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On a Portrait of Dante by Giotto by James Lowell 16/09/2011

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James Lowell (obit 1891) included this poem in his volume Miscellaneous Poems (1843).

Can this be thou who, lean and pale,
With such immitigable eye
Didst look upon those writhing souls in bale,
And note each vengeance, and pass by
Unmoved, save when thy heart by chance
Cast backward one forbidden glance,
And saw Francesca, with child’s glee,
Subdue and mount thy wild-horse knee
And with proud hands control its fiery prance?

With half-drooped lids, and smooth, round brow,
And eye remote, that only sees
Fair Beatrice’s spirit wandering now
In some sea-lulled Hesperides,
Thou movest through the jarring street,
Secluded from the noise of feet
By her gift-blossom in thy hand,
Thy branch of palm from Holy Land;
No trace is here of ruin’s fiery sleet.

Yet there is something round thy lips
That prophesies the coming doom,
The soft, gray herald-shadow ere the eclipse
Notches the perfect disk with gloom;
A something that would banish thee,
And thine untamed pursuer be,
From men and their unworthy fates,
Though Florence had not shut her gates,
And Grief had loosed her clutch and let thee free.

Ah! he who follows fearlessly
The beckonings of a poet-heart
Shall wander, and without the world’s decree,
A banished man in field and mart;
Harder than Florence walls the bar
Which with deaf sternness holds him far
From home and friends, till death’s release,
And makes his only prayer for peace,
Like thine, scarred veteran of a lifelong war!

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Visibly Extinct Yet Present 14/05/2011

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c. 1825

Most of the houses, I believe, in  this quarter of the world as well as others, have  changed masters; but perhaps there is no coumtry  where the old families are more visibly extinct. This is owing to the comparative smallness of the metropolis to the decrease of the ancient commerce, and to its cheapness as a place of  residence. The stranger’s book-recollections are  kept alive at every step. The palaces of the  Medici, Rucellai, &c. look as if they were built yesterday. The six balls, the arms of the Medici, meet him at all comers; and as he walks along  streets famous in Italian history and tales, he is  now shown a Corsini on horseback, now the  house of a Michael Angelo, (a lineal descendant  of the family), now a Capponi comig along, who  is said to inherit the independent spirit of his old  patriot ancestors. The first night I slept in Florence I was kept awake by guitars. When I got  into lodgings, the first thing I saw, on. looking out  of window, was an inscription on the house opposite, purporting that it was the ‘Hospital of the  Abbey of Vallambrosa’: visiting the annual,  exhibition of pictures, I see a piece from the pencil of a young lady of the name of Vespacci [Vespucci – buried at San Miniato?],  a descendant of the Vespacci who gave his name  to America: And walking out into the country,  Fiesole and Boccaccio burst upon me from the  hills. Even the unfinished state in which many  of the public edifices remain the cathedral included, and the exquisite vestibule of the Laurentian Library, adds to the present aspect of  past times. Michael Angelo seems but to have  gone home to his dinner. Michael Angelo’s own  house is still remaining; and there is a white  stone let into the footing of the long stone bench  that runs along the wall of the Piazza del Duomo; which they say marks out the spot where  Dante used to sit of an evening. Add to all this,  the River Amo, and the Statue that enchants the world,  and ‘this is worshipful society’.

The Cult of Dante in Sacchetti 14/02/2011

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A story (122) of Franco Sacchetti, c. 1390 relating not to Florence as such but to Dante and his ‘cult’.

