Florence’s art and architecture celebrate the city’s exiled poet.
Florence, Italy — You might say that we’re in the middle of the journey of our life: My wife and I reached our 25th wedding anniversary last year.
To celebrate, we went to Italy. We put Florence on the itinerary because we wanted to see Brunelleschi’s dome, Leonardo’s paintings, and Michelangelo’s statue of David. But we also had a special reason for traveling to Florence. We had spent the fall reading Dante’s The Divine Comedy and auditing a course on it at Hillsdale College. (Our professor, Stephen Smith, joined me this week on the Great Books Podcast to discuss this Middle Ages masterpiece in the first of three episodes.)
So we weren’t just tourists in Florence. We were Dante tourists. We made a point of walking down Via Dante Alighieri. We ate at restaurants with names like Trattoria Pizzeria Dante and Ristorante Dante e Beatrice. We made like geeks when we came across inscriptions of Dante’s words on the sides of buildings. (The Dante Plaques, a booklet by Foresto Niccolai, describes 34 of these inscriptions, mounted around the city in 1907 and still prominent today.) My wife would whip out her phone, open her Kindle app, and look up the reference. (For a virtual tour of the plaques, go here.)
Dante Alighieri is everywhere in Florence. It’s like the city never banished him, which it actually did in 1302 for political reasons. The poet spent nearly two decades in exile, writing The Divine Comedy and never returning to his hometown. He died in 1321 and is buried about 80 miles away, in Ravenna. Yet Florence seeks to claim Dante the way Stratford-upon-Avon claims Shakespeare. It even has a tomb ready, in case Ravenna ever wants to give up his remains.
Our first stop was the Baptistery, which is a good place for beginnings. In Florence, people swarm the city’s main attractions: the Duomo and its belltower as well as the Uffizi and Accademia art galleries. Yet the Baptistery didn’t have much of a line. We strolled right in and beheld its gorgeous gold-mosaic ceiling. It can be tough to find unbroken links between Dante’s time and ours – a lot has happened since the 1300s. There was this thing called the Renaissance, which was a pretty big deal in Florence. Yet the Baptistery looks much as it did when Dante himself received the rite of baptism. The building also makes a cameo in Canto 19 of Inferno. Dante mentions that he once rescued a boy from drowning in its baptismal font. I had no idea that baptismal fonts needed lifeguards.
Next came the Basilica of Santa Croce, famous for its frescoes by Giotto. In the church’s plaza, we admired the big statue of a stern-faced Dante, carved by Enrico Pazzi in the 19th century. Inside, we checked out Dante’s cenotaph—i.e., his empty tomb — built by Stefano Ricci, alongside the real burial places of Machiavelli, Michelangelo, and Galileo. The refectory contains a fresco by Andrea Orcagna. Painted in the 14th century and rediscovered in 1942, it was apparently damaged in a 16th-century flood. Its tantalizing images of hell look like panels from a graphic novel of Inferno. Our final stop of the day was a short walk away: the Palazzo Vecchio. Known for its massive battle paintings, it’s the home of Dante’s death mask, the authenticity of which is doubtful. Also nearby, in the courtyard of the Uffizi, stands another statue of Dante, by the 19th-century sculptor Emilio Demi.
The next morning, we visited Museo Casa di Dante. A plaque outside quotes Canto 23 of Inferno: “I was born, and grew up/On the lovely river Arno, in the great city.” The author didn’t really live in this building, which is a 20th-century reconstruction, but he may have grown up on the site or at least nearby. The three-floor museum provides information about medieval Florence and the life of its namesake. One of its featured artifacts is “Dante’s dagger,” which the poet almost certainly didn’t own. The museum’s best part may be its artwork: images and objects inspired by Dante’s words. I had known about William Blake, Gustav Doré, Salvador Dali’s takes on Dante, but not that Sandro Botticelli had also illustrated The Divine Comedy. We especially enjoyed a temporary exhibit of red-and-blue sculptures by the contemporary artist Romano Dini. A small but excellent gift shop sells Dante-themed books, shirts, posters, mugs, and Christmas ornaments. It made me think of Dante’s fourth circle of hell, for people who hoard their possessions. But we did want that Christmas ornament.
