In the summer of 1985 I enrolled in a language school in Florence, Italy, for two months of intensive Italian study, five days a week, four hours each day. The Tuscan city of Florence (“Firenze” in Italian), I had been told, was the place to go to learn Italian. I knew monks who had studied Italian in Perugia (in Umbria) as well as in Rome, but I settled on Firenze and had a great experience. I knew I would be going to the bigger city of Rome that October for theology studies, so I would leave Rome for a later time and concentrate on Italian in the beautiful and relatively tranquil “City of the Flowers,” Firenze.
My language school was called the “Scuola Dante Alighieri,” housed in a large villa along the banks of River Arno, which flows through Florence. As for the name of the school, Dante Alighieri was a major Italian poet of the late Middle Ages, who lived from about 1265 to 1321, best known as the author of the masterpiece of world literature, “The Divine Comedy,” (La Commedia Divina). I have always liked the title of this work, since I believe that God has a wonderful sense of humor! I look at my own life up to now to prove the point.
But back to the Divine Comedy, considered the greatest literary work composed in Italian, and translated into a myriad of languages. Before the time of Dante, great literature in the west, and especially poetry, was always composed in Latin. By the late Middle Ages, the time of Dante, only the educated and affluent could read such literature.
Using his Tuscan dialect (what eventually became modern Italian), Dante opened up a world of literature and knowledge to many more people. By so doing, Dante was instrumental in the establishment of the national language of Italy. Now called “the Father of the Italian language,” Dante Alighieri has become a “secular patron saint,” one might say, of the Italian people. And his memory is not forgotten to this day! Those born in Florence are especially devoted to Dante. With that in mind, I jumped at the chance to study in Dante’s city as a once in a lifetime opportunity and it was indeed an unforgettable experience.
My sojourn to Italy and language studies in Firenze thirty-two years ago long pre-dated the world of computers, so I had to complete an application and submit it by regular mail to the Dante School long before I got there. I had also arranged through the language school to live with a family in Firenze. This seemed to me a good way to enter more fully into the work of learning a new language, rather than staying by myself somewhere in the city, or even in a monastery. Interacting with people throughout the day by speaking their language seemed a logical choice.
When I got to the language school in Firenze in June of 1985, I was told that the home I had been assigned to was no longer available. Initially disappointed, I was given a couple of other options, and chose to live with a family quite close to the school. Their home was at the foot of the “Forte Belvedere,” an imposing military structure built centuries ago, perched on a hill above Florence.
Today most often simply called “La Belvedere” (literally, “beautiful view”), it is an imposing fortification built between the years 1590 and 1595. It was constructed as a demonstration of the city’s wealth and military capabilities. Set on the highest hill of Florence, above the Fiume (River) Arno, the Belvedere is next to the stunning Boboli Gardens. The fort overlooks almost the entire city of Florence and the surrounding area. Pictures of it can be found on “Google Images.”
Designed in part to defend the center of government in Florence and to protect the Medici family if the city came under attack, the Forte Belvedere was also the place where Galileo Galilei carried out his astronomical observations.
After extensive renovations completed around 2004, the Belvedere is now a huge tourist attraction as well an exhibition center for works of art.
The family with whom I was assigned to lodge the summer of 1985 lived at the base of part of the high and massive wall that surrounds the Forte Belvedere. The kind couple that housed me were Mr. and Mrs. Mani, perhaps in their 60’s at that time, a very welcoming couple, providing me with a bedroom and bathroom on the ground floor of their house, and the use of their small kitchen. I cooked my own meals each day, simple fare of what I had bought in a nearby market. Signore and Signora Mani slept on the second floor of the house. Signora Mani was very involved in the Catholic Focolare movement, founded by the Italian Chiara Lubich (1920 – 2008), which cause for sainthood is now being studied.
The cost for the lodging at the Mani home was paid each month in cash and was very reasonable. I was happy to be in a quiet setting and almost as if in the country, as the Mani home was off the already quiet Via San Leonardo. Signora Mani kept chickens in the yard and grew some vegetables. The wall of the Belvedere Fort provided one of the boundaries of their yard and it created an almost monastic enclosure.
I recall often sitting in the yard on those summer days, working on Italian conjugation of verbs. Occasionally the Mani’s daughter and her grade school age son would visit and I would try to speak Italian to the youngster, who would laugh at my mistakes and correct my defective Italian. This was in fact a great help, to be given grammatical corrections by someone, usually not something adults would do.
The walk from the Mani’s home to the nearby church of San Leonardo only took five minutes. I tried to begin each day attending Mass in the beautiful little church at 8:00 am then be on my way to the nearby Scuola Dante Alighieri for classes, Monday through Friday, beginning at 8:30 am .
Language classes finished at about 1:00 pm. Cooking classes were also offered at the Dante and we language students could purchase meals that had been prepared by the cooking classes. Sometimes I did that or else returned for a simple midday meal I would prepare at the Mani home.
Among my fellow-students at the Dante Alighieri that summer was a diocesan priest from Brooklyn, New York, who was sent there to improve his Italian for ministry to Italian immigrants or their descendants at a parish that he was being assigned to the fall of 1985. The priest (now a monsignor), and I have remained friends and have kept in touch over the past thirty years.
A little over a year ago we were able to meet up once again at the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut, where I was visiting and he was staying with friends not far away. We had a great visit and will probably meet up again one of these days.
Fast forward to 2017 and I realize not all of the Italian I learned long ago has disappeared. Nonetheless I have had to work to get it back into a useable state. I have rarely spoken Italian since 1988, when I finished my studies in Rome, so it has been some years since using the language on a daily basis. Now some days pass and I realize I have not spoken any English, so my “full immersion” in the Italian language and culture, including praying the Divine Office and Mass in Italian, has been a help in “recapturing” a nearly lost friend!
I don’t feel a need to return to language school, but since the end of February I am working with a tutor twice a week for an hour each session. This tutor already works with a number of monks in Rome and was highly recommended. I am grateful for his help to me at this time.
The Italian lessons with my tutor are strictly conversation, to have a better grasp of the language I now use daily and presumably for the next few years. As I point out to people, including Italians, what a beautiful language it is when every word ends with a vowel! What could be more poetic? Dante Alighieri had it right when he decided on his Tuscan dialect for his poetic masterpiece, “La Commedia Divina.”