I’m not fond of a sedentary life; subsequently, thoughts of elsewhere are typically more appealing. I can understand Judith Thurman’s contention that “Every dreamer knows that it is entirely possible to be homesick for a place you've never been to.”
My journey through Italy is no less than a search for the sublime. The plan is not to have a plan but instead to meander the streets of Rome and the small hilltop towns of Umbria and Tuscany. To lose oneself in an unfamiliar environment where everything at best is a guess, an adventure. It’s like being a kid again. Not having an agenda brings the most unusual experiences. Wherever the moment finds me is precisely where I’m supposed to be.
You’ll never guess what happened to me today. I touched a book! But it wasn’t just any book.
Next to Rome’s Sant’Agostino Church stands a small, nondescript building in Piazza Monica (named for the mother of St. Augustine). This building houses the Angelica Library. First opened to the public in 1609, the library holds 120,000 rare editions and manuscripts, many of which are key documents of the Renaissance and Reformation periods of Europe. Its plain facade is not typical of Renaissance architecture. The front door, built of thick weathered wood and reinforced by rusted metal, reminds me of Bran Castle, popularly known as Dracula’s Castle, in Romania.
I entered, reached the top of a twisting marble stairway, and it seemed the room exploded, revealing vaulted architecture, stained glass windows, bookshelves from floor to ceiling, rich mahogany woods brilliantly illuminated by natural light that beamed from windows lining the length of the room.
“Un-doggone believable!” I whispered to myself. No matter how hard I try, I can’t get that Bronx demon out of me.
I approach the receptionist, Luca, and ask for the original copy of Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” dated 1472. I hand him my passport. Noticing my Italian last name, Luca gives me a stern lecture, asking why I am not proficient in Italian. I’m useless without Google Translator.
Luca hands me this gigantic book written in script, apparently their card catalog. “Look up the identification number,” he orders. Why would one of the most prolific pieces of literature need to be identified? Maybe because the library holds 120,000 other priceless manuscripts.
After 30 minutes, Luca hands me the book. He puts it in my hand, just like that. I then proceed to fill out a three-page document asking copious questions, all of which are in Italian. I had no clue, so I just signed my name and kept dropping the words “doctore” and “professore.” Luca must have felt sorry for me, because he accepted the document and smiled.
I then opened the first copy printed from Dante Alighieri’s hand and read.
“In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost.”
I lack the brilliance of metaphor to tell you what that moment meant to me.
I returned the book, thanked Luca, and headed to Bramante’s Cloister Café for a cappuccino. Donato Bramante who designed and built the cloister in 1500, was the first head architect of Saint Peter’s Basilica.
The café is located on the second floor of the cloister, which is considered one of the high points of Renaissance architecture. I was lucky; my favorite table was available. As I write these thoughts, my gaze is fixed through the window directly in front of me. I stare into Santa Maria della Pace and behold Raffaello’s fresco, “The Four Sibyls,” circa 1550. This piece of symbolic and literary illusions is a world treasure.