Twenty-twenty-one was a banner year in Italy and abroad for those celebrating the life of Dante Alighieri, who died in September of 1321, in exile from his native city, Firenze or Florence, Italy. Threatened with execution, Dante spent the rest of his life in the homes of supporters sympathetic with his dilemma—victim of the struggle for power between Guelfs (Papal power supporters) and Ghibellines (pro Holy Roman Emperor).
During this period, among other works in the vernacular instead of Latin, Dante penned The Divine Comedy, his vision of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. He wrote in the opening stanzas of the “L’Inferno”’s first canticle that he found himself at a midpoint on the path of his life, ‘the right way having been lost’. His spiritual journey thus began, and when he met souls anguishing in Hell and Purgatory, they were often his deceased contemporaries. Their words gave vent to Dante’s grievances and hopes arising from his suffering.
Recently, my spouse and I were lost as we wandered through the historic center of Florence in search of Dante’s house. I had studied Dante’s work and wanted to connect physically somehow with his Florence. Unlike Dante, we were not in a dark wood nor threatened by wild beasts obstructing a direct path to our goal. Nevertheless, navigating the narrow streets of that area was not easy. Sidewalks consisted of inlaid and uneven large stone or concrete blocks paving a two-foot-wide strip for pedestrians. When possible, we walked in the street. Step down, step up, step down, step up—the rhythmic pace determined by oncoming, barreling Mercedes autos (not the best vehicle for those medieval passages), trucks, or by contrast the very temporary absence of traffic.
After a number of missteps, we discovered a piazzetta and finally the cluster of brick buildings from the late Middle Ages that made up the homes of the Florentine Alighieri family. On our way there, we often experienced a pleasurable frisson of awe and connection as we passed houses and palazzi surviving plagues, wars, and neglect to remain as testimony of Florence’s past. This was the real world knocking at our door, if only for the ten days during which we stayed in that city.
We had jumped through all the hoops needed for travel abroad in pandemic times to leave behind our little protected world and embrace a larger one. Per forza, that is, necessarily, Dante Alighieri had to do the same, not for pleasure, but for survival. Our tour of his house yielded no personal artifacts, no furniture, no paintings or any other touchstone to help us connect with the great man, but interactive exhibits and superb documentation provided enough material to increase our understanding of the writer and his times. Grateful for the circumstances that allowed us these insights, we continued to explore the city and appreciate every moment that we “strayed from the right path.“