Dante stood alone in the dark wood. Which way should he turn? Instinct told him that stepping forward would surely lead somewhere of consequence. Midway in his life, he thought how he might never achieve the goals he had set for himself as a public figure, a secular Church scholar, and laurel-wreathed poet of his city. None of it would happen. Banned from his city and society destiny was a messenger pigeon with a broken wing. His life shifted in flux. A squadron of soldiers had not set out to find his hiding place beyond the city gates this fine spring morning, no Guelph guards from his White faction or Black Guelph supporters of Pope Boniface VIII. The Pope’s agents were more bent on bringing Florence to heel since his banishment. False corruption charges for awarding plum positions with garnered bribes weighed upon him. Yes, the name Dante Alighieri was as good as dead to the city. He could never go back to prove his innocence in a court of law. The arrow of exile had left the bow. Where would it land?
Dante meandered up the wooded hill. Elm and oak shadows leaned over him. Myrtle trees and sweet-smelling daphne licked his nostrils and the poet within him wanted to stop and relish the moment and sing the praises of the natural world, but in this wild place, the instinct for self- preservation pressed him forward. He thought of glorious Achilles and mustered courage as the dark forest spread its obscure canopy. He looked up for guidance, yet no sunlight seeped through the leaves as hint that God was speaking to him. More personal losses returned. The cauldron of public fire had tipped over chasing him away from his wife, Gemma Donati—arranged by noble choice, his sons Pietro, Jacopo, Giovanni and his poor daughter Antonia. The family’s wealth had been impounded in a banker’s vault. Rich Guelph lords had played him out and his family was at their mercy. He planned to press on to a northern city and the patronage of a noble prince who might intercede on his family’s behalf. Controversial views regarding good governance in his radical treatise De Monarchia had offended the Pope, damaging Dante’s reputation, making him a fugitive and his personal enemies did the rest with rumours and false charges. He needed to move over the hill, away from pain. Dante found a sunlit ravine wooded on either side and climbed, sometimes scrambling with hands as well as feet. Shale came away as he gained a foothold. The lost man took a deep breath and looking at the coin of sunlight resting on the top of a rise, Dante saw a wild beast standing sentinel above his dilemmas.
It was a leopard. The lithe-footed creature filled him with fear and awe, and at the same time, hope. He wanted this to be a good omen. The poet stood his ground, at first squinting further into the sun. He didn’t want to scare the creature, but despite his heart’s incoherent beating, faith or blind hope still pulled him closer to the beast. Spring sun illuminated the leopard’s coat and from a distance, its hide might have been a painted manuscript with gold inlay and brilliant markings of text; but only scholars hallucinate such things. As he edged further up, he saw plain leopard mottles.
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