It is surprisingly easy to overlook the Baptistery of San Giovanni, a plain—well, plain relative to its surroundings — octagonal building sitting in the courtyard of the vastly larger, vastly more stunning, ornate and magnificent Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, commonly called the Duomo.
The first time I went to Florence, in 1999, I didn't even go inside the baptistery.
But that was before I caught what my wife recently called "your Dante thing," and on my recent trip I made a point of ponying up the 12 euro entrance fee and going inside to take a peek, even as my loved ones took a pass.
This is, after all, the place where Dante was baptized on March 26, 1266. It is not often you get to sit in a room 750 years old. There is a wonderful, spare beauty to the altar, which looks like this.
I spent a long time looking straight up, at the mosaic ceiling. It looks like this:
As I did, a thought came to me. The thought went something like this:
You know... that ceiling. It sorta echoes the entire structure of The Divine Comedy. You've got Satan below. You've got the mortal world above, then the angels above. Here Dante gets all this credit for imagining the nine rings of hell, and the complex design of his masterpiece. Maybe he got the idea for the whole thing merely by looking up.
Nah, I thought. That can't be. If it were possible, I'd have heard of it. Seven hundred years is a long time. Who knows when the ceiling was even decorated?
In 1225, it turns out. Forty years before Dante's birth.
Okay, I would have read about it. I've certainly read enough Dante commentary. My idea of fun, embarrassing as it is to admit. This isn't some Dan Brown novel where important clues sit out in plain sight waiting centuries to be noticed. Amateurs do not discover important aspects of literature heretofore ignored. If it were at all a valid thought, somebody would have had it and mentioned it.
Turns out, somebody did. When I got home, I immediately pulled down my go-to guide for all things Dante, Barbara Reynolds' masterful, Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man. The world's foremost Dante scholar doesn't mince words while describing Dante's upbringing:
Images of evil were depicted everywhere. In particular, the cupola of the Baptistery was decorated with mosaics arranged in rectangles, placed symmetrically, representing Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, the Last Judgment and, of special importance for the Commedia, a grotesque figure of Satan, with three mouths, two protruding snake-like from the sides of his head, each devouring a sinner, an image with which Dante was familiar from earliest childhood. His presentation of Lucifer in Inferno resembles it closely, even to the sinners being crunched in his three mouths.Ah good, not original to me, but at least I'm not off-base either. The detail she's referring to is this.
What I think this little episode illustrates the value of seeing something for yourself, versus reading about it in a book. I'm all for books. Still, I had certainly read the lines in Reynolds' book, then promptly forgot them.
But seeing the mosaic on the ceiling of the Baptistery—that isn't going to slip out of mind anytime soon.
My wife and son had bowed out—save 24 euros, gone to get some cappuccino, leave dad to his madness. I didn't blame them. And honestly, I was glad for the time alone, to sit not only where Dante squalled as a baby, but where he yearned all his life to return.
In Canto 25 of Paradiso, he pines for the place:
Should it ever come to pass that this sacred poem
to which both Heaven and earth have set their hand
so that it has made me lean for many years,
should overcome the cruelty that locks me out
of the fair sheepfold where I slept as a lamb
foe of the wolves at war with it,
with another voice then, with another fleece,I like the "made me lean for many years." Just another frustrated writer bitching about the paltriness of his reward. Which is no doubt why I like Dante so much. Not for Beatrice, not for all the Florentine politics or Catholic cosmology. But for the swollen, aching ego, so real across the centuries. Something I relate to.
shall I return a poet and, at the font,
where I was baptized, take the laurel crown.
Also the "with another voice then, with another fleece..." What exactly does that mean? There's a lot of obscure stuff in the Commedia -- to this day nobody can figure out what "between Feltro and Feltro" means. Maybe he meant that he's hoping to come back, perhaps disguised. "Vello" means fleece, but it also means "veil." Or... not to put on airs ... but maybe he was referring, not to himself returning at all—hope of that was fading as he wrote Paradiso, which was not discovered until as his death. But maybe he was thinking of other people, of strangers, speaking in other voices, wearing other garb. Of, just maybe, guys like me. Who, if the poem was as popular as Dante seemed convinced it would be, might shamble by, centuries and centuries later, to sit for 20 minutes on a bench, and think about him, and grant him the honor he so hungered to receive at that spot.
|The relevant lines quoted above from Paradiso Canto 25 are carved in marble, generally unnoticed, outside the Baptistery.|