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:


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.