Dante’™s Florence Week 5 Part Two

Dante’™s Exile from Florence

Dante entered politics in 1295 and in 1300 he became a Prior, one of the Governors of the City giving him great prestige. It was a dangerous time with fighting between the factions of Guelfs and Ghibellines. The Guelfs supported the Pope, opposing the Ghibellines who supported the Holy Roman Emperor. The political situation was very complicated and became more so when the Guelfs split into two opposing factions, known as the Whites and the Blacks. The Whites, including Dante, opposed the Pope wanting more control of their own affairs ‘“ Dante thought the Pope, Boniface VIII was corrupt and was too involved with temporal affairs. He wanted more independence for Florence and a split between the Church and the State. Dante attacked the Pope and the Church in The Divine Comedy, for example in Canto 19 Inferno he describes the punishment for simony, the crime of buying a position within the church and denounces Boniface as a simonist.

In 1302 Dante was accused of fraud and as he refused to pay the fine he was sentenced to death by burning and was banished from Florence. He was offered an amnesty in 1315, but the conditions were too humiliating for him to accept and he never returned to Florence. He refers to his exile in The Divine Comedy through a conversation in Canto 17 Paradiso XVII with his great-great grandfather Cacciaguida, with Cacciaguida forecasting Dante’s exile from Florence:

‘œYou will leave everything you love most dearly;
This is the arrow which is
loosed first
From the bow of exile.

You will learn how salt is the
Of other people’™s bread, how hard the way
Going up and down other
people’™s stairs.’

Dante spent 19 years in exile. He championed writing in the vernacular and in 1304 he published De Vulgari Eloquentia(On Eloquence in the vernacular). He started to write The Divine Comedy in 1306/7 and finished it just before his death in 1321 in Ravenna. During, 1315 ‘“ 1316 whilst he was the guest of Can Grande della Scala in Verona he wrote part of Purgatorio. Below is Maria Spartali Stillman’s painting of Dante in Verona, showing Dante surrounded by a group of admiring women.

In 1317 he was offered a home by Guido Novello da Polenta in Ravenna, where he completed Purgatorio and began Paradiso. Can Grande was a patron of the arts and sheltered exiles, giving Dante his own apartments and treating him very well. Dante dedicated Paradiso to Can Grande in gratitude.

Dante died on 14 September 1321and was buried in the Church of San Francesco in Ravenna, where there is a shrine containing his sarcophagus and a votive lamp.

Despite requests from Florence to return his body to the city, Dante’™s tomb in the church of Santa Croce is empty.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2007, Harper Perennial 433 pages. Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2007.

This book is based on the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967 – 70 and I’m old enough to remember hearing about it at the time. Then I had little idea what it was all about – now I understand a bit more. Nigeria became a Republic in October 1960 and Half of a Yellow Sun begins in the early 1960s in Nsukka in the south eastern area where Ugwu becomes Odenigbo’s houseboy. The story centres on these two characters and Olanna, Odenigbo’s partner, her twin sister Kainene and her partner Richard. Odenigbo is a professor at the University and his house is the meeting place for academics who debate the political situation as it leads up to violence and the secession of Biafra as an independent state. The title of the book comes from the symbol on the Biafran flag, which was half of a yellow sun.

The novel moves forwards and backwards in time between the late and early1960s as the civil war proceeds. Focussing on the struggle between the north and the south, the Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa people, it brings home the horrors brought about by war, the ethnic, religious and racial divisions and the suffering that results. Ugwu at the start of the book is an ignorant young teenager from a poor village eager to learn but still steeped in the superstitions of his family – the old ways. By the end of the novel he has become a valued member of the family and is writing a history of his country. Richard, the white man in love with Kainene but not fully accepted into her world, is eager to be considered Biafran, but is still on the outside. He is in Nigeria studying African art – the Igbo-Ukwu roped pot – and is recruited into writing articles about the war for the outside world, but the story of the war is Ugwu’s to tell and not Richard’s. Olanna’s family is wealthy and even though they are Igbo, they cannot understand her relationship with Odenigbo who is committed to the Igbo cause and would prefer her to marry Madu, a major in the Biafran army. Once the war starts they are all drawn into the conflict, the situation spirals out of their control and they each react in differing ways.

The book explores the conflicts between nationalities, different cultures, different backgrounds and upbringing, between what is traditional and tribal and what is new. Although the violence and deprivations of the war are horrifying and form the dominant element in the story this is not just a war novel. It is also a novel about love and relationships, between parents and children as well as between men and women; about how people learn to adapt and cope with life.

