A to Z Reflections 2021

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 27 lines as of Sunday night), 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.

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.”

The Wood of the Self-Murderers

English artist William Blake created the above artwork, The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides, between 1824–27, using ink, watercolour, and pencil. It’s part of a series which ended up as Blake’s final watercolour set before his August 1827 death.

In 1824, Blake’s painter friend John Linnell (1792–1882) commissioned him to create a series of paintings based on The Divine Comedy. According to legend, Blake, then in his late sixties, easily churned out 100 watercolour drafts “during a fortnight’s illness in bed.” Most had no colours, and only seven were gilded.

In March 1918, Linnell’s estate sold this artwork for £7,665 through Christie’s, to the British National Art Collections Fund. A year later, they gave it to London’s Tate Gallery, where it’s been on display ever since.

Dante and Virgil Penetrating the Forest, also by Blake

The scene depicted comes from Canto XIII of Inferno, in the Second Ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell. The Seventh Circle contains people guilty of various kinds of violence, including things most modern people wouldn’t consider violence at all, like suicide and gay relationships.

But in the Middle Ages, suicide was considered not only a sin, but an even greater act of violence than murder, since it involved a rejection of the gift of life. Even into the 20th century, many jurisdictions had laws against suicide, and people caught attempting suicide could be sent to jail and were treated like terrible, immoral criminals.

Thankfully, today we have a much more compassionate, scientific understanding of depression and mental health issues, and many help lines and organisations devoted to preventing suicide and providing counseling. The darkest night of the soul shouldn’t last forever.

Harpies in the Forest of Suicides, 1861 engraving by Gustave Doré

Anyway, this forest is haunted by Harpies, half-human, half-bird creatures. In Dante’s imagining, they eat the leaves of oak trees in which suicides are entombed. The poor souls are condemned to an eternity of being preyed on by Harpies and a zombie-like existence. They also can only speak and mourn when their trees are damaged or broken as punishment for expressing grief through suicide.

To rub even more salt into their wounds, the souls of these suicides are also not even allowed to return to their physical bodies after Judgment Day. Instead, they must hang their bodies on the trees, as an eternal reminder of what they denied themselves and how they denied their bodies in their final act of mortal life.

Another engraving by Doré, with the same subject

In Blake’s artwork, Dante and Virgil are walking through the forest when Dante rips a twig from a bleeding tree, and hears the words, “Why are you tearing me?” Just prior to this, Virgil warned him that if Dante breaks off any twigs, “what you are thinking now will break off too.” But Dante was intrigued by all the phantom wailing, and had to get to the bottom of it.

The blood then turns dark around the wound, and the voice continues, “Why do you rip me? Have you no sense of pity whatsoever? Men were we once, now we are changed to scrub; but even if we had been souls of serpents, your hand should have shown more pity than it did.”

Dante drops it in shock and horror upon hearing this, and Virgil placates the suicide by saying Dante wouldn’t have done it if he’d let himself believe what he (Virgil) once wrote, “but the truth itself was so incredible, I urged him on to do the thing that grieves me.” He then asks the suicide to identity himself so Dante might make amends.

Copyright Limonov44 at WikiCommons

The suicide is Pietro della Vigna (1190–1249), pictured above, a jurist, diplomat, scholar, legislative reformer, proponent of science and the arts, and chancellor, secretary, and close advisor to Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Other people at court, jealous of his success, falsely accused him of being an agent of the Pope and richer than the Emperor. Pietro was thrown in prison and had his eyes ripped out.

Pietro, who killed himself by banging his head against a wall, is presented as a heroic suicide. However, some historians believe he was truly tortured to death or died because of the blinding.

