2021 marks the 700-hundred-year anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death. Dante is often considered Italy’s greatest poet, and the city of Florence is proud to say he was born there. And you could be forgiven for thinking he was buried there too if you’ve seen the beautiful tomb in Santa Croce, bearing his name and likeness.
But to Florence’s chagrin, that magnificent tomb is empty. The poet’s bones lie at rest 125 miles away in Ravenna. Florence banned Dante during his lifetime, but after his death it made several unsuccessful attempts to bring back his bones.
Dante was born in Florence in 1265, and when he wasn’t writing poetry, he was a soldier and a politician. But unfortunately, he found himself on the wrong side of the political fence in 1302, and he (along with others from his political party) was banned from the city for two years.
In his absence he was convicted of financial wrongdoing from his time in public office, and all his assets were seized. When his two years of exile were up, the city said, “OK you’ve probably suffered enough by not being able to be in our magnificent city. You can come home now. You just have to apologize and pay a fine.”
Burning at the Stake or Beheading?
Dante flatly refused, proclaiming his innocence. So Florence responded by extending his banishment to life and threatening him with being burned at the stake should he ever return. So for the next 14 years, Dante wandered from place to place and began writing his now-famous work, the Divine Comedy.
Dante’s fame grew, and Florence wanted him back. They offered him new terms: They would drop the fine and only require him to plead guilty and make a public apology. Dante still proclaimed his innocence and refused. This time Florence changed his punishment: If he should ever enter Florence again, he would be beheaded along with his sons. It looked like Dante would never again see his beloved city.
In 1318, 16 years after his banishment, Dante took refuge in Ravenna and finished the Divine Comedy there. Even though Florence had treated him so cruelly, the city was still in his heart. In Paradiso he talks about the hope of one day returning to the city of his birth, being recognized as a great poet, and being crowned with a laurel wreath. But, alas, that wasn’t to be.
Just three years after arriving in Ravenna, Dante died at age 56. The city of Florence, who had banished him in life, argued that they should have him in death. (I guess they figured, at that point, he wouldn’t cause any more trouble and might someday be a good tourist attraction.)
Ravenna replied, “No way,” and buried Dante at San Pier Maggiore’s, now known as St. Francesco’s. Later an epitaph was added to the tomb which read,” … here I lie interred, Dante, an exile from my homeland, he who was born of Florence, an unloving mother.”
Florence Wants His Bones
Dante’s fame continued to spread after his death as his talent was recognized across Europe. Florence regretted banishing the great poet and asked again for his bones. Ravenna again refused. Florence requested them two more times: in 1430 and in 1476. Each time Ravenna refused.
But Florence wasn’t about to give up so easily on its now-beloved son. It had a secret weapon. In 1519 delegates from Florence went directly to the Pope to ask for Dante’s bones. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the Pope was also a Medici, the ruling family of Florence. Pope Leo X said, “Yes, of course, Dante belongs in Florence. Just go to Ravenna and get him.” So, a delegation from Florence went to Ravenna, with papal orders in hand, to bring back Dante’s remains.
Hiding From the Florentines
In the meantime, however, the Franciscan brothers who were in charge of guarding the tomb got wind of the papal plot. They secretly removed Dante’s bones, put them in a wooden box, and hid them inside a wall. When the Florentines arrived and smugly waved their papal permission, the brothers dutifully led them to the tomb. But when they opened the sarcophagus, it was empty.
The frustrated Florentines left, and the brothers moved Dante’s remains inside the cloister where they kept them under guard for the next 262 years. Then in 1781 a dome-topped, marble-lined mausoleum was built and it seemed that the great poet was placed in his final resting place.
Hiding From Napoleon
But then in 1810, Napoleon, who had declared himself Emperor of the French and King of Italy began claiming lands that belonged to religious orders. The Franciscan brothers had to vacate their monastery. But before they did, they wanted to ensure the safety of Italy’s greatest poet whose remains had been under their care for nearly 500 years.
So, Dante’s bones were again packed into a wooden box and sealed up in a wall. The brothers fled without leaving any record of what they had done, and the location of Dante’s bones was lost.
Florence Builds a Tomb
As the 500th anniversary of Dante’s death approached in 1821, Florence again longed for the bones of their poet. In an optimistic act, they commissioned a magnificent tomb to be built in the Basilica of Santa Croce. The tomb was completed in 1830 and is much grander than the one in Ravenna, but alas, it is empty.
At the time, Ravenna couldn’t have given Florence the bones if they wanted to––because the tomb in Ravenna was empty too. Dante, the great poet, had two beautiful tombs in two different cities and his bones weren’t in either of them. They were still stuffed in a wooden box inside the chapel wall––but no one knew it.
Everyone Wants a Piece of Dante
In 1865 when work was being done on the chapel, the workmen discovered a wooden box inside one of the walls. It contained a skeleton, and there was a note inside identifying the remains as Dante’s. So Dante was placed back in his mausoleum. But not all of him…
After the bones were found, but before they were reburied, local souvenir seekers took little bits of the great man––just small pieces they didn’t think would matter, and no one noticed. Then 13 years later, a former town clerk was pricked by his conscience and came forward with a box of Dante’s bones. Soon, several other people returned pieces of the poet. And now all the poet’s bones (as far as we know) lie in his tomb in Ravenna.
Florence Finally Gives Up
Florence has finally given up on the Dante’s remains ever coming home. The city will just be content with their empty mausoleum and the statue standing outside Santa Croce. And they decided that if Dante wouldn’t come to them, they could at least send something to him. So every year, the city sends Tuscan olive oil to light the continually burning lamp in his mausoleum in Ravenna.
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That was fascinating. I saw Dante’s tombs – both in Florence and Ravenna – bu had not known about all the pergrinations of the bones. I have a question: Why is dante always in red? I’m ashamed to say that I have not read The Divine Comedy, or, indeed anything much about Dante. the answer may be quite obvious to those who have.
Why did Dante always wear red? That’s a good question. I’ve never really found the answer to that. I think it was probably a common color for the upper class during his time, but maybe some day I’ll find another answer.
I’ve never read all of the Divine Comedy either – although I’ve started it several times. But for a really good overview, you can go to the Dante/Pinocchio Museum in Florence. It’s fairly new – I think it opened in 2019. The Dante section is all video and interactive and you actually walk through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. I loved it and felt like I understood the Divine Comedy much better afterwards. But I still plan to get through the whole book one day… 🙂
I never knew the full story, so thank you, Margo, for writing this. I too love Florence and St Croce in particular. With all its tombs the church is almost a repository of Italian history. We had planned a trip to Ravenna – the along came the virus. Sometime soon, hopefully. J
You’re welcome. Florence is one of my favorite cities and I go there as often as possible. You’re right, Santa Croce is amazing with all the tombs of so many famous Florentines- it doesn’t even matter that Dante’s is empty. 🙂 Here in the UK, we’ve been in covid lockdown for the best part of a year and I am really yearning to travel. Whether I’ll make it to Florence this year or not is still uncertain, but next year for sure! 🙂