Saturday, February 05, 2005

Some true doctrine revealed (5/21/02)

I have received a revelation of true and sound doctrine, which is herewith presented for everyone's instruction and edification. It is this: When the wicked die, they are consigned to everlasting torment in the dark and benighted dominion of Sheol. The righteous, on the other hand, all get to go to Tuscany. If and when I make it to the eternal realm of the blessed, I fully expect to be greeted there personally by Cecilia Bartoli, who presumably will make a guest appearance for the occasion if she in fact outlives me. While singing one of my favorite arias -- perhaps "Una voce poco fa" from The Barber of Seville, or "Nacqui all'affanno" from La Cenerentola -- Cecilia will personally serve me any one of a variety of wondrous Tuscan dishes, plus plenty of gelato for dessert. (I used to think Marie Callender's fresh peach pie a la mode was the ultimate dessert, but as a result of insights gained during this trip, I now stand corrected.) All of these will be made to taste precisely as they do on the earth, but with all the fat and calories removed; moreover, they will be available in infinite quantities, and whenever we want them. The meal and the private recital being concluded, I plan to spend a considerable portion of my first 500,000 years in leisurely exploration of all the places I wanted to see in Florence but have not been able to see on this trip. I have loved wandering around this city, but I don't think anyone has ever digested all of it, and this list of places I have wanted to visit is far longer than the list of places I have actually been able to see in the short space of six days.

I have been getting some good feedback about my travelogues, and am glad to know they are being enjoyed by the folks back home. Unfortunately, this will be my last one from Florence. We move on to Ravenna tomorrow, and will be there two days. One of the first things I want to do there is find an Internet cafe' and send off another dispatch. Ravenna is about 81 miles northeast of here, on the Adriatic, and I chose it because it is interesting enough to justify the visit but is not a tourist magnet. Besides, Sheila loves the ocean, and Dante's tomb is there. So there is enough in Ravenna to interest both of us.

I went to Siena today. Sheila was feeling a bit under the weather and did not accompany me, which in this case was perhaps just as well; she would have gone nuts over Siena, but it is a hilly town and that would not have been good for her feet or her back, both of which have given her a lot of trouble lately. I myself was only there for about 3-1/2 hours, and would have been there much longer than that if not for the fact that we leave Florence tomorrow and need to get ready for that tonight. (In retrospect, I definitely believe I should have done Siena yesterday, which was the original plan.) Siena has a unique central square, a fan-shaped piazza which twice a year -- once in July and once in August -- is the site of the world-famous Palio, as wild a horse race as you will ever find anywhere. I LOVED this town, which has done an excellent job of maintaining its Renaissance flavor, and in addition has some pretty good gelato! :-) It was full of all kinds of visual surprises, and would be a photographer's paradise. (I took part of one roll of film and about half of another, some in Siena itself and some in the countryside between Florence and Siena.) During this trip I learned something I should have known already but did not: namely, that a World War II American military cemetery is located just a few miles south of Florence. If we were going to be here one more day, I would definitely want to go there. (I knew about the cemetery at Nettuno, near Rome, but somehow this one had slipped by me.)[My failure to visit the cemetery has been a lasting regret, and one of the very few I have had from this trip. In a 1981 trip to Europe, however, I did manage to visit three American military cemeteries, two from the Second World War ( (Luxembourg and St. Avold), and one from the First (St. Mihiel). I might add that nothing can quite prepare one for the experience of visiting these places, which are beautifully designed, and splendidly and reverently maintained. It reminded me of visiting the temple; and when I entered the Luxembourg cemetery -- the first of the three I visited -- the very first words that came into my mind were those spoken by the Lord to Moses on Sinai, as recorded in Exodus: "Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground."]

We ate out again last night, at the same restaurant I told you about in my last dispatch. This time we had two companions, one of whom was a woman we met and befriended on the flight from Chicago to Rome. This meal was wonderful, and the conversation added a lot to it. I had something called ravioli alla moda dei Guelfi (i. e., prepared in the Guelph style), partly because its name intrigued me; I thought perhaps it was something Dante would have eaten in his time. (Perhaps even in the same restaurant; everything here is so old!) When we were done, I told the people who worked at this place that I quite liked the Guelph manner of cooking, and they all got a kick out of that. Afterward I announced myself as the angel of death and took our guests over to Gelato Heaven. (The real name of that place is Festival del Gelato, but it deserves my moniker, so that's what I call it.) Then we went to the Ponte Vecchio, the four of us, and gazed out over the Arno, which shimmers at night. All we lacked to make the moment perfect was the accompaniment of a Puccini aria. We simply have got to come back to this place someday -- that's all there is to it.

