Revisiting Dante’s Florence

Experiencing Dante's "circles of hell"

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in Features • Illustrated by Alex Hotchkiss

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Experiencing Dante’s “Circles of Hell”

The living soul itself in its unborn and essential craving for happiness craves only to be fulfilled by God. Nothing less than this fulfillment is implied in man.  

I have come to Florence, Italy, to take a class in visual journal writing. 

This is a map. 
This is a map of the circles of despair 
This is a map of nowhere that exists 

Where circles spin downward 
And streets inward 
And the River Arno is still 

Keeping its fatedness a secret 
Keeping its futility inside 
Nothing to do, 
Nothing to do. 

Coming into Florence, the traffic is chaotic, frenetic, fast dodging, and darting on small, curving roads, vanishing into the curves. The buildings, no more than five stories high, are painted in pastels, dirty with age, chipped, flaking, and untended, the streets so narrow a bus’s girth reaches both curbs. The Arno River is brown as muck slowing to sludge.  

I am heading to Tornobuoni Beacci Hotel, which is named for Piero de’ Medici’s new bride. The bride’s family once lived there, so urban legend says. I stay in a small room on the fifth floor at the top of the stairs, and the tapestries with the images of unicorns and lilies and fair ladies of the 14th century adorn the walls, the furniture, antique and fitting. The atmosphere is secluded, separated from the raucous street.  

Cosimo de’ Medici was a new breed in Florence. Cosimo was from a family of merchants — a banker. And for the first time in history, Cosimo led Florence into an age of capitalism and communal rule. Florence flourished, and the Medicis became rulers who pretended aristocracy. They had to pay to become kings in disguise. 

I imagine the room at the Tornobuoni Hotel must have been the maid’s room. The window overlooks the red ceramic tile roofs that smear earthy tones across the horizon, and birds wander in circular currents after each other like Paulo and Francesca in Dante’s Inferno, forced by invisible currents to suffer an unceasing hunger — the hunger for more hunger. The law of karma — mirroring. 

The church bell tome sings the same 
as it did when Dante heard them sing, 
But everyone now hears the shriek 

Of cars, buses, trucks, vans, and 
The paths, veins carrying blood  
To what cannot grow, empty 

Themselves out of themselves,  
Draining the meaning of consequences 
from sign and symbol — true false, false true 

and hotel signs, shops, cafes, souvenirs 
line the streets that shadow the tourists who revel 
in the reveling, as workers begin a new street. 

The concrete shines gray, and a workman in green 
rubber boots stands with arms-akimbo certainty 
as he smoothes another road to nowhere. 

He knows the bricked cycles of a life undone, 
Incomplete, unfinished, another road 
That leads nowhere in particular. 

Dante’s Florence was a circle of intrigue between the Holy Roman Catholic Church and Firenze’s powerful political parties. Dante, as a young Italian, became part of the struggle to keep the city for the people. He lost. He was exiled. He wrote The Divine Comedystarting with The Inferno. Mirroring through reflection. 

Oh, I forgot an important decisive moment. Dante had fallen in love at the age of nine with a young girl a few years younger — Beatrice Portinari — and his love for her defined the rest of his life. She married another man; she died at 24. After she died, he carried his unrequited love for her into the exile the Florentine government imposed on him for his radical and outspoken criticism of the Church and its politics in Florence.  

In exile, he wrote The Divine Comedy where she is his intercessor with God, and she leads him from loving the lesser good to the Highest Good. His love for her becomes the thread that leads him from adoring her, a lesser love, to loving God, the highest. He determines he has been lost in the “woods” of earthly existence. And it is in his lost state that he gains help, he tells the reader. That’s why he says he is telling his story. 

Streets in Florence are labyrinthine. All streets move from the center of the city — the Duomo, Santa Maria della Fiori, the Dome of Saint Mary of the Flower. Streets are long and narrow, and in the midafternoon, in the blistering sun of summer, shadows they cast lead walkers into the welcome dark passages. Paths are cut short by dead ends, streets cut off by short intersections, streets that aren’t streets but former piazzas, multiple v-shaped midsections, then streets merge into alleys, alleys into alleys, circling some undisclosed center. The map, although it gives an overview, does not disclose the true North.  

Being lost raises fears. Where am I? Where am I going? What direction should I take — right or left or straight ahead? Nothing is familiar. What if I never get there? What if I am making the wrong turns? Choices? I am alone. What if I can’t get there?  

