Thursday, October 19, 2017

Welcome Home, Dante!

As we know from class and the Inferno, Dante loathed Pope Boniface VIII.  Just to give a brief reminder of the background, the Guelphs (after they were victorious over the Ghibellines) split into the White Guelphs and the Black Guelphs.  Dante was a White Guelph and thus wanted the Papacy to have less control over Italy, specifically Florence, while the Black Guelphs supported the Pope.  After the White Guelphs expelled the Black Guelphs, Pope Boniface VIII decided he was going to militarily occupy Florence.  In 1301, Charles of Valois was going to make a trip to Florence as the Pope's peacemaker, but a council sent a delegation to Rome because they were kind of suspicious.  The pope said all the delegates could leave (or should I say, would leave) but "asked" Dante to remain in Rome.  Meanwhile, Charles of Valois and the Black Guelphs were destroying Florence and the White Guelphs back home.  Thus, Dante was exiled and had to pay a big fine because the Pope said he had abused his power as Florence's city prior for money.  Dante wasn't really feeling like paying that fine (one, he didn't consider himself guilty, and two, all his possessions had been taken by the Black Guelphs in Florence).  Therefore, he was sentenced to perpetual exile, and he was threatened with a burning at the stake if he ever came back to Florence.

Dante was pretty sad about this.  Florence was basically the Athens of Italy; the Florentines were very proud of themselves and generally thought they were better than the other cities around.  So you can see why this proud Florentine might have shed a few (million) tears over his exile, not to mention why he would have sincerely prayed that Pope Boniface VIII would end up in Hell.

The battle for Dante's bones between Florence and Ravenna, the city in which he died, got pretty intense.  It even includes an episode in which Franciscan friars removed Dante's bones from their sarcophagus at the Basilica of San Francesco and hid them in the monastery's cloister until 1677 after Pope Leo X, petitioned by a group including Michelangelo, in 1519 agreed that Florence could send a delegation to Ravenna to reclaim Dante's bones.

Sadly, the title of this post may be misleading.  Dante's bones remain in Ravenna.

But maybe it would have made the great poet at least a little pleased to know that the Florence that once exiled him now desperately wants him back.  And maybe he would be also heartened by the fact that Florence passed a resolution revoking his death 2008.  (Better late than never?)

I Just Want to Know: Why Is Aeneas in Limbo?

Okay, I promise, I really don't hate Aeneas.  But if I could ask Dante one question right now, I might very well ask him why he put Aeneas in with the virtuous pagans (well, maybe not, there are probably better questions I could ask).

It seems strange to me that Queen Dido is stuck forever being whirled about in a dark, stormy wind while Aeneas gets to prance about happily in some nice meadows, eat biscuits with Homer, and play hide and seek in that gigantic castle—or whatever else it might be that ancient Trojan warriors would do in their infinite free time in Hell.

Aeneas has one thing going for him—he founded Rome.  Well, actually, he technically didn't, but he did play an instrumental role in laying the foundations for Rome to be later founded.  That's great, Aeneas.  It's awesome that you led your people and fulfilled your destiny, seriously, and I'm sure Dante was very pleased that you did so.  But isn't that not really...well, fair?

Because Dante condemns Dido for her lustfulness, when in truth, if you read the Aeneid, it often seems like Dido is more on the "love" side of the scale and Aeneas is more on the "lust" side of the scale, if one had to choose.  Other than this one mistake of falling in love with Aeneas, Dido is pretty cool.  She founds Carthage and wisely leads her people, and for a really long time she remains faithful to her dead husband, refusing to take another lover (according to actual Greek mythology, she never did).  So Dido and Aeneas both basically do the same thing: they fall in love/lust and begin to neglect their duties to their people.

Okay, sure, Dido is a little more neglectful since she commits suicide after Aeneas' departure.  But then shouldn't she be in the seventh circle, in the Wood of Suicides?  Why is it that her defining characteristic is falling in love with Aeneas, yet Aeneas seems to escape any accusations of excess lust relatively unscathed?

