That’s the attitude I take, anyway, and never did I feel more pious, in the classical sense, than on this recent trip to Florence. Within the previous year, discovering the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri had changed my life—saved it, I would say, because it drew me out of a dark spiritual wood.
I wanted to go to Italy to see the city that nurtured the poet who had been the spiritual father of my new life, the same city that threw him out in disgrace and in so doing seeded the creation of an immortal work of literature. For me, the trip to Florence was very much a pilgrimage, as much a spiritual journey as an intellectual and cultural one.
But then, they all are. For well over half my life, I have been going to Europe at every opportunity, drawn mostly by its art, its architecture, and its culture. (And, well, its food.) It was in Europe—inside the Chartres cathedral, to be precise—that I rediscovered the Christian faith that I, as a know-it-all teenager, had rashly discarded as an ideology of either bourgeois dullards or televangelistic vulgarians. It was in Europe that I had fallen under the spell of art, of beauty, of ritual, of continuity, and had sensed the depth not only of the Western experience but of the human experience—a depth that is all but inaccessible to Americans at home, not because of any moral fault but because of our brief history, throwaway culture, and restless, forward-looking character.
And it was in Europe—or rather, because of Europe—that I would become a conservative, or at least become the sort of conservative that I am: a traditionalist focused on religion, family, and culture. Russell Kirk, riffing on a felicitous utterance of Edmund Burke’s, articulated the heart of the conservatism that appealed to me: “I mean by the phrase ‘the unbought grace of life’ those intricate and subtle and delicate elements in the culture of the mind and in the constitution of society which are produced by a continuing tradition of prescriptive establishments, reflective leisure, and political order.”
That is true, but what is more true, at least for someone of my unacademic cast of mind, is what the New Yorker essayist Adam Gopnik describes as the secret of Paris’s allure for Americans: “the idea of happiness it presents is always mingled, I do not always know how, with a feeling of seriousness.” This feeling, this sense of “pleasure allied to education,” allows those of us from the New World to lose ourselves in “absorption without obvious accomplishment, a lovely and un-American emotion.”
So it is in Paris, and so it is in Europe, where the past is never really past. Dante wrote his Divine Comedy in the early 14th century and peopled it with eminent Florentines. Today, you can walk the same streets that the poet and some of the most vivid characters of the poem walked and see startling evidence of their presence.
This is where the Donatis—Corso, the brutish warlord in the Inferno; Forese, the penitent glutton of Purgatorio; and Piccarda, the joyously serene nun in Paradiso—grew up. That is where the assassins struck Buondelmonte, sparking the Guelph-Ghibelline civil war. And here is where Dante was baptized, and the place to which he dreamed of returning in glory. It’s all still there.
Pick an era in history that fascinates you, and you can lose yourself easily in almost any corner of Europe. Florence, though, is especially dense in this way. It was here, after all, that the Middle Ages ended—Dante was the last great medieval artist. As the critic Erich Auerbach observes, only one generation separates the Scholastic Dante from the humanist Petrarch, but in that short span of time, one age ends and another begins.
We call that new age the Renaissance. It was invented in Florence, and it burned brightest and longest there. Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci—all were Florentines, and they were by no means the only greats to emerge from that city under the rule of the Medici banking dynasty. Coming to the end of an afternoon spent in the Uffizi Gallery, the greatest shrine to Italian Renaissance painting, one feels as the pilgrim Dante sometimes does in paradise: blinded by the light that he is not strong enough to receive in all its potency.
Sharing a communal table in a trattoria one night with a Chinese couple—both Shanghai business executives with a flawless command of English—I took offense when the husband sniffed, “Nothing has happened here in 500 years.” But a moment’s reflection revealed that the rich philistine was right.
Florence’s rise and fall as a political, economic, and cultural power tracks with the founding of the Florentine Republic in 1115 and its extinction in 1532. In the Divine Comedy, Dante sniffs that the city has been going to hell ever since all those money-grubbing hill people from nearby Fiesole migrated into town in the 1200s to serve its growing economy.
Dante, who thundered against Florence’s corruption, may have been a prophet, but he was no seer. The city’s greatest days were to come in the 15th century, when the Medici clan led Florence to the pinnacle of its wealth, fame, and importance. And then, after arguably the most brilliant century any Western city has enjoyed since Athens in the fifth century B.C., the republic came crashing down, and with it, Florence flamed out.
It has been a backwater since then—a highly civilized, industrious backwater, but a backwater all the same. Still, Florence burned so bright and so hot that today seven million people visit each year to warm themselves in its embers. A few, perhaps, will find the light and warmth of the afterglow kindling the seeds of cultural renewal within their own hearts and minds.
That’s what I was looking for: even more of what I had already found in Dante’s verse. Being in his hometown, though, left me not so much inspired as gently melancholic, in a way that temperamental conservatives often are when confronted by the tragic sense of life.
