“Escape from Paradise”
Before Beatrice fled from Florence to Venice and beyond in my story, she migrated from the classroom to the written page, then set sail and found a welcome dock at Twelve Winters Journal.
A course I taught on the Divine Comedy drew students with a wide spectrum of academic interests. I encouraged them to undertake a term project related to their field of studies, as long as it included an account of their research and how their secondary sources contributed to the creation of their final product (a bit like this commentary). Art students handed in paintings and sculptures; music students composed, performed, and recorded musical pieces; writing majors wrote poetry and stories; theater majors wrote and staged plays; film students scripted, shot, and showed movies; philosophy majors wrote Platonic dialogues. My office became a museum of intriguing works of art.
Beatrice often figured in the students’ projects, which gave me the idea for a piece that showed how things might have looked through her eyes. After I retired and began to dabble in “creative writing,” I emulated my students and took on the project of drafting a story presented from her perspective.
An early result was a ten-word story in the Dime Show Review, later republished in Dante Today.
Dante: “How can we meet again?”
Beatrice: “Go to Hell.”
Readers familiar with the Divine Comedy realize that Beatrice is not just telling Dante to get lost but is giving him correct instructions. At the beginning of the poem, Dante finds himself in a dark wood, having lost his way. The spirit of the Roman poet Virgil shows up to rescue him. Sent on this mission by Beatrice, now dwelling in Paradise, Virgil leads Dante through Hell to the top of Purgatory, where Beatrice will meet him and then guide him through the heavens. It is, in fact, by going to Hell, as she dictates, that Dante can and does meet her again.
(The double entendre would also have worked if she had answered: “Get lost!” since his ultramundane journey, which begins in Hell, takes place only after he gets lost in that dark forest. That two-word answer by Beatrice, which would have made it a nine-word story, would have represented a more significant Dantean number, especially as pertains to Beatrice. In the Vita nuova [New Life], Dante associates the number 9 with Beatrice [e.g. her date of birth; date and time of death; their age when they met] to signify that she is “miraculous.” The number 9 stands for a miracle because the Christian Trinity  reproduces itself [3 X 3] in our earthly existence [3 X 3 = 9] to reveal Divinity where it is normally not visible. Beatrice is connected to the number 9 because she is a miracle sent to Earth to impart salvific grace—at least to Dante. [Only seven centuries later would the world get a 10: Bo Derek, in the 1979 movie “10”.] But Dime Show Review stipulated exactly ten words [not counting the title], and so Beatrice had to send Dante to Hell with three words, instead of telling him to get lost, in two.)
Dante’s use of Beatrice in his poem is surprising; I would say almost scandalous. What qualifies a girl he happened to see in the streets of Florence when they were nine years old, an ordinary person unknown outside his poetry, possibly illiterate, to serve as his guide through the heavens to the presence of God? As she leads Dante through the Cosmos and the Empyrean, she answers all of his philosophical and theological questions with a vast and profound store of knowledge. In this sense, Beatrice makes no sense.
(Here, nonetheless, is an abridged version of an explanation reached in class discussions: First of all, Dante’s own explanation is that all the blessed souls in Paradise share in divine revelation, regardless of their previous station in this life. They all know the whole Truth. But beyond that, in Dante’s vision, divine grace and the process of salvation work through our interactions with our fellow human beings, our neighbors. Scripture, theology, and church doctrine and catechism provide a script, but we have to act it out by interacting with our fellow human beings, serving as both the vehicles and the recipients of miraculous grace. Beatrice thus stands for the neighbor, the fellow human being, whom we must learn to love in such a way that our love leads to a state of blessedness. At the end of the poem, after experiencing the heavenly realm of the blessed and coming into the presence of God, Dante, who is still alive, returns to Earth to narrate his journey and thus to serve as a guide for his own earthly neighbors, to be, himself, a Beatrice—or Beatore, masculine—for others.)
Am I done with Beatrice—or rather, is she done with me—now that she has morphed into Luce (Light) and landed in Twelve Winters? Who knows? She has been with us for over seven hundred and twelve winters so far and may be around for as many more, with a lot of morphing left in her.
How about Laura?
In another course, we read Dante, 1265-1321, and Francesco Petrarca, 1304-1374, and Giovanni Boccaccio, 1313-75, all of Florentine origin, who comprise the “Tre Corone” (Three Crowns) or founding fathers of Italian language and literature. Of the trio, Dante has sometimes been dubbed: the last great voice of the Middle Ages, and Petrarca: the first great voice of the modern age, with Boccaccio following close in his wake. The difference between Dante and Petrarca can be discerned in how they depict the women who inspire their love in their poetry:
Dante’s Beatrice–whose name means “She who blesses; bestower of beatitude”—leads Dante from the Earth to Heaven, from the world of the body to the realm of the soul. She provides meaning to life by looking beyond life and thus represents transcendence.
Petrarca’s Laura’s name derives from the name of the Laurel tree and evokes the image of a Laurel Crown awarded to champions, including Poets Laureate (Petrarca was crowned Poet Laureate in Rome in 1341, the second poet to be so designated since Classical times; the first: Albertino Mussato, a fellow early Humanist, in 1315). Laura’s name thus betokens worldly glory and fame.
