Dante: an Absence Becomes a Presence

On May 14th 1865 a statue of Dante created by a sculptor Enrico Pazzi was placed in the middle of piazza Santa Croce. The king of the recently united Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II, unveiled the sculpture in the presence of the highest dignitaries and township of Florence.

Dante Steps Santa Croce Paola

During my recent trip to Italy, I first admired Pazzi’s statue of Dante, that was moved to its present location on the steps of Santa Croce in 1968. But then, as I entered the church, my admiration turned into curiosity. As I visited the tombs of Niccolò Machiavelli, Galileo Galilei, Gioachino Rossini and, the “master”, Michelangelo Buonarroti, I wondered: how come someone that was supposed to be buried in Santa Croce is not here in fact?! Where is Dante Alighieri?

The visitors to Santa Croce today get to admire a huge and beautiful cenotaph to Dante, made by Stefano Ricci between 1819 and 1830. The Neoclassical sculptor Stefano Ricci was a student of Francesco Carradoris at the Accademia in Florence. Highly influenced by Canova, Ricci took Carradoris post as the instructor of sculpture at the Accademia in 1802. Most people consider Dante’s monument in Santa Croce to be Ricci’s masterpiece.


It contains a script “Onorate L’Altissimo Poeta” – or “Honor the Poet of the Highest Regard”. In the right side, we can see an allegorical sculpture representing Poetry mourning the loss of Italy’s Supreme Poet. On the left, allegorical sculpture of Italy, points to the seated figure of Dante.

Despite the beautiful cenotaph that Ricci built, Dante’s final resting place is not Florence, but Ravenna. For me, the cenotaph expresses the desire of Florence to have his son back, after the city sent him into exile. Dante died in Ravenna on the night for 13-14th September, in 1321, probably of malaria after a trip to Venice. He never came back to see his beloved Florence. And when I was in front of Dante’s tomb in Santa Croce, I decided to go Ravenna to know more about this curious subject. Why wasn’t Dante in Florence?


In Ravenna, at the Museo Dantesco, I was able to find some answers. Dante’s earthly remains were in a marble sarcophagus in the small Chapel of the Madonna in Basilica of Saint Francis, where the poet’s solemn funeral had took place in 1321 (Dante’s remains are today in a chapel next to the Basilica).

But already in early 16th century Florence and Ravenna started a very singular quarrel for Dante’s mortal remains. In 1519, Medici Pope Leo X, received a petition from Accademia Medicea that was also supported by Michelangelo himself, who wanted to create a monument for the Poet. In the petition, Accademia was asking the Pope for the transfer of Dante’s bones to Florence and the Pope immediately agreed.

The friars from Verona, in order to block the Florentine tentative to take Dante back, put the bones in a urn which they hid in a hole in the cloister wall. So, when the marble sarcophagus was opened, nothing was there for the Florentines.

Dante’s remains stayed in the cloisters until 1677, when Brother Antonio Santi identified the bones and put them in a wooden chest, with an inscription: “Dante’s Bones, deposited here by me, Brother Antonio Santi, 18th October, 1677”. In 1810, the French Revolution abolished the religious entities and the Franciscans friars had to leave the church.


The bones were discovered only in 1865, accidentally. Ravenna decided to celebrate the sixth centenary of the poet’s birth. So they did some work to embellish the small temple where Dante’s remains should be and some adjacent areas. On the morning of 27th May, a worker was repairing the walls of the chapel. He found a wooden case with human remains and the inscriptions that Brother Antonio Santi had written.

The city heard about the news and everybody was excited to see them. Police had to control the people. They put Dante’s bones in a glass and velvet coffin and for days people paid homage to the Divine Poet.

After that, Dante’s remains finally found their final rest, in the temple were they are today, built in 1780 by Camillo Morigia. In the temple in Ravenna, there is a lamp in the ceiling and it burns olive oil from the Tuscan hills, that is offered every September by the Municipality of Florence. Standing in front of his monument, I was reminded of a verse from Inferno Canto IV “l’ombra sua torna, ch’era dipartita” (“his spirit, which had left us, returns”).

Guest blogger Janaína Simões is a Brazilian journalist from São Paulo that lives in Florence in her virtual life…


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