Saturday, March 7, 2009

Dante and his living hell

Dante Alighieri has become Italy's most revered poet, but it took a while.  He was exiled from his beloved Florence due to his political association with the losing team, the White Guelphs. (The details of the political struggle is for another day...suffice it so say, as most fights occurred then, it was between the Pope and Power base of Florence.

To be exiled was a living torture.  Dante writes of it in Paradiso Canto XVII

"This is the arrow that the bow of exile shoots first.  You are to know the bitter taste of other's bread, how salty it is, and know how hard a path it is for one who goes ascending and descending other's stairs."

Close your eyes and think of what it would be like to never be allowed to go home again...ever.  You'll never see your family, friends, or the barista who knows just how you like your morning coffee on Saturday.  You'll never walk into your home to that comfortable, familiar smell that is your comforting home.  Dante's Italy wasn't like Italy of today where people get around on the trains and visit other cities.  Many lived their lives without ever leaving home...ever.  Exile was living hell.  Especially for Dante who loved his Florence so.

Dante's hell didn't even start with his exile.  His unrequited love was the stuff of legend.  In fact he loved his Beatrice so much that he made her his guide in Paradiso (Heaven).  She only spoke to him in life a couple of times.  His love was mostly from a distance.  He yearned for her and his love was never returned.  In fact, she barely knew who he was.  The best way to put yourself in Dante's shoes is to think back to high school when you were eating lunch on the uncool table and never thought to even speak to him or her for fear of rejection.  That burning love that never seems to go away even today.  That was Dante's love for Beatrice.

Near Dante's home in Florence is a little church that Beatrice and her family attended.  She is buried there.  It is worth a visit, unlike Dante's home which isn't.  At Beatrice's tomb you'll find baskets of letters written to Beatrice for her divine help in love.  There are letters from school children, teenagers, young adults...even those in their golden years.  It's amazing.  That fact of the matter is that Beatrice was the object of love and didn't really do anything to return love to Dante.  She has been immortalized as the divine guide in the Paradiso, but only because Dante's love for her never dwindled.

I think Dante would be happy to know that a monument in his honor is in Santa Croce and that he is "buried" (He's actually buried in Ravenna) with some of Italy's most famous sons like Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Ghiberti, and Galileo.  I think Dante would be happy to know that his statue is standing in the corridor of fame at the Uffizi.  I think Dante would love to know that his Beatrice is honored today because of his love for her.  

Throughtout his life he lived with and endured torment.  Torment from his local Florentines, torment from his government, torment from his church, and worst of all torment from his beloved Beatrice.  To get a taste of his agony read the Inferno.  To understand his complexity read Purgatorio.  The get a glimpse of his soul read Paradiso.  

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