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Eight walks inspired by The Divine Comedy

Sometimes a particular observation, a sentence, or a few lines of poetry can generate an idea, provide an initial stimulus for an article, and this is precisely what happened when I read The Divine Comedy again after many years, in particular Cantos III and IV of The Purgatorio, from which the below lines come. These lines capture and distil the fears, thoughts and satisfaction of a person setting out on a challenging excursion for the first time. There's a description of the landscape, how tiring the trip will be, the search for the best route to the top, the difficulties encountered on the way, worries about being left behind, the reassuring words of the guide, the sense of achievement at having got to the top, the final deeply-satisfying rest. In fact the whole of The Divine Comedy is a journey: a journey through the realm of the dead, in which Dante, as De Sanctis commented in his Storia della Letteratura Italiana, "took with him all the passions of the living, the whole Earth […] and the first supernatural poem became human and terrestrial, with the imprint of man and of the times. Terrestrial nature reappears as opposition or similarity or recollection".
Dante, traveller and walker, didn't remove himself from earthly things, didn't speak in abstract terms, but rather quoted, recalled and described the places which were most familiar to him. As a result in his work there appeared Florentine landscapes and many places in central Italy that the poet got to know well during the years in which he lived in his beloved birthplace. Likewise, mention is also made of the regions he was also forced to travel through during his much-hated exile: the Veneto, in particular Verona, Venice, Treviso and the Brenta; the Lunigiana, where he lived with the Malaspina family; the Casentino, which he already knew because he'd taken part in the Battle of Campaldino; and Emilia Romagna, where he was to die, in Ravenna, in 1321.
The idea, then, was to revisit, more than 600 years later, some of the places that Dante visited and described in The Divine Comedy. To revisit them, however, on foot, because this is the only way to recapture the spirit of the times, when the castles, settlements, monasteries and mountains were basically reached on foot. A selection inevitably had to be made because Dante cites hundreds of different locations in his work. The places chosen were those that are described in greatest detail and which best lend themselves to quite long walks. Clearly, as I said at the beginning, this is an idea, a point of departure for a re-reading of The Divine Comedy from a fresh viewpoint, and one which can then lead on to direct, first-hand exploration of the various locations.

Dante's verses

Noi divenimmo intanto a piè del monte:
quivi trovammo la roccia si erta,
che 'ndarno vi saríen le gambe pronte.
Tra Lerici e Turbia la piú diserta,
la piú rotta ruina è una scala,
verso di quella, agevole e aperta.
«Or chi sa da qual man la costa cala»
disse 'l maestro mio, fermando 'l passo,
«sí che possa salir chi va sanz'ala?»
Noi salavam per entro 'l passo rotto,
e d'ogne lato ne stringea lo stremo,
e piedi e man volea il suol di sotto.
Poi che noi fummo in su l'orlo suppremo
de l'alta ripa, a la scoperta piaggia,
«Maestro mio», diss'io, «che via faremo?».
Ed elli a me: «Nessun tuo passo caggia:
pur su al monte dietro a me acquista,
fin che n'appaia alcuna scorta saggia».
Lo sommo er'alto che vincea la vista,
e la costa superba piú assai
che da mezzo quadrante a centro lista.
Io era lasso, quando cominciai:
«O dolce padre, volgiti, e rimira
com'io rimango sol, se non restai».
«Figliuol mio» disse, «infin quivi ti tira»,
additandomi un balzo poco in súe
che da quel lato il poggio tutto gira.
Sí mi spronaron le parole sue,
ch'i' mi sforzai carpando appresso lui,
tanto che 'l cinghio sotto i pie' mi fue.
A seder ci ponemmo ivi ambedui
volti a levante ond'eravam saliti,
che' suole a riguardar giovare altrui.


Meanwhile, we had attain'd the Mountain's base;
And we perceiv'd so steep the escarpment there,
It would have foil'd the feet of swiftest pace.
Path the most rough, and desolate, whate'er,
Between Turbia* found, and Lerici,
Were, in comparison, a gentle stair.
"Who knows the side, from whence the Mountain high
Slopes down," my Master halting said, "that so
Ascend might one, who has not wings to fly?"

* Turbia is a village near Nice
Up through the rifted stone with toil we sped,
On either side close cramp'd for room, to creep
Compell'd with hands, with feet, and sore bested.
When the top ridge of the embankment steep
Was gain'd, where spreads the Mountain bare to view,
"Which way," I said, "my Master, must we keep?"
And he to me, "Forward thy course pursue;
Still in advance, ascend and follow me,
Until we chance to meet some escort true."
Lofty the height, beyond what eye could see;
And all the side so proudly elevate,
Near perpendicular it seem'd to be.
Wearied I thus began, in piteous state;
"Turn, Father dear, and see me left behind
Lone and forlorn, if thou decline to wait."
"Up to this point, my son," he answer'd kind,
"But drag thee;" and a terrac'd ledge he show'd,
Which on that side, around the Mount did wind.
His words so spurr'd me in my languid mood,
Myself I forc'd to scramble after, till
My feet upon the circling cornice stood.
There we together sat, and rested still,
Facing the East, from whence our way we took-
A sight oft wont the heart with joy to fill.

(Purgatorio, canti III e IV)



Text and picture: Cinzia Pezzani & Sergio Grillo
Translation: Jeremy Carden

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