Dante was pretty well-travelled; not only did his political role allow him to see a lot of the country, but after being exiled from his hometown, he spent the rest of his life on the road.
City breaks, rural retreats and cross-country road trips can all be injected with a Dante flavour – just follow our guide to discover the poet’s connection to eight spots across the peninsula, all of which are well worth a visit.
This is the big one. Dante was born and grew up in the Tuscan city, which later exiled him when his political rivals gained power. The writer had a love-hate relationship with his hometown – so much so that he liked to describe himself as ‘Florentine by birth, but not in conduct’.
Photo: Ghost of Kuji/Flickr
But hindsight’s a great thing, and the city that once threatened Dante with death if he dared to return, later decided it was actually quite proud of him. The ‘House of Dante’ is dedicated to the poet’s life if you want to learn more, or you can look for the dozens of portraits, busts and plaques in his honour which are dotted around the city.
You can visit the places where the writer once set foot, starting with the San Giovanni baptistery where he was christened and – probably at a later date – found inspiration for a verse or two of the Comedy in its spectacular mosaic ceiling. Then there’s the Palazzo dei Priori, now a museum, where Dante once spoke at city assemblies. That’s just for starters – here’s a self-guided Dante tour of the city which will make sure you don’t miss a thing.
Dante and his children spent two years of his exile in Ravenna, Emilia-Romagna. In 1321, the poet died at the age of 56 as he was returning to the northern town after an ambassadorial trip to Venice.
Then things got weird.
Did Ravenna’s mosaics inspire Dante? Photo: Andy HayFlickr
Dante was buried in Ravenna’s Church of San Pier Maggiore (now the church of San Francesco), and a grand tomb was built for him in 1483. Along with the beautiful mosaics Ravenna is famous for, the mausoleum is one of the city’s main historical sites.
But Florence later decided they wanted to bury Dante there, and built a spectacular tomb of their own. Michelangelo and even Pope Leo X got involved in the campaign for the poet’s remains to be returned to his hometown, but the sneaky Ravenna monks sent an empty coffin, hiding his bones in a secret location. It was so secret in fact that they were only discovered by accident in 1865, during construction works.
The spot where Dante’s bones were hiddden during World War II, which can be found next to the mausoleum. Photo:Catherine Edwards/The Local
In the tomb today, you’ll see candles hanging from the ceiling inside – the oil for the lamps is paid for by Florence to make up for exiling Dante. And the nearby Dante Museum features several exhibitions about the poet and the role of Ravenna itself in Dante’s life.
A respected politician, thinker and writer, Dante studied at Bologna’s famous university and visited many times afterwards, as well as name-checking the city frequently in his work. In De Vulgari Eloquentia, his treatise on language, he praises Bolognese as a noble dialect in comparison to those of other cities, even though he thought Florentine was the best of all.
Photo: Yuri Vivomets/Flickr
The city’s two towers – the most popular tourist sight in Bologna – are evoked in Inferno to describe giants submerged in the depths of hell. But far from being offended at the city’s pride and joy being compared to evil giants, the Bolognese are proud of the mention, and a plaque at the side of the towers displays the relevant quote.
The two towers. Photo: Catherine Edwards/The Local
Dante visited Rome in 1301 to meet Pope Boniface VIII, and it was while he was on this trip that Florence was taken over by a rival faction of Dante’s political party, the Guelphs, leading to his exile. It’s possible that he also attended Pope Boniface VIII’s Jubilee the previous year, as he describes it vividly in Inferno.
Photo: Bert Kaufmann/Flickr
Rome is mentioned frequently throughout Dante’s work, and in return, the city has paid tribute to Dante. You’ll see statues, paintings and streets bearing his name across the city.
Among the more notable homages are the bust in the magnificent Villa Borghese park, and his cameo in the background of The Parnassus, a Raphael fresco, which you’ll find in the Vatican Museums.
Dante in the background of the Raphael fresco. Picture: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons
Verona was where Dante first sought refuge after being exiled, and he stayed for six years between 1312 and 1318, editing Inferno and Purgatorio and working on the final part of the Comedia, Paradiso, in which he praises and thanks his “earliest refuge”. He was hosted by Verona’s ruler, Cangrande della Scala, on whom he lavishes praise in Paradiso and whose tomb you can visit today.
Photo: Kosala Bandara/Flickr
Dante’s strong bond with Verona is commemorated with a statue in Piazza Dante, and you can take a Dante-themed guided tour through the city’s streets.
You might also want to explore the city’s connection to another literary giant; Verona’s Basilica of San Zeno Maggiore is not only mentioned in Dante’s Purgatorio, but is also the setting of Romeo and Juliet’s marriage in Shakespeare’s play. And a small section of Paradise has been used as evidence that Shakespeare’s lovers were real; Dante refers to the sadness of the Montecchi and Cappelletti families – could these have been translated as the Montagues and Capulets?
About 50km east of Florence is Casentino, full of forests and castles steeped in history. It is untouched by most tourist routes today, but hasn’t always been so peaceful; Arezzo and Florence bitterly fought for the territory, notably in the 1289 Battle of Campaldino, in which Dante played a part. You can see a white column on the site of the battle, known to locals as ‘Dante’s suitcase’, and the nearby Poppi castle has information about the battle.
The Casentino countryside. Photo: Mark Goebel/Flickr
But Dante’s experiences on the battlefield didn’t put him off returning to the area. He stayed in the towns of Poppi, Romena and Dovaldo to work at court, and if you choose to recreate these trips, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful scenery and majestic castles.
Casentino had a special place in Dante’s heart, and he ensured local citizens fame by including them in his Comedia – even giving the enemy leader who died at the Battle of Campaldino, Buonconte da Montefeltro, a favourable portrayal in Purgatorio.
Lunigiana, northern Tuscany/Liguria
Lunigiana today lies between La Spezia and Massa Carrara, though in Dante’s time the borders were rather different. Dante visited the territory several times between 1306 and 1308, and his time in the region included a stay at the monastery of Santa Croce del Corvo – which now offers guest accommodation if you want a true Dantean experience.
One of the castles in the region. Photo: Paolo Sarteschi/Flickr
According to writings from a monk named Ilaro, when Dante arrived at the monastery and was asked what he was looking for, he simply responded: “Peace”. You’re sure to get plenty of that in the mountainous rural region, which has several beautiful medieval castles.
The castle of Mulazzo. Photo: Paolo Sarteschi/Flickr
If you want to add a bit of culture to your trip you can visit the local Dante museum which explores the links between Dante and Lunigiana. And since 2011, the town of Mulazzo has held annual historical reenactments in April to commemorate the poet’s arrival in the city.
Dante went to Venice numerous times during his period of exile. The first was for a few months in August 1321 to resolve a diplomatic dispute, when he stayed with his good friend, a nobleman named Giovanni Soranzo. Soranzo’s family home, the Palazzo Soranzo, is still standing in Campo San Polo – the city’s second largest square – and though it now houses apartments and offices, see if you can spot a plaque on the front noting the poet’s visit.
Photo: Kosala Bandara/Flickr
Dante was particularly impressed by the busy shipyard of Venice, and uses it as a simile to evoke the movement and restlessness of sinners in Inferno. This is ironic, because while the Venetians produced beautiful ships, the sinners’ activity is futile. The tercet has its own plaque, which is on the main entrance of the Arsenal close to a bust of Dante.