From Vergil to Dante

By Gail P.C. Streete, The W.J. Millard Professor of Religious Studies and James Vest, Professor of French
Photography by Gail P.C. Streete


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In May 2005, 13 Rhodes faculty members who teach sections of the interdisciplinary course The Search for Values in the Light of Western History and Religion traveled to Italy in partnership with the Vergilian Society.

The trip, underwritten by a Mellon Foundation grant, would have delighted former President Peyton N. Rhodes, who dreamed of offering such support to the Search and Life faculties. And the timing could not have been better.

“There are important curricular changes in the Search program,” explains Gail Streete, the W.J. Millard Professor of Religious Studies. “In essence we were charged with amalgamating what had essentially been distinct first- and second-year sequences (four courses) into three courses. One of the best ways to do this, we thought, was for a mixture of faculty who were teaching in either sequence to get a look at the literature used by ‘the other side’ in context. The one that seemed to suit both groups was that of Italy from its Greco-Roman context (symbolized by Vergil’s Aeneid, a core text in the first year) to the Renaissance (symbolized by Dante’s Divina Commedia, a core text in the second year).”

This spring, the Mellon Foundation funded another trip for faculty who teach the religious studies and philosophy course Life: Then and Now that took them on a journey similar in nature to Israel, Jordan and Egypt.

The following are excerpts from the journals of Gail Streete, official chronicler of the Search journey, and James Vest, professor of French.

Day One: The Adventure Begins

“If you are involved in teaching epic literature, it is hard to resist casting this trip in epic terms,” writes Gail Streete. “After all, we are following in the steps of Vergil’s epic hero Aeneas as he makes landfall on the west coast of Italy and takes an even stranger journey to the underworld and into the future. We are also retracing the journey of another exile, Florentine Dante Alighieri, and his metaphysical trip from hell (in which Vergil is his guide and mentor) to purgatory to paradise. Along the way we shall also encounter the emperors Augustus, Tiberius and Nero, the world-renouncing Francis and Clare of Assisi, the all-too-worldly-Machiavelli.

“This is quite a lot of thought to occupy the mind (in addition to all the other information, especially archaeological and art-historical that will be filling our soon-to-be-overloaded brains). In any event, there are 13 of us: Anna Dronzek, Gail Murray and Jeff Jackson, history; Joe Favazza, John Kaltner, Milton Moreland and me, religious studies; Jim Vest, French; Dave Mason, theater; Mike Nelson, political
science; Katherine Panagakos and David Sick, Greek and Roman studies; and Ross Reed, philosophy.

“As one of my Search students put it, ‘No offense, but I’d hate to be y’all’s guide.’”

Day Two: Aeneas Lands

As the plane approaches Italy in the morning sun, Jim Vest sees from his window “the coast of Italia, of Latium, its features defined as we begin our descent: the mouth of the Tiber River, Rome’s airport at Ostia Antiqua, canals and marshes and reclaimed polders, Leonardo da Vinci Airport, where the Old Europe meets the new.”

For three days the group stayed and ate two meals each day at the Villa Vergiliana, conference centerfor the Vergilian Society, near Naples. Situated on a hillside amid fruit trees, it overlooked a Roman amphitheater amid a vista that encompassed much of the Bay of Naples.

Recalls Vest: “Our late afternoon strolls on the beach take us near the cave-riddled promontory at Cumae, evoking T. S. Eliot’s description of the Sybil spinning slowly in her grotto as well as echoes of Vergil and memories of decisive battles, from 474 BCE (Before the Common, or Christian, Era) to the Second World War. Our walks end with a return to the villa for scrumptious meals prepared by the mother of the villa’s director, accompanied by locally produced fruits and wines.”

“Like Aeneas,” says Streete, “we have found landfall.”

