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Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) : A 700 year-long mystery

Updated: Jul 8, 2021


This year marks the 700th anniversary of the death of the medieval poet and philosopher Dante Alighieri, known as the Father of the Italian language. Throughout Italy there is a dense calendar of commemorative online events. In his life Dante travelled and lived in different places. Florence, which exiled him; Verona which first hosted him and then let him go; and Ravenna, who welcomed him until the end of his days. With in-between stops in Rome, Arezzo, Pisa, Bologna, Forli...

Dante in reading, detail. Marble bas-relief by Pietro Lombardo (1435-1515). Ravenna, tomb of Dante

The first date to mark on the agenda is March 25: from 2019 this day has officially become the “DanteDay”. According to scholars, in fact, on March 25th 1300 Dante began his descent into the underworld “In the middle of the journey of our life”. And on March 25 various events are scheduled to remember him: conferences, web directives, concerts.

DanteDay joins ShakespeareDay, celebrated every year throughout the United Kingdom and around the world on April 23, the presumed date of birth (1564) of the poet of Hamlet and of Romeo and Juliet; and after that, a Bloomsday, which since 1950 is celebrated every year in Dublin and elsewhere on June 16, the birth day (in 1904) of the Irish writer James Joyce, commemorating his masterpiece, Ulysses, through the figure of the protagonist, Leopold Bloom.

Florence’s Uffizi Gallery has initiated the Dante anniversary by making available, for the first time on line on its website, 88 rarely displayed drawings of Dante’s masterpiece, “Divine Comedy”. The virtual show of high-resolution images of works by the 16th-Century Renaissance artist Federico Zuccari (1539-1609) (famous for having frescoed the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore), is accessible “for free, any hour of the day, for everyone,’’ said Uffizi director Eike Schmidt. Schmidt said the drawings are a “great resource” for Dante scholars and students, as well as “anyone who likes to be inspired by Dante’s pursuit of knowledge and virtue.” “The Divine Comedy” is an epic poem in three parts recounting a pilgrim’s travels through hell, purgatory and heaven.

ACT welcomes fellow blogger Patrizia Poggi. She is a writer and Ambassador of Knowledge and Flavors of Italy & Friends, the Diplomatic Representative Network of Knowledge and Flavors of Italy, based in Florence, which helps to raise awareness of the wonders of Italy. Patrizia recounts her story which is fascinating, mysterious and immersive.

Marysia Zipser ****

A 700 year-long mystery : In September 1321 Dante Alighieri died. By Patrizia Poggi

When talking about Dante, the mind immediately runs to Florence but, in spite of what one might think, Dante is not buried in the Tuscan capital, but in Ravenna, the city where he died on the night between 13 and 14 September 1321. It is in fact in Emilia-Romagna that the Supreme Poet, exiled from his hometown, spent his last years. And it is here that, even to-day, it is possible to visit the neoclassical sepulchre which contains his remains. An epitaph in Latin celebrates the memory of Dante, whose tomb is located in the centre of Ravenna. It was in Ravenna that Dante concluded the songs of Paradise by completing his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy.

Ravenna, city of art, culture, sea, nature, bell towers, monastic cloisters and splendid early Christian religious monuments on the World Heritage List of UNESCO: ​But Ravenna is above all the city of Byzantine mosaics and of Dante, who spent the last years of his life in this corner of Romagna, composing the conclusive songs of Paradise. Just in Ravenna the «Supreme Poet» died the night between 13 and 14 September 1321, probably following an attack of malaria contracted on his return from a diplomatic mission carried out in Venice. The solemn funeral took place in the Basilica of San Francesco and his body placed in a marble sarcophagus placed outside the church, next to the walls of the Franciscan convent, to which Dante was very devoted. The religious themselves also built the convent with two cloisters later rebuilt in the Renaissance period and other rooms in which the library is now housed and the Dante Museum, established in 1921, to celebrate the sixth centenary of the Poet's death.

Images below from left to right:

  1. Looking towards the tomb of Dante, Ravenna

  2. Tomb of Dante, Ravenna

  3. Tomb of Dante, Ravenna

Raffaello Sanzio (1483-1520), Leo X with the Cardinals Luigi De Rossi and Giulio de'Medici, 1517-1518, Florence, Uffizi Gallery. Credit photo:

The body was quarrelled for a long time by the cities of Ravenna and Florence. Florence tried several times to take back the remains of Dante, but every attempt was always revealed with nothing done: the first time happened in 1396, then in 1428 and in 1476. Florence had almost succeeded in 1519 but something went wrong. The then Pope Leo X, a Florentine by birth (his father was Lorenzo the Magnificent), had authorized the requests of the Medici Academy to transfer Dante's bones to Florence.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). Drawing portraying a damned in the Hell of the Divine Comedy. Florence, Uffizi Gallery. Credit photo: Uffizi Gallery

​Among the signatories there was also Michelangelo who had even run for a funeral monument at the height of the reputation of the Supreme Poet. Everything now seemed written and Ravenna could not oppose the pope's will, having now passed between its possessions. However, when the papal delegates found themselves opening the sarcophagus, no trace of Dante's bones was found: the tomb was practically empty! Who had stolen the bones of the great poet? Who had taken the unacceptable theft at night time? Despite the investigations and the thousand conjectures for two centuries, the mystery remained unsolved and the remains now missing. The truth came to light only later in 1865 when, in breaking down a section of wall near the chapel of Braccioforte, a wooden box, apparently anonymous, was found which reported the inscription "Dantis bones (...)". Apparently the friars, at the time of the papal delegation of 1519, to avoid that the poet's remains were taken away from Ravenna, had stealthily drilled a hole in the tomb and stolen the remains. These remained hidden inside the convent and jealously guarded.

