November 23, 2017

Happy Thanksgiving!

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe
Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden (Netherlands)

For us Christians, thanksgiving is an everyday event that begins with a state of mind, an attitude. That’s also why the American Thanksgiving Day is not a church holiday. It’s actually a national holiday, even though the idea of giving thanks to God is a very Christian one. In a speech delivered in London at the annual banquet of the American Society on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 26, 1903, a prominent U.S. politician, William Jennings Bryan, stated that “On Thanksgiving Day we acknowledge our dependence.”

In other words, to the extent that it is right and good that Americans celebrate their Independence Day as the time when they gained release from tyranny, Thanksgiving Day is precisely the time when they recognize that all of the bounty they have is not merely, and perhaps not so much, the result of their own efforts and dedication, but also a gift to them from their Creator. That’s also the reason why this is one my favorite holidays, even though I’m not an American citizen—but definitely an American by philosophy!

Here are a couple excerpts from the above mentioned speech. Happy Thanksgiving to all of you, Americans and non-Americans, men and women of goodwill!

On the Fourth of July the eagle seems a little larger than it does on any other day, and its scream may grate more harshly on the foreign ear than it does at any other time. But on this day we cultivate reverence and express our appreciation of those blessings that have come to our country without the thought or aid of Americans. We have reason to look with some degree of pride upon the achievement of the United States; we contemplate the present with satisfaction, and look to the future with hope; and yet on this occasion we may well remember that we are but building upon the foundations that have been laid for us. We did not create the fertile soil that is the basis of our agricultural greatness; the streams that drain and feed our valleys were not channeled by human hands. We did not fashion the climate that gives us the white cotton belt of the south, the yellow wheat belt of the north, and the central corn belt that joins the two and overlaps them both. We do not gather up the moisture and fix the date of the early and later rains; we did not hide away in the mountains the gold and the silver; we did not store in the earth the deposits of copper and of zinc; we did not create the measures of coal and the beds of iron. All these natural resources, which we have but commenced to develop, are the gift of Him before whom we bow in gratitude tonight.
We sometimes feel that we have a sort of proprietary interest in the principles of government set forth in the Declaration of Independence. That is a document which we have given to the world, and yet the principles set forth therein were not invented by an American. Thomas Jefferson expressed them in felicitous language and put them into permanent form, but the principles had been known before. The doctrine that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with inalienable rights, that governments were instituted amongst men to secure these rights, and that they derived their just power from the consent of the governed—this doctrine which stands four square with all the world was not conceived in the United States, it did not spring from the American mind—ay, it did not come so much from any mind as it was an emanation from the heart, and it had been in the hearts of men for ages. Before Columbus turned the prow of his ship toward the west on that eventful voyage, before the Barons wrested Magna Charta from King John—yes, before the Roman legions landed on the shores of this island—ay, before Homer sang—that sentiment had nestled in the heart of man, and nerved him to resist the oppressor. That sentiment was not even of human origin. Our own great Lincoln declared that it was God Himself who implanted in every human heart the love of liberty.

November 21, 2017

Dante and Beatrice

Henry Holiday (1839 - 1927), "Dante and Beatrice"
Walker Art Gallery - Liverpool, UK

As some of you readers know, Beatrice was the love of Dante’s life: she was a real person and the Poet decided to use her as an important character in his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy. The tradition that identifies Bice di Folco Portinari—the daughter of a banker and wife of Simone dei Bardi—as the Beatrice loved by Dante is now widely, though not unanimously, accepted by scholars.