Day Three: Stabiae and the National Archaeological Museum, Naples

“One of the drawbacks of living in a rural area: There are roosters,” writes Streete. “And yes, they do wake up at the crack of dawn. They also wake up all their other little feathered friends to sing an exuberant dawn chorus. I judge it best to get up then and dodge traffic, heading out for a morning run through the cool air scented by flowers and the sea.

“Today we are visiting the remains of two country villas of some upper-class Romans at Stabiae (modern Stabia). We also tour the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, which contains many of the wonderful mosaics and frescoes taken from the excavations in Pompeii. Bruno, our bus driver, explains the traffic by saying that because it’s raining, the drivers of Vespa motorscooters take their cars to work instead, increasing the number of cars on the road at rush hour.

“It seems appropriate that when we make a rest stop at the Bar Paradiso near Stabia (another reminiscence of Dante) there is a sign that reads, in Italian: ‘Welcome to Paradise...If you can just wait awhile.’”

“Stabia is a revelation,” Vest writes. “‘Stabia’ means ‘beach’ in the language of peoples in the area around Naples before the Greeks and Romans. Along with Herculaneum and Pompeii, it succumbed to Vesuvius in 79 CE (Common, or Christian, Era). Here, overlooking the bay, are two first-century villas now recovered from the volcanic ash, whose atria and peristyles, baths and kitchens, private rooms and gardens, mosaics and frescos, altars and rain-collection systems vividly evoke daily living in the first century. The fact that these sites are associated with Pliny the Elder and that they are perfumed with roses and oleander
adds to their allure.”

As Streete observes: “The Villa San Marco (named for the village) and Villa Arianna (named after the fresco of Ariadne and Bacchus in its dining room) were really luxury compounds, dating to the early imperial period (first century CE). They were the summer and country residences of people like Pliny the Elder and Younger.”

At the National Archaeological Museum in Naples they view “a fabulous collection of mosaics and frescoes from Pompeii that depict rehearsals of actors, Nile animals, boxers and the ubiquitous entrance mosaics, Cave canem—the Latin equivalent of ‘Beware the dog.’ The museum also has a painstakingly reproduced model of the entire city of Pompeii and the beautiful Temple of Isis. The Pompeians who worshiped her called her ‘You who are all in one.’”

Day Four: Pompeii, with a Touch of Herculaneum

“This morning, as we wait for the bus,” writes Streete, “many of us learn a new word: sciopero, Italian for ‘strike.’ Public transportation has declared a limited strike, thus throwing Neapolitans once more back into their cars and knotting up rush hour traffic, causing hour-long delays. But never mind: Pompeii has waited for nearly two millennia; we can wait a little longer.”

Of Pompeii Vest writes: “It is overwhelming in its vastness, its streets intact, some of its water system functioning. I am particularly moved by the triangular forum. Here I experience a visceral sense of the flow of Mediterranean history. As I look toward the sea, to my right are ruins of a Doric temple from the earliest Greek settlement. Behind me is the well-preserved Hellenistic temple of Isis with its prominent baptismal purgatorium. To my left are two theaters.

“One is a vast open-air affair built into the hillside overlooking the sea. The 5th-century BCE structure, modernized in the second, is equipped with sun protection for up to 5,000 spectators and floating stage sets for the actors. The other theater, the Odeon or concert-oratory hall, is more intimate and was originally covered with a wooden roof. On the far side of the forum are barracks for gladiators. And in the middle, a meeting space under the sky inviting the full expression of civic life, a centerpiece of our studies.”

“We have the leisure to explore the whole town, first with a guide, Alfonso, then by ourselves with the aid of a guidebook,” says Streete. “During the siesta hour, a dog, the ‘guardian’ of the macellum, or market, at the forum, snoozes in the shadow of a table that contains the near-intact remains of one of the citizens who failed to escape the eruption, oblivious to the dead or living.