Images below from left to right:

  1. Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), Portrait of Dante Alighieri, oil on canvas, 1495. Private collection.

  2. Domenico di Michelino (1417-1491). Dante and his poem, 1465. Fresco in the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. Credit photo:

  3. The oldest documented portrait of Dante known Palazzo dell'Arte dei Giudici e Notai, Florence. Detail fresco. Photo credit:

  4. Andrea del Castagno (1423-1457). Dante, cycle of illustrious men and women, 1450. Cenacle of the former Benedictine convent of S. Apollonia, Florence. Credit photo:

  5. Luca Signorelli (1445-1523). Portrait of Dante fresco datable between 1500 and 1504 in the Chapel of the Madonna di San Brizio in the Cathedral of Orvieto. Credit photo:

  6. Annibale Gatti (1828-1909). Dante in exile, 1854. Oil on canvas, cm 80x70. Florence, Uffizi Gallery Credit photo: Florence, Uffizi Gallery

In 1780-1781, on the occasion of the construction of the current tomb by the architect Camillo Morigia, they were relocated to the original urn again but for a very short time. In 1810, in fact, due to the Napoleonic laws, the friars were forced to leave the convent, but first they took care to hide the box with bones in a walled up door of the Quadrarco of Braccioforte. It remained there until 1865 when it was accidentally found. On that occasion, the body was recomposed, exposed to the public in a crystal urn for a few months, then entombed again in the small temple that we know today.

Since then, apart from the small transfers that occurred during the Second World War to avoid possible destruction, the remains of the Supreme Poet have not undergone any movement, thus putting an end to a dramatic event that for centuries has permeated his bones with mystery.

In neoclassical style, Dante's temple has a quadrangular plan and is covered by a dome surmounted by a pine cone. The external facade has a door surmounted by the archbishop's coat of arms of Cardinal Gonzaga; on the architrave there is the Latin engraving: "DANTIS POETAE SEPULCRUM". The funeral monument is a national monument. The interior of the tomb, covered with marble and stucco, exhibits a Roman sarcophagus on which the epitaph dictated by Bernardo Canaccio in 1366 was carved:

«The rights of the monarchy, the skies and the waters of Flegetonte visiting I sang until they turned my mortal destinies. But since my soul went to better places, and even more blessed reached its Creator among the stars, here I am (I) Dante, exiled from his homeland, to whom he generated Florence, mother of little love».

Patrizia Poggi

Above the tomb there is a bas-relief by Pietro Lombardo, dated 1483 and depicting Dante thoughtfully in front of a lectern. A bronze garland, placed at the foot of the sarcophagus, was donated by the veterans of the First World War in 1921.

At the centre of the ceiling is an eighteenth-century lamp, powered by the olive oil of the Tuscan hills that Florence gives every second Sunday of September, on the occasion of the anniversary of death. Outside, precisely to the right of Dante's Tomb, a gate leads to the enclosure of Braccioforte, the ancient oratory of the convent of San Francesco where the funeral of the Supreme Poet was celebrated. The so-called Dante area was established near the monument, within which a respectful silence is required.

Dante images by a selection of contemporary artists below.

Images from left to right:

  1. Street art of Eduardo Kobra, Brazilian artist born in Sao Paulo in 1976

  2. Salvador Dalì (1904-1989) made a series of colour woodcuts dedicated to the Divine Comedy.

  3. Elisabetta Gulli Grigioni (1937), The Welcome a little valentine for Ravenna. cm 25x311 The valentine is composed by a rare postcard in chromolithography travelled in 1918 but probably earlier, inspired by one of the highest welcoming events in Ravenna and depicts Dante in the Pineta in a moment of thoughtful rest.

  4. Dante Alighieri & Ghino di Tacco by Joe Ganech. Poster exhibited at ACT’s ITALY Art & Photography Exhibition, Beeston, Nottingham, March 2018. Dante himself refers to Ghino di Tacco mentioning his actions in the sixth canto of Purgatory of his Divine Comedy.

Events of the city of Ravenna: Società Dante Alighieri, formed in 1889, promotes Italian culture and language in more than 60 countries around the world with 500 offices.

UPDATE NEWS 25.1.21 «The Dante Alighieri Society of Ravenna extends a warm greeting to the Dante Alighieri Society of Nottingham thanking Marysia Zipser, precious builder of cultural bridges through the blog Art Culture Tourism International, for her hospitality.

The President, Franco Gabici, informs that in Dante's extensive bibliography there are two fundamental texts: "The last refuge of Dante Alighieri" by Corrado Ricci and Fabio Frassetto's "Dantis Ossa".

Corrado Ricci's work was reprinted in 1965 edited by Eugenio Chiarini. "Dantis Ossa", however, was published in 1933 and is no longer being re-proposed.

​For this reason the Dante Alighieri Society of Ravenna proposes, at the celebrations of the 700th anniversary an anastatic edition with a preface by Giorgio Gruppioni, Anthropologist of Bologna University and with texts by Franco Gàbici and Alfredo Cottignoli.

The anastatic edition will be released next September. Interested students and scholars can contact the DAS».

We look forward to receiving your reactions and comments in the box below and/or via our contact links. Many thanks.


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