A translation of the Divine Comedy published in England in 1814 popularised Dante in British society, and ‘Dante’s Stone’ was listed in guidebooks of the day as one of the important Florentine sites that any cultured tourist on the Grand Tour should visit. Poets and writers came to pay homage to the great poet and were often stirred by the experience. Several of them, including William Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, were moved to write poems about the site.
These writers seemed to revere this stone as a shrine to the Sommo Poeta. Wordsworth called it ‘The laurelled Dante’s favourite seat. A throne,‘ while for Browning it was ‘the holy stone where Dante sat.’
There is this inspirational stone today? If you have walked around the south side of the Duomo, chances are that you have passed Dante’s stone without even noticing it. A marble plaque on the wall between two shops reads ‘Sasso di Dante.’ But where did Dante actually sit? Well, in his time the piazza looked quite different. In Dante’s time, in the place of the buildings that we see today, was the medieval cathedral canonry, the exterior wall of which had a long stone bench, much like those we still today see on some Florentine buildings (such as the Palazzo Strozzi). This is probably where Dante sat. The plaque was originally placed in the pavement in the alleged location of Dante’s preferred seat. Then, in the 1820s, the building, along with Dante’s bench, was removed and at some point the marble plaque was placed on the exterior wall of the building, where we see it today.
It is said that the young Dante came here regularly and always sat in the same place. One anecdote states that as he was sitting here, a certain man passed by and called out, ‘Dante, what is your favourite thing to eat?’ ‘A hardboiled egg,’ he replied. About a year later, the same man, whom Dante had not seen since the first encounter, again passed by and called out to him, ‘With what?’ ‘With salt,’ Dante immediately replied. When not discussing his favourite food, Dante would have sat in this spot, watching the construction of the cathedral and composing verses dedicated to his muse, Beatrice.
In the early nineteenth century, when many English poets visited or lived in Florence, the stone marking the location of his favourite seat was just about the only tribute to Dante in Florence. Later, a memorial was built for him in the basilica of Santa Croce, and in 1865 the sculpture by Enrico Pazzi was placed in piazza Santa Croce (see TF 135). These grand monuments draw our attention today, and the humble plaque that marks the spot where Dante once sat is rarely noticed.
The next time you pass through the south side of the piazza del Duomo, pause for a moment at this unassuming plaque and see if you can feel the spirit of Dante or of the many poets who found inspiration here. Maybe you, too, will feel a poetic stirring within.
Seeking more of Dante in Florence? Visit the house-museum, Museo Casa di Dante (www.museocasadidante.it); the Santa Margherita dei Cerchi Church, also known as Chiesa di Dante (TF 114); or sleuth around the streets for the marble plaques with memorable verse from his famous Divine Comedy.
*This article first appeared in The Florentine