Nearby is Chiesa di Santa Margherita de’ Cerchi, also known as “Dante’s Church” — or sometimes as “Dante and Beatrice’s Church.” This is possibly the place where Dante first laid eyes on Beatrice, in one of the world’s great cases of love at first sight. (“From that time on Love governed my soul,” he wrote in La Vita Nuova, his short memoir.) When it happened, they were both just nine years old. They each went on to marry other people. Despite their wedding vows and Beatrice’s early death (she was 25), Beatrice served as Dante’s muse and symbol of divine love. This must have been awkward for the actual Mrs. Alighieri, Gemma Donati. The Divine Comedy doesn’t mention poor Gemma at all, but Beatrice is a key figure. In the church, people leave notes to Beatrice in a basket beside her family’s tomb. She may be buried here, but nobody knows for sure. (Another possible burial site is Santa Croce.)
Speaking of tombs, a chapel inside another church, Santa Maria Maggiore, displays a column that marks the grave of Brunetto Latini, who was Dante’s teacher and possibly even his guardian. He probably introduced Dante to the authors of antiquity. A plaque outside the church draws from Canto 15 of Inferno, in which Dante remembers “the dear, kind, paternal image” of his mentor. Despite this affection, Dante sticks Latini in the third ring of the seventh circle of hell — the unrestful place of sodomites.
Images of Dante himself abound. One of the most interesting is in a seafood restaurant. Fishing Lab Alle Murate displays the oldest surviving portrait of Dante, a ceiling fresco painted several decades after his death, uncovered only recently. It shows him dressed in his familiar red gown but, surprisingly, his nose is aquiline. In later and more common representations, Dante’s most distinguishing facial feature is a big, hooked schnoz. The bad news: It’s hard to get a reservation at the restaurant. The good news: If you ask nicely, the hostess will let you see the fresco without making you first eat a plate of cuttlefish pasta.
The best-known picture of Dante may be the one on a wall inside the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the building otherwise known as the “Duomo” for its orange-tiled dome: the architectural wonder that launched a gazillion postcards. Inside, the cathedral is comparatively plain, especially for visitors used to the baroque decorations of other Italian churches. One of its chief attractions is a 1465 portrait of a red-robed Dante by Domenico di Michelino. The poet holds open a copy of The Divine Comedy and gestures toward the portal to hell, which bears what may be the most famous line he ever wrote: “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.” Behind Dante stands Mount Purgatory. Above him arc the celestial spheres of the heavens.
Dante makes another appearance inside the cathedral, but it’s hard to see, even if you’re searching for it. The inside of the eight-sided Duomo features a massive fresco painting by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari that presents a vision of angels and prophets and Jesus and more. On the dome’s southernmost surface, behind St. Jerome and other fathers of the Church, appears Dante’s face. For a good view, bring binoculars. Just below Dante, on the same panel and easier to see with the naked eye, is an image of damned souls falling into the pits of hell, as well as Cerberus, the three-headed dog from Greek mythology who prevents the dead from leaving the underworld. (Canto 6 of Inferno: “Here monstrous Cerberus, the ravening beast/howls through his triple throats like a mad dog/over the spirits sunk in that foul paste.”)
The American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft hailed Dante as “a pioneer in the classic capture of macabre atmosphere.” So this is the appropriate place to mention Love Craft, a whiskey bar where we enjoyed a bourbon drink called Dagon’s Tea, served hot and named for a monster in Lovecraft’s fiction (and before that, a false god in the Old Testament). It’s a good way to cap off a day of looking at images of demons. Florence has plenty of these diabolical scenes. At least one — a fiendish depiction of Satan on the ceiling of the Baptistery, attributed to Coppo di Marcovaldo — probably inspired Dante. Others were influenced by him. These include the artwork in Santa Croce and under the Duomo as well as the interpretations at the Spanish and Strozzi Chapels of Santa Maria Novella and The Last Judgment by Fra Angelico at the San Marco Museum. (Sadly, The Last Judgment was in restoration during my visit).
“Florence was not only the city of reason and science, of harmony and perspective, but it was also the city of the Devil,” writes the magnificently named art historian Maria Grazia Ciardi Dupre Dal Poggetto in the introduction to Devils in Art, a book by Lorenzo Lorenzi. As the art usually makes clear, the devil’s in a bad spot. He’s the ultimate exile— and his prison in Dante’s Inferno gives a special meaning to the cliché about hell freezing over.
Dante lamented his exile. In Canto 25 of Paradiso, he describes “the cruelty which shuts me out” and hopes for a possible return, which in fact never happened. For Dante tourists, the line is bittersweet: We feel his pain, but we also suspect he may have had to pay such a steep price to leave us the remarkable gift of The Divine Comedy. Conveniently, we can read his words and then travel to the city that booted him out.
In the poem, at least, Dante enjoys the opposite of exile — a homecoming that comes from seeking “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”