Dante’s last laugh: Why Italy’s national poet isn’t buried where you think he is

Dante Alighieri will forever be associated with Florence, city of his birth and the dialect he helped elevate such that it would become the basis of Italy's national language. Yet when Dante died 700 years ago, Florence isn't where he ended up.

Dante's last laugh: Why Italy's national poet isn't buried where you think he is
Despite the city's best efforts, Dante isn't buried in Florence. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

The story of how Dante’s remains came to be in Ravenna isn’t that complicated. It’s how they came to stay there that gets strange.

When the poet died, sometime between September 13-14th, 1321, he hadn’t seen Florence for some 20 years. Exiled for life after finding himself on the losing side of a war for control of the city, Dante spent the next several years roaming, defiantly refusing conditional offers to return home on terms he saw as unjust. 

READ ALSO: Italian lawyers seek justice for Dante – 700 years after his death

He eventually settled in Ravenna, in present-day Emilia-Romagna, at the invitation of its ruler.

He had lived in the city for just three years when he died aged 56. But his body was in Ravenna, and Ravenna wasn’t about to let it go.

Dante was buried by the church of San Pier Maggiore (now the Basilica di San Francesco) with all the pomp that Ravenna could muster. After a funeral attended by the city’s great and good, his body went into a Roman marble sarcophagus that was laid to rest outside the church’s cloisters.

And there it remained for the next 160 odd years, undisturbed but for the addition, in 1366, of an epitaph by fellow poet Bernardo Canaccio, who couldn’t resist including a dig at Florence:

” … here I lie interred, Dante, an exile from my homeland, he who was born of Florence, an unloving mother.”

READ ALSO: Ten strange things you never knew about Dante

Meanwhile that “unloving mother” was growing distinctly fonder of her lost son. Fellow Tuscan poet Giovanni Boccaccio, who along with Petrarch would follow Dante’s precedent of writing in the vernacular instead of Latin, wrote texts and gave lectures in praise of his idol, whose reputation was gathering weight across Europe.

All the praise seems to have reminded the Florentines of the Dante-shaped hole in their cemetery. Seventy-five years after the poet’s death, the city made its first documented request for Dante’s remains. It would prove the first of many.

In 1396 Ravenna said no. In 1430, Florence asked again. Ravenna again declined. In 1476 Florence tried a third time – and for the third time, Ravenna turned them down.

So it looked rather like a taunt when the governor of Ravenna decided, in 1483, that the city’s most illustrious corpse ought to occupy a more prominent position. That year Dante’s sarcophagus was moved to the other side of the cloister and a sculptor commissioned to make a marble bas-relief of the poet at work.

Photo: Domenico BressanCC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia

But the mighty Republic of Florence had bigger guns to use. The Medici, Florence’s original power dynasty, were about to assume the ultimate authority: the papacy. Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici was appointed Pope Leo X in 1513 and what previous delegations had proved unable to achieve by diplomacy, he could demand by papal decree. 

In 1519, at the request of Florentine intellectuals and artists, Leo X granted his fellow townspeople permission to go to Ravenna and fetch Dante’s remains. The poet was to return to Florence and be laid to rest – for good this time – in a spectacular monument designed by none other than Michelangelo, Tuscan, sculptor, painter, poet and patronee of the Medici.

A delegation set forth for Ravenna. It arrived at the church of San Pier Maggiore, with the weight of the Catholic Church and one of Europe’s most powerful families behind it. The delegates ordered the sarcophagus opened. Dante’s remains were… not there.

READ ALSO: Did Dante’s narcolepsy inspire The Divine Comedy?

The Franciscan brothers, whose order had been guarding Dante’s tomb for nearly 200 years by this point, had got wind of the papal mission and tunnelled a hole through the wall of their monastery into the sarcophagus. They stashed the poet’s body inside the gap, all without being spotted from the outside.

The Florentines’ reaction to finding Dante gone isn’t recorded, but it’s safe to bet they were pretty riled. According to some versions of the story they found themselves in the awkward position of not being able to report the body missing, since doing so would involve admitting they had thrown open the tomb with the intention of stealing it.