Der Hof Kaiser Friedrichs II. zu Palermo (The Court of Emperor Frederick II in Palermo), Arthur von Ramberg, 1865

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (U.S.), 1-800-273-8255
Samaritans (U.K.), 116 123
Canadian resources
Suicide Prevention Australia
European resources
International resources

Count Ugolino della Gherardesca

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

Ugolino della Gherardesca, Count of Donoratico, was born circa 1220 in Pisa. His prominent noble family were of Lombard origin, dating back at least to the 11th century, and sided with the Ghibellines during the violent Guelph–Ghibelline conflict wracking Medieval Italy. Ghibellines backed the Holy Roman Emperor, and Guelphs supported the Pope.

From 1256–58, Ugolino fought in the war against the Judicate of Cagliari in Sardinia. His riches increased when he won Cixerri, the southwestern portion of Cagliari, full of overflowing silver mines. Ugolino used his money from the mines to found a new city, Villa di Chiesa (now Iglesias). Under his rule, many new buildings were built, and many old buildings were restored.

The della Gherardescas also built the Castle of Salvaterra, a hospital, defensive walls, and an aqueduct.

Copyright Sailko

Trouble began when Ugolino, in the hopes of securing his power against hostile neighbours, arranged the marriage of his daughter Giovanna and Giovanni Visconti, Judge of Gallura. The Viscontis were Guelphs, and in becoming Visconti’s father-in-law, Ugolino thus became allied by association with the Guelphs. Many Ghibellines now looked at him with hostility and suspicion.

The city was beset by riots against the podestà from 1271–74, riots in which both Ugolino and Visconti took part. They were arrested in 1274 and accused of plotting to overthrow the Pisan government and then rule themselves. Ugolino was put in prison, and Visconti was exiled.

In 1275, Visconti passed away. With the younger of the two enemies gone, the older Ugolino was no longer seen as a real threat. His captors released him from prison and sent him into exile.

Ruins of Acquafredda Castle, Copyright Giancarlo Dessì

During his exile, mostly spent in the Acquafredda Castle in Siliqua, Sardinia, Ugolino set to work on getting revenge. Ugolino carried out intrigues against Lucca and Florence, then attacked Pisa with the help of Charles I of Anjou, King of Sicily. The peace which was negotiated was humiliating for Pisa, and included pardoning Ugolino and all other Guelph exiles.

Upon his return to the city, Ugolino continued quietly working behind the scenes to get revenge. He also commanded the maritime fleet and won several minor victories against Genoa in 1284. In that year’s Battle of Meloria, Pisa was crushed in defeat. The city lost a lot of influence and territory.

Florence and Lucca, Guelph strongholds, took advantage of Pisa’s weakened state to attack next. Ugolino, who had fled during the battle against Genoa, was elected podestà and managed to pacify Florence and Lucca by giving them a few castles.

In 1286, Ugolino became Capitano del Popolo (Captain of the People), a position he was soon forced to share with his grandson Ugolino Visconti (Nino). The two didn’t see eye to eye, and began quarreling. Nino, with his eyes on the position of podestà, started negotiating with Archbishop Ruggieri degli Ubaldini of Pisa in 1287, as well as the Ghibellines.

Ugolino wasn’t exactly happy to learn about this, and destroyed the palaces of Nino and several Ghibelline families, expelled them from Pisa, occupied the town hall, and had himself proclaimed lord of the city. Pisan fleets also began attacking Genoese ships.

Then, to try to prevent Nino from becoming a threat again, Ugolino brought back some of the exiled Ghibelline families. Their military alliance with his family earned a partial truce with Ruggieri.

Engraving by Raimbach after Sir Joshua Reynolds

The Pisan cost of living shot way up in 1288, leading to food shortages and riots. Ugolino killed one of Ruggieri’s nephews during a riot, which earned him Ruggieri’s eternal wrath. Not long afterwards, Ugolino and his followers were attacked by Ghibellines.

Ugolino managed to escape into the town hall and repel the attacks, but it wasn’t to last. Ruggieri set the people against Ugolino, and the town hall was set on fire. Ugolino surrendered rather than burn to death.