I found the characters to be real, so much so that I could imagine I was there in the thick of things. I sympathised with Richard in his efforts to be accepted and suffered with Olanna when she was confronted with the horror of war and grieved over the plight of the refugees. It reminded me of Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, which I read about 10 years or so ago and Adichie writes of his novels in an article at the end of her book:

Achebe’s war fiction then, humane and pragmatic as it is, becomes a paean to the possibilities that Biafra held. The stories have an emotional power that accumulates in an unobtrusive way and stuns the reader at the end; there are sentences in them that will always move me to tears.

She writes of her own work:

If fiction is indeed the soul of history, then I was equally committed to the fiction and the history, equally true to the spirit of the time as well as to my artistic vision of it.

How well she has succeeded. Half of a Yellow Sun is an emotional book without being sentimental, factual without being boring, and I was completely absorbed in it to the end.

Easter at England’s Eden

We spent the Easter holiday in Cornwall. Whilst many parts of Britain had snow over the Easter weekend it was sunny, but cold, at the Eden Project near St Austell. Actually we did see a very brief flurry of fine snow at one point on Saturday afternoon and it was very windy. We stayed with our son and his family at Carlyon Bay Hotel just outside St Austell overlooking the sea.

The Eden Project was first opened in 2001 and we’™ve been meaning to go there ever since then. Their website says, ‘œEden is all about man’s relationship with and dependence upon plants. Much of our food, our clothes, our shelter and our medicines come from the plant world. Without plants there would be no oxygen for us to breathe, no life on earth.’

It has been constructed in what was a clay pit and the view is most impressive as you approach the deep, steep-sided, flat-bottomed bowl containing the hugh domes. They are the biggest greenhouses in the world, called Biomes. From the entrance in the Visitor Centre we walked down towards the Biomes looking first at the Outdoor Biome following the winding path down the hillside passing areas planted with crops, and daffodils and spring bulbs. As it was Easter there was an Easter Egg hunt to follow with clues hidden throughout the site. We tried to follow the trail, but the clues were too hard for us adults, let alone the children, although we did solve a few. There is a giant bee, the magical land of Myth and Folklore, and a willow maze looking bare at this time of year.

As it is Eden I wasn’™t surprised to find Eve there, but she wasn’™t quite what I expected. She is a large reclining statue, her face made up of small mosaic mirrors and moss is just beginning to grow on her body. Eventually she will all be covered in moss ‘“ a green woman. I didn’™t see Adam.

There is a grotesque piece of artwork ‘“ the WEEE Man, a reminder that the Project is an educational charity aiming to show the need for environmental awareness and sustainability. WEEE Man is a three-tonne, seven-metre tall robotic figure, made up of old washing machines, computer mice, TVs and a vast array of other electrical goods. WEEE stands for Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment. The sculpture is made up of the amount the average UK citizen will throw away in their lifetime ‘“ really horrific.

The Rainforest Biome is my favourite. It covers an area of 15,590 square metres (1.55 hectares), is 55 metres high, 100 metres wide and 200 metres long and it’™s high enough to hold the Tower of London or eleven double-decker buses piled on top of one another. As we went in people were rapidly taking off coats and jumpers because of the heat. It is truly most impressive and it’™s steamy, hot and humid. You can see what it is like living in Malaysia,

West Africa and South America as you walk through and up the biome passing waterfalls and tropical plants. I saw the biggest, smelliest flower in the world, the Titum Arum, although it had gone beyond its best, as it had flowered. By the time I took this photo my camera had steamed up!

The Mediterranean Biome was much cooler, but surprised me as there were displays of plants and scenes from South Africa and California, not just the Med.

As it is spring and in England, the main displays were of spring bulbs, being mainly tulips ‘“ such beautiful colours. I thought the best part of this section was the display of the Rites of Dionysus.

Dionysus was the Greek God of wine and its intoxicating power. I think these statues illustrate nature in its wild, untamed state, clearly capturing the frenzy induced by the music and wine. I liked the stark contrast between the displays of flowers and these sculptures standing on the bare earth.

There was an Ice Skating Rink, a ‘œSimply Delicious Marquee’ where the children decorated cupcakes, and a storytelling tent where we were entertained by the “Spice Man”, with his tales of sailing the seas and the uses of spices in days gone by.

Then there is the ‘œCore‘ shaped like a sunflower, which houses exhibitions, paintings and an enormous nutcracker.

The children had goes at turning the wheel of this massive metal structure. As the handle is turned a big steel ball is raised up to the top of the machine, where it is tipped down a chute, spiralling down to a hammer at the bottom, which then strikes the nut. It was mesmerising to watch.

