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In which the pilgrim approaches the Poet's tomb for the first time

This will not be a long post, because I can’t gather my thoughts now. I am in Ravenna, where Dante died, and is buried. Casella and I left Florence before daylight this morning, after having had a marvelous meal on our last night (pasta with fresh white truffles), and being bone-tired. Before supper, we went to mass in a side chapel at Santa Croce, which was so majestic in its sundown serenity, in the great silence. Dante worshiped in this church; Beatrice Portinari is almost certainly buried in it.

Earlier in the day, we walked over to the Dominican convent of San Marco to view the Fra Angelico frescoes in the monastic cells. They were strange and otherworldly in their beauty. Look at this one (the angle is to the side; visitors aren’t permitted to do anything more than stand in the doorway of the cells:


We made our way toward the cell in which Friar Girolamo Savonarola lived. Here is his desk:


And here is a shirt he removed to be burned at the stake:


I stood inside his cell and prayed again for Uncle Chuckie. And for Savonarola. He is presented by the Dominicans as a martyr, incidentally.

By the way, I love this Fra Angelico image of the harrowing of Hell. Again, this is inside a monastic cell (N.B., the monastery is a museum today). What if this were the last image you saw at night before bed, and the first thing in the morning, every day?:




Downstairs in the monastic refectory, there is this gorgeous mural by Ghirlandaio (I couldn’t fit the entire image into the photo; it runs the length of an entire wall):


Again, all this beauty becomes too much, finally. Poor Casella and I retired to the second floor of the Mercato Centrale and drained a restorative bottle of cold prosecco. We then went shopping for our wives, and ended up picking up some things at a cool little shop called Mio, where they sell interesting locally-made art objects, scarves, and jewelry. Michaela, who works behind the counter, is superb. We have not met any unfriendly Italians, if you don’t count the gripey woman behind the tourist information counter at the Rome central train station, but surely Michaela is one of the kindest and liveliest shopkeepers in all of Florence.

That night, after mass, we ended up at a restaurant called 13 Gubbio, where we had the aforementioned buttered pasta with fresh white truffles:



I was trying to think of what truffles taste like. Casella, sitting across from me, spoke of how good it feels when one of his little girls hugs him when he gets home from work, and sighs. I thought, That’s it; that’s what truffles taste like: the sigh of your little girl when she hugs you as you come home from work. That soft, pillowy, gossamer feeling that’s also earthy. You know? OK, I’m a nut about food. I don’t deny it.

We crossed the bridge over the Arno and bought gelato for dessert, and walked back to our place, glowing. We spoke of how much we loved our wives and our children, and how blessed we are to have families. As much as I have loved Florence, I really can’t wait to go back home to Julie and the children — and I am so very, very grateful to be able to rest in them, and in their love. This kind of inner peace is what I’ve been searching for all my life, and God has given it to me in them, and in my faith.

We caught an early express train to Bologna, and connected to Ravenna, where Dante lived his final years, and wrote the Paradiso. I was shocked to learn in a history I was reading on the train that when Dante died (of malaria), the last 13 cantos of Paradiso were lost. The poet appeared to his son Jacopo in a dream, and showed him where in his house he had hidden them: in a secret place in the wall. That’s why we have the complete Commedia. 

Our hotel wouldn’t let us check in until after lunch, so we left our bags and went sightseeing. The hotel is close to Dante’s tomb, so that’s where we went. How strange it was to approach it for the first time! Casella knew what the moment meant to me, and let me go in alone. I kissed Dante’s tomb and went to my knees, touching my forehead to the cold marble floor in a gesture of honor. I stood and prayed to him, thanking him for what he has done for me, and asking his blessing on my writing. I thanked God for what He did for me through Dante, and asked Him to help me honor Him and his poet through my own work, and to help lead others from a state of misery to a state of happiness, as Dante did me. I knew I was going to come back later in the day, so I crossed myself and backed out.

Next to the tomb there is a garden, with a big bay tree in it. I plucked a leaf, crushed it between my fingers, and smelled the sweet aroma. This, below, in the garden is part of a wall of the old part of the Franciscan monastery that was there. Centuries ago, the pope ordered Dante’s remains moved back to Florence, but the local Franciscans wouldn’t stand for it; they hid his remains in this monastery wall. They weren’t discovered until the 1800s:


Good on those monks, I say. People here in Ravenna are so proud of Dante. When we were checking in, Casella said in Italian to the woman behind the desk at the hotel that his friend is writing a book about Dante, and we had been in Florence these past few days. She flamed like a torch, saying, in Italian so clear even I can understand it, “Dante is ours!”

Before Casella and I moved on to San Vitale and its mosaics, I stepped out of the garden to take one more photo of Dante’s tomb on my first encounter with it. My iPhone camera was acting up and couldn’t adjust for the light, but I like the effect anyway — the blinding white, I mean. It looks like a portal to another world:



Ravenna is a wonderful town, so cool and calming after the bustle of Florence. I am about to walk back to the tomb and pray for a while, then sit in the shade of the garden and re-read Paradiso. Glory to God for all things! Please excuse my lack of writing. I don’t have easy access to wifi, but more important, I think it matters more than I experience things fully without writing about it straightaway.



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