One of Ugolino’s sons was killed, and Ugolino, two of his other sons, and two grandsons were thrown into the Muda Tower. In March 1289, Ruggieri ordered the keys thrown into the Arno River. Ugolino and his family starved to death.

Ugolino and His Sons, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, 1865–67

The sole reason Ugolino is so infamous today, let alone remembered at all by anyone but Medieval Italian historians, is because of his appearance in The Divine Comedy. He and Ruggieri appear in the Second Ring of the Ninth Circle of Hell, Antenora, for those who betrayed their country or city.

Ugolino is trapped in ice up to his neck, constantly gnawing at Ruggieri’s skull. His statements have been interpreted to mean he ate his sons and grandsons after they starved to death, but modern forensic evidence has disproven this legend.

Terza rima

Terza rima (third rhyme), also known as terzina Dantesca, is a style of poetry Dante created to write The Divine Comedy. No earlier examples are known. It’s believed he was influenced by the Provençal troubadours he so admired. They used a form of lyric poetry called sirventes or serventes (service song).

These songs were written from the POV of a sirvent (serviceman), and were usually parodies. They borrowed the metrical structure, melody, and many times even the actual rhymes of famous songs to take on controversial subjects (often current events). A sirventes more often than not was quite vitriolic.

Terza rima, then, is a three-line stanza with the rhyming pattern of ABA BCB CDC DED; i.e., the first and third lines rhyme, and the second line rhymes with the first and third lines of the next triplet. Each section of the poem concludes with a couplet or single line repeating the final tercet’s middle line’s rhyme. E.g., DED E, DED EE.

It’s known as chained rhyme because the second verse hooks each triplet onto the next like a chain. This style makes it easier to memorise than poems and songs with only two rhyming lines. (Though nowadays, many singers and rappers can’t even be bothered to rhyme anything, rhyme words with themselves, or just repeat lines.)

Dante’s one exception is Christ only rhyming with itself in Paradiso. He felt it would be unholy and blasphemous to associate any other words with that name.

This style of rhyming also makes it more difficult for copyists to steal the work, delete some lines, and embellish it with their own lines. The rhyme sequence would be interrupted if anything were taken away or added, and coming up with new rhymes to fit with the overall story and not look like piracy would be a really difficult task,

Terza rima employs the hendecasyllable (endecasillabo) structure, a verse of eleven syllables where the last accent falls on the tenth syllable. This too was influenced by the Provençal troubadours, corresponding to their décasyllabe.

Because of Dante’s acclaim, other Italian poets began using terza rima too. To this day, it remains the most popular metric structure of Italian poetry and song.

Terza rima is very difficult to naturally achieve in English due to the language’s more complex phonology and relative dearth of words to easily rhyme with one another. Even a lot of singers, poets, and rappers just using standard rhyming often employ forced rhyme schemes because the words at the end of those two consecutive lines sound nothing alike, and there were no other words they could think of.

English writers brave enough to use terza rima include Geoffrey Chaucer, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Milton, Thomas Hardy, Lord Byron, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and William Carlos Williams. Several translators of The Divine Comedy have also used this metric, among them Laurence Binyon, who did the version I first read. (And yes, it does often employ forced rhyme schemes.)

Translators using terza rima necessarily also take some liberties with the source text. To ensure the English lines all follow that style, there are frequent insertions of words and phrases that appear nowhere in the actual Italian. As pretty as they make it sound, it’s linguistically misleading.

…Tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta
più caramente; e questo è quello strale
che l’arco de lo essilio pria saetta.
Tu proverai sì come sa di sale
lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle
lo scendere e ‘l salir per l’altrui scale…

…You shall leave everything you love most:
this is the arrow that the bow of exile
shoots first.  You are to know the bitter taste
of others’ bread, how salty it is, and know
how hard a path it is for one who goes
ascending and descending others’ stairs…

(Paradiso, Canto XVII, 55–60)