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Dante’s Tomb. When Everybody Wants His Remains.
The Santa Croce Basilica in Florence is home to the tombs of the most illustrious Florentines. But what’s the story behind Dante’s tomb? Is the poet’s body inside the sarcophagus? The answer is no. On September 14, 1321 Dante Alighieri died in Ravenna falling ill (probably malaria) as he was travelling back from the embassy in Venice. Not even in death was Dante able to enjoy the stability he had so yearned for during his last, most tormented years in exile. The day after his death, his body was buried in a sarcophagus in the San Francesco convent. After a few years, the Florentines began to demand the remains of their most illustrious citizen from Ravenna. This “risk” became more certain when two Florentine popes ascended the pontificate throne. Both were from the Medici family: Leo X (1513-21) and Clement VII (1523-35).
Dante is exiled from Florence
Poet and politician Dante Alighieri is exiled from Florence, where he served as one of six priors governing the city. Dante’s political activities, including the banishing of several rivals, led to his own banishment, and he wrote his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, as a virtual wanderer, seeking protection for his family in town after town.
Dante was born to a family with noble ancestry that had fallen in fortunes. He began writing poetry in his teens and received encouragement from established poets, to whom he sent sonnets as a young man.
At age nine, Dante first caught a glimpse of Beatrice Portinari, also nine, who would symbolize for him perfect female beauty and spiritual goodness in the coming decades. Despite his fervent devotion to Portinari, who did not seem to return his feelings, Dante became engaged to Gemma Donati in 1277, but the two did not marry until eight years later. The couple had six sons and a daughter.
About 1293, Dante published a book of prose and poetry called The New Life, followed a few years later by another collection, The Banquet. It wasn’t until his banishment that he began work on his Divine Comedy. In the poem’s first book, the poet takes a tour through Hell with the poet Virgil as a guide. Virgil also guides the poet through Purgatory in the second book. The poet’s guide in Paradise, however, is named Beatrice. The work was written and published in sections between 1308 and 1321. Although Dante called the work simply Comedy, the work became enormously popular, and a deluxe version published in 1555 in Venice bore the title The Divine Comedy. Dante died of malaria in Ravenna in 1321.
Dante in Florence
Dante Alighieri, the hopeless romantic
Dante Alighieri is Italy’s most beloved and most famous poet, thought of as the founder of modern Italian language and literature. Born around 1265 in Florence, Dante often used autobiographical references in his works and so actual streets and citizens of medieval Florence often feature in his greatest works, such as The Divine Comedy and La Vita Nuova.
Dantes stories of unrequited love are famous, as is the young Beatrice, the girl he falls in love with at the age of nine. She died at the age of 24, when Dante, in a state of depression, then threw himself into studying Italian philosophy and eventually became heavily involved in his city’s politics, though unfavourably.
There was a great division in Florence between the opposing political parties of the Guelphs and Ghibellines, supporting respectively the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, which often erupted into violent outbreaks. The division eventually even spread to the Guelph party itself, which split in to White Guelphs and Black Guelphs. Dante was a White Guelph supporter, opposed to the Papal influence, and he paid for it with exile, never returning to his homeland again. Exiled from Florence in 1301, he was threatened with death by burning at the stake if he returned (a sentence only voided by Florence’s council in 2008). He died in Ravenna in 1320 and is still buried there. Regretful, the Florentines made an unsuccessful attempt in 1829 to return him to Florence by building a tomb for him in the church Santa Croce, which remains empty.
Sasso di Dante, Piazza Duomo
The Sasso di Dante, or Dante’s stone was a favourite spot of Dante’s. Although the stone is no longer there, there is a plaque on the wall of the sourthern side of Piazza Duomo that claims to be the spot where Dante apparently sat and wrote poems, while watching the walls of the Duomo rise up in front of him.
The church of Santa Margherita de’ Cerchi
From the Piazza Duomo, Via dello Studio will take you to Via del Corso where you can pass underneath the archway of Via Margherita to the Church of Santa Margherita de’ Cerchi. This is the very church where the nine-year-old Dante first saw and fell in love with Beatrice. He was so taken by her from this one meeting that she became his life long muse and true love. He would follow her around the city just to get glimpses of her, even though he barely ever spoke to her.