The centrepiece of the Core is a giant 70 tonne granite sculpture of a seed made of silver-grey Cornish granite estimated to be 300 million years old.

Called ‘œSeed’ it was carved out of a boulder extracted from the De Lank Quarry, in Cornwall. There are 1,800 nodes on its surface in Fibonacci spirals, representing the extraordinary growth pattern found in sunflowers, pinecones and daisies. The Seed is four metres in height and three metres wide at its widest point. I wasn’™t sure that I liked it ‘“ it’™s so strange seeing a seed so large and solid; somehow it looked too sterile, but the age of the granite is awesome!

The Eden Project is a remarkable experience, well worth a visit. If we lived nearer I would like to go more often, spending just a few hours each visit rather than a whole day, which was exhausting, but most enjoyable and educational. I can’t believe that I didn’t buy any books from the Visitor Centre – that must be a first. There are a number of books listed on the Eden Project website, so I’ll browse through these to see which ones I would like.

Cover-Up – Booking Through Thursday

This week’™s Booking Through Thursday question comes from Julie, who asks:
While acknowledging that we can’™t judge books by their covers, how much does the design of a book affect your reading enjoyment? Hardcover vs. softcover? Trade paperback vs. mass market paperback? Font? Illustrations? Etc.?

I’™d like to think that I don’™t judge a book by its cover, but I’™d be kidding myself. Once I’™ve read a book its cover no longer has any influence over whether I enjoyed reading it or not. Once I’™ve opened it I tend not to notice the cover. If I know what I’™m looking for eg a specific title, or a book by a particular author then the cover doesn’™t affect me at all. But it’™s a different story when it comes to books I haven’™t heard about before and then do find that I am repelled by some covers, indifferent to others and attracted by some. I don’™t like those covers where you only see part of the body of, usually a woman, as though she has no head, or feet. I don’™t like covers like those on modern publications of Jane Austen’™s novels or ones with photos from the film or TV adaptations of a book, or chick lit covers.

I’™d like to say that I judge a book by its content alone but I don’™t like books that are printed in either a very small or a very large font. I don’™t like it when there are large sections printed in italics, or a smaller font ‘“ the copy of Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner that I read was like that and I had to flip through the pages to see how much minute font I had to endure. I like the feel of a book in my hands, so smooth, clean paper is a bonus, but I’ll still enjoy a book that’s printed on cheap paper that’s been suffering from too much sun and is falling to pieces.

I don’™t mind hardback or paperback, although I get a bit irritated by both if they’™re hard to hold open when I’™m reading, or if they’™re so tightly bound that you can’™t see the words in the centre without practically forcing the book open. I’m not keen on those paperbacks that have covers that bend open once I’™ve started to read the book. I don’™t know the difference between a trade paperback and a mass-market paperback at all, so I can’™t comment on that.

It looks as though there’™s a lot that I don’™t like when I think about it, but if I’™m enjoying the content then its format doesn’™t really bother me – I just love reading. I like the cover to indicate something about the content of the book and even when it doesn’™t I do like scenes like this one on The Magician’s Assistant. I must write about this book soon, I finished reading it weeks ago. Part of it is set in Nebraska, but not in a house like the one shown on this cover.

As for illustrations if I’™m reading non-fiction then any illustrations – photos, sketches, maps amd plans are a must and I love seeing them ‘“ usually I look at them before reading any of the book. A novel is different, as I like to form my own pictures of the characters from the descriptions. But I do like to have maps and plans of the locations. Recently I’ve read some books set in places I don’t know and I have to stop reading to look up the area such as Nigeria when I was reading Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’ll be writing about this book soon – it’s an amazing and absorbing book.

C J Sansom’™s Matthew Shardlake series of books are excellent in this respect ‘“ and in all others as well. I find it easier to visualise where the action takes place from studying the maps at the beginning of the books. His latest book is out now and I had a late Christmas present yesterday when Revelation was delivered to my door. Thanks D.

Here is the map
and here is a photo this beautiful, big, hardback copy that is shouting READ ME NOW!

Dante’s The Divine Comedy

Dante finished writing The Divine Comedy in 1321 shortly before his death. The subject of the final talk in my course on Dante’™s Florence was The Divine Comedy, its sources, structure, an introduction to some of its characters, concluding with Dante’™s legacy in art.

I don’™t think that I’™ve ever had such a long introduction to a literary work and I’™m eager now to actually read The Divine Comedy. My copy is the Oxford World’™s Classics publication. It is 741 pages long, including several introductory essays with plans and maps, and copious notes. I also have the much shorter The Descent Into Hell translated by Dorothy L Sayers. This is only 130 pages and contains extracts from the Inferno (the first part of The Divine Comedy).