There are poems devoted to Laura in Petrarca’s Canzoniere (Songbook) that echo Dante’s poems to Beatrice as an angelic, heavenly figure who dispenses grace (and thus is “gracious,” in a more concrete sense of the term than in modern usage) and instills a love for virtue and for God. But these poems of praise are flanked by poems of blame that bemoan the poet’s love for a mortal woman, because it distracts from fully loving God. The desires of the flesh surpass the needs of the soul. In these poems of repentance, rather than leading the poet to salvation as Beatrice does, Laura leads the poet away from it. In the contradictory mix of poems in the Canzoniere, she leads him forth and back repeatedly. Laura thus comes to stand for the poet’s desire for transcendence and his inability to achieve it: an ambivalence that defines our modern condition.
Thus, when I came to consider how to see things through Beatrice’s eyes, the similarities and differences between her and Laura came to mind, and I began to conceive of their story as entwined and correspondent, which suggested an actual form of correspondence: a letter.
Another figure who made his way from the classroom to the story is Dante’s contemporary, the quintessential wanderer, Marco Polo, 1254-1324. It puzzled me that Dante scholars never mention Marco Polo; nor vice versa. No two authors are more comparable. They both produced popular, influential books within a few years and a few miles from each other. Both books were about journeys with the authors also serving as the protagonists. Why do the two camps of scholars and historians ignore each other?
My investigation of the relationship between Marco’s Travels and Dante’s Commedia ended up taking me on an NEH-funded trip along the Silk Road in 2006 to retrace segments of Marco’s travels. My hypotheses about how the differences between Marco’s book and Dante’s epic poem might have led to the mutual shunning by their respective scholarly camps resulted in professional presentations and essays, including “Horizontal and Vertical Journeys in the Italian Imagination,” in MLN, and the article on Marco Polo in The Literary Encyclopedia.
The shunning began with Dante, who ignored Marco’s book, even though it had circulated widely by the time he started to write the Commedia, and he must have known of it. Subsequently, Dante scholars continued to ignore Marco. Marco scholars, on their side of the fence, also ignore Dante, presumably because they tend to be historians, not literary scholars, and thus work in a separate field of inquiry. Still, the objects of their studies are two remarkably similar books. Given the striking coincidence of their production and the fact that both are accounts of journeys, the divorce between them seems unnatural.
(A similar shunning happened between Petrarca and Dante. Unlike Boccaccio, who lionized Dante and wrote an account of his life and a commentary of the Commedia, Petrarca ignored his illustrious predecessor and fellow Tuscan. This silence could be attributed to what Harold Bloom labeled “anxiety of influence,” which leads some authors to ignore the predecessors who influenced them the most for fear of being labeled derivative: a kind of scriptorial Oedipus complex to deny or erase the “father.” Petrarca’s shunning of Dante, however, whatever its cause, does not extend to subsequent scholars, for whom comparing the two poets is de rigueur.)
It doesn’t seem likely that Dante suffered from a similar anxiety vis-à-vis Marco’s book. Rather, it seems more probable that he found Marco’s description of the world objectionable, perhaps dangerous, and he didn’t want to bring more attention to it by talking or writing about it.
Marco’s book started circulating in 1299 and was soon translated into several European languages. It reveals the wonders of this finite world, not the beatitude of celestial eternity. Its focus is on earthly immanence and is oblivious to any notion of divine transcendence. Marco’s journey takes place entirely on the surface of the Earth and manifests no interest to go beyond it either during or after our lifetime. He sees the world with the eyes and mind of a merchant whose aim is to acquire and distribute the riches of this world.
Marco described parts of the world where Christ and the Biblical God worshiped in Europe were not known and yet which were, in many ways, richer and more advanced than the regions of Christendom. Could it be that Dante’s aim was to provide an antidote for what to him might have seemed a blasphemous depiction of human life on this planet by describing an altogether different voyage: the journey of the immortal soul to salvation?
With those questions and hypotheses in mind, it occurred to me that an effective way to dramatize and explore the contrast between the two books was to have Dante’s own Beatrice (Bice in the diminutive used by family and friends) marry into the Polo family, as Luce (Light), and come to see the world through a merchant’s eyes and thus provide a counterpoint to Dante’s use of her to channel the views of theology.
After these and other marginal historical figures made their way into the tale, I had to get them to interact in a convincing way by placing them in a correct social and historical context. The timeline, dates, ages, historical events and conditions are accurate, including the identity of Laura’s husband, Count Hugues de Sade, who was indeed an ancestor in the same family as the Marquis de Sade. The meetings and conversations between Dante and Marco Polo and Pietro D’Abano (a true historical figure) are fictional but chronologically and thematically plausible. They were all at or near the locations mentioned during the times indicated.
Completely fictional are Beatrice’s survival, flight from Florence, adoption of a false identity, and marriage into the Polo family. Her Florentine husband, Simone dei Bardi, was real, but her second husband, Andrea Polo—cousin of Marco Polo—and their progeny are fictional, as is her nephew from Avignon.