Amor, ch’a nullo amato amar perdona, “Love, that releases no beloved from loving,” one of the best-known lines from the canto of Paolo and Francesca in Dante’s Divine Comedy, poetry that was above all about love and the adoration of female beauty. The importance of this writing style was that for the first time it ennobled the Tuscan dialect, which, thanks to this incredible legacy of literature, eventually became the Italian national language.
Dante’s house and neighbourhood
The Alighieri family owned several houses around the corner from the church on Via Dante Aligheri, where you can now find the so-called “Casa di Dante” or Dante’s house. More than being Dante’s acutal residence, it is a small museum, the interior filled with copies of the Divine Comedy, portraits and reproductions that celebrate the life of Dante. But this little corner of Florence’s ancient centre has some great examples of typical medieval buildings, such as the Torre della Castagna (the Chestnut Tower), the tiny church of San Martino and the Badia Fiorentina, which were around during Dante’s day.
In front of the Chestnut Tower and on the corner of Via Dante Alighieri is the tiny parish church of San Martino which dates back to the 10th century. Decorated with beautiful lunettes by a painter of the school of Domenico Ghirlandaio (possibly his brother Davide or a student), it is a wonderful account of Renaissance life.
Florence was one of the most important banking centres in Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries,. The Florentines invented the letter of credit and the gold florin, the first international currency, but it also experienced an unfortunate chain of bankruptcies in the mid-1300’s, which led many to turn to what the church considered the very sinful practice of usury (loaning money at a high interest rate). The church dedicated itself to helping the poor or the recently bankrupt who were too ashamed to beg (known in Italian as the poveri vergognosi). You can still see the niche outside the door of this little church where candles were lit to encourage the wealthy citizens to leave donations to the church to help the poor. There is still an expression used in Italian, essere ridotti al lumicino, literally “to be reduced to the little candle,” which means to be broke.
Just a block away is the Bargello museum, which during Dante’s time was the headquarters of the City Council of Florence. It was here that Dante’s exile from the city was proclaimed. Inside the chapel of the Bargello is a fresco attributed to none other than Giotto, who was a contemporary of Dante. One of the most well known and quite possibly the oldest portrait of Dante depicts him in Paradise, one of the earliest known images of the poet.
If you are curious about getting a feel of the times when Dante was alive, then you will want to start at the museum dedicated to his childhood home with lots of information to help you imagine life in the Middle Ages.
Besides telling you about the &ldquoSomma Poeta&rdquo, Dante&rsquos nickname, these three floors are divided into telling the story of politics, economics, and social aspects during his lifetime. This is where it all began for Dante, growing up in the heart of Florence.
It was long believed that the Baptistry was originally a Roman temple dedicated to Mars, the tutelary god of ancient Florence.
It was first described in 897 as a minor basilica, the city’s second basilica after San Lorenzo, outside the northern city wall, and predates the church Santa Reparata. On March 4, 897, the Count Palatine and envoy of the Holy Roman Emperor sat there to administer justice.
The granite pilasters were probably taken from the Roman forum located at the present site of Piazza della Repubblica.
At that time, the baptistry was surrounded by a cemetery with Roman sarcophagi, used by important Florentine families as tombs.
We know for certain that in 1059, a building with the same structure was consecrated in that location.
The structure in Romanesque style was evidence of the growing economic and political importance of Florence.
It was reconsecrated on November 6, 1059, by Pope Nicholas II, a Florentine. According to legend, the marbles were brought from Fiesole, conquered by Florence in 1078. Other marble came from ancient structures.
The construction was finished in 1128 when it was consecrated as the Baptistery of Florence and as such is the oldest religious monument in Florence.
Up until the end of the 19th century, all catholics in Florence were baptized within its doors.
It also hosted the baptism of also hosted the baptism of Dante Alighieri, who mentions it in his Divine Comedy:
No smaller or no larger they seemed to me
Than are those booths for the baptismal fonts
Built in my beautiful San Giovanni (Inferno, Canto XIX, 16-18)
Dante recalls the ancient medieval baptismal fonts that were still in his time
And one of those, not many years ago,
I broke up to save someone drowning in it:
And let my word here disabuse men’s minds (Inferno, Canto XIX, 19-21)
and said that one day, seeing a child drowning in one of those fonts, he broke a rim in an attempt to save the child.
