When it comes to Dante, our mind immediately goes to Florence. But actually, if we want to visit his tomb, where should we go? Despite what is thought, Dante is not buried in Florence, his native city, but in Ravenna, the city where he spent the last three years of his life and where he died in the night between 13 and 14 September 1321. It is in fact in Emilia Romagna that the Great Poet – exiled from Florence – spent his last years. And it is here that, still today, it is possible to visit the neoclassical tomb that contains his remains.
The sight to go to is Basilica of San Francesco, in the centre of Ravenna. Here the small temple (which is a national monument) was built in a silence zone called “Dantesque area”, which houses – in addition to the tomb of Dante– also a garden with a Quadrarc in it and the Dante Museum inside the Franciscan cloisters. But what’s the story of his burial?
The day after his death, happened when he was 56 due to the malaria that he probably contracted during his travels to Verona and Venice, Dante was immediately buried inside the Carrara marble sarcophagus where he still lies today, but which initially was placed inside the Braccioforte cloister; only at the end of the 15th century, it was moved on the west side of the same. Florence, however, did not stand by: it began to reclaim the remains of its illustrious citizen, especially when the florentines Leo X and Clemente VII were named popes. Leo X, together with Michelangelo, sent a delegation to Ravenna to retrieve the remains of Dante so that they would be a Florence property forever, but when he arrived in the city of the mosaics he had a bad surprise: the sarcophagus was empty. Through a hole that reached the tomb from the cloister, the Franciscan friars had “stolen” the remains to save them and, once they returned them to the sarcophagus, this was moved inside the cloister so that it could be constantly guarded. In a second time, the friars removed the bones from the original urn to hide them: this happened in 1810, in the middle of the Napoleonic period, when the immediate abandonment of every religious order was imposed. The urn was then walled in the adjacent oratory and no one knew anything for many years.
For many years, those who visited the Tomb of the Great Poet were actually visiting an empty tomb. Then finally, on 27 May 1865, a worker found the urn during the renovation works for the celebrations of the sixth centenary from Dante’s birth. Later, a student from Ravenna, Anastasio Matteucci, translated the inscription on the urn and screamed for the astonishment: Dante’s bones were there, not in the tomb! His body was then reassembled, exposed to the public inside a crystal case and then buried (again) inside a small temple that in the meantime was built by the architect Camillo Morigia and that today we can admire in one of the most suggestive areas of Ravenna.
And what about Florence? Florence could do nothing but give up, building a second neoclassical temple in Santa Croce, with a thoughtful Dante raised to the glory of Italy while poetry, looking at the sarcophagus, cries.