For many years now I’ve planned to write a novel about Dante Alighieri, the Italian poet. The book didn’t work out (this is what I wrote instead) but I accumulated shelves of research material. Only on a recent trip to Europe did I learn about the great poet’s after-life adventures. They’re just as exciting as his living ones.
The casual reader will probably remember that Dante is Italy’s most famous poet. The other thing he’s famous for is being exiled from his home town of Florence. This was a political exile, but it was a medievally vicious one. Everything he owned was confiscated, and if he returned, he faced death at the stake. Smart man, he never went back. In fact he declared in writing that he would never return until the sentence was vacated and the Florentines gave him his property back. So when he died in Ravenna in 1321, his family had him interred there, by the Franciscan monks in a sarcophagus beside their Basilica di San Francesco.
This should have been the end of it. The problem was being Italy’s most famous poet. The Florentines wanted the body of their favorite son, their most famous literary star, back. To this day, if you go to Florence, Dante’s all over. He’s painted in frescoes in the Uffizi, translated in editions of the Divine Comedy for children, brooding in churches over representations of the Inferno. Look at the Uffizi fresco at the top of this post, labeling him as a Florentine. In his home town to this day, Dante’s an industry. But he’s not there. He’s in Ravenna, and this drove the Florentines crazy. A scant 30 years after the man was in his tomb, and there were already proposals to disinter him and bring him back to Florence.
Naturally Ravenna and the Franciscan monks didn’t play ball. They were proud and stubborn, and had a major tourist attraction in hand. Furthermore, they had the poet’s written instructions. So the Florentines had to trump the monks in 1519 by going over their heads to the Pope. Leo X was a Medici — a Florentine. He gave his fellow Florentines permission to go to Ravenna and take the bones back.
In Ravenna, the monks weren’t deterred. They dug through the wall of the basilica, into the sarcophagus, and extracted the bones. These were tucked into a box, labeled, and squirreled away. The holes were repaired. When the Florentines came and opened the tomb, gosh, he’s gone, no on knows how. Probably from pure embarrassment, the Florentines didn’t sack the town. They went away, and the wary monks kept their mouths shut. After all, the Florentines might come back. The monks just let it be assumed that the bones had been returned to the tomb. People would come and lay wreaths, or declaim sonnets, or celebrate the poet’s death or birth. All of this happened in front of a tomb that had nobody in it.
We’re going to fast-forward through three centuries of messy Italian history here. If you want all the details, about how Dante inspired the unification of Italy, or the co-option of the poet by Benito Mussolini in the 1930s to justify fascism, you should read Dante’s Bones by Guy P. Raffa, a great book which I’ve used to double-check all the dates in this post.
Ravenna is not a big or powerful town — its high point was in the 5th century under the Byzantine Emperor Justinian — and historically it’s often gotten the short end of the stick. The Franciscan monks lost control of their monastery, and there was enough chaos over the centuries that the box’s location was forgotten. Yeah, the most famous writer in Italy and they mislaid his body. A modern Italian commentator noted this, adding that his countrymen are ‘a nation of poets and navigators. But also, let’s face it, a greatly disorganized people.’
However, whatever else you can say about Dante, even after death he knew how a plot should go. When restoration work was being carried out at his tomb in 1865 in preparation for his 600th birthday, a workman was taking out some bricks in a wall and hit a box with his pick-axe. And the writing on the lid said Dantis ossa. Dante’s bones!
There was a fraught moment, when the Ravenna town fathers realized they’d have to open that sarcophagus that everyone had been venerating. If it was empty, yeah, that would be a little embarrassing. But if there was a second skeleton in there? Things would get horribly confusing, with two bodies of Dante on hand. Remember, there was no DNA analysis in 1865, no way to prove which was genuine. They could hardly give the extra one to Florence.
But all was well. When the lid was lifted, the tomb was empty, ready to receive its rightful tenant again. The skeleton, nearly complete, was reassembled, displayed to the thrilled townspeople, and interred again in its original sarcophagus in its ancient chapel. They were removed once more during WW2, for fear of Allied bombing or theft by Nazis, but are now returned yet once more.
The Florentines never got the body back. The last time they asked was quite recently, in 2021, in conjunction with the 700th anniversary of the poet’s death. But it sounded like a formality — they didn’t expect a positive reply, and it’s tacitly acknowledged that Florence won’t sue, or invade with soldiers and cannon, they way they might have in the fifteenth century. Besides, Dante’s conviction is still on the books, although there’s a push to have him legally declared innocent.
These days you can view the monument just as it ought to be, in its ancient place beside the monks’ wall in Ravenna, as I did in 2022. You can’t go inside, but you can peer through the gate at the marble tomb, with a bronze-and-silver wreath in front of it. After all the tumult of the past, it’s a peaceful resting place.