Covered by the Corriere della Sera

20100212corriere-della-seraOne of Italy’s oldest newspapers, the Corriere della Sera, recently wrote on my essay “I Found Myself in a Dark Wood.”

Read more here…

To read my original essay, please click here.

Byron’s Fatal Lady: Francesca da Rimini


Gustav Doré’s illustration of Inferno 5 (1861)

It’s hard not to appreciate the charms of Dante’s Francesca da Rimini. She speaks the most fluid Italian (she greets Dante in Inferno by calling him an animal grazïoso, “gracious creature”); stands by her man, Paolo, even in the eternal storm of hell; and can recite medieval love lyric verbatim. No wonder that Byron – a poet also easily swayed by the passions – gave so much thought to her.

Byron’s interest in Francesca dates back to at least 1816, when he assisted his friend Leigh Hunt in revising his Story of Rimini, a much-maligned work that Byron defended as “devilish good.” Byron alluded to Francesca in many other works, and even announced plans to write a play on her in his Ravenna Journals from 1821. (Ravenna, incidentally, was the city where Dante died in 1321.)

The play was never to be – but Byron did offer a partial translation of the canto of Paolo and Francesca from Inferno 5. The scene is one of the most celebrated in all of Dante and among the most influential in Western literature, as it has inspired illustrations by William Blake and Gustav Doré, plays by Hunt and Silvio Pellico, music by Tchaikovsky—even an opera by Riccardo Zandonai staged in 2012 at the Met.


William Blake, “The Lovers’ Whirlwind, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta” (1824-27)

In Inferno 5, Dante meets Francesca and her silent lover in the canto of those condemned for lust: Francesca and her brother-in-law Paolo fell in love one day while reading about Lancelot and Guinevère’s betrayal of her husband, King Arthur. Unlike most English translations of the passage, Byron captures the poetic force of Dante’s original by recreating its delicate music (“But tell me, in the Season of sweet sighs”) and its confused erotic language (“Love, who to none beloved to love again / Remits”).

By reproducing the rhythm and flow of Dante’s words, Byron shows just how imprisoned Francesca is by passionate feelings that overwhelm all judgment and vanquish restraint (“[Love] seized me with wish to please, so strong, / That, as thou see’st, yet, yet it doth remain’).

Here’s the full translation:

‘The Land where I was born sits by the Seas
Upon that shore to which the Po descends,
With all his followers, in search of peace.
Love, which the gentle heart soon apprehends,
Seized him for the fair person which was ta’en
From me, and me even yet the mode offends.
Love, who to none beloved to love again
Remits, seized me with wish to please, so strong,
That, as thou see’st, yet, yet it doth remain.
Love to one death conducted us along,
But Caina waits for him our life who ended:”
These were the accents uttered by her tongue.—
Since I first listened to these Souls offended,
I bowed my visage, and so kept it till—
“What think’st thou?” said the bard; when I unbended,
And recommenced: “Alas! unto such ill
How many sweet thoughts, what strong ecstacies,
Led these their evil fortune to fulfill!”
And then I turned unto their side my eyes,
And said, “Francesca, thy sad destinies
Have made me sorrow till the tears arise.
But tell me, in the Season of sweet sighs,
By what and how thy Love to Passion rose,
So as his dim desires to recognize?”
Then she to me: “The greatest of all woes
Is to remind us of our happy days
In misery, and that thy teacher knows.
But if to learn our Passion’s first root preys
Upon thy spirit with such Sympathy,
I will do even as he who weeps and says.
We read one day for pastime, seated nigh,
Of Lancilot, how Love enchained him too.
We were alone, quite unsuspiciously.
But oft our eyes met, and our Cheeks in hue
All o’er discoloured by that reading were;
But one point only wholly us o’erthrew;
When we read the long-sighed-for smile of her,
To be thus kissed by such devoted lover,
He, who from me can be divided ne’er,
Kissed my mouth, trembling in the act all over:
Accurséd was the book and he who wrote!
That day no further leaf we did uncover.”
While thus one Spirit told us of their lot,
The other wept, so that with Pity’s thralls
I swooned, as if by Death I had been smote,
And fell down even as a dead body falls.

(March 20, 1820; Works of Lord Byron, ed. E. H. Coleridge, London: 1905)

For more on Byron’s version of the tragic Francesca, see Carol Rumen’s piece in The Guardian.

Raising the Dead (Language)

The death of Joseph Terranova at age 95 on August 3, 2013 brought a flood of memories.

I did well enough in sports and my studies to avoid many of the usual pains of teenage social life and its ruthless hierarchies. But like so many of us at that age, I felt displaced and disconnected. Other than “going to college,” I had little idea of what my future held, and my one abiding goal was to “fit in.” But there was one subject that became a home for me: Latin.

For four years, I studied under the greatest teacher I have ever known, Mr. Terranova. He lived and breathed Latin, and inspired his students to do the same. He referred to students’ girlfriends and boyfriends as the dreaded “ablative of accompaniment,” and he made us memorize Caesar’s military diction (“Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres”; “Gaul as a whole is divided into three parts”) and scan Virgil’s dactyls and spondees (“Ar-ma vir-um que ca-no Troiae qui pri-mus ab oris”; the famous “Arms and man, I sing…” opening of the Aeneid). Mr. Terranova didn’t expect us to become Latinists, but he promised that Latin would give us a mental discipline, whether we wished to become teachers, engineers, lawyers, surgeons, or anything else.