I found myself through a series of turns, trying to find my way back to the hotel. I wandered for hours in the stifling heat, unable to make myself understood. Some walkers I encountered turned away, some understood, and some helped with much compassion. I found I needed others to get to where I needed to go. Although I had no command of Italian, I found that if I said “Duomo,” people grasped the entire situation — an American lost in the tangle of streets and looking for a familiar landmark or destination — direction, a compass, an internal one. 

I begin to understand the infernal map Dante had drawn. Florence itself is the paradigm for the nine circles of the inferno. The city is ringed around by streets that all move toward its center. In the time of Dante, the city had been a series of expanding fortresses, enlarging as the population and wealth increased. But the structure — the ringed city — with its quarters defined and stationary, is still in place. And the Arno River is one of its boundaries. Dante used Florence to define the parameters and structure of Hell — a spiraling atlas of infernal distances. 

When I first started walking to scuola, it took me 45 minutes, twisting and turning to get to the building. A week later it took me ten minutes. Like the ancient, torturous mazes, they were meant to delay the walker for the monster who lay waiting within. Sometimes the monster is within the seeker and getting lost reveals it. 

I wander the streets away from the hotel looking for the Scuola Lorenzo de’ Medici on the Via Faenza, and I stop a man unloading his car.  

“Via Faenza?” I ask.  

Pointing and stretching his arm in the direction he thinks I mean to go, he speaks Italian quickly as if I could understand and, like a child, I would grasp it eventually. 

At another intersection, I stop a young woman who does speak English and she says, “Keep going — follow the road all the way to the end.” 

When I get to the road that has no street — It’s being repaved — I stop an older woman with shopping bags in both hands. I show her the street name I have scribbled on a ragged piece of paper, and she points ahead to the dismantled street.  

“Via Faenza,” she reports with confidence, points repeatedly, and smiles broadly. 

I follow the numbers, looking for 43, and then the numbers stop at 24. I look around, walk back a few steps to make sure I didn’t miss it. I cross the street where the numbers begin again; this time the reordered numbers return. The building is indistinguishable from those around it. Only the number tells the tale. 

Numbers lose their defining character here — there is no consistent chronology. I have to be alert. 

Sitting behind a reception desk is a middle-aged man with glasses and a plaid shirt. 

“It’s work getting to this place,” I say.  

“Travail,” he says. “Work — in Italian.” 

This is Ozzie — I call him the Wizard of Ozzie. He seems to know, with the innate sense of the British, the order of the world. Nothing is lost — whatever is needed in this environment he finds; he calls himself “master of none.” 

The scuola is indistinguishable from other buildings except it does not have a storefront. Two doors open to the reception desk, and later I find out that behind the desk is a door to a medieval chapel. This was a nunnery — celibate women devoted to Christ. They lived in the upper stories with the church at its base. The scuola rises floor to floor and sometimes just two or three steps. All the rooms are small, the landings larger, a gathering place, I later find. 

We will not spend much time here. This building is for the administration and the Italian language classes. 

Before I get to the scuola each day, I stop at the Piazza San Giovanni where the Santa Maria de la Fiore, called “the Duomo,” dominates the piazza. But Saint John the Baptist is also revered here with the Baptistery in his honor. The Duomo, designed and built by Brunelleschi in the 1200s is an architectural wonder. Its beauty and intricacy are awe-inspiring even in our age.  

But I haven’t been inside it yet, and its relevance to me is that it is the center of the city. More important, it is a landmark to orienting my place. The Piazza San Giovanni is one of many piazzas — an open courtyard, fortressed by those curving streets and the embankment of storefronts with their shuttered, vertical windows above. 

It’s summer, and the heat is intensified by the humidity. The sun seems whiter and closer to the ground. I stop at a corner “bar,” Scudieri. “Bar” in Italy means a coffee and pastry shop, and I get a café latte and a sweet roll. I find the piazza a refreshing relief from the darkened, narrow streets and buildings that imitate walls. The horizon line at the Duomo is somewhat open, with the Baptistry circling ahead of me. Behind it, the gleaming white terracotta Duomo rises skyward. The Duomo is still the tallest building in the city, and it can be seen for miles. Next to it is the Campanile that chimes on the quarter-hour. I am reminded that the ringing of the church bells was intended to remind early Christians to be “recalled” to God — to remember that love determines one’s life.  

