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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Sunday Guest: Colonel Procolo


From Dino Buzzati's novel Il segreto del Bosco Vecchio, a tragic "Christmas tale." Old Colonel Procolo had tried to have his nephew Benvenuto murdered in order to take possession of the estate inherited by the latter -- the Old Wood itself -- so, on New Year's Eve, Wind Matthew "as a present" gives him the "good news" that Benvenuto is dying, buried under a snow slide. It is not true, but Procolo believes Matthew's lie, and goes and tries to save his nephew. He will be killed by the cold.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sunday Guests: Five Nightmares


From Dino Buzzati's novel Il segreto del Bosco Vecchio. The Italian word incubo means both nightmare and incubus. Here it mainly refers to little Benvenuto's bad dreams during his illness, but a general reference to demons may be implied too, although no woman is involved.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Off Topic: Dante's "forbidden night"

A side effect of reading Federico Lanci's studies on Dante (see the Dec.-18 post) has been the realization, for the first time after thirty years, that one night is "missing" in the account of the Divine Comedy. In fact, Purgatorio 33 ends at midday, while Paradiso 1 begins in the early morning. What's happened of -- or rather, in the night in between? Well, you know, Dante and Beatrice had not 'physically' met for then years, mainly because of her death, so, maybe, hmm, they may have been celebrating their rendez-vous, who knows?  ;-)

Friday, December 19, 2014

The best defense is attack (1)

[7: 3]

- E 'nsin a quando ci terrai prigioni
Fra queste mura, in vile assedio e lento?
Odo ben io stridere incudi, e suoni
D'elmi e di scudi e di corazze io sento;
Ma non veggio a qual uso. E que' ladroni
Scorron per tutto homai senza spavento,
Né v'è chi di noi chi mai lor passo arresti,
Né tromba che dal sonno almen li desti.

[Argantes to the Emir of Jerusalem]
"How long will you keep us like prisoners
Among these walls, in such a low, vile siege?
I do hear anvils ringing, I do listen to
The sound of helmets, shields, and armors,
But I don't see to what use. And those thieves
Can now raid everywhere undismayed,
And no one among us dares stop them,
And no trumpet at least wakes them up!"




The GC translations will be resumed starting from January 2. 
With many thanks to the growing number of people who read this blog.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Jerusalem Super-Exalted

- click to enlarge -


Tasso possibly thought that his Jerusalem-poems were the supreme poetical glorification of the Holy City; but, according to an independent Dante scholar of the mid-19th century, Fortunato Lanci, the Divine Comedy made much more than Tasso: it placed Jerusalem at the center of the whole universe. Lanci summarized his insights in the plate reported here (Fig. = figura, picture).

Fig. III   A general map, from above, of Dante's routes in Inferno (a-b), Purgatorio (c-d), and Paradiso (d-m). The h-h line indicates the Jerusalem-to-purgatory meridian. 

Fig. I   The "planets" (Sun included) rotate around the Earth center in point B, in accordance with the Ptolemaic cosmology, but the celestial spheres rotate around the city of Jerusalem in point A. As a consequence, the motion of each planet within its respective sphere is slightly eccentric.

Fig. II   The spheres of the 9 angelic choirs turn around the 9 celestial spheres, but on a perpendicular axis, namely the one whose extremities are Jerusalem and purgatory.

Fig. IV - V   Dante, while standing on the firmament (starry sphere), sees the angelic choirs as circles (not spheres) which look smaller and smaller (instead of larger and larger, as they are). This might be a perspective effect caused by a cone-shaped light ray coming from God, point A in picture IV, to Dante, in point B.

Lanci's book is also interesting because of other minor interpretations, as well as from a cultural point of view. For example, he detects two kinds of damned souls in hell's vestibule. And he is puzzled because, according to Dante, usury is worse than homosexuality. But more significant is the following remark: "A special folly, which clouds the French brains in our century, tries to turn Dante, at all costs, into a rebel against the Holy [Catholic] Church, as the author and champion of doctrines in accordance with their own heterodox communities . . .  defining him heretical, revolutionary, and socialist." About this, I take the liberty to link to my Dante book.


