Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Inferno II: Better call soul


When I first read the Divine Comedy it wouldn’t have occurred to me to compare it to a television show – TV was a bit shit in the 80s – but now it does. The first canto is the pilot episode in which we are introduced to the main characters and given a glimpse to the kind of show that the Comedy will turn into. It begins in media res, right in the middle of the action (‘Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark’…), and a bunch of stuff happens involving exotic wild animals, setting us up for an equally exciting second episode. But those expectations – like in the best kind of television – are set to be confounded.

If in the first canto everything happened, in the second one nothing does. The action spans a few moments, the time necessary for Virgil and Dante to exchange a few words and for the sun to set behind the crest of the hill they are about to climb.

Or are they? Dante is not so sure anymore. His resolve has drained out of him. He doubts that he is capable and worthy of the journey made before him by the likes of Aeneas and Saint Paul. Virgil is unmoved: quit being a coward, he rebukes him. Then, to restore his courage, he tells him of the mission that was entrusted upon him (meaning Virgil) by the soul of a woman, now deceased, whom Dante loved as a younger man. The bulk of the canto takes the form of a flashback, or rather a series of nested flashbacks, as the plan to shepherd Dante out of his dark forest is formulated and transmitted through the celestial chain of command, from the Virgin Mary down to Virgil. The speech has the desired effect on Dante, who is once again ready to take his first step up the hill. We are back to where we started.

A 15th century illustration of the canto by Priamo de la Quercia
But a synopsis does not account for what words make happen in this canto. We are at the threshold between cultures: from the classic one of Virgil to the middle-age of Dante, at the height of the Catholic Church’s secular dominion over Europe; but also – like a prophecy – from that late feudal age of almost universal illiteracy into the modern one, in which an encyclopaedic poem about theology, philosophy, politics and history is accessible to the masses.

In the early 14th century, Latin was still the language of the pan-European intellectual class. It was also the language of the fathers of the church, therefore things spoken or written in Latin were automatically closer to the truth.

Dante’s decision to write the great poetic testament of European medieval culture in the vernacular, that is to say the language of the people, was both daring and visionary, for it presupposed a public that didn’t yet exist, in a country that didn’t become a country for another five and a half centuries. In so doing, not only did Dante practically invent the Italian language, but the very idea of Italy.

William Blake, 'Dante and Virgil enter the woods'
But the poem has just begun, in fact it’s almost unbeginning, retracing the steps of that boastful first canto. We’re still at the foot of the hill and the edge of the forest, and simultaneously in the present time of Dante-the-writer, as he sets down to record his adventures. After the ritual invocation to the muses, in a famous line he appeals to the mente che scrivesti ciò ch’io vidi, literally ‘the mind that wrote down the things I saw’, although back then ‘mind’ really meant ‘memory’.

It’s a dense and contradictory image, that of the poet seeking divine inspiration while at the same time claiming that his job is merely to jot down the things he remembers, in the order in which they occurred. Of course this is a narrative frame, as any of Dante’s contemporary readers, if pressed, would have acknowledged: none would be so credulous and devout to think that the poet had really travelled to the other world, on a mission from God. Yet those same readers would have also believed – as no doubt Dante himself did – that poetry was an instrument for investigating the truth. Their relationship with the text, which we can only vaguely imagine, would have been radically different from that of a modern reader. But it pays to bear that radical difference in mind, as the question of what is true in the poem and about the poem is a key to its interpretation.

The ritual invocation to the muses and the power of memory segues wonderfully into Dante’s doubts – as expressed to Virgil – that he is the guy for the job. Here Dante is simply trying to talk himself out of proceeding, like someone who disvuol ciò che volle –unwills what he willed. Had Dante succeeded, there would be no poem. So naturally Virgil has to dissuade him. "S’i’ ho ben la parola tua intesa, l’anima tua è da viltade offesa. Or, in prose: ‘If I get what you’re saying, cowardice got the better of you.’