Statue of Dante Alighieri
Another must-see is the large statue of Dante Alighieri in front of Basilica Santa Croce. The statue was erected to celebrate the poet’s 600th birthday. Though this is a large statue, his eyes are piercing. Many more notable statues in Florence are located on the grounds of Boboli Garden. Although there is an admission price of €10 (US$ 10.51), it’s well worth the time spent exploring the 11 acres of green, fountains, museums, and outdoor sculptures.
There are countless other statues and sculptures around the city you need to see, however the list of them all would simply be too long. Florence is absolutely full of outdoor art, so no matter what corner you turn, you’re bound to be surprised by something beautiful. Explore the city and see for yourself.
Seven hundred years after the poet’s death, many believe he should be exonerated of the crimes for which he was exiled from Florence. Was he the victim of a conspiracy?
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In early 1302 Dante Alighieri was travelling back from Rome when he learned that he would never see his native Florence again. For the previous few months, he had been on a diplomatic mission to Pope Boniface VIII. Unbeknown to him, he had, during that time, been charged with extortion, bribery, election tampering and abuse of public office, as well as a litany of other supposed crimes, including withholding support from the pope and plotting to “divide” the subject-town of Pistoia. Along with three other ex-officials, he was tried in absentia, found guilty and sentenced to two years’ exile. He was also given a large fine and banned from public office for the rest of his life. At a second trial later in the spring, it was decreed that if he ever returned to Florence he would be burned at the stake.
For the rest of his life, Dante wandered through northern Italy, railing against his fate. But now, 700 years after his death, one of his descendants, Sperello di Serego Alighieri, is trying to put things right. In May he and Alessandro Traversi, a law professor at the University of Florence, hosted a conference to reassess Dante’s trials. As Traversi told the newspaper Corriere della Sera, the event asked whether the verdicts against Dante were “the result of normal judicial proceedings… or the poisoned fruit of politics”. For Alighieri, there was only one possible conclusion. As the conference agreed, Dante’s trials were a “politically motivated” stitch-up. And since there is no statute of limitations, there has been speculation that the courts could be petitioned to reverse Dante’s conviction.
This is understandable, given that Dante is Italy’s pre-eminent poet. It would surely be egregious not to set the record straight if he were the victim of an injustice.
Born in Florence in 1265, Dante entered politics at the age of about 30 at a time when his native city was at its boldest and most terrible. Since the death of the Emperor Frederick II in 1250, the city – dominated by the pro-papal Guelph faction – had seen its economy grow rapidly. Trade had prospered, banking had flourished and its currency, the gold florin, had become the international standard. But, as Dante later noted, it was also a “divided city”. Competing for control of the government were two groups: an elite of powerful landowners and bankers, and the popolo, a larger group of artisans and merchants belonging to guilds.
By 1293 the popolo, led by the wealthy merchant Giano della Bella, had gained the upper hand. It succeeded in barring elite “magnates” from office and in establishing a new form of government. Henceforth, a body of priors, chosen by the guilds alone, would be the city’s main executive body.
For a short time this arrangement worked well, but two years later, in 1295, around the time that Dante was first elected to one of Florence’s councils, it all started to fall apart. Still furious at their treatment, the magnates drove Giano della Bella from the city and broke the guilds’ monopoly on power. Yet no sooner had they done so than they split into rival factions: the “Blacks” and the “Whites”. The rivalry probably had its origins in personal quarrels rather than principled differences. According to the chronicler Dino Compagni, it centred on the “competition for [public] offices”. But its implications reached far beyond the ranks of the elite: in the attempt to destroy each other, the factions forged alliances, not only with foreign powers but also with members of the popolo. Before long, the city was split in two.
Elected to serve as a prior between June and August 1300, Dante found himself catapulted to the forefront of the struggle. Although he was notionally a White, his loyalties were probably not entirely fixed – not least because his wife, Gemma, came from a family of prominent Blacks. But tensions were intensifying to the extent that few had time for fine distinctions. Things had already become violent and, in May 1300, civic celebrations had degenerated into a pitched battle. Worse was to come.