“Among many great things here—the building of Eumachia, priestess, businesswoman and influential citizen; the so-called “Villa of the Mysteries” with a series of wonderful frescoes supposedly depicting initiation of a bride into the Bacchic or Dionysian mysteries. Frustratingly, even after having read the English interpretation in the guidebook and listening to two lectures on it (albeit in German and French), I am still at a loss as to what it really describes. No matter. The Pompeian red background, the gestures of the larger-than-life size figures remain intriguing and mysterious.”

Later in the day, Vest ventures to Herculaneum with Profs. Katherine Panagakos, Milton Moreland and Dave Mason.

“Herculaneum, smaller than Pompeii, is in many respects better preserved,” he writes. “Here volcanic activity produced mud flows, conserving along with brick, stone, frescos and mosaics, some wooden structures and some leather and fiber items. The descent into the site engenders a palpable sense of entering a Roman town, Roman baths, Roman homes. This sense is accentuated by the fact that I am exploring Herculaneum with a small group of colleagues, including an archeologist, a classicist and a theater buff. We fit nicely into one very large Roman bathtub.”

Day Five: Encounter with the Sibyl at the Entrance to the Underworld

“Here is the place where Vergil’s hero Aeneas, having been tossed and buffeted around the Mediterranean since his flight from the burning city of Troy, came ashore and where he was instructed to seek the wise woman, the Sibyl of Cumae, in her cave,” notes Streete.

“The Sibyl’s ‘seat’ is now the apse of an early Christian church. The ‘Christianizing’ of this very ancient pagan holy place becomes more apparent as we leave the cave and wind our way along the Sacred Way to the Temple of Apollo on the ancient Greek, and later Roman, acropolis. According to Vergil, Aeneid VI,4-10, Daedalus, the Greek engineer who built the labyrinth, also fled to this area and built the temple of Apollo, supposedly with a golden roof. The Christians later made it a church by changing its orientation from north-south to east-west. Also on this site was a temple of Jupiter, which was changed into a Christian basilica, the church of St. Massimo or Maxentius, containing the oldest baptismal font in Italy (4th century CE).

Leaving Cumae, Vest writes: “On our way toward Rome, we follow the coast to the seaside resort of Sperlonga. There, in a cave by the sea, the emperor Tiberius had established a nymphaeum, with large fish tanks surrounding an outdoor dining area that included monumental sculptures depicting legendary scenes. All this was recently turned into a visitable site with a superb museum, adjacent to the much-used public beach. The interplay between ancient and modern is fascinating.”

Day Six: When in Rome

“Our hotel in Rome is conveniently located and near some fairly inexpensive but good restaurants,” Streete recounts. “The first dinner, however, initiates an experience that we are to find continually throughout our trip: The strolling accordion/guitar player/singer whose invariable reaction to English-speaking tourists is to play ‘Arrivederci, Roma’ and more inexplicably, ‘New York, New York.’

“A glorious morning run down the Via Nazionale brings me past the imperial fora of Trajan and Augustus, past the Colosseum. The trip back, however, reminds me that Rome is indeed built on seven hills.

“Since our stay in the Villa Vergiliana, we have been having before-dinner seminars by various membersof the group, catching us up on the history of important sites. Milton Moreland was the leader last night and for some of us today.

“We start off from the Baths of Diocletian, now the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (Holy Mary of the Angels and Martyrs). Right around the corner is the high baroque church of Santa Maria della Vittoria (Holy Mary of Victory) with the incredible surprise for which I’m never quite prepared, Bernini’s ‘Ecstasy of St. Theresa.’

“We pass the Villa Medici, where Galileo was once imprisoned by the Inquisition. Here we start our collection of obelisks, of which there are 13 in Rome.

“On the way to the Pantheon, we encounter the triumphal column of Marcus Aurelius at the Piazza Colonna, and another obelisk celebrating the battle of Actium: one that was intended to be outside Augustus’ Mausoleum and used as the gnomon of a sundial that was supposed to point in the direction of his birthday. Around the corner, the spectacular and celebrated Fountain of Trevi, whose exuberant gush of water revives our spirits. The Pantheon itself is a testament to a living historical  monument, originated under Augustus, rebuilt for the third time by the emperor Hadrian, ravaged (like many other buildings) by the Barberini for its decoration, and made into a church.