I wish Sheila's health were better than it is, but we have been able to do a lot of things together, and the other night she told me that bringing her to Italy is the best thing I have ever done for her. I replied that that had sort of been the idea. It has been good for her just to relax and unwind, and for me to see all these places I have read about in my history books and otherwise give free rein to my wanderlust and intellectual curiosity. There are a few places I think Sheila would rather have visited than Florence, but I don't think we could have found a better place to balance her interests and needs with mine.

I need to sign off in a few minutes, but first I want to let everyone know that I would highly recommend the Dei Mori to anyone planning to visit Florence. It is a cozy, homey place located ideally in the heart of historic Florence, and is a good deal less expensive than most of the hotels here. (Our friends last evening told us they were paying 200 euros a night for theirs, whereas we are paying less than half that.) The establishment, owned by an Englishman, only has six rooms; the manager is a personable young man named Domenico; and a cute little dog named Pippo, who I think belongs to Domenico, makes regular appearances in the sitting area. (I am not one of the world's great dog lovers, but I do like Pippo.) The place does have some minor flaws, notably the lack of any kind of retaining wall to keep water inside the shower; but if and when we come back here -- and you better believe we both want to someday! -- I'll want to stay at this place again. The Dei Mori has a webpage, although I do not know the address; but it proclaims itself to be la tua casa lontana da casa (your home away from home), and I think that describes it pretty well. [Through the miracle of blogging, which was not available even as recently as 2002, the Dei Mori website is now available right here at your fingertips!]

My time is nearly out. See you in Ravenna.



[Afterword: I sent this message the day before we left for Ravenna. In the spring of 2004, Simon & Schuster published Dante in Love, by Harriet Rubin, which I have read several times and wish I had been able to read before making the trip. On pages 215 and 216, Rubin has this to say about Ravenna:

"Ravenna is a secret Paradise. Even today it is one of the least visited cities in northern Italy. Florence was singular as the birthplace of an intellectual and artistic era unsurpassed in the history of the West. But Ravenna was granted a more illustrious heritage: the marriage and parting of eastern Christianity and the West. It is said that in Ravenna men had a Roman body, a Greek mind and an oriental, mystical soul: all three traditions meet in what Augustus called 'the city in the sea.'

"'Three times Western civilization has been shaped in the city of Ravenna,' wrote the art historian Otto von Simson. 'In 49 B.C., Caesar gathered his followers at its port before crossing the Rubicon. He thus tied the city to the fortunes of the Roman empire.' In 1321, Dante would die in Ravenna, having completed the Comedy inside its walls. 'The eyes which had been the last to behold the vision of the imperium in its glory closed where Caesar had prepared its foundation,' wrote Simson. Between Caesar and Dante, in the fifth century, the Emperor Honorius moved his residence from Rome to Ravenna -- then a fortress city protected from attack by the water and devious lagoons. Honorius and his half-sister Galla Placidia made love and quarrelled within its walls. Similarly, enemies from the different camps of God, from East and West, appeared to embrace each other in Ravenna. . . .

"No city embodied the spirit of the two worlds, West and East, as dramatically as Ravenna. The Empress Placidia built the greatest Byzantine churches, Santa Croce and San Giovanni Evangelista -- they were offerings in thanks for being saved when her boat barely made it ashore from a storm on the Adriatic Sea. Venice and Rome were crowded with churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary or Jesus. Ravenna churches celebrated martyrs like Apollinaris, the archbishop of Ravenna in 468, who spent his life giving away his silver, hoping his mystical visions would sway politics, and finally, when his suffering became great, asked to be hung in a martyr's death. In the churches, the mosaics wrested a vision of transcendence from the raw material of life. The figures walk on air yet seem human, and they seem conscious of being observed. In churches in the other cities of Dante's travels, the mosaics portray the dogma of religion: Christ, Mary, the disciples. But in Ravenna, mortal figures with ravenously big eyes and faces, childlike and mature at the same time, make a worshiper feel like a potential dweller in Paradise. The figures under the 'tent of heaven' are human. Ravenna is the home of the drama of human transformation.

"Here, aligned with the house of Polenta, Dante could live as though Paradise loomed."


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