Centre of the world: Florence has taken pride in being the birthplace of Italy’s greatest poet. Credit: Getty Images
To stave off further unrest, the government ordered the leaders of both factions out of the city. When that failed, Pope Boniface VIII took matters into his own hands. Since Florence couldn’t resolve the situation on its own, he asked Charles of Valois, the King of France’s brother, to step in. Officially, Charles was supposed to be a “peacemaker”, but no one was in any doubt as to his real purpose. When he arrived in November 1301, he brought the Black leader, Corso Donati, with him. Days later, Donati seized control of the government.
A wave of reprisals followed. First, the Blacks vented their fury against the Whites in an orgy of destruction. Then they turned to the law. After appointing Cante de’ Gabrielli, one of Donati’s partisans, as the city’s chief magistrate and passing retroactive legislation to criminalise the Whites’ actions, they unleashed a barrage of prosecutions. In the months that followed, no fewer than 559 Whites would be exiled – including Dante.
Every aspect of Dante’s trials bore the imprint of political intervention. Though care was taken to preserve the appearance of legal respectability, the outcome was never in doubt. The judge appointed to hear Dante’s case, Messer Paolo of Gubbio, was both prosecutor and jury. Relying on “common knowledge” and his own, highly selective, investigations, he alone was responsible for drawing up the charges. These reeked of factional bias. While some, such as extortion and election tampering, were accusations that were frequently levelled against outgoing officials, others, including the charge of withholding support from the pope, were tailored to reflect the political gulf separating the Whites and the Blacks.
The summonses were a farce, too. How long Dante was given to appear before the court is not known but defendants in such cases were typically given roughly three days to respond. As Messer Paolo must have known, Dante would have found it impossible to comply. Then in Rome, he could not have made it back in time, even if he had wanted to. In the eyes of the court, however, this was no excuse. In fact, absence was taken as proof of guilt.
Sentencing Dante on 27 January 1302, the court twisted the knife. Although it was well within its rights to exile, disenfranchise and fine Dante, it must have been obvious that the fine – 5,000 florins – was well beyond the poet’s means (Dante was comfortably off but certainly not rich). Yet the court still decreed that if Dante didn’t pay up, his property in Florence would be confiscated and destroyed. As the court records noted, this was pure “retribution”. That Dante was put on trial a second time in March was just vindictive. No new charges were brought. No new evidence was presented. The sentence – death – only underscored the vehemence of the Blacks’ hatred.
But the case for revoking the verdict against Dante is weaker than it might appear. However shocking the proceedings may seem, it is anachronistic to suppose that a distinction can be drawn between “normal judicial proceedings” and “the poisoned fruit of politics”. Although communes such as Florence were proud of their commitment to justice, the “commune” – that is, those who shared in government – often denoted little more than a dominant party or faction, and justice was rarely anything more than an instrument of sectional policy. No one except the victims ever saw anything wrong with rivals being excluded from the political process, and exile was regarded as a legitimate, even desirable, means of establishing political order.
By the time Dante was tried, it had become normal for each change of regime in Florence to be accompanied by a raft of expulsions. A telling example is found in the Inferno, the first part of the Divina Commedia, Dante’s epic tale of a fictive journey through the afterlife. While in the Circle of the Heretics, Dante’s literary alter ego encounters Farinata degli Uberti, the leader of Florence’s pro-imperial Ghibellines, who had defeated the Guelphs at the Battle of Montaperti in 1260. With characteristic pride, Farinata declares that he had “twice” driven Dante’s ancestors out of the city. Dante retorts that not only had they twice returned, but when they did so for the second time, they had also expelled Farinata’s party for good.
Neither was Dante necessarily innocent. The surviving evidence is scant, but there are grounds to believe that he may have been guilty of some of the charges brought against him. Those relating to election tampering and Pistoia are credible. As a member of various councils, Dante had spoken about the election of priors and had been involved in discussions about the Pistoiesi. The accusation of extortion is less certain. In April 1301, Dante had been appointed to oversee the widening of a street, and since this involved paying indemnities to affected property owners, it is possible he found the temptation to line his own pockets too much to resist. But that he opposed giving support to Boniface VIII is beyond question. At a council meeting on 19 June 1301, he is recorded as saying “Let nothing be done in the matter of a subsidy for the pope” and though his was a lone voice, there could be no denying his position.