“Eventually, our various groups meet up again at the Castel Sant’Angelo, a.k.a. Hadrian’s Mausoleum, an enormous tomb built by the 2nd-century Roman emperor Hadrian for himself and his family. Hadrian also built the bridge across the Tiber that leads to it, the Pons Aelius (Aelian Bridge, after his family name). The Byzantine emperor Theodoric used it as a castle, which passed into papal (and anti-papal) possession. The angel from which the tower gets its name replaces the original bronze chariot of Hadrian as the sun god and represents a vision of Pope Gregory I (the Great) in 590, of an angel sheathing his sword as a sign of the cessation of the plague. After a variety of uses and damages, it was adapted for use as a museum and figures prominently in the opera Tosca by Puccini and Dan Brown’s novel Angels and Demons.

“Our next (and final) site is Latin vespers in St. Peter’s at the Altar of the Chair (allegedly the episcopal chair of Peter as bishop of Rome), with the late sunlight slanting through Bernini’s alabaster window, and wreathed in sonorous Latin and clouds of incense.”

Day Seven: Playground of the Caesars—The Forum,Colosseum and Domus Aurea

“There’s actually not a lot to see, given the depredations of time and indifference and those who used the Forum as a giant marble quarry, not to mention the road Mussolini carved between the Forum Romanum and the imperial fora,” Streete writes.

“Remarkable traces of that are still left, especially in the triumphal arches of Constantine, Titus and Severus that mark the conquests of those emperors.

“The most moving is that of Titus, erected to celebrate his stamping out the Jewish rebellion of 66-70 and the ensuing destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. In the inner arch, you can see the victorious troops carting off the temple furniture and menorah, leading the downcast Jewish captives in procession to execution or  slavery, the victory as a whole to be dedicated to the ‘Capitoline triad’—Jupiter, Juno and Minerva—the holy three gods of Rome whose temple stood at the north end of the Forum on the Capitoline hill.

“Down from the Capitoline, with its magnificent view both southward and northward, is the Mamertine Prison, where according to legend and advertising, Saints Peter and Paul were both imprisoned. (Presumably they patched up the differences Paul mentions in Galatians 2:11-14 by then.) En route to the Colosseum is the Forum of Julius Caesar, and, less grandly, a welcome refreshment stand featuring cool slices of fresh coconut, watered by a miniature fountain.

“In the afternoon, after sensibly taking a siesta, I set out with my roommate, Gail Murray, to check out two fairly neglected early Christian churches, Santa Prassede and Santa Pudenziana. These saints were sisters, daughters of Pudens, who supposedly offered hospitality to Peter in Rome. The mosaic of Santa Pudenziana’s apse shows Christ enthroned with some suspiciously toga-draped apostles.

“In the evening, we meet at Nero’s ‘Golden House.’ Nero’s entertaining here (or at least his entertaining style) was over-the-top, mercilessly satirized by a contemporary novelist, Petronius, as the nouveau riche Trimalchio in the Satyricon. There is little trace of that splendor left, largely because subsequent emperors sought to remove most of the evidence of Nero.”

Day Eight: St. Peter’s and the Vatican

“Dr. Sylvia Frangipane is our guide to Vatican City, 208 acres of this walled city, the remnant of the old Papal States, which grew and shrank with the fortunes and power of the papacy,” Streete writes.

“In 64 CE, the apostle Peter was crucified (legend says head-down) in the Circus of Caligula and Nero near the present site of St. Peter’s. His friends buried him next to the circus, in a site that we will later visit in the necropolis under the basilica.