Beatrice, whom Dante first saw and fell in love with when he was nine years old and a few months older then her, probably never had any idea of the depth of the Poet’s passion for her. For the next nine years after he first met her, Dante remained absolutely besotted with Beatrice. “From that time forward love fully ruled my soul,” as he later wrote in his Vita Nuova. But he loved her only from a distance and it was only when he was 18 that the young angelic creature spoke to Dante to greet him—a very rare event, indeed, in a time when women weren’t in the habit of taking any kind of initiative with men!—as they passed each other in the street. This is how Dante himself describes the meeting in the Vita Nuova:

When so many days had passed that exactly nine years were completed since the appearance of this most gracious being […], it happened, on the last of these days, that this marvellous lady appeared to me, dressed in the whitest of white, between two gracious ladies who were of greater age: and passing through a street she turned her eyes to the place where I stood greatly fearful, and, with her ineffable courtesy […] she greeted me so virtuously, so much so that I saw then to the very end of grace. The hour at which her so sweet greeting welcomed me was exactly the ninth of that day, and because it was the first time that her words deigned to come to my ears, I found such sweetness that I left the crowd as if intoxicated, and I returned to the solitude of my own room, and fell to thinking of this most gracious one.

Dante is led by Beatrice to contemplate the fixed stars
 Libreria Marciana, Venice.
14th Century Venetian School. Illumination
 Photo Credit: Erich Lessing
Of course Dante’s love for Beatrice is not a secular love, at least no more than that which is described in the Canticle of Canticles—with all due distinctions—or in the songs of twelfth- and thirteenth-century troubadours and minnesingers. By the way, judging from the literature of that period, that was a time when love was at the core of everything: besides the songs of troubadours and minnesingers, and the emergence of the “romance” among court poets, monastic theologians engaged in an intense and extensive dialogue on Solomon’s Song that gave birth to an outpouring of sermons and commentaries on the same topic. Love was being celebrated as central to human experience, extolling its joys and honoring its pains, plumbing the depths of its anguish and measuring the heights of its delight. The trajectory of this cultural zeitgeist—which had its apogee with Dante’s Divine Comedy—passed through a group of 13th–14th-century Italian poets, mostly Florentines and including Guido Guinizelli, Guido Cavalcanti and Dante himself, who wrote in what the “Sommo Poeta” called the “dolce stil nuovo” (“sweet new style”). They fused troubadour and minnesinger elements (Dante’s worldly view of Beatrice as an idealized-yet-approachable being, for one thing, is drawn from love à la Provençale), but their treatment of love was their own. To them , love purifies the heart as with fire. Love reflects the divine and leads the spirit back to the supreme source of Love itself. Hence the love of Dante for Beatrice transcends the physical: he wishes to contemplate and to worship in Beatrice a revelation of the divine—not for nothing she is usually taken to be an allegory of divine grace. It is a love of the heart and the intellect, the manifestation of a sacred or divine love in the mortal world, even though, at the same time, the lady is not an ethereal, unreachable entity of epic overtones, but a woman-in-town, someone who is both admirable and visible. It follows the description of love by St. Thomas Aquinas called “amor amicitiae” (love of friendship), based on spirituality and mysticism, which is the exact opposite of “amor concupiscentiae” (love of concupiscence), based on physical or sexual lust. In other words, Dante’s love for Beatrice was never of an adulterous nature nor was it of the unrequited kind that causes mere yearning for a relationship. Definitely a strange type of love, one that you don’t see much of in the real world of today!

As a result of this, in the Comedy Beatrice is an image of absolute perfection and functions as an intermediary in Dante’s ascent to God. Beatrice was also the main inspiration of the above mentioned Vita Nuova, which contains the widely-celebrated sonetto “Tanto gentile.” Here is an English translation of the sonnet and the words with which Dante himself introduces his poem.

This most gracious lady of whom I have spoken in the preceding poems came into such widespread favor that, when she walked down the street, people ran to see her. This made me wonderfully happy. And when she passed by someone, such modesty filled his heart that he did not dare to raise his eyes or to return her greeting (many people, who have experienced this, could testify to it if anyone should not believe me).

Crowned and clothed with humility, she would go her way, taking no glory from what she heard and saw. Many would say after she had passed: “This is no woman, this is one of the most beautiful angels of Heaven.” And others would say: “She is a miracle! Blessed be the Lord who can work so wondrously.”
Let me say that she showed such decorum and was possessed of such charming qualities that those who looked at her experienced a pure and sweet delight, such that they were unable to describe it; and there was no one who could look at her without immediately sighing.