Although Dante later claimed that he had “unjustly suffered punishment”, he appears to have come close to admitting his guilt in a canzone written shortly after his exile. Beginning “Three women have gathered round my heart”, this took the form of a dialogue with personifications of Justice, Generosity and Temperance. After mentioning his exile, Dante says that if he were guilty, and remorse can wipe away responsibility, then any blame he bore was long ago effaced. Though the exact meaning of these lines has been debated, the fact that he goes on to beg the Blacks’ pardon suggests that he may have been referring to the crimes of which he had been convicted.
This does not mean that Dante did not suffer. Though the Commedia is set in Holy Week 1300 – before Florence’s troubles began in earnest – a vivid portrait of his exile is given in the form of a “prophesy” by his ancestor Cacciaguida. As Cacciaguida predicts, he will leave everything he “loves most dearly” – his home, his wife and his children. At first, he will throw in his lot with other White exiles and benefit from their financial support. But when a disastrous bid to force their way back into Florence (in 1304) goes horribly wrong, he will break with that “stupid and dangerous bunch” and form a “party of [his] own”. Wandering from city to city, from court to court, he will rely on handouts from men like Bartolomeo della Scala, the Lord of Verona. It will be difficult to take. As Cacciaguida tells him: “You shall find out how salt is the taste of another man’s bread, and how hard is the way up and down another man’s stairs.”
Dante longed to return to Florence. But after the failure of the Whites’ attack on the city in 1304, he was viewed with even more suspicion than before. On 2 September 1311, Florence’s Black government excluded him from a partial amnesty offered to some of the exiles. Nevertheless, there was still hope. A letter indicates that his friends had been lobbying on his behalf, and had even secured a pardon for him. If he paid a fine and did public penance for his crimes, he would be allowed to return. But for Dante it was too high a price, and he refused. It set the seal on his exile. In October 1315, his death sentence was reconfirmed and extended to his two sons. The following month, the decision was made definitive.
But Dante’s standing was not unduly harmed, least of all in the long run. It could even be said that exile was the making of him. Whether necessity stimulated his ambition or distance inspired him to reach beyond the particular, his works grew in richness and scope. Although Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75) thought he started the Commedia before leaving Florence, it was in exile that he completed it, and it was also in exile that he composed The Banquet and On Monarchy, as well as many letters and poems that still rank as landmarks in the history of Italian literature.
Why Dante wrote the Commedia has been much debated. Some believe his purpose was at least partly religious. In Paradiso, he hoped that he could help others pray better. But it was also a deeply political work, written with an eye to finding closure. Although he sometimes spoke of Florence with affection, he veered more towards anger, and used his poetic gift as an instrument of revenge. As Cacciaguida foresees in Paradiso, his vengeance would be “to testify to the truth” about the evils of Florentine factionalism. He exposed the sins to which both Whites and Blacks owed their origins and imposed cruel torture on those who had offended him. Of these, none is more striking than Filippo Argenti, who may have opposed his return from exile. With sadistic bitterness, Dante condemns Argenti to be beaten and gouged by the wrathful and took so much delight in his suffering that, even years later, he “still render[ed] praise and thanks for it to God”. He also sought to erect a vision of imperial government that would compensate for the failures of communes such as Florence and claimed for his reward a fame far outlasting that of his enemies.
What purpose, then, would overturning Dante’s conviction serve? Since it cannot add anything to his renown, or grant him any satisfaction denied in life, the benefit to his descendants seems negligible. The only real interest is surely to Florence.
Florence has taken pride in being the birthplace of Italy’s greatest poet, yet it has always been pained by the fact that Dante died elsewhere. The need to “reclaim” him, literally and figuratively, has been acute. A good deal of attention has focused on his body and tomb. In 1429 the historian and statesman Leonardo Bruni became the first of many to ask for the return of Dante’s body from Ravenna in northern Italy in 1465 Domenico di Michelino painted a fresco in Florence Cathedral, showing Dante looking wistfully at the city from outside and in 1829 an empty tomb was even erected for the poet in the Basilica of Santa Croce.