De' spiritali tre regni cantati da Dante Alighieri nella Divina Commedia. Analisi per tavole sinottiche di Fortunato Lanci [The three spiritual realms sung by Dante Alighieri in the Divine Comedy. An analysis through synoptical plates, by Fortunato Lanci], Rome, "a spese dello autore" [printed on demand], cm 28 x 39 x 2.
Actually, it consists of two books bound together: Degli ordinamenti onde ebbe informata Dante Alighieri la prima Cantica della Divina Commedia, investigazioni di F. Lanci [On the organization according to which Dante A. shaped the first Canticle of the D. C., the researches by F. L.], 1855, 28 pages + 2 plates; and Degli ordinamenti ond'ebbe conteste Dante Alighieri la seconda e la terza Cantica . . ." [On the organization according to which Dante A. wove the second and third Canticles . . .], 1856, 66 pages + 4 plates.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Meanwhile on the opposite front (2)

[7: 2]

E 'l Re sempre e queste parti e quelle
Li fa inalzare, e rafforzare i fianchi,
O l'aureo sol risplenda, od a le stelle
Et a la luna il fosco ciel s'imbianchi;
E 'n far per sì gran rischio arme novelle
Sudano i fabbri affaticati e stanchi.
In s' fatto apparecchio intolerante,
A lui se 'n venne e ragionolli Argante:

. . .

The King(*) meanwhile has many places
In the city lifted up and strengthened,
Both when the golden sun shines and when
The dark sky turns white with stars and moon;
To make new weapons, in such a great peril,
Many smiths labor, sweaty and tired. (**)
Among all preparations, the impatient
Argantes now comes before him, and says, . . .

(*) The Emir of Jerusalem, whose true name was Ducat; he was fairy-tale-like called "Aladino" (Aladdin) in Gerusalemme Liberata, while here in the Conquistata his name is rectified into "Ducalto."
(**) Echoing Dante, Inferno 14: 55-57.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Anna and Her Sisters

Anna Katharina Emmerick (1774-1824) was at the peak of her controversial success ten years ago, when Mel Gibson used her visions as a source for his 'scary movie' The Passion of the Christ and Pope John Paul II declared her "Blessed," just one step before becoming "St."

Her visions, more or less contemporary to William Blake's, are very different from her Medieval colleagues': the latter are concise and theologically pertinent, whereas Emmerick's are full of descriptive and psychological details, and changes in the landscape constantly echo the feelings of the personages. Briefly, it is a clear product of German Romanticism. At the same time, the Seer's mind (in the Medieval sense of mens) 'desperately' tries to get a consistent picture out of all kinds of materials she may have access to, directly or indirectly: Medieval and Renaissance art, apocryphal books, modern archaeological researches (e.g. the Essenes) and devotions (e.g. the Holy Shroud now in Turin), etc. And, is it possible that her descriptions of Eden, setting the supernaturally beautiful Adam and Eve in a gorgeous paradise, depended -- at least in part -- on Milton's Paradise Lost? After all, the notes of Haydn's oratorio Die Schöpfung were still fresh in the German world's air.

The most original and interesting side of her "updated Gospel" is the role played by Lazarus as a sponsor, and especially by a whole team of women as healing helpers in the public ministry of Jesus. Significantly, his enemies accuse him of being a wizard, rather than a blasphemer. The Messiah's personality itself is not always the one we would expect.

A. K. Emmerick, Visioni bibliche e contemplazioni mistiche, an anthology perceptively edited and very well translated by Vincenzo Noja, Milan: Paoline, 2009, pages 326, euros 14.50


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sunday Guest: a sexy Ichneumon Wasp


From Dino Buzzati's novel Il segreto del Bosco Vecchio. Why "sexy"?! Because, in this juvenile novel, it is the only episode in which Buzzati hints at a subject that will play a fundamental role in his later works: women possessing, dominating, and mocking men. In fact, the insects are described as follows:
Giving very thin cries to excite one another, the she-wasps swooped down on the caterpillars, seized them by the hair, and gripped them between their own legs(*) while casting contumelies on them. Then, they pierced the caterpillars with their stings, at a surprising speed, in every part of their bodies.
(*) The word gambe is employed, that refers to human beings; animals have zampe, in Italian. The actions of the ichneumon wasps, and of their larvae later on, match their actual behavior only in part: Buzzati sometimes enjoyed creating an alternative zoology, though the most interesting examples of this in 20th-century Italian literature can be found in Primo Levi's and Italo Calvino's short stories.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

