Excerpt from a Work-in-Progress, Part Two

by Andrea Scrima

This past spring, I found myself sitting, masked, at a wooden desk among a scattering of scientific researchers at the Museo Galileo in Florence. Next to me was a thick reference book on the history of astronomical instruments and a smaller work on the sundials and other measuring devices built into the churches of Florence to mark the cyclical turning points of cosmic time. The gnomon of Santa Maria del Fiore, for instance, consisted of a bronzina, a small hole set into the lantern ninety meters above that acted as a camera oscura and projected an image of the sun onto the cathedral floor far below. At noon on the day of the solstice, the solar disc superimposed itself perfectly onto a round marble slab, not quite a yard in diameter, situated along the inlaid meridian. I studied the explanations of astronomical quadrants and astrolabes and the armilla equinoziale, the armillary sphere of Santa Maria Novella, made up of two conjoined iron rings mounted on the façade that told the time of day and year based on the position of their elliptical shadow, when all at once it occurred to me that I’d wanted to write about something else altogether, about a person I occasionally encountered, a phantom living somewhere inside me: the young woman who’d decided not to leave, not to move to Berlin after all, to rip up the letter of acceptance to the art academy she received all those years ago and to stay put, in New York. Alive somewhere, in some other iteration of being, was a parallel existence in an alternative universe, one of the infinite spheres of possibility in which I’d decided differently and become a different woman.

Not long before this, a friend in Graz had told me that she’d been born on American soil and so, theoretically at least, was an American citizen. She’d never lived there, however, and this was her ghost, her own parallel existence. In July of 1950, her parents had sailed from Bremerhaven to New York on the United States Army Transport W.G. Haan, a ship of displaced persons that had been reacquired by the Navy and enlisted in the Military Sea Transportation Service. Their intention was to emigrate; they’d applied for their visas, all their papers were in order, and yet they were refused entry and caught in limbo for more than a year before being sent back to Europe. My friend was born in this limbo, on Ellis Island. Read more »

Dante: Still Bringing Hope From Hell

by Thomas O’Dwyer

At one point midway on our path in life,
I came around and found myself searching through a dark wood, the right way blurred and lost.
How hard it is to say what that wood was, a wilderness savage, brute, harsh, and wild.
Only to think of it renews my fear. 

Dante presenting the Divine Comedy to Florence by Domenico di Michelino.
Dante presenting the Divine Comedy to Florence by Domenico di Michelino.

The opening lines of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy are as well know to every Italian as “To be or not to be” is to an English speaker. We can only speculate on how many people outside Italy are familiar with the entire poem’s content or context. But none can dispute the depth to which Dante, like Shakespeare, has penetrated not only his native culture but that of the world for centuries. Both did civilisation an immeasurable service by elevating former dialects spoken by their native peoples to the same dignity and power as formal “superior” languages spoken by Europe’s literate elites, such as Latin and Greek.

Dante died 700 years ago this year in 1321 and, pandemic or no pandemic (a dark wood, the right way blurred and lost), Italy will again be celebrating the memory of its great genius. He defines its national soul the same way Shakespeare does for England and Miguel de Cervantes for Spain. Events are planned throughout Florence, Ravenna and close to 100 other towns and villages connected to “il Sommo Poeta,” the Supreme Poet. Born in Florence, Dante died in Ravenna just one year after completing his masterpiece. The Divine Comedy, one of the greatest works of world literature, has 14,233 lines split into three parts, Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. It traces a pilgrim’s journey in the afterlife through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Read more »