Master Antonio da Ferrara was a most able man, and a poet as well, and something of a courtier; but he was a man of vice and a sinner. Being in Ravenna at the time when Bernardino da Polenta held the signory, it happened that the said Antonio, who was a great gamester, having played one day and lost about all that he possessed, in desperate mood entered the church of the Minorites, where stands the tomb of the Florentine poet, Dante; and having noticed an antique crucifix, half burned and black with smoke, on account of the great quantity of lights which had been placed before it; seeing, moreover, that many candles stood there lighted, he suddenly ran to the place, and seizing all the candles and tapers that were burning there turned to the tomb of Dante and placed them before it, saying: ‘Take them, for you are indeed more worthy of them than He.’ The people seeing this were full of amazement, and said, ‘What does he mean to say?’ and they gazed one at another. A steward of the signory, who happened to be in the church at that hour and witnessed what transpired, when he had returned to the palace, told the Signore what he had seen master Antonio do. The Signore, like all the others favourably impressed with the deed, communicated to the Archbishop of Ravenna what master Antonio had done, suggesting that he should summon him, and make a show of instituting a process against him as a heretic, on the ground of heretical depravity. The Archbishop immediately did as he was requested; Antonio appeared, and when the complaint against him was read in order that he might refute it, he denied nothing but confessed all, saying to the Archbishop: ‘Even if you should be compelled to burn me, I should say nothing else; for I have always commended myself to the crucifix, and it has never done me anything but ill, and when I saw them place so many candles before it, half burned as it was (would it were wholly so!), I took away a few lights and placed them at the tomb of Dante, who seemed to me to merit them more than the crucifix; and if you do not believe me, look at the writings of one and the other. You will conclude that those of Dante are a wonder of nature and of the human intellect; and that the gospels are stupid; and indeed, if they contain anything high and wonderful, it is not surprising, that he who sees everything and has everything, should so express himself. But that which is remarkable is, that a mere man, like Dante, who not only has not everything, but no part of everything, has nevertheless seen all and has written all. And, indeed, it seems to me that he is more worthy of the illumination than the other; and henceforward I am going to recommend myself to him; as for the rest of you, you perform your functions and look well to your comfort, and for love of it you flee all discomfort and live like poltroons. And when you wish to understand me more nearly, I will tell you about it again, for I have not yet played my last coin.’ The archbishop appeared to be perplexed and said: ‘Then you have played and you have lost? You shall return another time.’ Said master Antonio: ‘If you too had lost, you and all your kind, all that you have, I should be very glad of it. As for returning to you, that will be my affair; but whether I return or not, you will find me always so disposed or worse.’ The archbishop said: ‘Go hence with God, or if you please with the Devil, and unless I send for you we shall not see each other again. At least go and give of these fruits to the Signore which you have given to me.’ And so they parted. The Signore, informed of what had taken place and amused with the reasoning of Master Antonio, made him a present, that he might be able to go on gaming; and as for the candles placed before Dante, he took great pleasure in them for several days; and then he went away to Ferrara, perhaps better disposed than Master Antonio. At the time when Pope Urban the Fifth died and his portrait was placed in a noble church in a certain great city, he saw placed in front of it a lighted wax candle of two pounds weight, while before the crucifix, which was not very large, was a poor little penny dip. He took the wax candle, and placing it in front of the crucifix, said: ‘It is an evil hour when we wish to shift and change the rulership of the skies, as we change everywhere the powers of earth.’ And with this he turned homeward. Such a fine and notable speech was this as seldom might happen upon a like occasion.

Of all the fairest Cities of the earth… 25/01/2011

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Samuel Rogers (obit 1855). Rogers toured Italy in 1814, but his Italy was only properly and fully published under his name in 1830.