With a higher IQ than Smaug

"I'm ho-o-me!" or, Mr and Mrs Dragon

A detail from a cult illustrated book: Die Drachenfedern (The Dragon's Feathers), first published in 1993, with the amazing plates by Ol'ga Dugina and Andrej Dugin. From the viewpoint of fantasy lore, the interesting novelty -- in the illustrations, not in the text -- is that the Dragon is endowed with intelligence and speech, like Tolkien's specimens, but he makes something more than collecting useless treasures. He is an alchemist, a magician.
In connection with this, the countless details added by the Dugins, a married couple themselves, give a quite different meaning to the whole story. Signs of the Dragon, in fact, can bee seen in every page: giant eggs, dragon-shaped helmets, little reptilian critters, etc. The impression arises that the W/Lizard only "makes as if" he is deceived by his wife, revealing her the secrets that she, in turn, will pass on to the young hero of the story to help him accomplish his "mission." The Dragon probably knew everything about it, and now enjoys observing the consequences. The result is that the young man will succeed in marrying his sweetheart, but they won't look very happy: the worst curse has fallen on them, the curse of gold.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Meanwhile on the opposite front (1)

After so many pages devoted to the events in the Christian Camp (especially those concerning Richard and Armida), Tasso shows us the situation from the point of view of the Muslim army and people within the walls of Jerusalem.

[7: 1]

Ma d'altra parte le rinchiuse genti
Sperano in stato dubbio e malsicuro,
Ch'oltra il raccolto cibo, integri armenti
Son lor dentro condotti al cielo oscuro;
Et han munite d'arme e di instrumenti
Di Borea inverso Borea il forte muro:
E là 'nde più lunga fatica alzollo
Non mostra di temer percossa o crollo.

But, on the other side, the enclosed people 
Hope, though in a dubious and insecure state;
In fact, besides the gathered food, whole herds
Were brought inside under cover of darkness;
And with weapons and instruments, they
Fortified the strong North wall northward: (*)
Where they have built it with longer labour,
It will not fear damages from blows or tremors.

(*) In the final printed version, these two lines were then modified: E di machine e d'arme e fochi ardenti / Munito fia verso Aquilone il muro, "And with devices and weapons and burning fires / they fortified the Northern wall," also using a different wind name to indicate the North, Aquilone instead of Borea.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Un(s)even: A strange star over Bethlehem

(by Selkis; a detail)

Ancient Bible scholars interpreted the Star of Bethlehem either as an unusual astronomical phenomenon or as an angel. Torquato Tasso, with one of his strokes of genius, anticipates the concept of "singularity" in Physics: that event -- he says -- had no parallels, was something unique.

In a couple of weeks it will be Christmas. This picture would do as a beautiful greetings card, but we will exchange 'official' wishes some days before the actual date.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Dante's CV in 3 easy steps


That is, the law of 25's:

Inferno 25
Dante's job that would make him famous: a poet as great as, or greater than, Ovid. He succeeded.

Purgatorio 25
Dante's would-be job: as a physician. He quit.

Paradiso 25
Dante's dream job: to be called back to Florence as a Culture minister. He failed.


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

1, 2, 3, 4, 5

[6: 119.1 - 120.2]

Quivi discende un rio, non lunge al ponte,
Da l'un de' cinque fonti, anzi dal primo,
Ché cinque son, pur come gradi in monte,
Per cui s'ascende al sommo insin da l'imo.
L'altro rio si rivolge al propio fonte
Lucido, puro, netto e senza limo;
Così quel corre a l'alto, e questo al fondo.
O sacra meraviglia ignota al mondo!

Ma l'uno e l'altro pur torce, e deriva
Misero error fra l'opere terrene.

Here, not far from the bridge, a river flows down from one of five springs -- the first one in fact, as there is five of them, like natural stairs in a mountain, letting you climb it from the base to the top. The other river turns back towards it own spring: shiny, pure, clean, mudless. Therefore, the former flows upward and the latter downward, O holy wonder, unknown to the world! But both keep turning, and create miserable errors among the earthly works.


Notes
These five mysterious, all too clearly symbolic rivers did not appear in Gerusalemme Liberata; they have been added in the Conquistata, both here and later on, when a more detailed description will be provided. Scholars have interpreted them as a reference to the Thomistic doctrine of knowledge, but there might be more to it, in the light of the importance attached by the poet to their cosmic meaning. Anyway, imho, this is the most unconvincing section in GC.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Un(s)even: Satan, Sin, Death

(a bit cropped)

In Tasso's Il Mondo Creato we find a brief description of Death popping out of Sin, and Sin out of Satan, that, while reworking passages from the New Testament (James, Paul), paves the way to Milton's powerful and "drama-acting" conversations between the three dark powers.

Directly from Paradise Lost, modifying it on purpose and not without humor, is William Blake's personal version of this imagery in his long poem Milton:

[Leutha, a "Daughter of Albion," speaks]
. . .  entering the doors of Satan's brain night after night
Like sweet perfumes, I stupified the masculine perceptions
And kept only the feminine awake.(*)  . . .

