WeWriWa—Walking through the garden

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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. They’re now walking in the garden.

Some of you may recognize “In his will is our peace” as a line from Paradiso, where it’s spoken by Dante’s friend Piccarda Donati. The line “midway our life’s journey” is also the famous first line of the CommediaNel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. (I recently finished memorizing all 136 lines of Canto I of Inferno in the original Medieval Florentine Tuscan, and am now working on Canto II.)

We walked on through the rest of the garden, and Beatrice named each flower, herb, and tree we encountered. I already knew some of them from botany lessons, but didn’t interrupt her to say this. Listening to the sweet voice of this youngest of God’s angels was like drinking the finest ambrosia.

After we’d traversed the entire main section of the garden, Beatrice led me to a low, white stone wall with many columns. Just as she said, it provided a marvellous view of our city and the hill of Fiesole. All the houses laid out below appeared at a much smaller scale than they truly were, as though they were part of a miniature village populated by dolls.

Beatrice leaned against the wall and looked down as far as possible. “Sometimes when I’m here, it feels like a small preview of looking down upon all the spheres of the heavens from the top of Paradise. That must be the most indescribable experience possible.”

That image sent a chill up my spine.

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

“Even if the greatest glories are to be found in Paradise, we shouldn’t be too eager to go there. Everyone should be blessed to live over a century like Saint Anthony the Great. Even if God only wants us to attain the ideal Biblical lifespan of seventy or eighty years, we’re nowhere close to being midway our life’s journey yet.”

“Oh, I’m not eager to trade my life on Earth for the eternal life for a long time yet either. God put us here first for a reason, however long he wants us to live in our physical bodies. In his will is our peace.”

WeWriWa—Zodiac signs and lucky numbers

If you’re observing Tisha B’Av, may you have an easy and meaningful fast!

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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. They’re now walking in the garden.

We don’t know either of their actual birthdates, but we know Dante was a Gemini, and that he was born in late May, possibly the 27th. It would be so fitting if that really were his birthday, since the numbers add up to his lucky number nine, and his bones were serendipitously rediscovered on 27 May 1865 after mysteriously vanishing in 1519.

In La Vita Nuova, Dante says of Beatrice’s age when they met: “She had been in this life long enough for the heaven of the fixed stars to be able to move a twelfth of a degree to the East in her time.” In other words, she was eight years and four months old, and thus born in late December 1265 or early January 1266.

Fontana Maggiore of Perugia, Copyright G.dallorto

Beatrice walked around the fountain and touched the Zodiac engraving of a goat. “That’s me. I’m a Capricorn. My birthday is December twenty-seventh. I’ll be nine years old.”

I indicated the twins Castor and Pollux. “I’m a Gemini. My teachers say that’s a very lucky, blessed sign to be born under. My birthday is May twenty-seventh, so you’re exactly seven months younger than I am.” Since mathematics was one of my favorite subjects in school, I continued rattling on.

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

“If you add the two numbers in twenty-seven, you get nine. That’s my favorite number. It’s naturally occurred so often in my life, and it’s a perfect square of the Trinity. Three times three makes nine.”

“You’re smart. My tutor only teaches me Latin and religion, and my mother teaches me feminine skills like embroidery and how to identify flowers. Perhaps when I’m older, I’ll learn how to play a musical instrument.”

Gay men in The Divine Comedy

When I first read the Commedia at 24, I wasn’t exactly happy to see gay men depicted in Hell. But now that my prefrontal cortex is fully developed, and because I’ve done a lot of supplemental study, I’m able to see this aspect of the poem in a markedly different light. Dante’s views on homosexuality are quite nuanced and sympathetic for someone born in 1265.

Yes, he does depict his dear teacher and mentor Brunetto Latini in the Third Ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell, where so-called sodomites are punished, but this part of Hell more generally is for those who’ve been violent against Nature, God, and art. Some modern scholars believe the real reason Brunetto shows up there is because he was violent against his native tongue by writing a book (Li Livres dou Trésor) in French. While Dante himself wrote a number of books in Latin, that was Europe’s lingua franca. It would be some centuries until French eclipsed Latin in that regard.

