And the Casa di Dante, which houses the Dante Museum, is a great way to get the feel of how a typical nobleman lived in the 1200s. The museum doesn’t have any Dante artifacts, but there’s a fascinating painting showing the city as it would have looked in Dante’s day, with its forest of towers and the Ponte Vecchio spanning the Arno. There’s also a replica of a nobleman’s bedroom. The gift shop’s best-selling item? “Copies of ‘The Divine Comedy’ – in English,” the museum’s Tullia Carlino tells me.
Leaving the museum, I spot a sign to “Dante’s Church.” The tiny church — its real name is Santa Margherita dei Cerchi — has become a pilgrimage site for, well, it’s hard to say for what. Unrequited love? Cheesy paintings? (One illustrates Dante meeting Pinocchio.) Legend says that this is where the poet first saw Beatrice Portinari, his poetic inspiration. Tragically, she died at 24 and may (or may not) be buried in the church. The uncertainty doesn’t stop tormented lovers from putting notes to her in a basket set out in front of her presumed grave site. The day I’m there, the basket overflows as sappy music plays softly in the background. This is also the church where Dante married Gemma Donati, whom he never mentions in “The Divine Comedy.”
Happily leaving the sugar-shock of “Dante’s Church” behind, I can’t help thinking that Dante would prefer the more majestic Badia Fiorentina, which he mentions in “The Divine Comedy,” commenting on the Gregorian chant wafting from behind its cloistered walls. You can still go to 6 p.m. vespers there and hear the monks chant.
Awaiting Dante’s return
Another church that Dante frequented that seems more in keeping with his soaring poetry is San Miniato al Monte, perched on a hillside overlooking the city. To reach the church, whose marble facade of geometric patterns has changed little since Dante came to admire its mosaics, I take the number 12 bus from the train station in time to make 6 p.m. vespers and enjoy the stunning view.
Looking down on the city’s historic center, I think about how small this city-state was just as the Middle Ages were giving way to the early Renaissance. In Dante’s time, a fortified wall encircled what is now the historic center. For his studies with the Dominicans and Franciscans, he had to risk the danger of going into unprotected territory to visit two churches that were then outside the city walls: Santa Maria Novella in the west and Santa Croce to the east. Now, I can easily walk to both with no concerns.
I visit Santa Croce on my last day in Florence. The square’s scowling Dante, a massive 19th-century statue of the poet, stands guard to the left of the church, while scaffolding is being set up in the square in preparation for Roberto Benigni’s TuttoDante celebration (ends Tuesday). Last year, 70,000 people came to hear the Tuscan-born actor and director read from “The Divine Comedy.”
Inside Santa Croce, Dante’s “tomb” is still empty. For centuries, the city of Ravenna, where Dante died in 1321, has refused to give up his bones — even resorting to hiding them when Pope Leo X, at the suggestion of Michelangelo, ordered their return to Florence in 1519. Florence, after all, only got around to lifting that death sentence against Dante in 2008. No wonder he looks so grumpy.
Or perhaps the churlish Dante is just trying to tell us not to bother looking for him in all the faux Dante places in Florence, but rather in the beauty of his beloved city. Dante’s Florence lives side by side with Renaissance Florence and all the periods that have followed.
This city doesn’t obliterate its past; it builds on it. Search for Dante, and you’ll find Florence.
Hammond teaches art-inspired memoir-writing classes at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., and blogs at creativelatebloomers.blogspot.com.