Gustave Doré, 'I am Beatrice'

What follows is Virgil’s account of having been approached in limbo (where he dwells as someone who died before the birth of Christ) by a donna beata e bella – ‘a fair, saintly lady’ (per Longfellow): it’s Beatrice Portinari, the daughter of a Florentine banker, whom Dante loved desperately as a young man but who was married in her teens into another banking family, and who died – probably of childbirth – at the age of 24, ten years before the setting of the poem. Beatrice explains she was approached by Santa Lucia, who alerted her to the grave circumstances in which Dante found himself. Santa Lucia in turn had been sent by the Virgin Mary herself, this triple relationship symbolically reflecting three different stages of Christian grace. But Beatrice – who will play a starring role in the Paradiso, 66 cantos from now – is not merely a symbol, nor a messenger. Her eloquence is her own, as is the pity she feels for the man who once loved her, and she is not shy about asserting her own identity:
I’ son Beatrice che ti faccio andare;
vegno del loco ove tornar disio;
amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare.

Beatrice am I, who do bid thee go;
I come from there, where I would fain return;
Love moved me, which compels me to speak.
The effect of these words on Dante borders on the erotic:
Quali fioretti dal notturno gelo
chinati e chiusi, poi che ’l sol li ’mbianca,
si drizzan tutti aperti in loro stelo,
tal mi fec’io di mia virtude stanca
More or less: ‘Like little flowers that the chill of night had forced to bow and close, once warmed by the sun open up and stand upright on their stem, so did I regain my exhausted strength.’

Dante is rearing to go now. It’s his turn to encourage Virgil: tu duca, tu segnore, tu maestro – ‘my guide, my lord, my inspiration’ – as if he had been waiting all the time to be pointed in the right direction.

Thus ends this extraordinary, circular canto, in which nothing happens and human time has no meaning. For when was Virgil summoned by Beatrice? When were those decisions made, and the message passed along, that the poet should be rescued from his deathly moral crisis? Recall how in the first canto Virgil is introduced as someone who had long been silent (che per lungo silenzio parea fioco). Perhaps, then, like this canto suspended in time, Virgil had always been there, a shadow waiting for a man of flesh and blood to get lost in the dark forest of his mind.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Inferno I


Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark

Italians study Dante the way English people study Shakespeare: reverently, and mandatorily. My father, who attended a vocational school for artisans before starting work at 14, was nonetheless taught about him, and would sometimes recite a few of those classic rote-learned facts. For instance, that the Divine Comedy is a ‘didactic allegory’.

When my turn came to attend a far more academic high school, forty years later, the study of Dante spanned three whole grades. At sixteen we studied the Inferno; at seventeen, the Purgatory; at eighteen, Paradise. Throughout the year, typically at the rate of one hour a week. It was an ambitious programme, befitting the archaic, pre-war design of our school system. When the country became a Republic, in 1946, it did not create new and more democratic schools. Instead, it opened the doors of the schools for the children of doctors and lawyers – the licei – to the children of factory workers and farmers. At least in theory. In practice, the prospect of spending three years studying a medieval didactic allegory, or five years learning Latin and/or Greek, acted as an implicit socioeconomic barrier. Households such as mine – working class, but full of books – were not in the majority.

School was, sometimes, our forest dark: an impenetrable thicket of arcane knowledge and arbitrary tasks, designed to select us and prepare us – although it wasn’t clear exactly for what.

First plate of the Comedy illustrated by Gustave Doré
Dante wrote the Divine Comedy from 1308 to 1321, while in exile from his native Florence. The action however is set in the year 1300, the year of the first Catholic Jubilee. ‘Midway upon the journey of our life’ means at the age of thirty-five, based on the conventional belief – stated by Dante in the Convivio – that placed the duration of life at seventy. (Dante was born in 1265.) The journey of Dante spans one hundred cantos but only seven days, and begins either on the 25th of March – the day of the death of Jesus on the cross – or on the 7th of April, its lunar anniversary in the year 1300. In other words, Easter Friday.