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

Other scholars feel Brunetto was placed there to show how even the greatest of people may be guilty of private sins (whatever they may be). After all, Brunetto is treated more lovingly and respectfully than almost anyone else in Inferno (apart from Virgil), and there was an obvious bond of love and intellectual kinship between Dante and Brunetto in real life. Brunetto is also the only person in Inferno with whom Dante uses voi, the formal form of you.

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.

For obvious reasons, it’s often difficult to definitively prove historical figures were gay or lesbian, and Brunetto is no exception. We have nothing but this poem (whatever its true intentions), rumours of the time, and his inclusion in a part of Hell which punishes more than just so-called sodomites.

We also need to be careful about applying modern definitions and concepts to historical figures. Of course gays, lesbians, and bisexuals have always existed, but our modern conception of sexual orientation is relatively recent. E.g., many adult men slept with teen boys in Ancient Greece because that was held as an important coming-of-age ritual, education, and mentorship, not because they considered themselves same-sex attracted.

Even the very word “homosexual” didn’t exist till 1869. The word “sodomite” was used because of a false connection with the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. In contrast, the Jewish teaching has always been very clear that their sin was lack of hospitality and had nothing to do with sexual behaviour.

But wait, there’s more!

In the very next canto, Dante meets three more so-called sodomites, who are also fellow Florentines, Jacopo Rusticucci, Guido Guerra, and Tegghiaio Aldobrandini. After they introduce themselves, Dante says:

“If I could have been sheltered from the fire,
I would have thrown myself below with them,
and I think my guide would have allowed me to;

but, as I knew I would be burnt and seared,
my fear won over my first good intention
that made me want to put my arms around them.

And then I spoke: ‘Repulsion, no, but grief
for your condition spread throughout my heart
(and years will pass before it fades away)….'”

At first glance, this doesn’t seem any different than his sympathy for other people he’s encountered, like Francesca da Rimini and Ciacco dell’Anguillaia. But when he takes pity on someone, it’s because their conduct reminds him of his own behaviour. E.g., he’s so moved by Francesca’s story of indulging forbidden love because he himself loved a woman who wasn’t his wife, a married woman no less.

An essay in the Durling-Martinez translation (considered by many to be the current gold standard) suggests this is Dante’s way of admitting he’s had sexual desires for other men, but fought not to satisfy this curiosity.

In stark contrast to most other depictions of Hell in that era, and indeed into the modern era, there are no sexualised tortures (of either women or men) in Inferno. The closest we get is the scene of thief Agnèl being turned into a snake in Canto XXV.

Then something very curious happens in Canto XXVI of Purgatorio, on the Seventh Terrace. Here, where the lustful purify themselves, are equal numbers of gay and straight men. Everyone in Purgatory is guaranteed eventual entrance to Paradise, so Dante clearly didn’t think homosexuality or bisexuality were truly a sin. In fact, many of the souls in Purgatory committed similar acts to those punished in Hell. The difference is that souls in Purgatory admit their wrong instead of dying without remorse or blaming other people.

There’s also a distinction between the motivation and manifestation of these same acts. E.g., souls in the Second Circle of Hell conducted illicit love affairs, but people on the Seventh Terrace of Purgatory just loved too intensely and didn’t channel their natural sexual desires (for the same or opposite sex) through the best channels. It’s not about the act itself, but how one chooses to pursue it, and why.

Given the attitudes of his era, Dante could’ve easily left gay men out of Purgatory, meted out sexual tortures to the ones in Hell (which would’ve been entirely in line with contrapasso, a punishment reminding the souls of their sins), and castigated them as perverts, deviants, degenerates, etc. Yet he treats them with great respect and even feels sympathy for them.

WeWriWa—Entering the garden

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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. Though he never said whether or not they actually exchanged words or if they just saw one another, they become immediate friends in my story, and meet while Beatrice is making flower garlands. They’re now walking in the garden after finishing and distributing all the rest of the garlands.

I decided to occasionally break the fourth wall in this book because Dante himself does that in his own work, directly addressing both present and future readers with comments like “Oh, Reader, you can hardly imagine how terrified I was!” and “I wish I could tell you more about this wonderful experience, Reader, but I’ve used up all the pages I planned for this canticle.”

