The 15th century fresco of Dante Alighieri was nearly lost forever when it was whitewashed over, only to be rediscovered hundreds of years later. It was scratched and darkened with grime, but after a six-month restoration, the famous portrait of Dante has been returned to its original luster, just in time for the 700th anniversary of the poet’s death.
The newly restored portrait, which is eight feet high by five feet wide and was painted by Renaissance artist Andrea del Castagno, was unveiled last week at the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, Italy. It depicts the author of The Divine Comedy, considered to be the greatest work of literature, dressed in a cloak and a red cap, his gaze intent and his nose aquiline. “This is perhaps the most famous image of Dante, an icon of Italian culture,” said Eike Schmidt, the director of the art gallery. “He’s an important figure not just for Italy but for the whole world.”
The restorers of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, a long-established cultural heritage institution in Florence, restored the portrait to its original color, removing sediments and pictorial retouches that had darkened the colors. An unprecedented image emerged. Having looked melancholy and dour before the restoration, Dante’s face is once again bright and animated and more youthful.
The detached fresco was originally located in Villa Pandolfini near Florence and was one of nine famous figures painted by del Castagno on the walls of the villa between 1447 and 1449. The paintings included three condottieri, military commanders who led bands of mercenaries during the High Middle Ages and Early Renaissance, as well as three illustrious women and the three most famous poets of the age, Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio.
At some point the beautifully-executed cycle of frescoes was whitewashed over and were in danger of being lost forever. They were rediscovered during restoration work in 1847, when the owners of the villa had them detached from the wall. They intended to sell them off to the highest bidder, which might well have meant they would have left Italy forever, but the Uffizi Galleries stepped in and bought them in 1852.
The restored fresco is to be loaned out to exhibitions in other parts of Italy. The first stop for the fresco is in Forli at Musei San Domenico, from April 1 to July 11, 2021, for the celebrations of the 700th anniversary of his death. The painting will then be exhibited in Castagno d’Andrea, in the Florentine town of San Godenzo, in Mugello and then return permanently in the rooms of the former Church of San Pier Scheraggio, which belongs to the Uffizi Galleries.
The exhibition is one of hundreds of events around Italy that have been organized for the 700th anniversary of the poet’s death, which occurred on March 25, 1321. The poet’s remains are in Ravenna on the Adriatic coast. The magnificent monument to Dante in Florence actually does not contain his remains.
The restoration was funded by Linda Balent of the U.S. Friends of the Uffizi Galleries Society.