The dark forest represents moral confusion and sin, That’s the first allegory, right in the poem’s opening tercet. There are over fourteen thousand of these tercets in the poem, each comprising three lines of eleven syllables each with alternate interlocking rhymes (ABA BCB CDC and so forth). Think about that design for a moment, and the almost superhuman effort that erecting such an edifice of words might require. And then, to match the formal audacity, a subject matter to rival and surpass ancient tales of journeys into the Afterlife. For while it’s true that Aeneas and Odysseus had walked among the dead, those pantheistic religions were a great deal more accommodating of such fantasies. For a Christian poet to imagine an equivalent journey, not only through Hades but to Heaven as well, would have come dangerously close to heresy.

Placing three Popes in Hell – two of whom were not even dead yet – was pretty gutsy as well.

The first page of Aldus Manutius' 1502 edition
But I’m running ahead of myself. Dante has barely walked out of the forest and begun to climb a rather promising-looking hill that a leopard, a lion and a wolf jump out before him, forcing him to retreat. The word ‘fear’ appears five times in this opening canto, but nowhere more memorably than in the 53rd line: con la paura che uscia di sua vista, which Longfellow translates as ‘the fright that from her aspect came’. But it’s a pallid echo of Dante’s image, in which fear seems to physically radiate from the appearance of the ravenous wolf: as if to give origin to the expression ‘a frightful sight’.

It is then, just as he is about to turn back towards the forest, that Dante spots the figure of a man che per lungo silenzio parea fioco. Both of my annotated editions of the Divine Comedy interpret fioco as meaning hoarse, therefore ‘someone whose long silence had almost deprived of his voice’. That’s the word Longfellow uses in his classic nineteenth century translation, suggesting this interpretation reflects an age-old consensus.

I’m sure that the scholars are correct but frankly it has never made any sense to me. Dante at this point hasn’t heard the man speak yet. How could his voice sound hoarse ? The standard Italian meaning of fioco is dim, as in ‘a dim light’. I prefer to read the line therefore as a classic Dantean synaesthesia. After all, haven’t we just been told that in the forest ‘the sun was silent’, meaning that the place was dark? Fioco offers a perfect call-back to that image: Dante failed to see the man because he stood in motionless silence.

William Blake, The Mission of Virgil
No matter. What does matter is the identity of this man, who finally reveals himself. He was born sub iulio – at the time of Caesar – and lived in Rome in the era degli dei falsi e bugiardi, ‘of the false and lying gods’. (I get false, but how do you lie by not existing?) His parents both hailed from Lombardy. He was a poet, and sang of the just son of Anchises, that is to say Aeneas.

He could have just said ‘Hey there, I’m the ancient poet Virgil’, but that wouldn’t quite cut it, poetically speaking.

Dante is ecstatic: this is the author whom he most reveres, and to whose example he feels he owes his style and his fame. A short prophecy later (a man will come who will vanquish the beasts – though none of the commentators can quite agree on whom it might have been), Virgil explains that he will guide Dante first through Hell, then through Purgatory. Once they get to the Gates of Saint Peter’s, however, Dante will have to find another guide, for Heaven has a strict ‘no Pagans allowed’ code.

The canto ends in typical fashion, which is to say dynamically, as a springboard to the next one.

Allor si mosse, e io li tenni dietro. 
Then he moved, and I followed behind.

Gustave Doré, plate V: end of the first canto
The Divine Comedy is an extraordinary compendium of medieval European culture, and one of the high points of human civilisation. It is also a supreme joy to read, and a reason in itself for learning Italian, as indeed many people have – for instance Ann Goldstein, who went on to become the translator of Elena Ferrante and Primo Levi. I’m not sure it should be parcelled and served as homework to sixteen year olds, but then it’s hard to find a time in life to read a long medieval poem that doubles as an encyclopaedia to a lost world. Perhaps there is no good time. Which is the same thing as saying that it’s always the best possible time.


