Dante and us. Seven centuries later, he is still here, and not only in our libraries or in our, often not too benevolent, memories as students who had to learn his words by heart.
His works have retained the ability to excite and interpret us, and this is especially true in Florence, the city where he lived and from which he drew much of his wealth of artistic and human experience.
In this section, we rediscover traces of Dante and his life through a critical and reflexive look at the places of our everyday life. Often these places fail to deign our attention or are treated as simple background. We’re talking about urban routes that are an invitation to see our city in a new light, either as residents or as tourists or as fleeting travellers just passing through.
Dante knew how to observe with equal sagacity heaven and earth, the material and immaterial, the least and the absolute. We are trying, in our own small way, to do the same. To look around us with a critical and conscious eye.
Florence: a place of love and pain for Dante
In the Divine Comedy, Florence is a recurring image because it was Dante’s beloved birthplace, which he was forced to exile for political reasons. And even though the events of history deigned he be buried in Ravenna, his link with Florence remains indissoluble.
We feel it every time we walk through the streets of the city centre. We find him in the Casa di Dante, where he spent his childhood and adolescence; in his "beautiful San Giovanni" where he was baptised on 26 March 1266; in the small church of Santa Margherita dei Cerchi, the symbol of his love for Beatrice; in the Torre della Castagna where he carried out his political role as Prior of Florence with passion.
So although we cannot honour his mortal remains, we Florentines are consoled because everything in our city speaks of him.
For Dante and for the Florentines of his day, Florence’s church par excellence was the Battistero, his "beautiful San Giovanni", in which Dante was baptised on 26 March 1266 along with all the other children born in Florence the previous year. Inside the building are the baptismal fonts, one of which was broken by the same Dante to save a drowning child (Inf. XIX, 13-21).
On the pedestal are the words: A DANTE ALIGHIERI L’ITALIA M.DCCC.LXV
Below that is a row of shields representing the coat of arms of the major Italian cities.
A journey past the towers, streets and vestiges of the old factories to find out what's left of 'pre-Renaissance' Florence. A city seething with interests and passion, a medieval city where the struggle between political factions inevitably reflected the tangle of social tensions with the irresistible rise of the merchant classes and trade guilds eager to liquidate the old feudal privileges, but already caught up, in turn, in the rebellion of the 'common people'.
For more information: Museo Casa di Dante - Tour di Firenze
The tour begins in the most sacred place for the Florentine guilds, the Chiesa di Orsanmichele, in which all the major arts possessed a tabernacle. This church was built by the Signoria as a ‘templum in statura et forma palatii’ on the site of the old Loggia del Mercato del Grano. This building is perhaps one of the most unique in Florence because it joined civil life to that of religion. It was born as a cereal market on the ground floor with a granary above it, but thanks to a miraculous image of Our Lady that appeared on a pillar, also became a place of prayer and pilgrimage, to the point that in 1327 Simone Talenti closed all the arcades, and the market became a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Orsanmichele was in practice the seat of worship for the twenty-one Arts and Crafts guilds, a continuation of the ancient trade scholae of the Roman-era Florence. They were typical medieval institutions qualified by their particular economic and production activity, whose members were grouped into job categories related to the protection of their common interests. Initially there were only those of the Arts, which, taking advantage of a large initial capital, could exercise mercantile and manufacturing activities, attracting large earnings. The Arts were the very life of Florence and at every historical or political event, be it military or religious, were always present with their social, political and economic strength. For centuries they gave the city much of its grandeur and prestige. As early as the twelfth century, trade and industry in the thriving city were greatly developed, but it would be another century before they were officially established as seven major arts and, later, fourteen minor arts.
The tour continues on this historic route to the palazzo where one of the city’s most powerful Guilds had its seat. The Palagio dell’arte della lana, crenelated Guelph-style, is a characteristic example of the Florentine architectural style of the fourteenth century. It was the austere headquarters of the mercantile and industrial wool guild of the same name, the main source of wealth for the city through the massive production of textiles derived from their wool processing. Wool processing has been practiced in Florence since ancient times, but it truly came of age in the thirteenth century when the Frati Umiliati, who specialised in treating wool, came to town and settled in an area known today as Borgognissanti. The wealth and power of the Arte della Lana is expressed by the fact that already in the first half of the fifteenth century, Florence had 200 wool shops and almost 30,000 people derived their livelihood from the industry. The symbol of the Arte della Lana was the Agnus Dei on a blue field. On 26 December each year, the wool workers solemnly honoured the feast of St. Stephen, known as the Martyr, the patron saint of their Art. On this street, you can also admire the beautiful statue of St. Eligius, Bishop of Noyon-Tournai, located just outside the Orsanmichele. The piece was sculpted by Nanni di Banco in 1414, commissioned by the Arte dei Fabbri e Maniscalchi, whose patron saint was Saint Eligius, as it seems that in life he had been - before answering his religious calling - a farrier. The scene depicted on the beautiful marble plinth on the shrine-tabernacle where the statue of the saint is located precisely describes the miracle in which Saint Eligius took part.
In this street, you’ll learn about the history and importance of the medical guild known as the Arte dei Medici e Speziali, of which Dante was a member. In Roman times, Via degli Speziali was Via degli Strozzi, meeting the Decumano (to the east-west), and the Cardo (to the north-south), which coincide with the modern-day Via Roma, Via Calimala and Por Santa Maria.
Here you’ll discover the history and importance of the Arte di Calimala, one of the oldest and most influential guilds. The origin of its name is lost in the early days of the city, mangled over the centuries to become a real conundrum. If the etymology is traced back to the Latin term, it means ‘dishonesty’ or ‘prostitution’, while if you the name descends from Greek it becomes a form of greeting. The guild that took its name from its headquarters here imported and worked with raw materials such as the raw wool from France and England.
