It takes, sometimes, one potent coincidence to make me want to talk. It happened this morning.
Next week I am beginning a new class, Illustrating Dante's Comedy, with the brilliant Mark Sherman from RISD's English Department. It's a stab at interdisciplinary teaching and learning and while our shared goal is as partners in the pursuit of deeper understanding of a great poem I suspect I have much more to gain from Mark than he does from me, given his prolonged and dutiful study of Dante and the Comedy. It's all very exciting and I'm eager to learn and teach in tandem. I've been studying the Hollander edition of the poem and have been poring over visual materials dating as far back as 1481 in Brown's Hay Library. What a privilege.
In an earnest effort to school myself on such a daunting literary masterpiece, I pulled up my chair in front of the fire this morning to finish up some introductory reading of Boccaccio's Life of Dante. I had a headache. The dogs snored at my feet, a bunch of brown in the glow of flames (shades of l'inferno?). It was getting good, every bit of it. As I read about Dante's exile from Florence and his restless wandering through Italy, I came upon a passage about the time he spent in Ravenna, and was reminded of my own experience there.
Back in fall 2007 I was beginning a gig as Chief Critic for RISD's European Honors Program in Rome. I had the great fortune of taking in much of Italy, benefitting from collaboration with a wonderful Italian named Ezio Genovesi, whose authority on things Italian blessed my every experience there. Our first tour with students began in Ravenna, at St. Apollinaire in Classe, and its magnificent mosaic altar affected me deeply. My thoughts wandered from Boccaccio's narrative as I replayed a conversation with Ezio about the illusion of an enormous, omnipotent eye, which (when viewed from a particular angle) seemed to stare me down from the transfiguration mosaic over the altar. The effect was very powerful and I was moved by it.
More reading about Dante's exile and the thoughts about Ravenna faded. Coffee called. I left my chair for the kitchen, where I poured a cup, book in hand, headache rapping behind my right eye. When I returned to the fire, I was awed to notice a pattern of wrinkles in the back of the chair where I'd been sitting. Something about the weight and curve of my spine—about the way the white velvet buckled under the wool of my sweater, about the way the newly installed ceiling spot cast shadows of the hillocks—had formed the same eye-shaped motif from the church in Ravenna.
Why do we experience these things? I'm not such a great believer in signs, but I do think recognition of coincidence and perceptual patterns is a gift some of us cultivate in the name of art. As I begin the spring semester, studying an ancient poem whose perfection is found in its rich metaphorical imagery, its nimble terza rima structure, and its profound narrative of personal transformation, I'm content to say that I'm accompanied by the eye of Dante, as both master and advocate. The journey begins.