“Jeff, Katherine and I decide on making a beeline through the Vatican Museums to the Raphael Stanzeand the Sistine Chapel which, despite the constant warnings (in several languages) to keep silent, keep moving and not take photographs (all largely ignored), in all its restored glory is luminous—from the Michelangelo ceiling to the wonderful wall frescoes by other famous artists, one side, the life of Moses; the other, the life of Christ.

“A rare opportunity, engineered by Joe Favazza’s acquaintance with one of the American cardinals and a former bishop of Memphis, James Francis Stafford, enables us to visit the Vatican necropolis, led by our guide Elena.”

Day Nine: Arrivederci, Roma

“Through the beautiful Umbrian countryside to the little hill town of Assisi, we are en route to Florence. Assisi is a surprise, a medieval town. Our knowledgeable guide is Patrizia,” Streete says.

“First on our list is the Church of Santa Chiara, or St. Clare. Clare (1193-1253) was a friend and supporter of the ministry of Francis and wished to be a member of his order of mendicant friars. There are relics of Clare and Francis: Clare’s blonde hair that was cut by Francis when she became a nun, Francis’ worn and patched tunic. The order founded by Clare, the Poor Clares, is a cloistered one, as it was  considered unsuitable for women to follow the rough life of begging with the monks of St. Francis.

“Giotto painted 28 scenes from the life of St. Francis as related by St. Bonaventure. Not only did he depict Francis and his companions in a more realistic light, but Giotto also showed his interest in buildings and architectural detail, including several recognizable buildings from Assisi.

Says Vest: “The hilltop town of Assisi is very special, exuding an ineffable sense of noumenal presence, of tradition, of pilgrimage, of peace, of aspiration, of hope.”

Day Ten: Welcome to the Renaissance—Florence

Streete recounts: “A little background from Anna Dronzek and Mike Nelson at our al fresco group meeting last night in a local park, since our accommodations do not provide a large enough meeting place. Florence, in ancient Etruria (now Tuscany), was the home of the Etruscans. In 59 BCE, Julius Caesar settled some of his veterans here in the colony of Florentia. Florence became wealthy in the 12th and 13th centuries, thanks to the wool trade, which enabled ‘merchant princes’ like the Medici to become its oligarchic rulers. Florence was an independent city-state noted for its sponsorship of art. For the first time, names of artists became known.

“We meet our guide Ramon, who proves to be the most knowledgeable and indefatigable guide yet, outside of thechurch of San Lorenzo. The baptistery, a separate building, originally was a Roman temple of Mars, made into a church in the 5th-7th centuries. The famous doors or ‘Gates of Paradise’ designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti in bronze and gold leaf are reproductions. The originals are in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, having been removed for restoration in 1993.

“As we walk back toward Orsanmichele, the Church of St. Michael, we pass the Piazza della Repubblica, built on the remains of the old Roman forum, near the former Jewish ghetto of Florence (1571), now almost completely obliterated. A colored plaque of Dante is set into one wall over one of the many tabernacles or street shrines of Florence.

“Finally we encounter Dante himself—or at least the Casa di Dante, the house in which the poet (1265-1321) is said to have been born. Dante was on the losing side in the wars of the Whites and Blacks among the Guelfs or papal supporters, and was exiled in 1302, never to return. Nearby is the little church of Santa Margherita where the love of Dante’s life, Beatrice Portinari, is buried. It is also the church where Dante married Gemma Donati.

“Fittingly, we have lunch in the Taverna Divina Commedia. The famous line from Dante’s Divine Comedy, ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,’ is inscribed over the entrance to the rest rooms. At this point in a hot day, crowded with art and history, the Divine Comedy Tavern seems more like paradiso.