Dido, Cleopatra, and Elizabeth: Another (very unholy) Trinity

Today in class Ms. King pointed out the connections between Dido and Cleopatra, and that got me thinking—especially in the context of the age in which Virgil wrote his Aeneid.

As we know from our Spirit of Rome presentations, Rome had recently come out of a pretty unpleasant civil war when Virgil wrote the Aeneid, praising Augustus and Roman values/virtues.  Surely, if we, ages later, can see the resemblance between Virgil's character of the queen Dido and the queen Cleopatra, Roman readers could see it too.

For one, both were widows.
Two, both were run out of their countries by their brothers (in Cleopatra's case, also her husband...perhaps incest was not as horrific a crime in ancient Egypt as in ancient Greece).
Three, both Cleopatra and Dido's kingdoms at some point challenged the power of Rome (whether directly or indirectly).
Four, both were independent and strong female rulers.
Five, both committed suicide.
The list goes on.

It seems unlikely that contemporary readers of the Aeneid would have not connected Dido and Cleopatra.  Most would also have probably not viewed Cleopatra very kindly, given her revolt with Mark Antony (not to mention that she was a woman!  ruling!  alone!).

While reading the Aeneid, I found myself taking issue not infrequently, especially with how Virgil portrays most of his female characters.  I mean, yeah, I know they were "different times," but still.  Dido is basically described as a psycho with an unhealthy obsession with Aeneas (she goes "whirling" through Carthage like a bacchante, having lost control to her passions).  Sure, Virgil says she was a pretty good ruler before Aeneas came, but then it's like, "oh my gosh a man I can't function anymore" and Dido's queenly discretion takes a complete 180.  She no longer cares about her city and its well-being, too enamored with Aeneas, and her people begin to resent her.  Not to mention, Aeneas unofficially marries her in a thunderstorm (a bit of a long story, suffice it to say that Juno's wiles strike again).  Finally, pious Aeneas (after Mercury's prompting) realizes he has to leave Dido and Carthage to fulfill his destiny.  That, I understand.  The man has a duty to his people, I get it!  But his original plan is actually to surreptitiously leave Carthage, making his escape before Dido can suspect that anything is amiss.  Sadly for him, he doesn't realize how smart Dido is.  Dido realizes his plan and confronts him, and Aeneas guiltily confesses.  When he does finally leave, Dido is heartbroken and kills herself, cursing Aeneas all the while.  SERIOUSLY, AENEAS?  WAS ALL THAT REALLY NECESSARY?  I say no, others say yes.

Anyway, what does this have to do with Elizabeth I of England?  Wasn't she the Virgin Queen?

Yeah, and some of her people hated her for it.  Like Dido, and like Cleopatra, she was a strong female ruler.  She didn't want a man taking over her country.  But the people of England were concerned because that meant she couldn't produce a male heir, much less a legitimate one, and that was a prospect that could invite yet another civil war to England's front doorstep.

However, I don't call these three women unholy because of their religious faiths.  (Being Protestant, Elizabeth was commonly known as the "heretic" queen, and of course, neither Cleopatra nor Dido were Christians.)  I call them such because in the eyes of their contemporaries, they might very well have been considered evil.  The fact that they were women didn't help; in fact, many people, including John Knox, for example, bitterly cursed Elizabeth for trying to "usurp" power from the righteous rulers (men, obviously).  Cleopatra and Dido were probably reviled (at least by some) for their sexual exploits, while Elizabeth was reviled for remaining chaste.

Just some interesting parallels and differences between the three that I was thinking about today...

Theory on Gates of Hell Location

Dante's descriptions of hell and its gates are very interesting and vivid. But does a door to hell actually exist? I theorize that it exists in none other than Derweze, Turkmenistan.

Actually, this fiery hole is a natural gas field that collapsed into an underground cavern, becoming a natural gas crater. The site was identified in 1971 by Soviet engineers who originally thought it to be an oil field, and after the ground collapsed, they set it on fire to prevent the spread of methane gas. The field has been continuously burning since then.

