A Medieval-style rap battle and a stone woman

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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.

How Il Convivio became La Commedia

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Il Convivio (The Banquet) is an unfinished book Dante wrote from about 1304–07. Its title refers to the banquet of human knowledge contained within, which he intended as an encyclopedia similar to those written by his dear mentor Brunetto Latini, Li Livres dou Trésor and Tesoretto. The first part serves as a general intro, and the next three parts each have a long poem followed by a commentary or allegorical interpretation serving as a jumping-board for many different subjects—astronomy, politics, linguistics, history, science, mathematics, nobility, virtues, philosophy, theology, love.

Unless we miraculously discover Dante’s original notes for The Divine Comedy with dates, and/or a secondary paper trail such as letters or journal entries, we’ll probably never know when exactly he began composing his magnum opus. However, some scholars believe he may have been working on it as early as 1304, or even started it before his exile and resumed writing after a Good Samaritan reunited him with those precious pages.

Thus, he may have at one point been writing Il Convivio and La Commedia simultaneously.

Obviously, Dante ultimately abandoned Il Convivio to focus solely upon his magnum opus. Yet this unfinished book wasn’t written in vain, since many of the ideas expressed therein found their way into the Commedia. Not only that, the Commedia is in many ways an extension of Il Convivio. If it were just an ordinary epic poem about the afterlife and Dante’s spiritual reformation, it wouldn’t be peppered with so many historical figures, astronomical calculations, geographical references, or philosophical and theological points!

Dante’s great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida degli Elisei, the poem’s fifth-most recurring character after Statius, appears from Cantos XV–XVIII of Paradiso and merits 550 lines. During his lengthy addresses to his descendant, he entreats Dante to be brave and reveal the whole truth, however unflattering, about well-known people. By only including people of renown, he’ll ensure lasting fame and power for himself and his poem.

Think about it. Would the poem have had the same impact if everyone Dante met were Guido and Gianna Nobody down the street, or purely fictional characters? It was easier for his audience to grasp all these deeper lessons precisely because he used real people everyone knew, both contemporaries and important historical figures. Besides, Dante always presents this as a real story, and many people absolutely believed him. (I’m inclined to believe he may have experienced at least some of these things in dreams or intense visions.)

Sure, these aren’t household names to most modern people, unless they’re Medieval history scholars, but Dante’s original audience didn’t need any footnotes to know who they were or the details about their lives.

Additionally, his original audience was Italian. Of course he primarily used people from their native land and Classical Antiquity. It wouldn’t have had the same impact if the poem were peopled with Germans, Russians, Englishmen, Chinese, Turks, or Egyptians. In an era long before instant mass communications and easily-available translations, people knew more about their own backyards than the wider world.

Dante did intend his poem first and foremost as a religious instruction manual to help other people who lost the way just as he did. But many of the components don’t relate to theology at all. They’re in there to finish the encyclopedic job Il Convivio started and celebrate the banquet of all existing human knowledge.

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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weekend_writing_warriorsveteransbadge_4

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.”

A to Z Reflections 2021

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This was my tenth year doing the A to Z Challenge, and my eighth with two blogs. For the third year running, I didn’t begin writing my posts till March. In years past, I researched, wrote, and edited my posts many months in advance.

I did the posts on my main blog first, since I knew they’d take more time and effort than the short and to the point posts for my names blog.

I began putting my list of topics for this theme together in March 2016, knowing I had five more years to prepare for it. Fittingly, in March 2016 I was finishing up writing and editing A to Z posts about names from The Divine Comedy for my secondary blog. I suppose I could’ve saved that theme for Dante’s 700th Jahrzeit (death anniversary) year, so both my blogs’ themes in 2021 would directly relate to him, but it is what it is. My names blog featured Medieval Tuscan and Italian names this year, which is relation enough.

Topics I considered but opted against included Purgatory, Quaestio de Aqua et Terra, Riccardo Zandonai, the Dante Society of America (which I’m a member of), and Eclogues. My choice of topics was somewhat more limited, since my theme was so specific, and Italian doesn’t have certain letters.

Luckily, I found art, music, and concepts related to Dante for some of the trickier letters.

For whatever reason, I’ve tended to have bad luck when clicking on links in the master A to Z list the last few years. Many bloggers gave up early or never started, and I even found one without a link. The theme sounded great, but there was no way to check it out from a hyperlink!

Also annoying are blogs without the option to comment or where we have to sign up with a unique-to-the-blogger commenting service, or a really uncommon commenting interface.

As other people have been noticing, participation does seem down in recent years. Then again, the medium of blogging itself has undergone a lot of changes over the past decade. Many of the bloggers I knew 5–10 years ago have entirely stopped blogging or moved to a much more infrequent schedule.

Post recap:

Dante Alighieri
Beatrice Portinari
The Battle of Campaldino
The Divine Comedy
Empyrean
Florence (Firenze), Italy
The Guelphs and the Ghibellines
Hell
Italian language
Jacopo Alighieri
Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss
Brunetto Latini
De Monarchia
Prince Guido Novello II da Polenta
Ovid
Pietro Alighieri
Quartan fever
Ravenna, Italy
A Symphony to Dante’s Divine Comedy
Terza rima
Count Ugolino della Gherardesca
Virgil
The Wood of the Self-Murderers
Xenia
Yesterdays
Zealotry

Since this is Dante’s 700th Jahrzeit year, I’ve got a bunch more thematic posts on tap for the upcoming months. I’m also working very hard on memorizing all 136 lines of Canto I of Inferno (up to the first 43 lines as of 11 May), in both Italian and English, and if I master them in time, I’m going to make a video of myself reciting them on Dante’s Jahrzeit.

I have at least seven more future A to Z themes on tap for my main blog, and I hope I can eventually resume more research-heavy themes on my names blog.