her are the cardinal opposite of his feelings for Beatrice. This is no courtly love or tender longing for an immaculate dream denied to him by Fate. There are images and desires in these poems that are quite erotic, sadomasochistic even.

Petra is called the Stone Woman for good reason—her heart is as hard and unrelenting as stone. Indeed, the word petra is used over and over again in these poems, even when describing other things.

Rhyme CIII (103), which closes the cycle, has the most unrelenting language of all. It opens with the line “I want to be as harsh in my speech as this fair stone is in her behaviour,” and only gets stronger from there.

Check out the closing stanzas:

“Once I’d taken in my hand the fair locks
which have become my whip and lash, seizing them
before terce I’d pass through vespers with them
and the evening bell: and I’d not show pity
or courtesy, Oh no, I’d be like a bear at play.
And though Love whips me with them now, I would
take my revenge more than a thousandfold.
Still more, I’d gaze into those eyes
whence come the sparks that inflame my heart,
which is dead within me; I’d gaze into them
close and fixedly, to revenge myself on her
for fleeing from me as she does: and then
with love I would make our peace.

“Song, go straight to that
woman who has wounded my heart and robs me
of what I most hunger for, and drive an arrow
through her heart: for great honour
is gained through taking revenge.”

Obviously, this is in no way representative of Dante’s normal oeuvre or way of expressing himself, but it does show he wasn’t all high-minded philosopher, serious writer, and romantic lover. He’s essentially telling Petra, to quote the chorus of the Nine Inch Nails song “Closer,” “I want to fuck you like an animal.” Those have got to be the most violently, explicitly erotic lines he ever wrote!

You can peruse all the Rime at the Princeton Dante Project, under the Minor Works linked to on the far left. They’re all worth reading, and help to paint a fuller picture of the Supreme Poet.