At last we proceeded out through a door leading into a lush, verdant paradise of sweet-smelling, brightly-colored flowers and blooming trees. Scattered about were several strolling young couples and two men playing the lute. In the center of the garden was a gleaming white stone fountain ringed by red roses and herbs. When we drew closer to the fountain, I saw it was decorated with carvings illustrating the Zodiac signs, people and events from the Bible, and the history of the Roman Empire.

“The garden at our summer villa in Fiesole is even grander,” Beatrice said. “We have many more flowers and trees, the fountain is bigger, and there’s a reflecting pool. I spend most of my time in the garden when we live there.”

I gave her a slight smile, restraining myself from the much wider smile my vital spirit wanted to make.

The eight lines end there. A few more follow to complete the scene.

“My father and I have a summer villa in Fiesole too, though we don’t spend the entire summer there. We usually go there on weekends or for a fortnight. At most, we might spend a month there. My father’s business is too important to interrupt for three entire months.”

“My father has a very important business too, but he’s able to go away all summer. May I ask what your father does for a living?”

God forgive me, Reader, I told a partial untruth to avoid admitting Babbo was a moneylender. “He does something with money, but I don’t know the details. My father doesn’t tell me much about his job. He says it’s too adult for me to understand.”

“Maybe he’s a banker like my father. He doesn’t talk very much about the details of his work either, not even to my oldest brothers. But your father must have an important job, since my father invited him to our party. Perhaps you can visit us in Fiesole this summer.”

WeWriWa—Braiding flowers

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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. Though he never said whether or not they actually exchanged words or if they just saw one another, they become immediate friends in my story, and meet while Beatrice is making flower garlands. She offered to show him the garden afterwards.

“May I help you? As it says in Ecclesiastes, ‘Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion.’”

Beatrice smiled, which made her appear even more angelic and otherworldly beautiful. “You’re very kind and thoughtful. Have you ever braided flowers before?”

“No, but I’ll let you teach me.”

As dearly as I wished to keep my gaze fixed upon her face, I was compelled to shift my attention to her hands as she demonstrated three difference processes of creating a floral chain. When she concluded her tutorial, she placed a crown of white irises, that lovely symbol of our ancient city, upon my head. In return, I set a crown of violets around her hair.

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

Then it was necessary once more to turn my eyes back to the flowers.  The more swiftly we finished this task, the sooner we could walk in the garden, perhaps alone.

What if one of the most famous love stories in history wasn’t unrequited?

When Dante Alighieri and Beatrice Portinari meet as children on May Day 1274, they’re instantly drawn to one another with a strong, precocious love. Their dreams of marriage come to an abrupt end when their fathers arrange their betrothals to other people, but an unexpected second chance comes when they’re both widowed in their early twenties.

This happy life is torn asunder when Black Guelphs violently seize control of Firenze. While Dante is getting his three daughters into a flight-ready carriage, his little sister Gaetana runs into the courtyard and says her newlywed husband was just murdered. By the time Dante goes back into the house, Beatrice and their youngest child Brunetto have mysteriously disappeared, and the increasing danger makes it impossible to search for them.

Dante receives a letter stating his pregnant wife and only son will be held as hostages unless he buys their freedom with an exorbitant ransom. The Black Guelphs also demand he return to Firenze to be tried on numerous false charges. He begins planning a recapture of the city with other White Guelphs, but none of their plans come to fruition due to bickering and treachery, and Dante has the additional responsibility of protecting his daughters and sister.

When Dante fails to appear in court, he’s sentenced to exile. If he’s caught in Firenze, he’ll be burnt at the stake. Shortly on the heels of this nightmarish development, he receives a letter claiming Beatrice and Brunetto are dead. During this darkest night of his soul, Dante begins writing a long epic poem in which he imagines Beatrice reaching out to him from beyond the grave to save him through an otherworldly journey.

But as his oldest daughter Gabriella insists, the only evidence Beatrice and Brunetto are dead is the word of their untrustworthy enemies. A reunion and happily ever could be destined for this lifetime, not Paradise.