This is a post for book lovers. Fanatics might be a better word. Be forewarned.
In the summer of 2011, I went to Rome to teach for two weeks. I came a few days early to acclimate myself and, in the airport, ran into a fellow teacher in the same summer program, Jody Lisberger. We decided to walk around Rome together. We went to the Piazza Navona and then wandered into the nearby Church of Sant'Agostino. Inside, immediately to our left, was a large painting titled "Madonna dei Pellegrini" by Caravaggio. Immediately the thought came to my mind,
"I wonder where the original is?"
I was just a few hours off the plane, remember.
We walked outside. Next door was the Biblioteca Angelica. A library. It looked fairly plain from the outside. I suggested we go inside. (Background: I was supposed to give a lecture on Dante as part of my teaching responsibilities.) I spoke some rudimentary Italian, a hodgepodge of opera arias and a few courses here and there. There was a man at a desk in an anteroom. I asked him if we could go inside the library. He said yes, just fill out this card. I guess that's standard around the world. I did, and we stepped inside to this:
It was a book-lover's dream. It was like an all-you-can-eat literary feast. Those books! Row after row. Ancient, leather-bound books, reaching up into the sky. Look below—doesn't this make your mouth water?
In a few minutes, one of the women returned with a volume. She simply handed it to me. "I can look at it?" I asked. "Si." Didn't have to wear white gloves? "No." So, I just took it to a table nearby. And opened it. Jody snapped a photo.
I opened the book.
Well, Lord have mercy. Let's get in a bit closer:
There are those famous Italian words, the most famous Italian words ever written, here put down in a kind of medieval shorthand, "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva oscura / ché la diritta via era smarrita." As translated by Robert Pinsky, "Midway on our life's journey, I found myself / In dark woods, the right road lost."
Every time I read those words, I think: Haven't we all? I stood there and drank my fill of Dante. Satiated and stunned, I gave the book back to le tre donne gentili, and I left with Jody. We walked back out onto the street. The sun was full, glorious.
This was my first day in Rome.