Of all the fairest Cities of the Earth
None is so fair as Florence. ‘Tis a gem
Of purest ray; and what a light broke forth,
When it emerged from darkness! Search within,
Without; all is enchantment! ‘Tis the Past
Contending with the Present; and in turn
Each has the mastery.
In this chapel wrought
One of the Few, Nature’s Interpreters,
The Few whom Genius gives as Lights to shine,
Massaccio; and he slumbers underneath.
Wouldst thou behold his monument? Look round!
And know that where we stand, stood oft and long,
Oft till the day was gone, Raphael himself,
He and his haughty Rival – patiently,
Humbly, to learn of those who came before,
To steal a spark from their authentic fire,
Theirs who first broke the universal gloom,
Sons of the Morning. On that ancient seat,
The seat of stone that runs along the wall,
South of the Church, east of the belfry-tower,
(Thou canst not miss it) in the sultery time
Would Dante sit conversing, and with those
Who little thought that in his hand he held
The balance, and assigned at his good pleasure
To each his place in the invisible world,
To some an upper region, some a lower;
Many a transgressor sent to his account,
Long ere in Florence numbered with the dead;
The body still as full of life and stir
At home, abroad; still and as oft inclined
To eat, drink, sleep; still clad as others were,
And at noon-day, where men were wont to meet,
Met as continually; when the soul went,
Relinquished to a demon, and by him
(So says the Bard, and who can read and doubt?)
Dwelt in and governed. Sit thee down awhile;
Then by the gates so marvellously wrought,
That they might serve to be the gates of Heaven,
Enter the Baptistery. That place he loved,
Loved as his own; and in his visits there
Well might he take delight! For when a child,
Playing, as many are wont, with venturous feet
Near and yet nearer to the sacred font,
Slipped and fell in, he flew and rescued him,
Flew with an energy, a violence,
That broke the marble – a mishap ascribed
To evil motives; his, alas, to lead
A life of trouble, and ere long to leave
All things most dear to him, ere long to know
How salt another’s bread is, and the toil
Of going up and down another’s stairs.
Nor then forget that Chamber of the Dead,
Where the gigantic shapes of Night and Day,
Turned into stone, rest everlastingly;
Yet still are breathing, and shed round at noon
A two-fold influence – only to be felt –
A light, a darkness, mingling each with each;
Both and yet neither. There, from age to age,
Two Ghosts are sitting on their sepulchres.
That is the Duke Lorenzo. Mark him well.
He meditates, his head upon his hand.
What from beneath his helm-like bonnet scowls?
Is it a face, or but an eyeless skull?
‘Tis hid in shade; yet, like the basilisk,
It fascinates, and is intolerable.
His mien is noble, most majestical!
Then most so, when the distant choir is heard,
At morn or eve – nor fail thou to attend
On that thrice-hallowed day, when all are there;
When all, propitiating with solemn songs,
With light, and frankincense, and holy water,
Visit the Dead. Then wilt thou feel his power!
But let not Sculpture, Painting, Poesy,
Or they, the masters of these mighty spells,
Detain us. Our first homage is to Virtue.
Where, in what dungeon of the Citadel
(It must be known — the writing on the wall
Cannot be gone — ’twas cut in with his dagger,
Ere, on his knees to God, he slew himself,)
Where, in what dungeon, did Filippo Strozzi,
The last, the greatest of the men of Florence,
Breathe out his soul – lest in his agony,
When on the rack and called upon to answer,
He might accuse the guiltless.
That debt paid,
But with a sigh, a tear for human frailty,
We may return, and once more give a loose
To the delighted spirit – worshipping,
In her small temple of rich workmanship,
Venus herself, who, when she left the skies,
Came hither.

Dante and the Ass Driver 10/01/2011

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A story (115) of Franco Sacchetti, c. 1390.

The last novel moves me to relate another concerning the same poet, which is brief and good. One day as Dante was going along for his diversion in a certain part of the city, wearing the gorget and the armlet, as the custom then was, he encountered an ass-driver, driving before him certain loads of refuse. The driver was going behind his asses, singing the book of Dante, and every now and then as he sang he touched up an ass, and said : ‘Arri.’When Dante came up to him he gave him a sharp blow upon the shoulders with his armlet, saying: ‘I did not put that ‘Arri’ there!’ The driver did not know who Dante was, nor what he meant to say, and only struck his asses the more sharply, and again said : ‘Arri.’ When he had gone a little further he turned to Dante, and, thrusting out his tongue and putting his thumb to his nose, said, ‘Take that’. Dante, who saw him, said: ‘I would not give one of mine for a hundred of yours.’ O gentle words, full of wisdom! How many there are who would have run after the ass-driver, crying and raising a disturbance; others again who would have thrown stones; but the wise poet overwhelmed the ass-driver, winning praise from passers-by that heard him with those clever words which he hurled after so vile a man as was the ass-driver.

Anecdotes about Dante from Poggio Bracciolini 27/12/2010

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The following two anecdotes appear in the work of Poggio Bracciolini (57-58).

Ingenious retort of Dante, the Florentine poet. Dante Alighieri, our Florentine poet, received for some time at Verona the hospitality of the elder Cane della Scala, a most generous prince. Cane had ever in his company another Florentine, a man without birth, learning or tact, who was good for nothing but to laugh and play the fool. His silly jokes, for they were not worthy the name of wit, so pleased Cane that he made him rich presents. Dante, a man of the greatest learning, modest as he was wise, regarded this person as a stupid beast, as he had reason to. ‘How does it come to pass,’ said one day the Florentine to Dante, ‘that you are poor and needy, you who pass for learned and wise, while I am rich, I who am stupid and ignorant?’ ‘When I shall find,’ replied Dante, ‘a master like myself, and whose tastes are similar to my own, as you have found one, then he will enrich me too.’ Excellent and just reply; for the great are ever pleased with the company of their like.

