When my husband and I visited the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, the final resting place of Michelangelo and Galileo, we were greeted by an imposing sculpture of Dante. Florence is a good place to become acquainted with Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) best known as the author of the epic poem, The Divine Comedy, and widely recognized as a major influence on western literature. Trained as an apothecary and deeply involved in Florentine politics that ultimately resulted in his exile from his beloved city, Dante is credited as the father of the Italian language. He broke from convention and wrote in the language of the people, the Tuscan dialect, rather than Latin.
When Dante was just a boy, as was common in the Late Middle Ages, his family arranged for his eventual marriage—likely to forge an alliance with a family of equal or greater wealth and power. Dante, however, fell in love with someone else, young Beatrice Portinari. Both he and Beatrice married partners of their parents’ choosing, but Beatrice remained Dante’s muse, even long after her death, inspiring poetry and appearing as a character in The Divine Comedy.
Dante’s exile from Florence occurred in 1302, when he was approximately 37. He was a member of the White Guelfs, a political group that favored diminished Papal involvement in Florence’s affairs. Dante, part of a Florentine delegation, traveled to Rome where he was detained by Pope Boniface. The delay probably saved his life. In Florence, the opposition party, the Black Guelfs, seized control and installed a new government. The new leaders accused Dante in absentia of corruption and ordered him to pay a substantial fine. Imagine the flurry of correspondence and the horse hooves pounding between the two cities as couriers and surrogates delivered news, pled his case, and tried to negotiate a resolution. In the end, unable make payment due to the confiscation of his property, Dante found himself in perpetual exile. A return to Florence would have been a death sentence. He spent the rest of his life roaming the Italian peninsula, writing his masterpiece.
My husband read The Divine Comedy a few years ago. He was glad to have an annotated edition to better understand the political climate that existed during Dante’s lifetime and acquaint him with the historical figures who populate the work. He was struck by the poet’s vivid depiction of Hell, his ranking of sin and ignoble behavior, and his merciless assignment of offenders within the Inferno. Apparently, Hell hath no fury like a man exiled. I hope at some point during his long journey, disguised or under the cloak of night, Dante climbed one of the hills that surround the city and set his eyes on the place he longed to be, his home.
A view of Florence from the hill outside the city's walls, near San Miniato Church.
When Dante died, he was buried in Ravenna. Florence regretted her treatment of him and unsuccessfully attempted to have his remains moved.
Although the handsome tomb built for him in Santa Croce is empty, there are plenty of opportunities to catch sight of the poet within the city.
His home, near the Bargello on via Santa Margherita, is now a small museum.
The original structure is gone, but the building’s exterior remains similar to the one Dante left when he departed for Rome. Here, you can learn about Dante and Medieval Florence.
A paving stone near the museum's entrance bears Dante’s image, an affirmation of the current Florentine practice and philosophy—any surface is art worthy.
Dante’s death mask hangs in a display case at the Palazzo Vecchio (Palazzo della Signoria), Florence’s crenellated city hall, long the seat of government. Writer, Dan Brown, employed the mask as a clue in his thriller, Inferno, proof of Dante's continued influence. The film based on the book is sure to spark renewed interest in the artifact and the man who lived moments before the dawn of the Renaissance.
Another Dante sculpture stands in the Uffizi Courtyard and there are numerous paintings of the poet in the historical district. Look for his image in the cathedral (Santa Maria del Fiori), Bargello, Uffizi Gallery, Santa Maria Novella, and the Palazzo dell’Arte dei Giudici e Notai.
In addition, visit the Baptistery of San Giovanni, seen above, where Dante is believed to have broken the rim of a baptismal font in an effort to save a drowning child.
In 2008, more than 700 years after his banishment, Florence rescinded Dante's sentence and formally reclaimed its celebrated son. The city’s action was long overdue and poignant. It makes one wonder if Hell froze over when the proclamation’s signatory lifted pen from paper.