This year Italy celebrates the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death, a genius born in Florence but whose remains now lie in Ravenna in Italy. The poet found Ravenna to be the ideal place to complete The Divine Comedy and as the home of his burial, the city has been preserving Dante’s memory for seven centuries since his death in 1321. How his bones came to be in that city of glorious mosaics is quite a story.
Although his name will be forever associated with Florence, the city of his birth, when he died in 1321 he had been an exile living outside the city for some 20 years, exiled for life by the Florentines themselves, after being on the losing side in a local fight for control of the city. Despite offers to return home, Dante defiantly refused to do so, regarding the terms as unjust.
Ravenna has the world’s most important Byzantine mosaics, a glittering jewel-box of 5th and 6th century art, described by Dante as being of “the sweet color of Oriental sapphires.”
He had been invited by Ravenna’s ruler to settle there and he had been a resident of the city for 3 years when he died aged 56, already a major figure in the world of letters. He was buried outside the cloisters of the church of San Pier Maggiore (now the Basilica di San Francesco) in a Roman marble sarcophagus where it remained for the next 160 years as his reputation in Europe continued to grow.
It is said that it was the lectures in praise of Dante given by fellow poet Boccaccio (who followed Dante’s precedent and wrote in the vernacular instead of Latin) which caused the Florentines to re-think their loss, and seventy-five years after Dante’s death Florence made the first of many requests for the return of his body. Ravenna said no! In 1430 Florence tried again, and again in 1476, but got the same firm “No” as an answer. Meantime, the sarcophagus was moved to the other side of the cloister and a sculptor was commissioned to make a marble bas-relief of the poet at work.
Florence, now a very powerful city, took umbrage at this. It was 1513 and Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici had just became Pope Leo X giving the Medici family the ultimate authority in the Christian world. So, using the most powerful weapon in his authority he issued a Papal Decree and demanded the return of Dante’s remains. Ravenna ignored the Decree.
After this last attempt by Florence, Ravenna then moved the remains inside the cloisters for safe-keeping where they were guarded by the monks for another 150 years. We know from a note left by a friar named Antonio Santi that on October 18th, 1677, he put the remains into a wooden casket and it was recorded in 1692 that workers carrying out repairs on the sarcophagus were supervised by armed guards to make sure nothing was stolen.
Dante’s reputation continued to grow over the ensuing centuries and in the late 18th century Ravenna decided to give Dante a more imposing tomb, to which end they commissioned a local architect to erect a small neoclassical mausoleum. This was lined with marble and topped with a dome to house the original sarcophagus and 15th-century bas-relief and completed in 1781.
In 1805, a new threat appeared from France in the shape of Napoleon who had declared himself “Emperor of the French and King of Italy”. Ravenna fell under Napoleon’s rule and as his armies looted their way through religious orders up and down the region, the friars were forced to abandon their monastery. But first they made sure that the poet’s remains didn’t become war spoils. After less than 30 years in his new mausoleum Dante’s remains were gathered up and put back in the wooden chest in which they’d spent most of the 18th century and in 1810 they were hidden in a wall of the chapel. Then the friars fled, forgetting to tell anyone what they’d done or where to find the bones, so that right up to the middle of the 19th century, pilgrims continued to visit Ravenna to pay homage to the poet, not realizing that the mausoleum was empty.
There are many Via Dante Alighieri’s in Italy and many other countries too because, like Shakespeare, his work is universal. This street sign however, is in Ravenna, the city in which he choose to live.
The remains, hidden inside the wall, might have remained there had they not been discovered by a worker at the basilica in 1865. Of equal, if not more importance, was the fact that someone spotted the note first put in the casket with the bones and labelled “Dantis ossa” (“Dante’s bones”). On examining the bones, doctors pronounced them to be the almost intact skeleton of an older man between 165-170 centimetres tall, and so they were accepted as the remains of one of the greatest writers of all time.
At last the bones, now in a heavy wooden casket lined with lead, could not be placed in the mausoleum in Ravenna, the city that had opened its doors to the exile and where the poet wanted to be laid to rest.
But rest for Dante was not yet possible in the 20th century because World War II was now raging over Europe. In 1944 Northern Italy was occupied by the Germans, and the Allies were bombing day and night. Once more the poet’s bones had to be moved: this time they were buried in the garden of the basilica, where they remained until hostilities ceased. Finally, on December 19th, 1945, Dante was back in his Ravenna mausoleum.
Florence has given up seeking the return of its famous son and in a gesture of friendship, the city sends local Tuscan olive oil each year to burn in the lamp that lights Dante’s mausoleum.