Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What I Did Last Summer: an abecedarian post

The Castellans of 2010

So rapidly and so vastly has the empire of WiFi expanded throughout southern Europe since my last trip through those parts that, had I taken my computer with me, I probably could after all have scraped together blogs for the two Wednesdays past. But then I would have been worrying about the strength of the signal when I should have been savoring my cogote or lazily luxuriating in the birdsong of a soft Tuscan dawn, while you would have gained nothing more than a spiritless travelogue. Albertanus of Brescia in the thirteenth century came up with one of the all-time great book titles: De arte loquendi et tacendi. I translate that roughly as “When to Write Blogs and When to Shut Up.”

We now re-enter the realm of loquendi; and indeed this will be an unusually long post, though divided like the old menus in Chinese restaurants into the options of a Column A , a Column B, and a Column C. Column A is the travelogue; Column B is a brief account of the Princeton Dante Reunion at the Castello; Column C is a yet briefer essay on medieval Christian humanism. You may take your pick, mix and match, or choose to fast. Only the indefatigable can aspire to discover the alleged connection between them. And of course even A, B, and C cannot cover all that cries out to be included, such as, for example, (D), the doctorating of my son Luke, which took place in Philadelphia while his parents were lushing it up in a tapas bar in Zaragossa. (So for "My Son The Doctor", see "My Brother the Doctor"). Our older works of literature did not, of course, deploy themselves in “columns”. They were divided into stanzas, strophes, chapters, tituli, cantos, books, partes, among numerous other subdivisions, the most appropriate of which in the present circumstances is the fitt. So…

A, or FITT primo. Meanwhile, in old Castile, after brief anxieties that left me with the resolve to buy an i-Phone, I met up with my friend and companion (the “other John” [Meyer]) near Madrid, and we set off on a fine-tuned schedule to meet our peregrine spouses, who, after two weeks and roughly two hundred and fifty miles of marching, were to be found sipping white wine on the town square of Sahagún, a little east of Leon. Sahagún has many claims to interest and at least one to fame. It is the birthplace of Bernardino de Sahagún, O.F.M., the great missionary-anthropologist to whom we owe such knowledge as we have of the old Indian cultures of the Valley of Mexico.

But we had to get on to Italy and had no time to tarry, nor do I now. It was on to Zaragossa, with its cathedral so big and so baroque that it makes me gulp even thinking about it. Most of the next day was spent in fabulous Barcelona. Susan Saltrick (the other spouse, camarade de route extraordinaire) led us on a tour of the amazing Romanesque chapels reborn in the Catalan Museum atop Montjuic. We would have done many more fun things in Barcelona had it not been for the very tedious business of finding the wharf from which the Livorno ferry departs, guarding our possessions in its lockerless departure lounge, and then waiting endlessly for the retarded departure of the vessel.

A square of his own: bloguiste, apparently about to be shot by Falangists in Barcelona

I say no more. Simply strike from your traveler’s Book of Life the outfit called the Grimaldi Line, though it did eventually bring us alive to Livorno, the port of Tuscany, and the old Leghorn of the Romantic poets and Lord Nelson.


B, or FITT secundo.

The seminar in session, bloguiste's toe on left

The maestro in preparation, or a place in the sun

The biennial Italian reunion of the Princeton Dante course, which just celebrated its tenth anniversary, is a tribute to the alto ingenio of Robert Hollander, the great scholar and famous teacher who taught Dante at Princeton for many years. Hollander’s published contributions to Dante studies are striking both in their quantity and in their quality. In recent years he and his wife Jean (herself a poet and teacher of poetry) completed their three-volume, copiously annotated edition and translation of the Divine Comedy to popular and scholarly applause. Among other things, Hollander pioneered the concept of the intellectually respectable reunion event at Princeton. He has happily inspired imitators, so that silly costumes, beer-swilling and really bad, loud rock bands are no longer the sole attractions of the annual pre-Commencement revelries. Some of the alumni dantisti, stimulated but unsatisfied by a single afternoon of flexing their maturing literary brain cells, came up with the idea of a week-long Dante event. Once they started thinking big, there was no stopping them. Princeton alumni tend to age as the years go by. The better news is that some of them tend to achieve financial stability as they do so. The biennial event would take place not in central Jersey but in central Tuscany. I believe that in commercial lingo that is called “trading up”.

Graduate students (even on occasion current undergraduates) and younger alumni have been able to participate in this deluxe event thanks to a generous scholarship program supervised by a certain alumnus eminence grise. Eminences grises by nature shun the limelight, and this one will go unnamed; but I will give one hint. He is a powerful Chicago lawyer and a community organizer. The community he organizes as the Castello is roughly thirty-strong, composed of alumni ranging in age from the class of 1955 to the class of 2010.

A Tuscan castle and its view

Even so only the intervention of the Spirito Santo herself can explain how they came up with the venue of the thirteenth-century castle of Santa Maria Novella in Marcialla, near Certaldo. Draw a straight line on your Rand McNally between Florence and Siena, and then bisect it at its dead center, and you’ll be very near the place. Medieval castles are hard to tear down but harder yet to keep up. This one has been being lightly restored for the last five or six hundred years, and it now has the mod cons of a cameo conference center but is still very, well, castellan. The food from the castle kitchen, generally served al fresco, tastes so good that it would be illegal in most Midwestern states.

The Castello reunion, however, is a hard-core intellectual event, especially for Professor Hollander, who lectured in seminar format for two and a half hours each day. In the afternoons preceptors (discussion leaders), of whom I was one, led hour-and-a-half discussion groups of roughly ten people each. Around the edges there were many animated individual conversations about such current topics as the Brunetto Latini, Count Ugolino, and the style of Lucan’s Pharsalia.