It is nevertheless on Dante’s trials that most effort has been expended. Since these were the root cause of his absence, many Florentines have attempted to cast them as “unjust” aberrations in the hope that they might then be “put right”, and Dante’s Florentine identity re-established in one way or another. Some, like Boccaccio, wrote biographies full of praise others, such as Cristoforo Landino (1424-98) sought to symbolically restore Dante to the city by preparing editions of the Commedia, while others, such as Girolamo Benivieni (1453-1542), called on Florence to beg his pardon. More recently, in 2008, Florence city council even revoked the sentence of death against him – as if this might somehow persuade him to “return”.
The same goal is perhaps behind the current speculation about overturning Dante’s conviction. And it seems to have struck a chord. With the celebrations marking the 700th anniversary of his death in full swing, support in Italian newspapers is high. Florence is in the grip of Dante fever. Almost every major museum or church – from the Uffizi Gallery to Santa Croce – is holding a Dante-themed event. The Bargello and the University of Florence are putting on a Dante exhibition entitled “Honourable and Historic Citizen of Florence”, and the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno is holding a competition for the best artwork on the theme of “Dante in exile”. Undoing Dante’s conviction would be the crowning glory.
But while it might help Florence “reclaim” its most glorious son, it does Dante himself scant credit. Given that the verdict against him can be revoked only by denying both his guilt and the juridical norms of his day, it grants him a home-coming at the price of a lie. And for a man whose vengeance was to tell the truth, that’s no justice at all.
Alexander Lee is a historian at the University of Warwick and the author of “Machiavelli: His Life and Times” (Picador)
Dante and the Commedy in Santa Maria del Fiore
The celebrations for the centenary commemoration are not a prerogative of our times, which, if anything, overindulge in anniversaries rich in events. Even in normal times the government makes little money available to the culture industry, so if one did not take advantage of these opportunities it would languish. Maybe it would be up to those who manage the money to spend it well. However, the choices of the administrators are equally subject to the responsibilities of the government, which tends to not educate the people on how to develop a historical and political conscience. This would be essential to distinguish the ephemeral from the lasting, the appearence from the substance, the futile from the useful. In times like this, what counts is the image because it produces immediate success and it is not difficult to obtein. Also in ancient times some special anniversaries were celebrated, however, they made sure to concentrate on initiatives that went beyond contingency because the use of money was usually more cautious and perhaps relationships were more lively. To celebrate the two hundred years since Dante's birth, in 1465 the administrators of Florence cathedral commissioned to Domenico di Michelino a pictorial monument. The aim was to exalt the memory of the poet in the main church of Florence, which, according to the humanists, should have served as a pantheon for celebrating the glories of the Florentines. Michelino depicted Dante standing on the proscenium, with his left hand holding the Commedia on the opening lines. In a symbolic setting, evocating the places of the three canticles, he turns his gaze thoughtfully towards a lyrical epiphany of Florence, with its architecture enclosed within crenellated walls, and dominated by the majestic and already completed dome of Brunelleschi. The city is opposite the gate of Hell, incomparably larger than that of Florence, as if it provided an easy access. Vice versa the gate of Florence represents a difficult return for those who have been exiled. It is an allegorical portrait of Dante, just as the one painted by Bronzino about seventy years later and commissioned by a rich and cultured Florentine. Also in Bronzino's canvas (both works are on canvas) the poet is represented sat in a layout that follows the three canticles. With the palm of the right hand he seems to protect from the infernal flames a Florence that appears from the outline of a hill with its soaring iconic architecture. Dante holds the Commedia also in the painting of the sixteenth century, which is open to the starting lines of the XXV Canto of Paradiso, suggesting his dream of a return home from exile. It would be nice if Bronzino's Portrait of Dante had a permanent residence in Palazzo Vecchio, since the poet would find himself present in effigy - as if he had finally found peace - in the two Florentine public buildings par excellence: the civil and the religious ones, both sacred.
In The Footsteps Of Dante
Dante began The Divine Comedy in 1308, while exiled from his beloved Florence. The pain of this banishment surfaces in his writing: You shall leave everything you love most, this is the arrow the bow of exile shoots first. (Paradiso, XVII). Dante never returned to his native city even the tomb built for him in 1829 in Sante Croce remains empty. Yet were Dante to return to Florence today, much of the city would be familiar to him.