Dante’™s first title for this was ‘˜The Vision’™. He wrote it in Italian, not Latin, so that it was accessible for everyone. It was recited and is basically a sermon, a sacred poem. He changed the title to ‘˜comedy’™, which in the ancient tradition was a story, beginning as tragedy and moving to a happy ending. Boccaccio added ‘˜Divine’™ to the title in the 14th century. It’™s an epic, allegorical poem ‘“ and also an historical chronicle of Dante’™s time packed with information on topics such as politics, theology, geography, the arts, and love.

It depicts three regions of the dead ‘“ Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise, a journey through the spiritual realms. There are 100 cantos, written in third rhyme ‘“ terza rima, invented by Dante, ie the first and third lines rhyme, with the second line indicating the next rhyme. This is an aid to memory and also helps to move the narrative forward. It’™s packed with imagery, with multiple meanings and although it includes contemporary characters it’™s amazingly modern. Florence is depicted as hell, with the Pope, Boniface VIII and clerics condemned because of the corrupt state of the church, although Dante describes meeting Christian theological thinkers in Paradise.

Dante used many sources, including the Bible, Greek mythology, Roman history, Ovid’™s Metamorphosis, Livy, legends, miracle and medieval morality plays and his own stories. The poem begins with an exciting episode at the gates to the underworld in a dark, confusing wood, symbolising doubt, sin and the sterility of the soul. Dante, the narrator, has lost the path and is guided by Virgil through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise, where he meets his beloved Beatrice, who guides him through Heaven. Paradiso is the place of perfect harmony ordained by God. Dante followed the Ptolemaic system of the Cosmos in which Earth is the centre of the universe. He placed Hell at the centre of the Earth, underneath Jerusalem, reached through nine different circles, containing sinners suffering terrible punishments and torture. Purgatory was somewhere in the southern hemisphere, ascending up to Paradise located in Heaven above the Earth.

There are about 600 characters in the whole poem, 250 from the classical era, 80 from the Bible and 250 from Dante’™s own time. Dante admired Virgil, his guide through Hell and Purgatory. He describes him as ‘œthat fount of splendour’, symbolising human reason and wisdom. Amongst the many characters are Brunetto Latini, Dante’™s mentor who took an active role in politics and the art of oratory, is found in Hell because of the sin of sodomy, which was considered as violence against nature; and Farinata degli Uberti, the leader of the Ghybelline party, also found in Hell as punishment for heresy because he was an Epicurean believing that the soul died with the body. He rises from the burning tomb of heretics to speak to Dante. The first mention of Florence is from Ciacco, guilty of the sin of gluttony, when he refers the bloodshed between the citizens of ‘œthe divided city’.

Other people mentioned are members of the ancient Donati family (Dante’™s wife was Gemma Donati) ‘“ Dante’™s friend Foresi Donati, Corso Donati, a thief being changed into a serpent and Piccarda Donati his sister, ‘œa pearl on a white forehead’, who had belonged to the Order of Poor Clares and was forced to marry to forge a political alliance; the violent tempered Agenti who opposed Dante’™s recall from exile; Gianni Schicchi (the source of Puccini’™s opera ‘“ including the beautiful aria ‘œO mio babbino caro‘); and Count Ugolino, the tyrant who had switched allegiance and was left to starve in Pisa’™s Tower of Famine ‘“ he was said to have eaten his sons and grandsons and for punishment in Hell was forced to chew on the head of Archbishop Ruggieri.

The Divine Comedy has been read and copied ever since with commentaries coming very quickly after Dante’™s death. The first biography of Dante was written in about 1351 by Giovanni Boccaccio, based on oral history from Dante’™s contemporaries. The poem was seen as a difficult, obscure work, gothic and heavy going in 14th century England, but Chaucer mentioned it in the Monk’™s Tale in his Canterbury Tales. English translations were made from 1802 onwards by Henry Boyd and Henry Cary (promoted by Coleridge). It influenced amongst others John Milton, Shelley and Byron, Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

There are many examples of Dante’™s legacy in art ‘“ here are just a few:

Giotto’™s Last Judgment, in the Arena Chapel in Padua.
Frescos in the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella showing the tiered compartments of Hell and Cerberus the monster three throats, wings and the body of a beast guarding Hell and the Elect ‘“ Saints and Cardinals rising up from their tombs.
The Last Judgment of Fra Angelico.