Witty reply of the same poet. Dante was one time at the table between the elder and the younger of the Cane della Scala. In order to put the joke upon him the attendants of the two lords threw stealthily all the bones at the feet of Dante. On arising from the table the whole company turned toward Dante, astonished to see so great a quantity of bones at his place. But he, quick to take advantage of the situation, said: ‘Surely it is nothing to wonder at if the dogs have eaten their bones. I myself am no dog.’

Dante and the Adimari 06/12/2010

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A story (114) of Franco Sacchetti, c. 1390.

That most excellent vernacular poet, whose fame will never grow less, Dante Alighieri the Florentine, was neighbour in Florence to the family of the Adimari. It came to pass that a certain young cavalier of that family fell into difficulty, I know not on account of what offence, and was about to come up for sentence, in the due course of justice, before a certain magistrate, who was, it seems, upon terms of friendship with Dante. The cavalier therefore besought the poet that he should intercede for him with the magistrate; and this Dante replied he would willingly do.

So when the poet had dined, he left home and set out upon his way to accomplish the business; but just as he was passing by the gate of San Piero, a smith, hammering an iron upon his anvil, was singing Dante, as one sings a ditty, jumbling his verses together, clipping them and adding to them, in such a manner that it seemed to Dante they were suffering the greatest injury. He said nothing, however, but approached the smithy, where were lying the various tools with which the owner plied his trade. Dante seized the hammer and threw it into the street; seized the tongs and threw them into the street; seized the balances and threw them into the street, and so on with the remaining irons. The smith, turning about with an angry gesture, cried: ‘What the devil are you doing? Are you mad?’ Said Dante: ‘And you, what are you doing?’ ‘Working at my trade,’ the smith replied, ‘and you are spoiling my tools, throwing them into the street’. Said Dante: ‘If you do not wish that I should spoil your things, do not spoil mine.’ ‘How am I injuring you?’ said the smith. Said Dante: ‘You sing my book, but not as I have made it. I also have a trade, and you are spoiling it for me.’ The smith, swelling with rage, knew not what to reply, but gathered together his scattered tools and returned to his forge, and when he wished again to sing, he sang of Tristan and of Launcelot, but left Dante alone; and Dante went his way to the magistrate.

But when he came into the presence of that official, it occurred to him that the cavalier of the Adimari, who had asked the favour of him, was a haughty youth with scant courtesy, who, when he went through the city, especially on horseback, rode with his legs outspread, until they filled the street, if it happened to be narrow, so that passers-by were compelled to brush the toes of his shoes; and to Dante, who was a close observer, such behaviour was always displeasing. Thereupon Dante said to the magistrate: ‘You have before your court a certain cavalier, charged with a certain offence. I wish to speak a word for him. His manners however are such that he deserves a severe penalty, for I believe that to trespass upon the rights of the public is the greatest of offences.’

Dante did not speak to deaf ears, and the magistrate asked in what respect the young man has trespassed upon the rights of the public. Dante replied: ‘When he rides through the city, he rides with his legs wide from his horse, so that whoever encounters him has to turn back, and cannot continue upon his way.’ Said the judge : ‘This may appear to you a trifle, but it is a greater offence than the other of which he is accused.’ ‘But see,’ said Dante, ‘I am his neighbour. I intercede for him with you.’

And Dante returned home, where he was asked by the cavalier how the affair stood. ‘He replied favourably,’ said Dante. Some days afterwards the cavalier was summoned to appear and answer the charge against him. He made his appearance, and after he had been informed of the nature of the first charge, the judge ordered that the second charge, concerning the loose manner of his riding, be read to him. The cavalier, feeling that the penalty would be doubled, said to himself: ‘I have done a fine thing indeed, when through Dante’s visit I believed I should go free, and now I am to be doubly fined!’ Having been dismissed, accused as he was, he returned home, and finding Dante, said: ‘You have indeed done me a good turn. Before you went to him the judge was disposed to condemn me for one offence, and after your visit he wished to condemn me for two’; and much angered at Dante, he added : ‘If he condemns me I am able to pay, and when it is over I will settle with him who is the cause of it.’ Said Dante: ‘I have given you such a recommendation that if you were my own child I could not have given you a better. If the judge is ill-disposed toward you, I am not the cause of it.’ The cavalier, shaking his head, went home. A few days afterward he was condemned to pay a thousand lire for the first offence and another thousand for the careless riding; and neither he nor any of the house of Adimari were able to forget the injury. And this was one of the chief reasons that a short time after he was driven as a Bianco from Florence, not without disgrace to the city, and died an exile in the city of Ravenna.