I think it would be cool if Rodin's Gates of Hell is displayed right near the crater's entrance.

Rodin's Gates of Hell

In class we discussed the Gates of Hell and how famous they are, and Mrs. King mentioned how there are lots of artistic depictions of them (there's tons of art based on Dante, so this isn't too surprising). Probably the most famous example of the Gates of Hell is Rodin's monumental sculpture. Rodin was a incredibly important and talented french sculptor in the late 1800s and early 20th century, who you might recognize as the sculptor of The Thinker. His sculpture basically laid the foundation for modern sculpture, so he is a really influential artist.

Perhaps his most ambitious work, the Gates of Hell depicts many scenes from Inferno. The work is really monumental, standing almost 20 feet tall and containing many figures representing characters from Inferno. Many of the figures were later redone as larger sculptures, including The Thinker, who either represents Dante thinking about his work, Rodin contemplating Dante's work, or maybe even Adam; The Kiss, which shows Paolo and Francesca, who are depicted elsewhere on the gates, kissing; and The Three Shades, a group of three condemned souls who pointed at an inscription of the quote "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." Other characters from Inferno depicted include Ugolino, who comes in a later canto.

Unfortunately for Rodin, the museum that the Gates were commissioned for ended up never being built, but there are still several copies of the Gates in existence. The original plastic version is now at the Museum d'Orsay, and there are several bronze copies at museums such as the Rodin Museum in Paris (highly recommended if you are in Paris) and a Rodin museum in Philadelphia. Below are some pictures of the Gates as well as some of the major figures. I think this Rodin work is really ambitious and impressive in its detail, so it's interesting to look at it now with more context from reading the work that inspired it.

Image result for the kiss rodin

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Guilt: Oedipus and the Virtuous Pagans

In our discussion of the virtuous pagans in limbo in class today, I was reminded again of the theme of the guilt of someone who does not realize what they are doing. I think it's interesting how this theme seems to appear repeatedly. Obviously, some of the pagans in limbo did everything they could to live a virtuous life but were unable to be Christians since Christianity did not even exist. To have them be punished eternally, if in a somewhat mild way compared to others, seems somewhat unfair. Especially as some of the old testament figures who have just been randomly chosen by God have been saved.

I think it's interesting that in all of the works we have read that consider this theme fall on the side of punishment being right: Tomas says the Communists can't plead ignorant to their crimes, Oedipus is right for punishing himself even as he did not know what he was doing, and the pagans are punished by God who must be just. In the latter two examples, though, there is some element of pity that we feel toward the punished, especially as their punishment seems disproportionate to their actions considering the context. In some ways, the virtuous pagans are the most unfairly punished as some of them literally could not have done anything to be saved. I think its interesting that in these works, justice seems to fall on the side of punishing those who did not realize, and even those who absolutely couldn't realize, what they were doing. Personally, I feel like this does not really represent true justice for those who could not know what they were doing. However, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the one example of a historical example of this ethical dilemma, I feel more inclined to think that the Communists had some culpability and should have been able to realize what they were doing.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

PUNitive Jokes

Enjoy/cringe at these jokes about what we have learned recently/are about to learn.  (None of these are actually mine.)
1) What did the Parthenon play in Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief? A supporting role.
2) A classics professor goes to a tailor to get his trousers mended. The tailor asks: “Euripides?” The professor replies: “Yes. Eumenides?”
3) CORN-thian column:

4) How was the Roman Empire divided?  With a pair of Caesars.
5) A senator was fifteen minutes late to the Senate on a day Cicero was giving a speech.  He sat in his usual seat and quietly asked the senator next to him what Cicero was talking about.  The senator replied, “I don’t know.  He hasn’t gotten to the verb yet.” - In Latin, verbs are often placed at the end of sentences, and apparently Cicero used really long sentence.
6) When did Caesar reign?
I didn’t know he reigned.
Of course he did, didn’t they hail him?
7) I won't apollogize for these Greek mythology puns.