The Starlings of Santa Maria Novella

In Inferno 5, the celebrated canto of Paolo and Francesca, Dante describes the lustful sinners – “che sommettono la ragione al talento,” “who sacrificed reason to desire” – as buffeted like starlings in a storm:

E come li stornei ne portan l’ali
nel freddo tempo, a schiera larga e piena,
così quel fiato li spiriti mali.

As, in cold weather, the wings of the starlings
bear them up in wide, dense flocks,
so does that blast propel the wicked spirits.
(trans. Hollander)

Dante’s lines recall some of the most famous birds in Florence. As many visitors to the city know, each day around dusk flocks of starlings descend on the gardens of the majestic Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, not far from the not-so-majestic Fascist-era train station and its subterranean shopping malls.

Here’s my photo of the scene:

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Notice that swirling line of black specks above Santa Maria Novella? Those are the starlings. The photograph is from 2009, but I remember these birds descending on the groves of Santa Maria Novella for as along as I’ve been visiting the site.

Dante is an unparalleled poet of local color: the salty bread of foreign tables in Paradiso 17 (as opposed to Florentine cuisine, which has made salt-free bread for centuries); the beautiful St. John’s Baptistery in Paradiso 25, where the poet was baptized; the Florence of his childhood also in canto 25, the “bell’ovile,” “fair sheepfold,” where he slept “come agnello,” “ as a lamb.”

Construction of Santa Maria Novella began in 1279, when Dante was 14. I have no way of knowing whether these starlings were hovering around Florence’s centro storico back then, but the passage from Inferno 5 reminds me of those other instances where Dante may be drawing on local touches for his imagery and insights. And I can never read about the “schiera larga e piena,” “the wide dense flocks” of those who died for too much love in Inferno 5, without picturing the starlings of Santa Maria Novella.

Learn more about these Florentine birds here.

Byron’s Fatal Lady: Francesca da Rimini

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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.

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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.