Reviews: To Hell and Back – Lizabeth Wojda

To Hell and Back

To Hell and Back with Dante, Italy, 2002

Lizabeth Wojda, Chicago

My friends loved the idea of two weeks in Italy – Siena, Florence, Ravenna, and Venice – until I mentioned the “Dante Connection.” Classical Pursuits’ To Hell and Back with Dante – Inferno and Purgatorio read and discussed, Paradiso reviewed. To my friends, spending two weeks reading and discussing Dante would be Hell on earth. For me, it was Paradise.

First, it’s Italy. There’s gelato, Chianti, pasta, cappucino. There’s art and music. And perfect weather with minimal crowds because tourist season hasn’t started yet. How can you not go on the trip?

Second, for me, vacation planning is browsing the bookstore looking for the “right” books to read while I’m on the vacation (someone else can take care of all the practical details like airline and hotel reservations) – and so I’ve read Frame in New Zealand, Balzac in France, Laxness in Iceland. This time, everyone I was traveling with would be reading the same thing – and we could TALK about it.

Finally, I needed help with Dante. I’ve tried to read The Divine Comedy before (at least three times), but I needed help making the connections within each book and between the books.

So, I found myself with 16 fellow travelers sitting on our hotel’s terrace in Siena. We were looking out at the Tuscan countryside while trying to figure out what was going on in The Divine Comedy. We alternated Shared Inquiry discussions of Inferno and Purgatorio with lectures by an Italian scholar – Dante’s political landscape, religion and art in Dante’s time, and literature before and after Dante. With the assistance of the scholar we resolved confusion related to translation. Through Shared Inquiry discussions we untangled difficult passages and changed our minds about the meaning of others. We learned about God and love – perverted love, defective love, excessive love and, finally, perfect love.

We spent two hours everyday focused on Dante. The rest of the time? We spent it wandering around Siena, a walled city with minimal automobile traffic and a centuries-old rivalry among 17 contradas – the neighborhood organizations that are the social epicenter of the city. We attended L’Aquila’s – the contrada of the Eagle’s – wine festival, spent hours in L’Oca’s – the contrada of the Goose’s – private museum, and followed L’Oca flag bearers and drummers through the winding streets as they celebrated the Feast of St. Catherine.

We spent time in Florence, walking through the narrow streets from which Dante was exiled. When we went to Ravenna, we stopped by the Dante Museum. Billed in The Rough Guide travel book as a stop for the hardcore Dante enthusiast, I guess we qualified. We wandered into Dante’s tomb and around its neighboring garden. The garden caretaker provided us with an unplanned mini-lecture on Dante in Ravenna and admitted us to the museum for free. We spent most of our time in a sculpture gallery mesmerized by sculptors’ interpretations of The Divine Comedy. Interestingly, the Inferno was the most heavily documented. We became so familiar with Dante’s visage, that we were able to pick him out everywhere – on the back of the 1€ coin, in the Raphael frescoes at the Vatican Museum at the conclusion of the trip, etc.

My friends back in Chicago loved the photos, suggested trips to Italian restaurants after hearing descriptions of the food, and started planning their own vacations to Italy – but they missed the opportunity to learn about God and Love in Paradise. Maybe next year I can convince them to join me.