Day 26: Firenze Dante tour

I went on a walking tour given by Context Travel to learn more about Dante Alighieri as his work influenced art particularly the Divine Comedy parts of which started to be published in the 1310s even though it wasn’t completed until 1321, shortly before Dante died.

I won’t be able to recount or remember all that I learned over 3 hours. My docent Martino was very knowledgeable.

One of the main takeaways was that little of the Firenze that Dante knew still exists. He lived pre-Renaissance. That era and the 19th and 20th centuries significantly changed the buildings and roads that can currently be seen. Florence still retains the Roman main roads which are short enough that you can stand on them and see both ends.

Only part of the Duomo was built. The dome end was constructed after Dante had left Florence. The start of the expansion of the end under the dome can be seen in the change in the spacing between the windows. And of course, the construction of the dome itself awaited Brunelleschi’s ingenuity, which was not until the Renaissance.

Dante makes reference to the Baptistery, where until the 1960s, every baby in Florence went to be baptized. Minus the Ghiberti doors, the Baptistery would have looked much the same then as now.

I hadn’t noticed on previous visits how many plaques are quotes from Dante.

Or things like this rock which says it’s the true rock that Dante described sitting on.

There are also fake Dante sites. His family home was somewhere on what is now Via Dante Alighieri but being wood, it burned down. The so-called Dante house is made of stone.

The Dante Society is in a building, Palazzo dell’Arte della Lana, that used to house the wool guild on the same site as existed during Dante’s days but that building of wood has been replaced and modified.

Dante and Beatrice are linked as a famous romance. Dante claims he fell in love when he saw Beatrice in a church when he was 9 years old. Which church is unknown but there are likely candidates.

Santa Maria Trinità is probably not a possibility although it existed in Dante’s time and is connected with his time when he was on the governing council.

But it has an early Ghirlandaio frescoed chapel. I can’t remember if I have mentioned Domenico Ghirlandaio. He was an early Renaissance artist and taught Michelangelo for a year before Big Mike decided he didn’t need a teacher and later denied every having one. I assume he wanted you to think his talent just sprung forth without training. (I think Big Mike had an ego problem.)

Badia Fiorentina, the oldest monastery in Florence, is a possibility. I forgot to take a photo because I got distracted listening to Martino who tried to help two women who were on a pilgrimage route and wanted stamps to show they had been to the site. My listening to Italian is improving but it takes all my concentration.

Dante only ever met Beatrice once as an adult. Although he claimed he loved her, marriage was impossible as she was from a rich important family and he was not. She married a rich guy from an important family but died young in childbirth. She’s believed to be buried in this church, Santa Margherita dei Cerchi—so the plaque claims. Her father’s tomb is there. It’s a possible church where Dante first saw her.

During Dante’s days, Florence had a lot of towers that were homes as well as fortresses. We saw the same type of building in Bologna this vacation and many in Lucca in 2007. Of the remaining ones, some have been turned into hotels.

Florence at that time was a republic whose governing council was selected from and by votes from members of the guilds. Many significant building were funded by guilds, such as the Baptistry and Orsan Michele.

Dante was given membership in the apothecary guild although it was never his profession but it allowed him to become part of the governing council.

In his time, the council met in a building much like the tower houses, called Torre della Castagna. When he was elected to the council, Dante would have attended meetings in this building.

The history of the Ghibelline and Guelph conflict forms an essential component to Dante’s story and is relevant to the history of the other cities that are part of this vacation.

The oldest extant building in Florence, once used as a women’s prison

During the 12th and 13th centuries much of northern and central areas of Italy were embroiled in fighting between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, political factions supporting the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, respectively. The Guelphs tended to be wealthy business or mercantile families while the later tended to be landed or agricultural estate aristocrats, but families sometimes switched sides.

In Florence once the Guelphs or Guelfi in Italian were defeated, their lands and wooden homes were burned including the area which is now Piazza degli Signoria. The Plazzo Vecchio was only starting to be built in Dante’s time and may have hosted a meeting around the time Dante was exiled.

Dante and his family were supporters of the Ghibelline party but once the Guelfi were defeated, conflict arose within the Ghibelline party. To make a long story short, Dante refers to one young man who was murdered by the rival faction, then his family and friends took revenge, and of course, it all escalated. Dante claimed the murder happened on this bridge (way in the background) but very likely on this street where the family lived.

The factions get referred to as the black and white and to some extent, they divided into old families and new families with a lot of wealth. Dante, while part of the ruling council, exiled a rival, which eventually resulted in Dante being exiled.

Below, the small dark green door on the right is in front of a space between buildings to create a division between the rival factions—a Medieval DMZ. It didn’t help.

In exile, to support himself, Dante began writing including the Divine Comedy.

It’s considered one of the world’s greatest pieces of literature but I confess I knew little about it until I started looking more into early Renaissance art. I’ve since read bits (in English) as well as overviews in a webinar and a book. Joseph Luzzi’s book Botticelli’s Secrets describes the context for Botticelli’s illustrations of the Divine Comedy.

The shortest description is that it is a three-part narrative poem imagining divine justice once you die. Dante describes himself on a journey starting in Hell (Inferno) being guided by Virgil, then to Purgatory (Purgatorio). His final book in Heaven (Paradiso) must leave Virgil as his guide, since Virgil, however excellent a soul, cannot enter Heaven as he wasn’t Christian. Dante’s final guide is his beloved Beatrice. Dante writes of his longing to be back in Florence and makes numerous references to the city.

So Dante’s exile was to literature’s and arts’ benefit.

Some other Dante related photos. The Bargello where a fresco includes an alleged accurate depiction of Dante, but was done 40 years after his exile and 20 years after his death.

Santi Apostoli, the third church where Dante may have first seen Beatrice.

Santa Maria Novella, where a Last Judgment shows the circles of hell described by Dante and painted only 20 years after the publication of the Divine Comedy.

I’ll have to come back to this place as it has another fresco claiming to show Dante’s likeness and it’s in the building that was formerly for the notary, judge and lawyer guild.

Way in the distance, on top of the hill, is the church of San Miniato to which Dante makes reference. It’s one of those great stories of a martyr whose head gets chopped off, picks up his own head and walks, in this case, up to the top of the hill, where his remains are in the crypt.

Tourist throngs

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