The painting of the Madonna in Majesty by the Siennese painter Martini.
Botticelli’™s scenes of Inferno commissioned to illustrate The Divine Comedy by the Medicis ‘“ 92 survive and are in the Vatican Library.

Drawn in pen and ink he intended to colour them all. The one shown below is of the City of Dis, the lower part of Hell, with winged monsters, and the Circle of Deceivers. Dante is shown in red and Virgil in blue.

Frescoes of the Last Judgment in Orvietto Cathedral in 1500 reflecting the doom and gloom of the times fearing the end of the world with images of the damned, a mass of contorted bodies, by Signorelli, a master of human anatomy ‘“ the Resurrection of the flesh showing skeletons and bodies emerging from their tombs.
Michelangelo’™s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.
Gustave Dore’™s illustrations of The Divine Comedy.

William Blake’™s watercolour paintings of Inferno

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’™s translation of La Vita Nuova in 1848.
Christina Rossetti’™s studies of Dante ‘“ she saw him as a figure of romance.
Rossetti’™s Beata Beatrix 1863 ‘“ his portrait of Lizzie Siddell in a trance-like state. The white poppy because she was thought to have been poisoned with opium and the sundial pointing to 9 relating to the meeting of Dante and Beatrice when he was 9 years old. This is one of my favourite paintings.

Rodin’™s Gates of Hell and The Thinker, also The Kiss, depicting Francesca de Rimini whom Dante meets in Canto 5 of the Inferno. Francesca had fallen in love with Paulo, her husband’s younger brother. The legend goes that they were killed by Giovanni, her husband.

There are many, many more – see this Wikipedia link.

Oh No, Not Another Challenge!

I really cannot resist this challenge – mainly because I like the title and the picture in the banner. The promise of a good story will always tempt me to open a book and start reading.

This is Carl’s Once Upon a Time Challenge. It began on Friday, March 21st and runs to Friday, June 20th: Midsummer Night’™s Eve. Joining this challenge means you are participating but not committing yourself to any specific number of books. I’m aiming to complete “Quest the First
which is to read at least 5 books that fit somewhere within the Once Upon a Time II criteria of fantasy, or folklore, or fairy tales, or mythology’¦or your five books might be a combination from the four genres.
These books are on my to-be-read list already and fit into these categories:
  1. Dante’™s Descent into Hell, translated by Dorothy L Sayers
  2. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
  3. The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake
  4. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  5. Star Wars by George Lucas
  6. Helen of Troy by Margaret George

I was intrigued to read in this Wiki link that Dante’s The Divine Comedy is categorised as Bangsian fantasy. I had never heard of this but according to Wikipedia it is named after John Kendrick Bangs, whose novels deal with the afterlives of various famous people. Whilst I do intend to read The Divine Comedy I doubt that I’ll finish it all before 20 June, so the short version by Dorothy L Sayers seems a good choice for this challenge.

The other books are a mixture of science fiction, fantasy and mythology and I’ve owned them all for a while. Like other unread books I was keen to read them when I bought them. It is time to open them soon. I have actually read the Gormenghast books before, when I was at college, when I borrowed them from the library, but I haven’t read the copies that I own, which are wrapped in sellaphane!

The End – Booking Through Thursday

This week’s question is:

You’™ve just reached the end of a book . . . what do you do now? Savor and muse over the book? Dive right into the next one? Go take the dog for a walk, the kids to the park, before even thinking about the next book you’™re going to read? What?

(Obviously, there can be more than one answer, here’“a book with a cliff-hanger is going to engender different reactions than a serene, stand-alone, but you get the idea!)

I can’t generalise here. It really all depends upon so many things. Sometimes the book I’ve just finished was so good that anything else is an anti-climax and I don’t want or can’t decide which book to read next, even though I have a long to-be-read list and piles of unread books. So then I pause and wait for the right book to appear.

I read on impulse sometimes. It may be a book I’ve picked up at the library, or a book recommended on someone’s blog, or a friend has lent me. Sometimes it depends upon my frame of mind, and a book might or might not be right one just then. Sometimes I know just what to read and dive straight into it. Usually I have more than one book on the go anyway, so there’s no decision to make and I carry on reading that and pick and choose another book to start.

If it’s a book that’s part of a series, then I’m impatient to get to the next one. I recently read the first two of Olivia Manning’s books in The Balkan Trilogy, but didn’t have the third. It’s about two months ago that I finished the second and I was eager to read the third, but the library and bookshops didn’t have it. So I ordered the complete trilogy in one volume. At last it arrived yesterday, but I’m not diving into the third book just yet – the time isn’t right.