The Baptistery San Giovanni and Duomo
Recognizable to any medieval citizen, the Baptistery and Duomo remain the heart of Florence. Dante’s ‘bel San Giovanni’ is one of the city’s oldest and most famous buildings. Medieval houses still line the Piazza Duomo, many still proudly displaying a stone coat of arms. Like many Florentines of the time, Dante was baptized in the large octagonal font of the Basilica. The building itself dates back to the 4th century. The 13th century mosaics covering the ceiling show with graphic detail the horrors and glories of the Last Judgment. Dante never saw Ghiberti’s famed doors, for they would not grace the building for another century.
Construction of the Duomo began in 1296, before Dante’s exile in 1301. In the basement lie the excavations of the Paleochristian cathedral Santa Reperata, founded in the 6th or 7th century AD on the remains of a Roman palace. On the southern side, just before the Via dello Studio, is a stone plaque marking where the poet would sit and contemplate the construction of the cathedral.
For the hardy, 463 steps lead from the floor of the Duomo and up through a labyrinth of corridors and stairwells to the top of the cupola. (The most difficult part of the climb is over the arch there is a spot here for lovers to place a padlock and throw away the key. In hidden corners remain marks left on the brickwork by the medieval builders.) The cupola soars to the height of the neighbouring hills. The view embraces the history of Florence, with many a medieval street following the course of their Roman precursors. Private palaces survive, and a few towers – or torre, outlawed in 1250 – still remain.
The Via de Calzaiuoli was the thoroughfare of the medieval city. Linking the Duomo to the Palazzo Vecchio, it runs past the all-important Guildhall of Orsanmichel. Once a grain hall, in Dante’s time the Orsanmichel reflected the power wielded by the greater guilds. The statues in the niches on the outside walls were commissioned by each guild. These include the Medici e Speciali, the guild of physicians, apothecaries and painters, to which Dante belonged. (Without guild membership, a Florentine could not participate in the city’s parlamentos.)
A slight detour leads to the Mercato Nuovo, popular since the 11th century. Locally it is known as il Porcellino after the bronze boar with a well-polished nose who takes pride of place at the entrance.
Via delle Terms
Heading west from the Mercato Nuovo leads to the Via delle Terms. Named after the Roman Baths once in the area, it remains an attractive medieval street. At its beginning stands the Casa Torre Buondelmonte. No. 9 is a medieval palace with a renaissance courtyard, while another torre remains at no. 13. The road opens into the Piazza Santa Trinita, with its tall Roman column taken from the Baths of Caracalla. A church has existed on this site since 1077.
Leading from the piazza and running parallel to the Arno is the Borgo Santi Apostoli. Like many Florentine streets it is originally Roman. In the Piazza del Limbo stands Santi Apostoli, which, like the Baptistry, is one of the oldest surviving churches in the city. A plaque claims it was founded by Charlemagne in 786. The age of the building can be seen in that it lies considerably lower than the road.
Beyond the Ponte Vecchio, the Via dei Neri bends as it follows the shape of the old Roman port. A small road branches off to the 11th century church San Remigio tablets along the length of the road mark the height of both the 1333 and 1966 floods. The Via Dei Neri leads to the Palazzo dei Priori, renamed the Palazzo Vecchio in 1299.
Dominating the Palazzo Vecchio, the Piazza della Signora has continued as the centre of political activity since the Middle Ages. Heavy traffic has been banned since 1385. The imposing façade of the Palazzo Vecchio has remained virtually unchanged since it was built (1299 – 1302) – Dante writes of how the houses of the Ghibelline Uberti were demolished after the triumph of the Guelfs, and the new Palazzo built on their ruins. (The Piazza della Signora is itself built over Roman ruins.)
The Palazzo Vecchio still functions as the town hall. Its bell tower, once the tallest edifice in the city, summoned the (male) population to the parlomento in the square below in times of trouble. Savavarola was imprisoned in the Palazzo before being burnt at the stake in the Piazza della Signora. It was here, in 1530, the people of Florence proclaimed the return of the Medici from their own exile.
