A Florence Walk in Dante’s World

A Renaissance depiction of Dante Alighieri in the Florence Cathedral (Duomo)

This year Florence and Tuscany commemorate the 700th anniversary of the death of Durante di Alighiero degli Alighieri (1265-1321), commonly known as Dante, and fondly remembered by Italians as Il Sommo Poeta, the Supreme Poet.  Right now, this icon of Italian culture can be best experienced in a self-guided walking tour in his hometown.

Given the current Covid-19 health emergency, a rich program of more than 50 events is still not completely defined, although an online Uffizi Gallery exhibition of drawings by 16th century artist Federico Zuccari representing scenes from Dante’s Divine Comedy can be visited online.  Something also to look forward to is the February 10 virtual British Institute lecture “Godi Fiorenza: Dante’s poetic (and other) feelings on Florence.”  Even though Dante spent most of his life in political exile, Florence bears many reminders of his life throughout the historical district.  In the following itinerary, participants can sense Dante’s presence and importance throughout the city.

As the region is now classified a “yellow zone,” with lower risks of Covid contagion when compared to an “orange” or “red” zone, a number of state and city-run museums will once again welcome visitors—for the moment on weekdays only.  Included is the Bargello National Museum on via del Proconsolo.  Formerly a prison, the museum now houses some of the greatest sculptures from the Renaissance.  Inside the Chapel of the Podestà can be found a fresco designed by Giotto on the subject of the Last Judgement.  The artist, a contemporary of Dante’s, portrays the poet in the ranks of the Blessed and therefore in Paradise. In what is thought to be the oldest portrait of Dante, he is wearing a red robe and holding the Divine Comedy in his hand.  The chapel was where prisoners condemned to death spent their last night in prayer and coincidentally where Dante’s exile was proclaimed in 1302, which was formally rescinded by the municipality of Florence only in 2008.  Museum hours are 8:45 am to 1:30 pm, Monday to Saturday.

Fishing Lab alle Murate.  This restaurant one block north of the Bargello on via del Proconsolo, housed in an ancient palazzo that was the headquarters of the ancient guild of the judges and notaries, contains a fresco that fans outwards on its domed ceiling and walls to portray medieval Florence as the Heavenly Jerusalem: just glance upwards.  The remarkable work fans outwards in concentric circles—each contain message-laden visuals, identifying the city and placing it in time.  On the walls are the countenances of literary figures such as Dante (but not with the usual aquiline nose), Boccaccio and Petrarch.  A great spot to stop for a seafood lunch while indulging in a Dante tour, reservations are recommended.

Piazza della Signoria and Palazzo Vecchio.  Five minutes away lies Florence’s city hall and seat of civic power since the 13th century, Piazza della Signoria as well as the Loggia dei Lanzi.  Walk south on via del Proconsolo, turn right at via della Condotta, left on via dei Magazzini and right into the piazza.  The museum of Palazzo Vecchio, which has been become once again accessible, is itself worth a visit of several hours to witness the chronicling the history of the Republic and city of Florence.  In a small hallway between Eleanor’s Apartments and the Hall of Priors, a “death mask” of Dante is displayed in a small glass case.  Although originally thought to be an actual death mask, experts now believe the mask was carved by sculptors in the 15th century.

On the south side of the piazza is the Loggia dei Lanzi with its fine collection of Renaissance statuary.  The bronze statue closest to the Palazzo Vecchio, entitled Perseus and sculpted by Benvenuto Cellini was a feat as it was said to be impossible to cast the entire piece in a single casting.  Perseus, a mythical Greek hero, is depicted holding the severed head of Medusa, a winged human female with venomous snakes instead of hair.  The myth recounts that anyone who looked into the Medusa’s eyes would be turned to stone and she was thought to signify evil in the Middle Ages.  Dante wrote about the Medusa as a beast from the fifth circle of hell, signifying Anger, in the Canto IX.  He and guide the poet Virgil, fearful that Medusa would be summoned by the Furies and turn them into stone causing them to remain in hell forever, held hope that the angels would rescue them.

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo).  Built in the 13th through 15th century, the symbol of the city towers over all with its grand cupola.  The church is now open on weekdays only from 10:15 am to 4 pm.  Going inside and up the left aisle towards the altar, one finds a painting by Domenico di Michelino which gives a glimpse of the mystical realm of Dante.  Commissioned by the church, the painting was hung in 1465 portraying Alighieri wearing his usual crimson robe and a laurel wreath on his head, the traditional symbol for poets.  Dante stands outside the city walls, symbolizing his exile, holding a copy of the Divine Comedy which he presents to his city of birth.  The Gates of Hell, depicted on the left corner, contain the famous line, “Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here.”  Purgatory is portrayed as a long winding road circling the mountain in the background, with lost souls trudging upward towards the Garden of Eden on the mountaintop.  In the background the imposing cupola, or dome, rise above the city.  Ironically, the cupola was only completed by Brunelleschi 140 years after Dante’s death.

The Baptistery.  Back outside, one sees the Baptistery: consecrated in 1059, Dante was baptized here in 1265.  For the moment, the landmark remains closed.  When it reopens, check out mosaics which may have inspired scenes in the Divine Comedy.

Sasso di Dante (Dante’s Stone).  Strolling to the south side of the Duomo, the visitor will find Dante’s Stone, a legendary spot where the poet sat and wrote.  The stone is no longer there, but a plaque on the wall commemorates the spot.

Church of Santa Margherita de’ Cerchi.  From Dante’s Stone, walk down via dello Studio and right on via del Corso, then left on via del Presto to the Church of Santa Margherita de’ Cerchi.  It was in this church that Dante first glimpsed his muse Beatrice Portinari at the age of nine.  He said it was love at first sight and Beatrice was often mentioned in his writings even though they rarely had actual contact.  It was to remain an idealized, spiritual love, since Dante was betrothed at age 12 to Gemma di Manetto Donati, whom he later married.  Observe the medieval architecture in the neighborhood, including the Badia Fiorentina and the small parish church of San Martino, dating back to the 10th century, both there during Dante’s lifetime.

Piazza Santa Croce.  Walk east to reach the Piazza Santa Croce to find a large statue of Dante sculpted by Enrico Pazzi in 1865.  The poet, portrayed with a forbidding visage and a laurel wreath, stands on a pedestal with four Marzocco lions (city heralds) and shields containing names of the poet’s works.  An eagle, symbolizing justice, rests at his feet.  Inside the basilica, the largest Franciscan church in the world (closed at the time of this report), an empty monumental tomb for Dante carved in 1819 can be found.  The poet died in exile of malaria in 1321 and was buried in Ravenna.  Even though the municipality of Florence made numerous requests for his remains, Ravenna has always refused.  (rita kungel/additional reporting by rosanna cirigliano)