Ludolph Büsinck, “Aeneas Carrying Anchises from Troy” (1623-30)

More than any other class in my high school, his prized intellect  fostered a competitive ethos. And it unveiled the possibility of new identities and homelands far from our Rhode Island suburbs. Sure, English, history, and other subjects also prodded the imagination; but to dream in a foreign language, especially in an ancient, “dead” language—that fired the brain like nothing else.

Countering the usual attack that Latin was “dead” because nobody spoke it anymore, Mr. Terranova reminded us that actually many throughout the world still spoke Latin: we ourselves in his classroom; the clergy of the Vatican; the doctors, lawyers, and other professionals who resort to Latin terminology. What makes a language dead, he claimed, is when it ceases to change. The grammar of Latin, long since codified, has stopped evolving with human culture, hence its mortality. But by studying Latin and applying it to the world around us, we were keeping the language among the living.

The brilliance of Mr. Terranova’s insights remain with me. They have helped me understand why, say, Dante would chose to write his Divine Comedy (c. 1307-19) in Tuscan rather than Latin, even though Latin would have guaranteed him a broader and more influential group of initial readers. Or why Wordsworth would reject the artificial poetic diction of the eighteenth-century and write his Lyrical Ballads (1800) in what he called the “real language of men.” Both authors sought a living idiom attuned to the rhythms and speech patterns of the everyday. Similarly, to Mr. T., as we affectionately called him, Latin was a key to living culture.

It pained me to read in Mr. Terranova’s obituary that he “often wondered whether he had a positive effect on his young charges.” One of these young charges, I would not be a professor of language and literature today if it hadn’t been for him. His class taught me how to love words and understand their power to reveal the mysteries of culture and knowledge. What is more, his passion for Latin showed how a subject of study can transform your life. No student—or future teacher—could have asked for more.

Gratias tibi ago, magister.

Boccaccio’s Ladies

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75) addressed his monumental Decameron, a fourteenth-century collection of one hundred novelle (“tales”) narrated during the Black Plague of 1348, to “graziosissime donne” (“most gracious ladies”), rather than to the typical male audience of the Middle Ages. He was especially keen to reach out to those female readers who suffered the pain of love. Unlike men in love, who have many ways to “alleviate or remove” the disquieting thoughts of love (they can hawk, hunt, fish, ride, gamble), women remain couped up indoors. “Out of fear and shame, [they] keep the flames of love hidden within their delicate breasts” (trans. W. Rebhorn).

The Decameron, newly translated by Wayne Rebhorn (Norton, 2013), is often seen as the “human comedy,” an earthy, humanist, proto-Renaissance counterpoint to Dante’s eminently medieval Divine Comedy. Whereas Dante prepares the soul for a Christian afterlife, Boccaccio’s focuses on the earthly adventures of his merchants, prostitutes, bankers, kings, slaves, and beggars with apparently little concern for the heavens above.

At least that’s the standard story. In truth, Boccaccio was more connected to Dante’s vision—and its Christian afterlife—than most realize. He was one of Dante’s earliest and most important promoters, writing a Treatise in Praise of Dante around 1350 and lecturing on The Divine Comedy in Florence’s Santo Stefano church in 1373. By then the aging Boccaccio had come to reject the more erotic elements of his youthful Decameron, as he spent his final years in intense Christian devotion.

Dante condemned Francesca da Rimini to the Circle of the Lustful because of her adulterous affair with her brother-in-law Paolo. The betrayal came about because one day Francesca and Paolo were reading “per diletto” (“for pleasure”), of Lancelot and Guinevere’s embrace. Now in Dante you cannot simply read per diletto: all aesthetic pleasure must be grounded in Christian morality. That Boccaccio would allow–indeed, urge–his gentle ladies to read for pleasure and pleasure alone makes a profound break with the dogmatic Christian view that art should never separate itself from religion. Renaissance humanism is many things: the recuperation of Greco-Roman culture, the emergence of a rationalist and scientific worldview, the formation of the first modern states. High on this list ranks the freedom of artistic expression (and, in the case of our gentle lady readers, artistic appreciation) from religious doctrine that Boccaccio promoted.

It’s no wonder that The Decameron would inspire so many Renaissance artists. In 1483, Lorenzo il Magnifico commissioned Botticelli to paint four episodes from Boccaccio’s tale of Nastagio degli Onesti.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 4

The story is not for the faint of heart. To free himself from the cruelty of a woman he is in love with, the young nobleman Nastagio degli Onesti leaves Ravenna and sets up an elegant camp a few miles outside the city. While there he witnesses the gruesome spectacle of a woman pursued by mastiff hounds tearing at her flesh (figure 1) and a bloodthirsty knight. When Nastagio tries to intervene and protect the damsel, the spectral knight warns him away. He  and his lover, in an infernal inversion of the gentle Paolo and Francesca, are doomed to an eternity of slaughter: “every time I catch her,” he tells Nastagio, “I kill her with the same sword with which I slew myself” (figure 2). Nastagio brings his lady along with her family to see the spectacle (figure 3), which frightens her so much that she agrees to marry the man whom she had once spurned (figure 4).

I suppose it is a “happy ending” of sorts, but brilliantly, ambiguously so. Boccaccio was too shrewd and subtle a writer not to suggest that a woman coerced into marriage by a scene of torture could hardly be described as fortunate and free. The world he inhabited was deeply hierarchical, with clearly allotted roles for men and woman, master and servant, noble and pauper. And yet his Decameron also reveals a more fluid world with a rising middle class that gets ahead through savvy and street smarts. Above all, his book carves out new possibilities for women, transforming what had been a male literary space into a place for gentle ladies.