“At 4:30 p.m., we meet at the Collegio Dante Alighieri for a talk on Machiavelli by Prof. Mario Carniani. Fortunately, Ross Reed has introduced some of us  nonspecialists to this Florentine politician, historian, philosopher, adviser and playwright who lived from 1469-1527 and who, like Dante, was forced out of politics by the rapidly shifting currents of the Florentine political situation. Although Machiavelli’s most famous work was The Prince, addressed to Giuliano de’ Medici, he also wrote a play, The Mandrake, which was much admired by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. I have seven pages of notes from a 2 ½-hour lecture in a stifling second-floor lecture room. Prof. Carniani is charming, lively and informative, however. His best line: ‘I ask myself whatMachiavelli would do in this situation.’ Clearly he loves Machiavelli, and some of that love has been communicated to me, along with a resolve to read The Mandrake.”

Day Eleven: The Six-Hour Cultural Marathon

“Our goal for the day is a cultural and artistic tour of the Galleria dell’Accademia (for Michelangelo’s David), the Bargello Museum and the Capelle Medicee (Medici Chapels) at San Lorenzo,” writes Streete. “I have 13 pages of notes for today and am beginning to sympathize with our European Studies students. Yesterday, which was scarcely as full a day, we went 8.5 miles according to Gail Murray’s pedometer.

“The first room at the accademia, which now serves as a museum featuring Michelangelo’s sculptures, contains some wonderful works that tend to be overshadowed by the idea that the ‘David’ is waiting not far off. The works of Botticelli and his teacher Filippino Lippi and Perugino tempt you to linger. A side room contains medieval and Renaissance instruments, which fascinate some of our group, including Ross, a musician enamored of sackbuts.

“The second room contains more of Michelangelo’s sculptures. Finally, of course, the David. The body itself turns to the left—the sinister—from which the giant Goliath is to appear. The huge right hand serves as a weapon (action) as opposed to the smaller left hand (thought, close to the head).

“In the chapel of the Bargello (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, to give it its complete title) are scenes from the life of the Magdalene (the church’s Magdalene at least) and a wonderful profile of Dante by the school of Giotto that might actually be a living portrait.

“On to the Piazza della Signoria, site of the death of the monk Savonarola, burned in the spot where he conducted the ‘bonfire of the vanities’ of Florence.

“We fetch up in the Piazza del Limbo (not inappropriate for Dante hunters) on the site of the old Roman baths.

“A penultimate festive dinner of the group at the Grotta Guelfa near the Arno. (Tagliolini with mushrooms are wonderful!) Although some of the group plan another outing, Gail and I totter back to bed, as I am planning to visit the Uffizi tomorrow and she is planning to transfer her suitcases to another hotel in anticipation of her husband Joe’s visit.”

Day 12: Museums and Markets

“Our last day in Florence and virtually free! I’m up at 7 to wait in line at the Uffizi Gallery for two hours, just to see the Botticellis,” Streete says.

“At midday and (barring a siesta) there is definitely time for lunch at the nearby Caffé Jolly, with a nice meal of crostini al pomodoro and a birra alla spina (draft beer), necessitated by the heat. Then last-minute wandering, shopping and a gelato stop.

“After retrieving luggage at the train station in Florence, we say good-bye to Jeff Jackson, who travels on the Eurostar via Milan to Paris. Then the diminished troupe of 11 sets out on a smooth, uneventful train ride south to the Termini Station in Rome. A violent thunderstorm when we arrive is over quickly, with the welcome sight of a magnificent rainbow."

Day 13: Arrivederci Italia

“Although we thought our breakfast (continental) would be included in the price of the room, it wasn’t,” Streete concludes. “Since it’s Sunday, there is a super, gargantuan—American, really—brunch that we later find out cost 16 euros. Well, no matter, it’s a kind of touch of home that helps bring us closer to reality.

“Largely uneventful flight from Rome to Detroit, and despite wrangling, nine of us have to take the late flight back to Memphis, which lands at 10 p.m. For such a wonderful trip, it is worth it, and so the nine companions go their separate ways homeward.”

As Vest sums up the trip: “As one involved, to a small degree, in planning this enterprise, I felt it was a dream come true, a vision to share with current students and alumni.”