I sprang out of the breast of Satan, over the Harrow beaming
In all my beauty . . .

But when the Gnomes refus'd to labour more, with blandishments
I came forth from the head of Satan! Back the Gnomes recoil'd
And called me Sin, and for a sign portentous held me.  . . .

[The Bard sings: Once in Palamabron's bed,]
In dreams she bore the shadowy Spectre of Sleep & nam'd him Death.

(*) Apparently with temporary homosexual consequences, as Satan falls in love with Palamabron.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sunday Guest: the Giant Carter


From Dino Buzzati's novel Il segreto del Bosco Vecchio. A dark, giant carter, leading a huge horse and a coffin-shaped cart, wanders about the Old Wood. What may he be transporting? Butterflies, butterflies, thousands of tiny butterflies - - - of processionary moths.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Sisters' Acts


In 1592, when Tasso was workig on his long poem Il Mondo Creato, the Catholic Bishop of Perugia, Italy, "visited" -- i.e., in canon law parlance, checked the cloister of St. Agnes (still existing), where some 70 Franciscan nuns then lived. The community had had big troubles twenty years before because they had not immediately accepted the reform required by the Vatican, that basically consisted in turning them into an enclosed Order and sending them parish priests as spiritual guides instead of Franciscan monks. Why? Because anything had happened in such places in the previous centuries.

The Council of Trent, which ended in 1564, had given very general guidelines in this sense, but left the actual decision to the local Church leaders (once again, the difference between the Renaissance approach and the one-sided, ideological approach of the Enlightenment Era and later, up to the Vatican Council II). Well, Perugia was unlucky, probably because the relations between the Umbrian city and Rome were quite nervous. In 1571, the Papal Visitor Paolo Mario Della Rovere acted very harshly against the St. Agnes nuns. In 1592, Bishop Napoleone Comitoli would adopt a more 'conciliatory' style. He listened carefully to the Mother Superior, then the Vice Superior, and finally all the sisters, one by one, writing down some unofficial notes in Italian, that are now a precious witness of that time.

Their stories, quickly sketched by Mons. Comitoli, their very different personalities and backgrounds, their hopes and fears, their friendships or gossip, their daily activities from praying to feeding the chickens, their devotion and religious studies, or the lack of them, have been collected by learned and nice Prof. Luigi Tittarelli in his essay ". . . è bona sora devota, et garbata": La visita del vescovo Comitoli al convento di S. Agnese in Perugia nel 1592, Perugia: Deputazione di Storia Patria per l'Umbria, 2005, pages 90, with 7 photos of pages from the manuscript.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Let he who loves me follow me (4)

[6: 118]

D'intorno a l'acque tepide et immonde
De l'horribil palude, ovunque allaghi,
Habitan l'infelici antiche sponde
(Sì come è vecchia fama) e maghe e maghi.
Altri ne le spelunche ivi s'asconde,
Pur come siano orsi e leoni e draghi;
Altri occulti palagi alza d'intorno.
Fe' in mezzo Armida il suo edificio adorno.

All around the lukewarm and filthy waters
Of the horrid swamp, wherever it flows,
The ancient, unblessed shores are inhabited
(As old fame reports) by witches and wizards.
Some hide themselves in the grottoes there
As if they were bears or lions or dragons;
Others built secret palaces all around.
Armida set her rich palace in the midst.


Notes
The imagery of the swamp inhabited by witches has a long tradition: it appeared in Beowulf, for example. More directly, Tasso draws on the story of the witch Manto, the legendary founder of the town of Mantua in Italy, as recounted by Dante (Inferno 20: 79 ff) and Ludovico Ariosto (Orlando Furioso 43, stanzas 96-98; but noticeably, Ariosto terms Manto a "fairy," showing her as a positive character, even defending witches in an era in which they were fiercely persecuted).

Thursday, December 4, 2014

That Narrative Strength

CS Lewis' That Hideous Strength is possibly, in spite -- or precisely because -- of its flaws, his best novel. It was first published in 1945, but written in 1943 just after the Battle of Stalingrad, when the Second World War was not officially over, but Lewis already takes it for granted that the Nazis have been defeated . . .  or not? In fact, to paraphrase a famous sentence, Germania capta ferum victorem cepit: The post-war world, in England itself, is described as the fulfillment of Hitler's wildest dreams, with its inhuman technology and 'scientific' medicine, joined with black magic and a longing for destruction. Only apparently a paradox, actually a prophetical insight into our current society controlled by multinational corporations that do behave like that. (Quite odd to say this in a blog provided by one of them for free.)

