04 March 2021
2021 marks 700 years since the death of Dante Alighieri, who died in exile in Ravenna. ACE Tour Director Andrew Wilson muses on the city where Italy's great poet finished composing his epic work, The Divine Comedy.
ACE’s tour to Ravenna naturally focuses on the city’s glorious Byzantine sites, but we always pay our respects to Dante while visiting his tomb. In this we follow in the footsteps of Byron, who was in Ravenna in 1819 with his current lover Teresa, where they read Dante together and Byron composed the poem dedicated to her, The Prophecy of Dante. Perhaps he composed parts of it as he walked past Dante’s tomb, immortalised in Don Juan:
I pass each day where Dante’s bones are laid;
A little cupola, more neat than solemn,
Protects his dust, but reverence here is paid
To the bard’s tomb, and not the warrior’s column.
Dante's tomb in Ravenna
Dante Alighieri was born in his beloved Florence in 1265. Regular rivalry between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire was contested in Northern Italy by two opposing dynasties, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, with Dante’s family supporting the former and thus loyal to the Pope. Later, the Guelphs split into White and Black factions, with the latter taking control of Florence in 1301 while Dante, affiliated to the White Guelphs, was on a diplomatic mission in Rome with the Pope. The Black Guelphs accused him of financial corruption and he was “guiltlessly exiled”, as he himself expressed it, from Florence, never returning there.
Unsettled for many years, he was finally offered a home in Ravenna in 1316 or 1318, where he completed his Divine Comedy, widely regarded as one of the greatest works in world literature, before dying in 1321. This year therefore marks the 700th anniversary of his death.
Statue of Dante in front of the Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence
Dante was originally interred in the classic Basilica di San Francesco, but his current resting place was commissioned in 1780. Inside, we read an appropriate passage from Paradiso, ‘the laurel crown’ (Longfellow’s revered 1867 translation):
If e’er it happen that the Poem sacred,
To which both heaven and earth have set their hand,
So that it many a year hath made me lean,
O’ercome the cruelty that bars me out
From the fair sheepfold, where a lamb I slumbered,
An enemy to the wolves that war upon it,
With other voice forthwith, with other fleece
Poet will I return, and at my font
Baptismal will I take the laurel crown.
Engraving after Raphael showing Dante wearing a laurel crown, alongside Homer and Virgil
Dante was in his early 50s when he was encouraged by the ruling Polenta family in Ravenna to settle in the city, surrounded by friends and writers, and above all reunited with his exiled sons Jacopo and Pietro. The later 14th century promoter of his work, the great Boccaccio, describes how Dante wrote and formed a literary circle, and he must have been contented in Ravenna, completing the Paradiso section of the trilogy, and other works.
In the last year of Dante’s life, Ravenna became involved in a trading dispute with Venice, and he accompanied the delegation to negotiate with the Doge. Returning overland through the marshes rather than by sea, it seems Dante contracted malaria, and died in Ravenna most likely on 14th September 1321. The following year Jacopo produced a complete copy of The Divine Comedy for publication, to instant and everlasting acclaim.
I like to imagine Dante towards the end of his life describing how Beatrice takes over from Virgil as his guide before the poet enters Paradiso:
Within that heaven which most his light receives
Was I, and things beheld which to repeat
Nor knows, nor can, who from above descends.
It is a stunning vision, part of the overall complex theology and philosophy contained within The Divine Comedy, which only a great poet like Dante could express. That genius is surely why we commemorate the 700th anniversary of his death in Ravenna this year, and endorse the epitaph that Pope Paul IX left behind when he visited the tomb in 1857, with lines from Purgatorio reflecting on worldly fame:
Naught is this worldly rumour but a breath
Of wind, that comes now this way and now that,
And changes name, because it changes side.
Illustration by Gustave Dore from Paradiso, showing Dante with Beatrice
Dante's tomb in Ravenna (interior and exterior photos) by Petar Milošević used under CC BY-SA 4.0
Statue of Dante in Florence by Jörg Bittner (Unna) used under CC BY-SA 3.0
Detail from 'Apollo sitting on Parnassus surrounded by the muses and famous poets' depicting Dante, by Marcantonio Raimondi after Raphael
“The Ninth Heaven from the Divine Comedy” by Gustave Doré. Image by Wikimedia Commons.