Discovering the Florence of Poet Dante Alighieri

There are statues, paintings and even streets modelled after Dante Alighieri in Florence, where the poet was born and raised
There are statues, paintings and even streets modelled after Dante Alighieri in Florence, where the poet was born and raised | Sorin Colac / Alamy Stock Photo

Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy and father of the Italian language, is Florence’s cherished native son. Following his exile from the city in 1302 however, the poet’s regard for his hometown was less than favourable. Here, discover Dante’s complicated relationship with his native Florence, and explore his home and haunts in the Tuscan capital.

It’s near impossible to visit Florence without stumbling across something Dante-related. Tributes to the city’s native poet are quite literally on every corner – there are 34 plaques dotted around the centre of Florence inscribed with quotes from The Divine Comedy, each relating, in some way, to the location in which they’re placed. Hotels, streets and restaurants are named after Dante, and his likeness is recreated in several sculptures and artworks across the city.

Dante’s regard for his hometown, however, was less than favourable. The poet, born in Florence in 1265, lived in the city for almost four decades before his political ideologies landed him in exile in 1302. It was only after leaving Florence that he created what would go on to be his magnum opus, The Divine Comedy, throughout which there are frequent references to the city and its people – many of them condemnatory.

If you were to trace the plaques across the city’s historic centre, you’d get an idea of the Florence of Dante’s day. On Via del Corso for example, there’s a plaque on the former site of Filippo Argenti’s home, quoting a passage in which the politician – an enemy of Dante’s who opposed his return to Florence and (allegedly) once slapped him – is condemned to the Fifth Circle of Hell. There are also a handful of locations meaningful to the poet that bear plaques. On the ground next to the Baptistry of San Giovanni, site of Dante’s christening and one of Florence’s most iconic buildings, is a plaque reading ‘in my beautiful San Giovanni’, taken from Dante’s Inferno.

Dante wrote about the place of his baptism, the Baptistry of San Giovanni, in his Inferno

Dante never returned to Florence – going home would have been a death sentence. He went on to reside in various Italian cities before he passed away while living in Ravenna, a city near the northern coast of the Adriatic. Though Ravenna is where Dante’s tomb can be found, it’s in Florence that the poet spent most of his life.

From the site of his birthplace to the church where he allegedly first laid eyes on his beloved Beatrice, take a walk through Dante’s Florence via the five pitstops below.

1. Museo Casa di Dante

Museum, Historical Landmark

DHWX8A museo della casa di dante,florence,italy
© MARKA / Alamy Stock Photo

The first stop on any Dante-themed Florence itinerary should be the site of his birth. The famous Florentine poet was born on this spot in 1265, and a house was built on the location of the medieval Alighieri family homes to honour his legacy. The three-storey building, located just off Via Dante Alighieri, was converted into a museum displaying artefacts and replicas from the life and times of Dante.

2. Chiesa di Santa Margherita

Church, Cathedral

Ancient Via Santa Margherita on which the Chiesa di Santa Margherita dei Cerchi
© LIUDMILA ERMOLENKO/Shutterstock

Across the street from Dante’s birthplace is this small Roman Catholic church. Many significant moments in Dante’s life are said to have taken place here; it was in the church that he allegedly first saw his love and muse Beatrice Portinari, and also where he is thought to have married Gemma Donati, mother of his four children. Today, the spirit of Beatrice acts as something of an agony aunt; visitors commonly leave letters praying for luck in their love lives at her shrine within the church.

3. Piazza del Duomo

Historical Landmark

The tale of Dante’s stone is told time and time again by Florentines. The great Italian poet is said to have spent many summer evenings perched on an old rock between Piazza delle Pallottole and Piazza del Duomo, writing love poems and enjoying the summer breeze. On Piazza delle Pallottole today is Sasso di Dante, a restaurant named after the historic site, but if you want to find the exact spot where Dante sat you’d have to pop round the corner to the south side of the Duomo. There, fixed on the wall between two shops, is a marble plaque reading ‘Sasso di Dante’ – it’s here that Dante’s favourite seat would’ve been located.

4. Palazzo Vecchio

Building, Museum, Historical Landmark

D2F7J1 View Of Palazzo Vecchio, Florence
© Corina Daniela Obertas / Alamy Stock Photo
On a first floor corridor inside Florence’s town hall is the Dante death mask. Though claims that the mask is carved directly from Dante’s face have since been discredited, this small sculpture is still known to bear the closest resemblance to the poet as can be found. It’s thought to have been carved in the late 15th century by Renaissance sculptors Tullio and Pietro Lombardo.

5. Ponte Santa Trinita

Bridge

Sunset at Ponte Vecchio over the river Arno in Florence
© I-Wei Huang / Alamy Stock Photo
In his early work, La Vita Nuova, Dante writes of his infatuation with Beatrice Portinari. The text, which would go on to be regarded as a leading example of love poetry, inspired the painting Dante and Beatrice (1883) by Pre-Raphaelite artist Henry Holiday some six centuries later. In the painting, Dante gazes at Beatrice from the Holy Trinity Bridge as she walks by with two female companions. The historical accuracy of the painting is bolstered by research; Holiday travelled to Florence to learn how the banks of the Arno would’ve looked during Dante’s era. As such, visiting this spot today – on the edge of the Ponte Santa Trinita, with the Ponte Vecchio in the background – makes for a fascinating insight into Dante’s medieval Florence.

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