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

How to draw a tree


How to draw a tree. How to draw a person, a house, or the Sun. How to colour-in the sky. Basic skills for children, or adults for that matter, taught via a series of small books. A project very much of its era: for while it’s quite possible to imagine similar books being produced now, the approach to teaching creativity within rules – the classical alongside the modern – is something I recognise from the pedagogical fashions of my childhood.


How to draw a tree was the star of the show, and is still in print, also in English. It isn’t so much an instructional book as the story of how trees are drawn by nature. The inspiration is this drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci, on the proportional growth of tree branches (from his Treatise on Painting).


Leonardo’s theory held that ‘all the branches of a tree at every stage of its height when put together are equal in thickness to the trunk’. The book’s author – my beloved Bruno Munari – uses this idea for a collage exercise towards the end of How to draw a tree, but translates otherwise the drawing as the following recipe/mantra repeated throughout the text, in big print and small print, upside and sidewise and down:
Every branch is thinner than the branch that precedes it.
That is the moral of the story of how to draw a tree.

I’ll get back to the book. But for the purposes of this post I revisited the others in the series, almost three decades on from when I first encountered them. And found them inferior to that first title. How to draw a house (by Roberto Lanterio) is just a catalogue of the different shapes that dwellings take in different cultures. You won’t know how to draw them any better than before you picked up the book. How to draw a person (by Rinaldo Donzelli) is similarly lacking in invention. How much better it might have been had it borrowed Munari’s own approach – from an essay in his seminal collection L’arte come mestiere – to drawing faces out of found design elements and shapes. Fellow children of the Lego generation could really have done something with this.


However I do recall being struck by the book’s central fold-out pages, which vividly illustrate how real-life faces aren’t symmetrical, and also that they are more interesting that way.

Not this

Nor this

But this

I never owned a copy of How to draw the sun, but from what I can gather from the internet it contained another of Munari’s old ideas– namely that ‘the sunset is just a dawn seen from behind’ – and also employed another favourite technique of his, which consist in highlighting a visual element by concealing it behind something else, or pointing to its absence.


Munari’s stated intent in writing or overseeing these books was to help readers avoid the clichés typical of childhood drawings. Trees, people, houses, skies, the Sun: for each of these basic elements of our early art there is a stereotype we can immediately picture in our heads, and easily repeat even as adults. Munari’s method is to strip down these socially acquired conventions, and teach how to look at the world as artists – that is to say, to capture the essence of a subject, its visual signature, so as to be able to reproduce it on the page.

Back to the trees, then, whose job is to grow and branch out.


Every branch is thinner than the branch that precedes it, and this is almost all you need to know.


The growth of our basic tree is shaped and constrained by its environment. For instance, by the wind.


And naturally different kinds of trees branch out in their own peculiar ways.


By observing an oak leaf, we discover that their veining reproduces the pattern of how a tree grows. Take out the outline of the leaf, and we are back to drawing trees.


Some adults, ponders Munari, will resist these teachings. They will say ‘I can’t draw’. But of course you, can, he taunts them. You can draw the letters of the alphabet, for one thing. You can draw them big and small, uppercase and lowercase, in wavy lines or at right angles, can’t you. Yes, yes, yes. Well then, he continues, if you can draw a capital Y you can draw a tree. There are no excuses.


How to draw a tree is less a practical lesson than an extended meditation, the story of how (and why) one might draw a tree. Above all, it presumes of young children and primary school teachers a willingness to engage in philosophical enquiry. For that fact alone it deserves to be reprinted and read and kept around, at least for as long as there are still people and trees.



Bruno Munari, Disegnare un albero. Bologna: Zanichelli, 1978. (Available in English as Drawing a Tree.)

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