In this street, you’ll find the sumptuous residence of the Arte dei Mercatanti, whose palazzo extends from Via Calzaiuoli to Via Porta Rossa. This merchant guild’s coat of arms bore a golden eagle on a red field, and can be seen frequently on the palazzo’s facade and Via Calimaruzza.
This palazzo, home to the notary guild from which it took its name, from the first half of the fourteenth century was built next to a tower from the eleventh century. The entrance was originally located on Via dei Pandolfini, but it has since been walled, so we must access the building from Via del Proconsul. The building preserves some important and recently restored frescos depicting medieval Florence with portraits of Florentine poets, among them Dante. These images are particularly interesting because, together with those in the Cappella del Bargello, depict the poet with none of the feature seen in the traditional Renaissance iconography of him - the distinctly pointed nose and forehead frown. In fact, these frescoes show that while Dante had a long nose, it was not hooked.
Our journey ends with a visit to the Museo Casa di Dante. Dante was a member of the Arte dei Medici e Speziali, one of the major guilds. The museum allows you analyse in depth the very economic and social situation that allowed the Arts and guilds to be born, thrive and become one of the driving forces behind the rise of Florence, transforming it into one of the most influential cities not only in Italy but throughout all of Europe.
A tiptoe trip into the bloody political feud that broke the beautiful city of Florence in two in 1200 (Divine Comedy, Inferno XXVI)
The tour begins at the spot where the bloody event that sparked decades of war between Guelfi and Ghibellines happened. The so-called “wasted stone” (because it was mutilated and extremely worn) was a statue of the god Mars, a Roman god who had been chosen as protector of the city at the time of the founding of the Roman military castrum. When Florence converted fully to Christianity, it replaced its patron Mars with the patron saint San Giovanni Battista, inaugurating the famous baptistery and relegating the statue of Mars to the Ponte Vecchio. It was Dante in his poem who named this place and through the words spoken by Caccaiguida recounts the murder:
But it was needful that to the wasted stone which guards the bridge Florence should offer a victim in her last days of peace
He was referring to the assassination of young Buondelmonte de 'Buondelmonti, on the day of his wedding. Ancient chronicles speak of a rumour ending in a murder that divided the city into two factions. In a banquet offered by Mazzingo Tegriti to celebrate his elevation to knighthood, a jester took a plate away from one of the guests. He ended up in an altercation with another diner with plenty of thrown dishes. From here it became a terrific brawl in which Buondelmonte de 'Buondelmonti wounded Oddo Arrighi. To repair the foul deed, Buondelmonte was forced to marry Arrighi’s niece, the daughter of Lambertuccio Amidei. Peace attained through the contract of engagement, the wedding date was set for 11 February 1216. Except that, to the great scorn of the bride and her family, on the morning of the wedding, not only did the groom not show up, but he went to ask for the hand of Forese Donati’s daughter. The Arrighi’s reaction was terrible. Mosca de 'Lamberti said - in the words of Villani - the famous phrase "What's done is done," meaning that young Buondelmonte was as good as dead. And so it was done. A few months later on Easter Sunday, while Buondelmonte crossed the bridge on horseback, conspirators waited for him to pass and beat him with clubs and swords. From that day on, one trouble after another dragged on for nearly a century. The city was divided into two factions that later regrouped under the Guelphs and the Ghibellines.
Here, in Via Por Santa Maria, stands the Amidei Family tower, an ancient family knighted by Ugo di Toscana. The Amidei were very active during the Crusades. The tower is located near where the town gate Di Santa Maria once stood in the ancient city walls, and which gave the street its name. The Amidei were Ghibellines and participated in the battle of Montaperti, but in 1268, after Benevento, were exiled permanently and never returned to Florence. The tower, called "La Bigonciola" (perhaps in a Guelph mockery that alluded to the somewhat squat tower that was wider at the top than at the base, or perhaps alluded metaphorically to the pulpit: the seat of the Amidei family was a sounding board and they were spokesmen for the Ghibellines) is also called “of the lions” thanks to the presence of the two marble lion heads that decorate it. This tower was restored in 1920 and miraculously remained standing during the German bombing of 1944.
In front of this church is a description of its history, in particular the wedding of a young Buondelmonti to a young girl from the Donati family.
The Buondelmonti were - as it’s said- an ancient noble family who ruled Monte Buoni, urbanised into Florence in 1135. They fought at Montaperti for the Guelphs. But to attain public office, which was no longer accessible to nobles, they became ‘of the People’ and changed their name to Da Montebuoni, enrolling in the Art guilds. The family died out in 1845. The tower in Via delle Terme, although decapitated, like almost all Florentine towers from the thirteenth century, is still easily distinguishable for its height and narrow shape, and its present appearance is very faithful to the original thirteenth century form. The ground floor has an opening topped by a double arch, while the upper floors have five high and narrow windows of different sizes. In Borgo Santi Apostoli, in front of number 6, is a plaque marking the murder of Buondelmonte de 'Buondelmonti with Dante’s verses.
The tour will continue far as the ancient church of San Biagio, where in 1216 the families adverse to Buondelmonte met to discuss what to do before deciding to murder the young man. It’s here that a group member, Mosca Lamberti, voiced the famous phrase: "What's done is done" in the sense that, making a decision, however drastic, is still be better than wallowing in stalemate and indecision.
Florence of the Divine Comedy reconstructed through tombstone inscriptions with Dante quotes to help us to understand how Dante read and interpreted the city and how he repeatedly used it in his dizzying spiritual, theological and literary architecture. In doing so he elevated it to the rank of universal archetype, where its urban dimension takes the form of a spiritual path where the feet and the soul follow the same rhythm.