What Would Dante Do? Posthumous Observations by Il Poeta By Laura Shewan

Quando leggemmo il disiato riso, esser basciato da cotanto amante, questi, che mai da me non fia diviso, la bocca mi baciò tutto tremante.”

~ Dante ~

Is there anything in this world more frightening than a Florentine shop assistant? If there is, I haven’t yet found it. The only thing that enables me to transcend my terror and cross the threshold of an Italian boutique is The Pure Unadulterated Desire To Shop. Yes, the clothes are sooo pretty, but they come at a big price; and i’m not just talking about the label. I mean, the sweaty palmed experience of being scrutinised. Most of the time I can be found trembling in the changing cubicle, whilst an immaculate madonna peers through the curtains at me, simultaneously scowling and staring. (Seriously: HOW do they DO that??) The terror is confounded by the knowledge that they somehow know I am a secret hippy; despite the designer attire. I am pretty sure they have a sixth sense for it, and can sniff out the scent of incense and post-meditation samadhi. I also have my suspicions that they feed hippies here to the pedigree dogs; (how else would you account for their absence from an ENTIRE city); a belief which doesn’t do much in favour of the sweaty palms.

Anyway, I mention this mostly because whenever I see the chiselled visage of a Florentine shop assistant I can’t help but think of Dante. It doesn’t matter that they also have the exquisite allure of a little nymphette, or the grace of a Mona Lisa; somehow all I can see are the Eyes of Judgement. Il Somma Poeta is everywhere in this city, the sentry who stands watch over everyone from his precarious plinths, omnipotent, all seeing, and I can’t help but feel, all judging. I mean, have you SEEN that sculpture of him in Santa Croce?? Not only is Dante the father of the Italian language, but he is undoubtedly the embodiment of Firenze. It makes me wonder what he would think today if he sleepwalked out of his catacomb of Santa Croce, or was miraculously reawakened like a sort of profane Pygmalion?

At this point, I offer a slight disclosure: I am a BIG fan of Dante. Like – not just I like his poetry and can appreciate his contribution to the Renaissance – more like, I can be found weeping over the little quotes of his scattered around the city, in the same way that some people might do at Elvis Presley’s grave. I once had to forcibly restrain myself from wrapping my arms around his statue in Santa Croce, and camping out beside it with a candle in an act of devotion. If he was alive today I would probably be put away for public indecency or something.

So despite the fact that every statue of his makes him look like he had a face that had just been slapped by a fish, I happen to agree he was a great humanitarian on par with St Thomas of Aquinas and St Francis of Assisi. I mean, how can anyone who wrote so knowingly of love, not be sexy? Ok, ok, I hear you say …. Romantic Love in the 13th and 14th centuries was slightly different to the ways in which sex is plastered all over the city today. But still, there is the element of longing, the allure of the unknown and the unimaginable, and the taste of the erotic which does translate. And how could anyone who understood Love to be the binding force of Life mind seeing young people on every Ponte tasting each other’s lips as though they were a rare delicacy? I think Dante would have secretly quite liked it.

For sure, I am not certain he would have been that ok with the way in which sex has been appropriated for selling stuff. Not that this is merely an Italian issue, but sadly one which has taken root globally – maybe it always did. I can imagine him tutting and then writing a tract on the opulence which can be found in Florence on a daily basis; and I definitely always think of Dante when I see tourists with selfie sticks trailing around each other like sheep. Especially in the Uffizi. WHAT IS WITH THAT, PEOPLE? I mean, seriously. You are in the presence of one of the most beautiful contributions to humanity that a being has ever made; a Botticelli which is so totally sublime it just makes you want to weep; and you are posing there TAKING A SELFIE?

Sometimes I stand in front of the Nascita di Venere and cry for this reason alone, and I think, for fuck’s sake, this is what Dante called the masses who will no doubt populate Purgatory with their stupidity and lack of self awareness. (I do have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about the symbiosis of narcissism and apathy, one of which equates to the other – but STILL. I seriously think they should stop feeding hippies to the pedigree poodles and sacrifice the tourists who fail to adequately appreciate the art to them instead.)

Anyway, maybe it’s because I don’t focus so much on the sin stuff in La Divina Commedia (why bother reading something you know doesn’t apply to you?) that I love Dante as much as I do. I tend to take away from his works his total faith in the possibility of transcendence, and the belief that love conquers all. For someone to write that the most profound pain possible for a being to bear is the memory of happiness when it has already past – “Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice la miseria” – suggests to me someone who knew life, in all its complexity. It is a beautiful reminder that we all share the same condition of fragile humanity. Despite the centuries which separate us, it gives me faith that we can understand each other, and connect through our shared experiences.

When I look around Florence today, on what has been a beautiful, mild, and sunny Sunday, I think Dante would recognise most of it. Aside from the selfie sticks… (and I mean, even I wonder what the fuck they are)… I see life being lived out in a very human and timeless way. Bustling around the organic markets, posturing and posing with Prada bags and purses, kissing, coffee, the never ending sound of sirens, streams of rowers on the river, people just being people: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. And I definitely think Dante would be happy to be home.


Blurb/Info on Laura:

Laura Shewan

Laura is an anthropologist with philosophical, political pretensions, dividing her time between Il Bel Paese and Brighton, UK. In the process of establishing a rural retreat centre in Toscana, she writes on life as a young woman and the eternal quest for Truth and Beauty whilst living La Dolce Vita.


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