Dante’s last laugh: Why Italy’s national poet isn’t buried where you think he is

Dante Alighieri will forever be associated with Florence, city of his birth and the dialect he helped elevate such that it would become the basis of Italy's national language. Yet when Dante died 700 years ago, Florence isn't where he ended up.

Dante's last laugh: Why Italy's national poet isn't buried where you think he is
Despite the city's best efforts, Dante isn't buried in Florence. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

The story of how Dante’s remains came to be in Ravenna isn’t that complicated. It’s how they came to stay there that gets strange.

When the poet died, sometime between September 13-14th, 1321, he hadn’t seen Florence for some 20 years. Exiled for life 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 he saw as unjust. 

READ ALSO: Italian lawyers seek justice for Dante – 700 years after his death

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 aged 56. But his body was in Ravenna, and Ravenna wasn’t 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 great and good, his body went into a Roman marble sarcophagus that was laid to rest outside the church’s cloisters.

And there it remained for the next 160 odd years, undisturbed but for the addition, in 1366, of an epitaph by fellow poet Bernardo Canaccio, who couldn’t resist including a dig at Florence:

” … here I lie interred, Dante, an exile from my homeland, he who was born of Florence, an unloving mother.”

READ ALSO: Ten strange things you never knew about Dante

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 the praise seems to have reminded the Florentines of the Dante-shaped hole in their cemetery. 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.

So it looked rather like a taunt when the governor of Ravenna decided, in 1483, that the city’s most illustrious corpse ought to occupy a more prominent position. That year Dante’s sarcophagus was moved to the other side of the cloister and a sculptor commissioned to make a marble bas-relief of the poet at work.

Photo: Domenico BressanCC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia

But the mighty Republic of Florence had bigger guns to use. The Medici, 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 and fetch Dante’s remains. The poet was to return to Florence and be laid to rest – for good this time – in a spectacular monument designed by none other than Michelangelo, Tuscan, sculptor, painter, poet and patronee of the Medici.

A delegation set forth for Ravenna. It arrived at the church of San Pier Maggiore, with the weight of the Catholic Church and one of Europe’s most powerful families behind it. The delegates ordered the sarcophagus opened. Dante’s remains were… not there.

READ ALSO: Did Dante’s narcolepsy inspire The Divine Comedy?

The Franciscan brothers, whose order had been guarding Dante’s tomb for nearly 200 years by this point, had got wind of the papal mission and tunnelled a hole through the wall of their monastery into the sarcophagus. They stashed the poet’s body inside the gap, all without being spotted from the outside.

The Florentines’ reaction to finding Dante gone isn’t recorded, but it’s safe to bet they were pretty riled. According to some versions of the story they found themselves in the awkward position of not being able to report the body missing, since doing so would involve admitting they had thrown open the tomb with the intention of stealing it.

Ravenna took note and moved Dante’s remains inside the cloisters for safe-keeping, where monks guarded them jealously for another 150 years. On October 18th, 1677, a friar named Antonio Santi put them into a wooden chest (we know because he left a note), and in 1692 it’s recorded that workers carrying out repairs on the sarcophagus were supervised by armed guards to make sure they didn’t try anything.

By the late 18th century plans were afoot to give Dante a more imposing tomb. In 1781 a local architect commissioned by Ravenna’s Catholic authorities completed a small neoclassical mausoleum, lined with marble and topped with a dome, that would house the original sarcophagus and 15th-century bas-relief. So that no one could be in any doubt, it was inscribed: “DANTIS POETAE SEPULCRUM” (“Tomb of Dante the poet”). 

Photo: José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro – CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia

Accounts diverge at this point: either the monks neglected to mention that they’d hidden the bones and quietly let the new tomb go empty, or they returned the bones to the sarcophagus. But even if they did, they wouldn’t stay there for long.

This time the threat didn’t come from Florence, but from France. When, in 1805, Napoleon declared himself “Emperor of the French and King of Italy” and occupied the north-east of the peninsula, Ravenna fell under the Frenchman’s rule – and Dante’s custodians became increasingly concerned about their new masters. 

As Napoleon’s armies seized property from religious orders up and down their new territory, the friars of San Francesco found themselves forced to abandon their monastery, but not without taking measures to ensure that the poet’s remains didn’t become part of the booty. In 1810, after less than 30 years in his new mausoleum (if he’d ever been there in the first place), Dante was gathered up and put back in the same wooden chest in which he’d spent most of the 18th century.

The casket was hidden in a wall of the chapel and the gap sealed. The friars fled, without leaving any record of what they’d done or where to find the bones.

In another few years the French would have left Italy, but Ravenna’s old rival remained. 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 pointedly commissioned a tomb of its own in the Basilica di Santa Croce, this one much grander than Ravenna’s. The poet sits pensively atop a tomb, statues of Italy and Poetry in mourning on either side.

Photo: Meryddian – CC BY 2.5, Wikimedia

The inscription reads: “Honour to the most illustrious poet”, a quotation from Canto IV of the Inferno – which, as all good Dante scholars know, continues: “His shadow, which had departed, now returns.”

Ravenna can’t have missed the point, but chose to ignore it. As impressive as it was, Dante’s tomb in Florence was to lie empty from its completion in 1830 right up until today. 

READ ALSO: Why a discovery at Verona University could change the story of Dante’s life

But 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. Not that most people were any the wiser: his acolytes continued to make their pilgrimages to the mausoleum in Ravenna to pay homage to the poet, not realizing that all the while he was several metres away inside a chapel wall.

And there he might have remained had a labourer not uncovered the chest during work on the basilica in 1865, and had a sharp-eyed student not spotted Friar Santi’s note labelling the box “Dantis ossa” (“Dante’s bones”).

The contents were subsequently handed to doctors for examination, who pronounced them to be the almost intact skeleton of an older man between 165-170 centimetres tall, with a “larger and more beautiful” than average skull that they took to indicate superior intelligence.

Dante’s statue in Florence. Photo: Clément Bardot – CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia

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 put back where they were supposed to be all along, in the mausoleum.

But, incredibly, it wouldn’t be the end of their travels. Having survived Florentine appeals, papal machinations and Napoleonic incursions, Dante’s remains would face one last threat: World War II.

In March 1944, with northern Italy occupied by the Nazis and the Allies attempting to bomb them out, the poet’s bones were moved once more – this time to a patch of earth in the basilica’s garden, where they remained safely until hostilities ceased.

On December 19th, 1945, Dante was put back in his Ravenna mausoleum for the final time (we assume), and the grassy mound that sheltered him was marked with a plaque.

The plaque commemorating Dante’s burial site during World War II. Photo: By Flying RussianCC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia

As for his hometown, Florence has finally abandoned its hopes of seeing Dante return after death, contenting itself with the monument in its cathedral and a statue of the poet in the square outside.

If Dante wouldn’t come to them, however, the Florentines would send a little bit of Tuscany to him: each year the city sends local olive oil to burn in the lamp that lights Dante’s mausoleum.

Rest in peace, Dante – wherever you are.

This article was originally published in 2018.

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‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.