Sunday, April 24, 2011

What Dante felt like: Veltro and the feltro

I can truly admire when someone writes a book about something so specific that it should be nerdy and trivial, but in a manner that (at the end) you think to have read something really special.
This is exactly the case in Leonardo Olschki's 'The myth of felt'. Mr. Olschki is clearly a specialist in Dante literature, but he takes his reader on a journey on account of just one sentence in the first canto of the Divina Commedia:

E sua nazion sara tra feltro e feltro

No-one really knows what is feltro. Well, actually it is of course the word for felt as a fabric, but the meaning is obscure. To make things even more complex, one of the central themes of the canto is the 'Veltro', the Greyhound, as a symbol for the powerdul leader that would lead Rome/Italy out of its moral confusion. So it is also a grammatical joke(?) with its subject.
Olschki supplies a double explanation, first a tour in Tartaric tradition in which felt is also a royal fabric, and in which kings are lifted by their lower officials on felt, both at the start of their reign and at their burial.
Then he switches to the mythical twins Castor and Pollux, and their designation as the classical good sign/omen and their traditional depiction with felt Phrygian caps.

As the booklet build up slowly with its theory, the royal grandeur of the humble fabric works all over the pages. Felt-obsessed Beuys would have been proud (would he have known the book). One thing is clear at the end of the book. Felt can be seen as something royal, powerful, or if you want - that something this interlaced, and this strongly layered, can only be compared to life itself.
Fascinating read!

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