For the topic of Professor Hollander’s seminar this year was Dante’s Inferno with particular reference to the poet’s classical sources of inspiration. Anyone who has read even a little Dante knows that the Italian poet was greatly influenced by Virgil. Indeed the hyper-Christian Dante must have startled his contemporary readers by introducing Virgil as a principal character in his poem. “Virgil” is Dante’s guide through Hell—a remarkable but logical enough fact, since the most famous rendition of the underworld in Latin literature (in the sixth book of the Æneid) was Virgil’s invention. But how did Dante perceive the ancient pagan past, and how did his view of it inform his own poem?

The quality of the students at the Castello does credit to their master. The “student body” includes a college president, business tycoons, professional scholars at differing stages of career, passionate amateurs. We are constantly prattling about “diversity” in the academy, referring to a check-list of sociological categories. At the Castello I would extol a Pauline “diversity of gifts” that gives literary study a special zest. The fellowship is mellow and generous, the wit lively, the talent highly varied. On four of the six nights of our stay there were cultural events ranging from the sublime to the more sublime. In the latter category was an evening concert of bel canto arias by alumna Jennifer Borghi. Her old professors remember Ms. Borghi as a brilliant undergraduate and, yet more importantly, an ethically luminous young woman destined to leave our world a better place than she found it. Today she is known to her widening audiences as a professional mezzo-soprano of unusual strength, clarity, and precision. It would be a contravention of the articles of incorporation of this blog to offer a stock market tip, but I am willing to bet my penultimate pecunia that some of you will one day hear Ms. Borghi at the Metropolitan Opera. Perhaps she will even put the Dante seminar to good use. There are appropriate roles in Purcell’s Dido and Æneas and Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini.

Ms. Jennifer Borghi, the diva of the dantisti

We left the Castello as one might leave Brigadoon, or better yet the Earthly Paradise, “with wandering steps and slow.”


C, or FITT tertio et ultimo. Virgil is not the only pagan poet Dante uses, or even the only one he meets in Hell. Ovid, Horace, Lucan—they are all there. Furthermore Dante displays a surprising familiarity with wide swatches of classical mythology and history. Though almost everything touched by Dante’s genius is striking and original, the approbative exploitation of the pre-Christian past is actually commonplace among our older Christian writers and painters. Scholars have often been unnecessarily puzzled by their habit of mind, and a whole theory of the “pagan” Renaissance, now happily exploded, was once built upon their misapprehensions.

Dante was undoubtedly a Christian; he was no less undoubtedly a humanist. A Christian is a person who believes in the historical and supernatural theological propositions of the ancient creeds, especially as they refer to Jesus Christ; a humanist is a believer in the powers of human rationality and an admirer of the rational achievements of great human minds of the past. It is only in quite recent centuries that Christianity and humanism have come to be regarded as generally incompatible. That would have seemed a very odd notion indeed to Bede or Robert de Sorbon or Erasmus or Duke Humphrey or John Milton or the founders of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and several dozen other of the most important colleges and universities of our own land.

I am tempted to this fitful excursus partly in response to the stimulation of the Dante seminar just described, but also for two other reasons. The first is that the little book I myself am now completing deals with an author, Luis de Camões, who exemplifies the characteristics of the old Christian humanism in such a flamboyant fashion. He was a Renaissance man in every sense—scholar, soldier, lover, luckless entrepreneur, shipwrecked exile, prisoner, explorer, world traveler, imperialist, crusader. He wrote what is in my mind the greatest of the Renaissance epics, the Lusiads, and a body of lyric poetry second to none among his contemporaries. His command of the text of Virgil is stupendous. It is obviously the result of deep study from printed texts, and makes Dante’s Virgilianism seem like what it probably was, the amateur enthusiasm of a lover of poetry. Though there is not much evidence that Camões was a good man, the evidence that he was a great one is overwhelming. His achievement was an achievement of “Christian humanism.”

The second circumstance is the recent receipt of a gift. My friend Marsha Dutton of the University of Ohio, a past president of the Guild of Scholars of the Episcopal Church, just sent me a copy of her new edition of Spiritual Friendship by Aelred of Rievaulx (in the translation of Lawrence Braceland, SJ). Aelred and his old monastery at Rievaulx in the West Riding of Yorkshire played a major role in my becoming a medievalist. The story is perhaps worth a little essay of its own one day. For the moment I want to say only a word about Spiritual Friendship, his loveliest book. It is a Latin dialogue closely modeled upon the De amicitia of Cicero—a book once routinely taught in American high schools. (Ah, the pity…) Aelred greatly admires the old pagan philosopher. I will go farther and say that Aelred loves Cicero. But he knows something that Cicero did not know, and he knows he knows. The actual dialogue begins thus. “You and I are here,” says Aelred to his imagined interlocutor Ivo, “and I hope that Christ is between us as a third.”

In his very moving and effective campaign President Obama appropriated a famous phrase of Martin Luther King: “the fierce urgency of now.” Though some nows are more urgent that others, they are all urgent enough. There may be here or there a Miniver Cheevy who might seek to escape altogether; but in general the urgency of now is enough to monopolize our attention. There is actually very little danger that we will be oblivious to the now. What worries me, as I think also it worried Dante, is the oblivion of the then. We are not the first human beings to live upon the earth, and to imagine that we are the most perfect to have done so is a folly beyond the hope for a cure. If that is what you believe, you will be lucky to go through life reinventing the wheel, though that would be a great improvement on our present cultural mission: the reinvention of the flat tire.


  1. It was lovely hanging around the castle with you!

  2. By George... I recognize at least one of those Castellans (the lovely Sparrow, of course!)... by any chance, were there any members of the Class of 1974?