Florence is teeming with life, but even in the off-season nearly everyone you see is a tourist. And, as in so many Italian cities, there are few children around. Every native that my Italian-speaking traveling companion and I talked to was pessimistic about Italy and its future. We conversed with an older priest who said that the faith is all but finished in Italy, and many of the young Italians want nothing more than to go to America, where the culture that feeds their imaginations comes from.
None of this is news, of course, but it was strange for me, as someone who has been immersed in and bedazzled by the Florence of the High Middle Ages for the past year, to go to this city where Western civilization hit one of its highest peaks and to see it so moribund. Yet to visit the Continent as a Europhilic American is to face one’s own habit of romanticizing the Old World, and to expect more from it than it can reasonably give.
The tourist hordes may well have turned Florence into Disneyland, but so, in a more rarified way, have I. A dispiriting realization, but within that truth lies the possibility of redeeming the time.
I had gone to Florence on the trail of Dante, whose wisdom and poetry had put me back together when I had been emotionally shattered by lost illusions. I was raised in a closely-knit Southern family but left my hometown at the age of 16 for boarding school, seemingly never to return. For most of my life, I had revered the concepts of family and place and based much of my conservatism—and my journalism—on that sentiment. The demise of my sister from cancer in 2011, and what that event revealed about the power of family and community in the face of death, inspired me to go back, with wife and children now, to my tiny Louisiana hometown after nearly three peripatetic decades away. At last, I would rejoin my family and live out my convictions.
What I learned after making the move was that I had made a Disneyland of “home” and “family.” I learned, only too late, that my late sister had raised her children to see their uncle as a dodgy character, a city slicker who had, as we Southerners say, “gotten above his raising.”
Now that I was home, my sister’s family didn’t want to have much to do with us, and my parents supported them in this. By having different tastes, and by moving away, I had shown myself disloyal and untrustworthy. Their judgment was final.
To return from three decades in exile only to discover that your exile is permanent, that the home you thought you had does not exist any longer, is a terrible blow. Arcadia was, in fact, a dark wood.
Dante, who wrote his great poem in forced exile from Florence, revealed to me that exile is the human condition. Things change. Republics, like sisters and Dante’s Beatrice, die. We must be capable of change, of adaptation, so that we can preserve the permanent things in a world where most things are always passing.
Dante’s exile taught him that to put one’s ultimate faith in merely human loves—that is, in anything other than God—is to dwell in illusion and set oneself up for a painful fall. This bitterly won wisdom was, for me, a severe mercy, because it deepened my own faith and showed me the way out of my own dark wood.
To go to Florence, then, and to wander among the evidence of its past glories—the art, the sculpture, the mansions of its once-great families who live now only in monuments and memories—is to confront what it means to live in time. To read Dante, though, is to discover how one turns this sense of loss into a comedy; that is, a story with a happy ending.
This is the essence of the traditionalist conservative theory of change. If we want to preserve and to renew eternal ideals among the living, we must be willing and able to accept the inevitable transformation of temporal forms.
I ended my Dante pilgrimage at the poet’s tomb on a side street in Ravenna, the city that had given the wayfarer refuge. I bowed deeply, prayed for his soul, and thanked him for saving me from my romantic illusions, illusions created by my own immature conservatism. He showed me what I needed to recover from my loss, and to build a life in the ruins of my traditionalist Disneyland.
Dante wrote as the world of certainties was passing away in the face of war and economic tumult. He died on the eve of the Black Death, which remade Europe and blasted down the door to a new age, for better or for worse. (“The Florentines, in fact, invented the Renaissance, which is the same as saying that they invented the modern world—not, of course, an unmixed good,” wrote Mary McCarthy.)
Something old died; something new was born. The sun is always rising and setting somewhere, and life eternally asserts itself. We go to Europe, to the house of our fathers—of Virgil, of Dante, of Leonardo, of all the great and terrible figures of the West—to see what we have been, so that we may see what we may become. And if we have seen truly, we come home knowing how to avoid the tragic fate captured by Dante in these lines:
It is well that endless be his grief
who, for love of things that do not
casts off a love that never dies.
It has been said that the Divine Comedy is a book that reads us: one of those rare works of art that compels deep self-examination. In a similar way, Europe, despite its decline, is a place that places us.
The mid-century American novelist Truman Capote made his first European trip in 1948, as a young man. Dazzled by its beauty, Capote was brought low by a London artist telling him that for American aesthetes, Europe is a kind of Disneyland—a place where they can revel in Europe’s beauty without having to take on Europe’s pain.
Reflecting on the truth of this observation, Capote felt sadness that he could never really belong to a place like that. Yet he recovered when he grasped that he could never be part of Europe’s mystery and magic but the things he saw and adored could be “all a part of me, elements for the making of my own perspective.”
It’s true. I am not a Florentine, or a Parisian, or anything other than an American. But to their own sadness, a love of Europe has made my father’s son and my sister’s brother the kind of American he is. This makes practicing pietas complicated for me, but Europe teaches me how to hold fast to things that are eternal, to grasp loosely things that are temporal, and the wisdom to know the difference.