Ravenna took note and moved Dante’s remains inside the cloisters for safe-keeping, where monks guarded them jealously for another 150 years. On October 18th, 1677, a friar named Antonio Santi put them into a wooden chest (we know because he left a note), and in 1692 it’s recorded that workers carrying out repairs on the sarcophagus were supervised by armed guards to make sure they didn’t try anything.

By the late 18th century plans were afoot to give Dante a more imposing tomb. In 1781 a local architect commissioned by Ravenna’s Catholic authorities completed a small neoclassical mausoleum, lined with marble and topped with a dome, that would house the original sarcophagus and 15th-century bas-relief. So that no one could be in any doubt, it was inscribed: “DANTIS POETAE SEPULCRUM” (“Tomb of Dante the poet”). 

Photo: José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro – CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia

Accounts diverge at this point: either the monks neglected to mention that they’d hidden the bones and quietly let the new tomb go empty, or they returned the bones to the sarcophagus. But even if they did, they wouldn’t stay there for long.

This time the threat didn’t come from Florence, but from France. When, in 1805, Napoleon declared himself “Emperor of the French and King of Italy” and occupied the north-east of the peninsula, Ravenna fell under the Frenchman’s rule – and Dante’s custodians became increasingly concerned about their new masters. 

As Napoleon’s armies seized property from religious orders up and down their new territory, the friars of San Francesco found themselves forced to abandon their monastery, but not without taking measures to ensure that the poet’s remains didn’t become part of the booty. In 1810, after less than 30 years in his new mausoleum (if he’d ever been there in the first place), Dante was gathered up and put back in the same wooden chest in which he’d spent most of the 18th century.

The casket was hidden in a wall of the chapel and the gap sealed. The friars fled, without leaving any record of what they’d done or where to find the bones.

In another few years the French would have left Italy, but Ravenna’s old rival remained. As the 500-year anniversary of Dante’s death approached, it was time for Florence to revive its claims to Dante yet again.

The city pointedly commissioned a tomb of its own in the Basilica di Santa Croce, this one much grander than Ravenna’s. The poet sits pensively atop a tomb, statues of Italy and Poetry in mourning on either side.

Photo: Meryddian – CC BY 2.5, Wikimedia

The inscription reads: “Honour to the most illustrious poet”, a quotation from Canto IV of the Inferno – which, as all good Dante scholars know, continues: “His shadow, which had departed, now returns.”

Ravenna can’t have missed the point, but chose to ignore it. As impressive as it was, Dante’s tomb in Florence was to lie empty from its completion in 1830 right up until today. 

READ ALSO: Why a discovery at Verona University could change the story of Dante’s life

But meanwhile, his Ravenna monument was also empty. For several decades in the 19th century, Dante was in the bizarre position of having two tombs and not being in either of them. Not that most people were any the wiser: his acolytes continued to make their pilgrimages to the mausoleum in Ravenna to pay homage to the poet, not realizing that all the while he was several metres away inside a chapel wall.

And there he might have remained had a labourer not uncovered the chest during work on the basilica in 1865, and had a sharp-eyed student not spotted Friar Santi’s note labelling the box “Dantis ossa” (“Dante’s bones”).

The contents were subsequently handed to doctors for examination, who pronounced them to be the almost intact skeleton of an older man between 165-170 centimetres tall, with a “larger and more beautiful” than average skull that they took to indicate superior intelligence.

Dante’s statue in Florence. Photo: Clément Bardot – CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia

The bones were transferred to a crystal case and placed on public display, where they attracted large crowds of admirers. Then they were moved to a heavy wooden casket lined with lead and put back where they were supposed to be all along, in the mausoleum.

But, incredibly, it wouldn’t be the end of their travels. Having survived Florentine appeals, papal machinations and Napoleonic incursions, Dante’s remains would face one last threat: World War II.

In March 1944, with northern Italy occupied by the Nazis and the Allies attempting to bomb them out, the poet’s bones were moved once more – this time to a patch of earth in the basilica’s garden, where they remained safely until hostilities ceased.