Also fictional is the scholar who finds the “letter,” Mathieu Toussaint. The idea of using a scholar who is doing research on the Marquis de Sade, 1740-1814, popped into my head because Laura de Noves happened to be married to a member of that same family. Once he joined the party, however, he brought some interesting and useful contributions to the pot-luck.
For one, his research is focused on the notion of agency (in Dantean terms, the question of free will): To what extent were the Marquis de Sade’s choices and actions—and by extension, those of Beatrice and Laura, Marco Polo and Dante; and by further extension, anyone’s—dictated by individual will, societal expectations, historical context, external contingencies, heredity? Beatrice faces comparable questions and acts to determine her own “fate.” She thus manages to escape not only from Paradise, where Dante had relegated her, but also from the pedestal where “love poetry” generally tended to place women: praised, adulated, cherished, even worshiped, but precisely through such elevation, lifted out of and kept away from the public sphere of politics, economics, legislation, education, and thus made powerless, voiceless, passive. A more exact title for my fiction might have been: “Escape from Paradise and from the Pedestal.”
Linking the story of Beatrice and Laura to the figure of the Marquis de Sade also exports the issues raised in Beatrice’s letter to other historical periods. Many people have heard of the Marquis de Sade and know something about his libertine sexual ideas and behavior that involve the mistreatment of women as objects of desire, violence, and power. The proclivities with which he is associated are resonant with the sexual and gender issues faced by Beatrice and Laura, which in turn implies the persistence of such mistreatment through the centuries, down to our own day, as manifested by the #MeToo movement and Believe Women.
(By the way . . . or rather, not at all by the way, but quite far from it, the name of the scholar, Mathieu Toussaint [Matthew Allsaints], is an inverted French version of my own name, Sante Matteo [Female Saints Matthew]. In Italy, my last name, Matteo [Matthew], is a common first name. As a last name, it’s generally in the genitive or possessive form: Mattei, di Matteo, Matteis [Matthews, Matheson, Matson]. My first name, Sante–the feminine plural of santo, saint, and therefore, “female saints”–is rare as either a first or last name. Italians tend to assume that Sante must be the last name since Matteo is clearly a first name. [In the United States, both names are simply weird, and their order doesn’t matter; it just sounds melodiously “Italian”: “ Oh, I can just smell the garlic when you say it!” as one new acquaintance eloquently put it upon hearing it.] So, in Italy, my poor name is often “corrected” to Matteo Sante. [I wonder if Rand Paul ran into the same problem before he became a widely known politician.] The adventures and misadventures of my name; another journey through life to append to those of Marco and Dante, are recounted by my name, itself.
It now occurs to me, as I write this, that by introducing such an alter ego I was imitating my own character, Beatrice, who changed her name to take on a new identity. Like her, I, too, escaped from the classroom to the story, in my case, leaving behind the narrow constraints of academic style, exploring the more expansive horizons of “creative” writing, and ascertaining that writing is a voyage of discovery; as is reading: excursions into different realities and explorations of potential selves, possible alter egos.
[And by the byway, dear reader, if you’ve persevered this far on this errant journey and haven’t jumped ship to join Marco Polo or Dante on their more rewarding trips, you will have noticed my frequent recourse to parentheses, even parentheses within parentheses. I admit that I am particularly partial to parenthetical asides, but normally not to this over-indulgent extent. I wonder if this parenthetical excess also results from imitating my Bice/Luce by attempting to escape from a pre-determined role or destination; futile attempts on my part because there’s always a closing parenthesis that takes me back to the master discourse.
Not a successful escape, then; just a series of deviations that perhaps amount to a protest. But against what or whom? Didn’t I, myself, assign my destination and my role? Yes, but once assigned, even if by oneself, the script becomes fixed, determinant, compulsive; and compulsion begets resistance, if not rebellion, or at least doubts and questioning: Is this really the right path? Am I on the right track? Where will this end? Parentheses are rest stops along the arduous way, where we can take another look at the map, check the itinerary, calculate times and distances, consider alternate routes, relieve ourselves, wash our hands, and resume the journey.
Unsure of the path through this excursion and afraid to end up lost inside Dante’s “dark wood,” have my mental meanderings relied on these occasional oases to provide pauses and deviations from the hard journey of trying to make sense? Boh!*
* Mini Italian lesson: The most useful and powerful words in Italian are just one syllable: Sì (yes), No, and Boh!—which rhymes with “no” and means: “I haven’t the slightest idea, not a clue, not the foggiest!” and is usually accompanied with an expressive shrug of the shoulders.])
Now then, where were (are) we? Boh!
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Sante Matteo was born and raised in a small agricultural town in southern Italy and emigrated to the United States with his family as a child. He maintained his ties to Italy as a professor of Italian Studies. He is currently Professor Emeritus at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, where he resides, reminisces, and writes. Recent stories, poems, and memoirs have appeared in The Chaffin Journal, River River, The New Southern Fugitives, Showbear Family Circus, Bark, Ovunque Siamo, Kairos, Snapdragon, and Dime Show Review.