Here in Florence, God literally rings in my ears, repeating the call — as if I again am a child, and if I pay attention, I will become aware of the highest form that love can take and that it is everywhere and in everything, no matter how little I think or how little I know — love is there. I recall a question my mother asked me once: Who do you compare yourself to — a man stuck in a ditch or Christ on the cross? The man in the ditch is stuck in the mire of his own pain, looking for help. The other is “stuck” on the cross, willingly sacrificing his life out of love for others, trusting in the mystery of God’s Love for giving up his own life. 

Knowing the difference between the two forms of “stuck” makes all the difference in the world. Here in Florence, a changed center, one of consumerism and modern-day Christianity, I see more clearly the difference. 

I sit outside of the Scudieri under the umbrellaed café and drink my café latte. Most Florentines drink their café at the bar inside. It costs two euros less. I am willing to pay more because I can buy the time to read and write while I am sipping. 

A sparrow lands on the back of the wrought iron chair in front of me, twitters, shudders, and takes off. 

Being lost may mean we haven’t yet learned to read nature’s alphabet as a guide, an atlas, of pre-established forces configured and charted inside our souls. 

“Neither creator, my son, nor creature, was ever without love, whether natural or rational, and this you know.”  

Dante Alghieri, Purgatorio xvii, 91-3   

Bob and Virginia, two of the faculty guiding the students in fashion design, take me along with them through the city. Bob and Virginia, former museum curators turned teachers, met at scuola and found in each other a new friend immediately. Bob is gay, and Virginia is single with a live-in Chicago cop boyfriend. 

I had thought they had been good friends for a while until Bob said, “We hardly know each other.” She agreed. 

“But you do,” I insist. “What have you discovered about Virginia that you think is most important to you?” 

“Oh, she has the same values I have.” 

“And you, Virginia?” 

“Oh, he and I have similar styles. We are not competitive.” 

In Florence, friendships are discovered quickly, and like visionaries, we have a new idea of our own potential, and the other’s is trusted. Partly, I suppose, it is because no one speaks our language — at least not our verbal language. And the longing for similarity and the dizzying weight of strangeness in streets, people, numbers, food, oppresses and delights, but each of us seems to come equipped with different degrees of adaptability. Friendships of this sort seem both a necessity and temporary comfort — a kind of psychic safety net. Dante had Virgil. 

Dante’s Satan knows something about nets: appetite and being competitive. He isn’t outside of God’s plan. The evil men do is being under the illusion that they are desiring the good when what they are craving is not good enough. So, they will end desiring desire—it’s what makes them feel something, rather than feel nothing.  

This too he boasted, common he said to all 
the damned, condemned as they are 
to repeat endlessly the gestures of their crippled 
loves — as if they were dead, so are they 
alive, imprisoned in their compulsive memories 
still bearing the evidence of whatever 
goodness or greatness they were born with — and ruined — 
on earth; but understanding as well 
that none can fail, his torment is his, deserved, 
and his fury intensified by his retrospective vision,  
attempts to conceal his anguish only serve to reveal it — 
he understood it as irony — his rigidity entombed within, 
and he called it a burning tomb — his passions, that is.  
And what does he burn for? Bound as he is to incomplete 
loves — wishing loves forever out of his reach — preoccupied 
still with his own violent and fossilized past — his identity — fixed 
like any dog, humping futility as if she were a? Nothing . . .  

Mirrors and glass abound in Florence. There is no escaping the reflections. Mirroring is the center of the external and internal city. Coming to Florence has that double edge — I can see the cause and its effect almost immediately. Whatever I do is suddenly revealed. Dante’s cosmos is just that: What one does is immediately mirrored in life and in death. As are Beatrice’s thoughts and actions; her awareness brought her closer to that state of unconditional awareness, one that sees more of the whole, the holy. The creatures in the inferno fell in love with the lesser good — money, food, fame, a lover —and staying loyal to that lesser love brings the limitations, the fragmentation of the whole. The lesser holds the whole, but the lesser is unable in its separateness from the whole to maintain the weight of all that is.  

Only when the mind opens to what can complete it—an unconditional love that sees all that is with love—and not only accepts it, translates it, and surrenders to the laws of that love—can it then see and hear the call, the bells, the whole wonder of this earthly life in service to the highest good. Mirroring with the reflection of the highest good reveals through the consciousness of that love its invisible structure. •

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Sarah Odishoo is a poet and writer. Her essay “Germane German: A Lesson in Dispelling” was nominated for the 2015 Pushcart Prize by Under The Sun. “Euclid’s Bride” was nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology, and “Eat Me: Instructions from the Unseen” was awarded the Best Nonfiction Essay of 2012 by Zone 3.

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