On December 19th, 1945, Dante was put back in his Ravenna mausoleum for the final time (we assume), and the grassy mound that sheltered him was marked with a plaque.

The plaque commemorating Dante’s burial site during World War II. Photo: By Flying RussianCC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia

As for his hometown, Florence has finally abandoned its hopes of seeing Dante return after death, contenting itself with the monument in its cathedral and a statue of the poet in the square outside.

If Dante wouldn’t come to them, however, the Florentines would send a little bit of Tuscany to him: each year the city sends local olive oil to burn in the lamp that lights Dante’s mausoleum.

Rest in peace, Dante – wherever you are.

This article was originally published in 2018.

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Italian archaeologists uncover slave room at Pompeii in ‘rare’ find

Pompeii archaeologists said Saturday they have unearthed the remains of a "slave room" in an exceptionally rare find at a Roman villa destroyed by Mount Vesuvius' eruption nearly 2,000 years ago.

Archaeologists in Pompeii who discovered a room which likely housed slaves. 
Archaeologists said the newly-discovered room in Pompeii likely housed slaves charged with maintaining chariots.  Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The little room with three beds, a ceramic pot and a wooden chest was discovered during a dig at the Villa of Civita Giuliana, a suburban villa just a few hundred metres from the rest of the ancient city.

An almost intact ornate Roman chariot was discovered here at the start of this year, and archaeologists said Saturday that the room likely housed slaves charged with maintaining and prepping the chariot.

READ ALSO: 8 things you probably didn’t know about the Romans

“This is a window into the precarious reality of people who rarely appear in historical sources, written almost exclusively by men belonging to the elite,” said Pompeii’s director general Gabriel Zuchtriegel.

Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The “unique testimony” into how “the weakest in the ancient society lived… is certainly one of the most exciting discoveries in my life as an archaeologist,” he said in a press release.

Pompeii was buried in ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, killing those who hadn’t managed to leave the city in time. They were either crushed by collapsing buildings or killed by thermal shock.

The 16-square metre (170-square feet) room was a cross between a bedroom and a storeroom: as well as three beds – one of which was child sized – there were eight amphorae, stashed in a corner.

Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The wooden chest held metal and fabric objects that seem to be part of the harnesses of the chariot horses, and a chariot shaft was found resting on one of the beds.

The remains of three horses were found in a stable in a dig earlier this year.

“The room grants us a rare insight into the daily reality of slaves, thanks to the exceptional state of preservation of the room,” the Pompeii archaeological park said.

READ ALSO: Four civilizations in Italy that pre-date the Roman Empire

Image: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

Experts had been able to make plaster casts of the beds and other objects in perishable materials which left their imprint in the cinerite — the rock made of volcanic ash — that covered them, it said.

The beds were made of several roughly worked wooden planks, which could be adjusted according to the height of the person who used them.

The webbed bases of the beds were made of ropes, covered by blankets.

While two were around 1.7 metres long, one measured just 1.4 metres, and may therefore have belonged to a child.

The archaeological park said the three slaves may have been a family.

Archaeologists found several personal objects under the beds, including amphorae for private things, ceramic jugs and what might be a chamber pot.

The room was lit by a small upper window, and there are no traces or wall decorations, just a mark believed to have been left by a lantern hung on a wall.

“This incredible new discovery at Pompeii demonstrates that today the archaeological site has become not only one of the most desirable visitor destinations in the world, but also a place where research is carried out and new and experimental technologies are employed,” said Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini.

“Thanks to this important new discovery, our knowledge of the daily life of ancient Pompeians has been enriched, particularly of that element of society about which little is known even today. Pompeii is a model of study that is unique in the world.”

READ ALSO: Why is Italy called Italy?

The excavation is part of a programme launched in 2017 aimed at fighting illegal activity in the area, including tunnel digging to reach artefacts that can be sold on illicit markets.

The Villa of Civita Giuliana had been the target of systematic looting for years. There was evidence some of the “archaeological heritage” in this so-called Slave Room had also been lost to looters, the park said.

Damage by grave robbers in the villa had been estimated so far at almost two million euros ($2.3 million), it added.