It is this area of Florence most associated with Dante. The Via dei Maggazini leads from the Piazza della Signora to the Via Dante Alighieri. In a restored 13th century tower house is the Casa di Dante, a museum dedicated to the poet’s life and works. A plaque in the small piazza lists the monuments existing in Dante’s time.
Walking beneath the arch into the Via Santa Margherita leads past the 12th century Santa Margherita de’ Cerchi, where the poet married Gemma Donati (they were betrothed when Dante was nine). It is also where he first saw Beatrice Portinari, the woman he immortalized in his writing. Beatrice’s father, Folco Portinari, is buried here.
A few streets away is the Badia Florentina, whose bell, as mentioned in Paradiso (XV 97-98) regulated medieval life. Boccaccio used the Badia in 1373 to give public lectures on Dante’s works. Opposite is the Bargello, the oldest seat of government surviving in Florence. It was here that Dante’s banishment was proclaimed.
An archway leads from the piazza to the Via Proconsolo, where Beatrice lived. This street in turn opens onto the Corso, another Roman road, which leads to the site of the eastern gate of the Roman city ‘Florentina’ was founded in 59 BC as a gift from Julius Caesar to his veterans.
The Ponte Vecchio
Standing near the site of the original Roman crossing of the Arno, this was the city’s only bridge until 1218. In Dante’s time the Ponte Vecchio was home to butchers and grocers since the 16th C it had been the place to shop Florence’s most spectacular jewellery.
Until the Grand Dukes move here in 1550, The Oltrarno, was literally ‘other side of the Arno’, where those who could not afford a grand palazzo within the city center lived. Today, it remains relatively quiet compared with the bustle of the city.
A walk of a few minutes from the Ponte Vecchio leads to Santa Felicita. A church has existed on this site since the 4th C. In the 2nd century AD some Syrian-Greek merchants settled along a busy consular road here, bringing Christianity to the city. Inside are some masterpieces of 16th century Florentine painting. The Vasari corridor runs through the nave, which enabled the Medici to attend Mass unseen by the great unwashed.
On the left of the church runs the Costa di San Giorgio Galileo once lived at No 9. At the end of the road stands the Porta San Giorgio, the oldest of the surviving city gates (Florence was still a wall city in Dante’s time.) A steep walk away is perhaps the most unspoilt of all the Romanesque churches in Tuscany: San Miniato al Monte. It’s classical façade of green-grey and white marble has looked down over Florence since 1018.
The quiet streets of the Oltrarno are filled with artisan workshops and medieval buildings. Wandering them at leisure, perhaps with a gelato in hand, gives an insight into Florence in the time of Dante. Perhaps even better, why not imitate the locals and choose a place to enjoy a coffee with some schiacciata alla fiorentina, or maybe a glass of prosecco and some crostini, and sit and watch the world go by?
If You Go:
♦ For a unique experience, consider a convent or monastery stay.
♦ www.fmmfirenze.it – Casa Santo Nome di Gesu: a 15th century palace in the Piazza del Carmine, now a Dominican convent
♦ www.sanctuarybbfirenze.com – Sanctuary B&B Firenze: an oasis a few streets away from the Duomo
♦ english.firenze.net – a website with useful accommodation and dining links
♦ www.firenzeturismo.it – the official tourism website, with English pages
♦ www.florence-tourism.com – an easily navigated site with useful resources
♦ www.uffizi.com – the official website of the Uffizi
♦ www.florence-museum.com – links to the city’s museums and galleries, with lists of upcoming exhibitions
About the author:
Anne Harrison lives with her husband, two children and numerous pets on the Central Coast, NSW. Her jobs include wife, mother, doctor, farmer and local witch doctor – covering anything from delivering alpacas to treating kids who have fallen head first into the washing machine. Her fiction has been published in Australian literary magazines, and has been placed in regional literary competitions. Her non-fiction has been published in medical and travel journals. Her ambition is to be 80 and happy. Her writings are available at anneharrison.com.au and anneharrison.hubpages.com.
All photos are by Anne Harrison:
The Duomo and Baptistery still tower over Florence
View across the Baptistery to the hills, showing many torre
A replica of il Porcilleno for sale
The dominance of the Palazzo Vecchio
The frescoes of the Baptistery were known to Dante
The Ponte Vecchio, symbol of Florence
Restoration of works continues in the back streets of the Oltrano