The third part in Lewis' Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength is quite different from the previous two episodes, as well as much longer. Like in Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, the main narrative trait is a brilliant mix of fantasy and science fiction; but, unlike them, THS is full of extra materials that are not strictly needed in the plot. But after all, the whole story hinges on a laboratory, so, not inconsistently, is itself a "laboratory."

As for the Christian message, it is even clearer and stronger than in most or all of Lewis' other novels. The "moral preaching" proves sometimes a bit heavy, especially in the mouth of Ransom, whose personality has become overloaded with powers of any kind and somewhat unpleasant, as it is the doom of many "goodies" in literature. But there also appear some very interesting reprocessings of episodes from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, and especially, the Question is led to its crucial point: Are you with the crucified Christ or against him?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

"Il mio bel San Giovanni"


A detail of the mosaics on the inside of the dome of the Baptistery in Florence. In general, they date back to the late 13th century, though many areas (including the one shown here above) have undergone restorations throughout the ages, from the 14th century even to the early 20th century, mainly because of water seepage. The whole series of mosaics pictures Bible episodes from Genesis to the Gospels, namely: Creation to Noah, the lives of Joseph the Patriarch, of Jesus, of John the Baptist. The first two series were interpreted as prophecies of man's salvation in Christ.

It is a fine example of Byzantine, or rather, Byzantine-like art in Italy, and in a very important place, in fact it was the main monument in Florence up until the late 14th century, before the Basilica was completed, not to speak of the Renaissance works to come. Here Dante himself was baptized, and he would praise "my beautiful Saint John" in the Divine Comedy. For some reason, however, except for the area with the Dante-inspiring Hell, these mosaics are very seldom reproduced in art books, while much more famous are the 'parallel' ones in Monreale, Sicily.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Let he who loves me follow me (3)

[6: 117]

Se da l'arida terra alto germoglia
Arbor talvolta in sventurati campi,
Maturi pomi infra la verde foglia
Son quasi tocchi da fulminei lampi,
Che non guastando la purpurea spoglia,
Avien che quel di dentro arda et avampi,
E da l'ira del ciel così destrutto,
Cenere ne l'aprir somiglia il frutto.

If from that dry soil a tree ever sprouts
And grows in those accursed fields,

The ripe fruits among its green leaves
Seem to have been struck by lightning,
Which, while leaving the red peel intact,
Burns and sets ablaze the inner parts;
So that, destroyed by heaven's wrath,
The opened fruit will look like ash.


Notes
Sodom, i.e. Armida's place, recalls an inverted Eden. This description will probably be echoed by John Milton in Paradise Lost 10, when Satan and all devils with him are punished by God for the Fall of Man by turning them into snakes and forcing them to eat fruits whose pulp turns out to be ash. And another landscape like that will appear in Lovecraft's masterpiece The Colour Out of Space.

Monday, December 1, 2014

How to make geniuses harmless




William Blake, Milton, edited and with a commentary by Kay Parkhurst Easson and Roger P. Easson, Boulder, CO: Shambhala, in association with Random House, New York, 1978, pages 178, cm 16 x 24. It includes a reproduction of the complete series of the original plates and a printed version of the text.

In Milton, possibly the masterpiece of his masterpieces, Blake presents the ripe fruit of his worldview by re-writing Paradise Lost, and glorifying his 17th-century colleague as no poet had ever done before, not even Dante with Virgil. Blake's insights into Milton's poetry and theology, but also into Swedenborg's thought, is here much more complex than in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, whose revolutionary ideas have unfortunately become shallow commonplace meanwhile.

One of Milton's strong points is that it describes Blake's most striking visions. We can define them the way we like best: hallucination, schizophrenia (cf. Nobel-Prize-awarded John Nash, or 'our' Tasso), but what matters is that he is reporting experiences, rather than creating fiction. At the same time -- and this is the mark of genius -- he learns from these visionary flashes, and uses them as telescopes to explore the mysteries of the universe and God.

The big flaw in this gorgeous edition of the book is the commentary, in which Blake's universe is explained as the anatomy of the human eye. That might be a cute suggestion, deserving a one-page paragraph; but, stretched as the key for the poem, it makes the impression of trying to water it down, making its religious and social message harmless. It is true, in fact, that precisely in Milton Blake calls, "Rouze up, O Young Men of the New Age!", but the New Age consists in destroying the false, hypocritical, violent civilization built by Bacon, Newton, Voltaire, etc., and re-establish "the Sublime of the Bible." "Suffer not the fashionable Fools!"