Dante Alighieri will forever be associated with Florence, the city of his birth and also the dialect that he helped elevate to such an extent that it would one day become the basis of the national language of Italy. Yet even though Dante died nearly 700 years ago, Florence is not the city where is buried as nearly everyone believes.
The story of how Dante’s remains came to be in Ravenna. When the poet died, sometime between September 13th and 14th, 1321, he had not seen Florence for some 20 years. Exiled for life from Florence, after finding himself on the losing side of a war for control of the city, Dante spent the next several years roaming, defiantly refusing conditional offers to return home on terms that he saw as unjust. He eventually settled in Ravenna, in present-day Emilia-Romagna, at the invitation of its ruler. He had lived in the city for just three years when he died at the age of 56. Since the body of the famous author, poet and lawyer was in Ravenna, the city was not about to let it go.
Dante was buried by the church of San Pier Maggiore (now the Basilica di San Francesco) with all the pomp that Ravenna could muster. After a funeral attended by the city’s most illustrious families, his body was placed into a Roman marble sarcophagus that was laid to rest outside the church’s cloisters. There it remained for the next 160 odd years, undisturbed except for the addition, in 1366, of an epitaph by fellow poet Bernardo Canaccio, who wrote ” … here I lie interred, Dante, an exile from my homeland, he who was born of Florence, an unloving mother.”
Meanwhile that “unloving mother” was growing distinctly fonder of her lost son. Fellow Tuscan poet Giovanni Boccaccio, who along with Petrarch would follow Dante’s precedent of writing in the vernacular instead of Latin, wrote texts and gave lectures in praise of his idol, whose reputation was gathering weight across Europe.
All of that praise inspired the Florentines to seek the return of Dante to the city of his birth. Seventy-five years after the poet’s death, the city made its first documented request for Dante’s remains. It would prove the first of many.
In 1396 Ravenna said no. In 1430, Florence asked again. Ravenna again declined. In 1476 Florence tried a third time – and for the third time, Ravenna turned them down.
In 1483, the governor of Ravenna decided that the city’s most illustrious corpse should occupy a more prominent position. That year Dante’s sarcophagus was moved to the other side of the cloister and a sculptor was commissioned to create a marble bas-relief of the poet at work to hang above it.
But the mighty Republic of Florence was not about to give in. The Medici family, Florence’s original power dynasty, were about to assume the ultimate authority: the papacy. Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici was appointed Pope Leo X in 1513 and what previous delegations had proved unable to achieve by diplomacy, he could demand by papal decree.
In 1519, at the request of Florentine intellectuals and artists, Leo X granted his fellow townspeople permission to go to Ravenna in a mission to obtain Dante’s remains. The poet was to return to Florence and be laid to rest in a spectacular monument designed by Michelangelo.
The delegation arrived at the church of San Pier Maggiore, ordered the sarcophagus opened and found that Dante’s remains were not there.
The Franciscan brothers, whose had been guarding Dante’s tomb for nearly 200 years, had heard of the papal mission and tunneled through the wall of their monastery into the sarcophagus and hid the body. The Florentines’ reaction to finding Dante gone is not recorded, but it is safe to assume that they were incensed. Once they departed the city empty-handed, Dante’s remains were moved inside the cloisters by the monks, where they were guarded for another 150 years.
By the late 18th century plans were made in Ravenna to give Dante a more imposing tomb. In 1781 a local architect was commissioned to build a neoclassical mausoleum, lined with marble and topped with a dome that would house the original sarcophagus and 15th century bas-relief.
In 1805, when Napoleon declared himself “Emperor of the French and King of Italy” and occupied the north-east portion of the peninsula, the friars feared that the illustrious poet’s remains would fall into the hands of the French. Dante’s remains were again gathered up and placed back in the same wooden chest where they had spent most of the 18th century to be hidden in a wall. The friars were forced to flee the church and did so without leaving any record of what they had done the bones.
As the 500-year anniversary of Dante’s death approached, it was time for Florence to revive its claims to Dante yet again. The city commissioned a tomb of its own in the Basilica di Santa Croce, much grander than Ravenna’s. The poet sits pensively atop a tomb, statues of Italy and Poetry in mourning on either side. The inscription from the poets Inferno reads: “Honor to the most illustrious poet. His shadow, which had departed, now returns. As impressive as it was, Dante’s tomb in Florence has remained empty since its completion in 1830 through today.
Meanwhile, his Ravenna monument was also empty. For several decades in the 19th century, Dante was in the bizarre position of having two tombs and not being in either of them. In 1865, a laborer uncovered a chest labeled “Dantis ossa” (Dante’s bones). The bones were transferred to a crystal case and placed on public display, where they attracted large crowds of admirers. Then they were moved to a heavy wooden casket lined with lead and placed back in the mausoleum, where they remain today.
What would the poet have likely thought of all of the commotion regarding his final resting place? He would have likely laughed himself to death, ensuring he would have the last laugh.