These and still more marvelous things were the result of her powers. Thinking about this, and wishing to take up again the theme of her praise, I decided to write something which would describe her magnificent and beneficent efficacy, so that not only those who could see her with their own eyes, but others, as well, might know of her whatever can be said in words. And so I wrote this sonnet which begins: Such sweet decorum.

Such sweet decorum and such gentle grace
attend my lady’s greeting to mankind
that lips can only tremble into silence,
and eyes dare not attempt to gaze at her.
Untouched by all the praise along her way,
she moves in goodness, clothed in humbleness,
and seems a creature come from Heaven to earth,
a miracle manifest in reality.
Miraculously gracious to behold,
her sweetness, through the eyes reaches the heart
(who has not felt this cannot understand),
and from her lips there seems to move a spirit
tender, so deeply loving that it glides
into the souls of men and whispers: ‘Sigh!’

To conclude, with specific reference to Dante’s epic poem, I want to warn against focusing too one-sidedly on the love for Beatrice, in fact there are many other love stories in The Divine Comedy. There are loves gone wrong—but somehow awesome at the same time—such as the love between Paolo and Francesca (Inferno, Canto V), Ulysses’s love of knowledge (Ibidem, Canto XXVI), Ugolino’s love for his children (Ibidem, Canto XXXIII), and Farinata’s love for Florence (Ibidem, Canto X). And there are loves without fault, such as the one between Dante and Virgil, that is the relationship of a mentor and a protégé. As perhaps no earlier writer, Dante celebrates such a relationship by calling Virgil not only master, guide, and teacher, but also “dearest father,” and by comparing his concern for him to that of a mother for her child. Or the love of St. Bernard of Clairvaux for the Virgin Mary—hence one of the most beautiful prayers ever written (Paradiso, Canto XXXIII). Not to mention the “love that moves the sun and the other stars” (Ibidem) That’s what is meant when we say that The Divine Comedy is a love story.

In the old video below you can hear Giorgio Albertazzi—one of the most important actors of the Italian theater—reciting “Tanto gentile.”

November 17, 2017

On Losing Patience

Sometimes you are tempted to lose patience with someone and to not waste words on people who—according to you, in a given situation and at a particular time—deserve your silence. Well, that’s exactly when you’d better remember that everyone has a story, everyone has gone through something that has changed them, and often not for the better. That’s when you show who you really are and what life has taught you so far. Qui si parrà la tua nobilitate (“Here thy nobility shall be manifest!” Dante’s Inferno, Canto 2).

November 12, 2017

The Boy from Gluck Street

A song I’ve loved since I was a young boy, “Il ragazzo della via Gluck” (“The Boy from Gluck Street”) is not just a song, it’s a piece of pop music and cultural history. It was originally written and recorded by Italian pop music legend Adriano Celentano in 1966—the lyrics are by Luciano Beretta and Miki Del Prete—and soon became a world hit, translated and recorded in 18 languages by numerous artists, including American pop singer Verdelle Smith (“Tar and Cement”), French singer and songwriter Françoise Hardy (“La maison où j’ai grandi”) and Swedish singer Anna-Lena Löfgren (“Lyckliga gatan”), who also covered a German version of the song (“Immer am Sontag”).

Adriano Celentano’s vocation as a counter artist was evident since the very beginning of his artistic career. Italy’s best-loved singer and songwriter, and one of the greatest selling non-English language recording artists of all time, he characteristically performs his songs with a Brechtian detachment to the text and is the creator of a broken, syncopated language that he alternates with a crooner style. His whole career, not only as a singer & songwriter but also as an actor, director, producer, as well as a host of TV programs, bears witness to his intellectual integrity and his deep commitment to promoting values and principles such as fairness, friendship, kindness, and love for one another. All this, however, without indulging in sentimentalism or presenting a Manichean worldview, but always with strength and simplicity—and with a grain of folly: who could ever forget his legendary television monologues with his “lunatic” and Buster Keatonesque ecstatic pauses?

Prominent film directors such as Ermanno Olmi, Federico Fellini—who asked him to play himself in La dolce vita—and Pier Paolo Pasolini were fascinated by his free-thinking attitude and independent spirit, and saw in him a poetic and at the same time a down-to-earth representative of traditional values and aspirations in the face of a tumultuous period of huge social and economic change. Needless to say, as a result of the rapid modernization and industrialization of the country, a huge urban sprawl—which dramatically changed the face of Italy’s cities and towns—took place in the 1950s and the 1960s. Definitely against the tide and somewhat prophetically at the time, Adriano spoke out against the “cement tsunami” and the consequent loss of identity and traditional ways of life. The autobiographical “Il ragazzo della via Gluck” became his manifesto against “unsustainable development.”

The following is a literal translation from the original, which is quite different from the above mentioned “Tar and Cement” (by American songwriters Lee Pockriss and Paul Vance):

The Boy from Gluck Street

This is the story of one of us,
who was also born by chance in Gluck Street,
in a house outside the city,
quiet people, who worked.
Where there was grass there is now
a city, and that house
amid the green now,
where may it be?

This kid from Gluck Street,
enjoyed playing with me,
but one day he said,
“I’m going to the city,”
and he said while weeping,
I asked him, “Friend,
aren’t you glad?
You’re finally going to live in the city.
There you will find
the things that you didn’t have here,
you can wash at home without going
down in the yard! ”
“My dear friend,” he said,
“I was born here,
and in this street
now I’m leaving my heart.
But how can’t you understand,
it’s lucky for you who remain
barefoot to play in the fields,
while there downtown
I’ll breathe concrete.

But there will come a day
when I’ll come back
here and I will hear the friendly train
whistling like this – ua-ua ”
The years go by, but eight are long
But that kid has come a long way
But doesn’t forget his first home
Now with the money he can buy it
He comes back and doesn’t find
the friends he had
Only houses upon houses,
tar and concrete.
Where there was grass
there is now a city
And that house amid
the green now
where may it be?
I don’t know, I don’t know, why
they go on building houses
And don’t let the grass, don’t let the grass,
And don’t
let the grass, don’t let the grass,
And no, if we go on like this
I wonder how we will do,
who knows, who knows how we
will do.

All in all, besides being (by far) my favorite Italian singer, I’ve always had the utmost respect for Adriano Celentano as a person, and I’m pleased to pay tribute to him with this post. To conclude, this, in my opinion, is his core message in a nutshell, in his own words (and in his typically imaginative style):

What we are losing is the utopian dimension of life. Sometimes I say things that seem impossible to achieve, and yet there are many things that seemed impossible at one time but they are very real today. My concern is that if we lose our belief in utopia the world will get worse and worse. Today we live longer than in the past, the quality of life has improved, we have medicine that saves lives, but still the world is headed for disaster, because we have abandoned our past to climb higher and higher. But if you climb a very tall ladder and then cannot climb down again, you cannot save beautiful things. The lack of Beauty is a problem. The key to the future is Beauty. There are not only skyscrapers, we are a part of nature. There are helicopters, but there are no meadows. [Rockpolitik, (in Italian, translation mine) edited by M. Ciotta, Bompiani, 2006]

As is more than evident from the above quoted passage, Celentano’s “utopianism” is one of its own kind, and his utopia is a back-to-the-future one rather than a traditional one. After all, unlike most of his fellow Italian artists, he has never been sympathetic to leftists, nor has he never hidden his deep Christian faith and beliefs. In other words, he is a true contrarian—and I thank him for that!

November 10, 2017

As Late As Possible

There are works going on a few dozen meters away from where I live. Looks like they are in the home stretch. Today I found out—thanks to the newly-added sign on the front door—that the old pizzeria will be replaced by a funeral home. It will be a memento mori to remind the passers-by the inevitable fate of us all. And that there is a time for everything. After the feast comes the reckoning—as late as possible, ça va sans dire!