dante in florence

The Sasso di Dante is the stone upon which Dante would sit and watch the cathedral of Florence being built. Seriously! A stone. Like Plymouth Rock only larger…”


by michael estabrook



Ever been to Florence?


We neither but we are here somewhere we’ve wanted to visit forever but so much art! Impossible to know where to begin.

Brunelleschi, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Filippo Lippi, Ghiberti, Ghirlandaio, Masaccio, Masolino, Donatello, Parmigianino, Andrea del Sarto, Benvenuto Cellini, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo.

Dante Alighieri was obsessed with the number three (and with multiples of 3), the sacred number: the Trinity.

The high-water marks -12 meters, higher than us -on the sides of buildings from the terrible Arno flood of 1966, the streets and ancient buildings filled with water and a half million tons of mud, so much art submersed and damaged we weep just imagining it:

Cimabue’s Crucifix, a distemper painting on wood panel,
hanging for 700 years in the Basilica di Santa Croce.

Sandro Botticelli’s Saint Augustine in His Study and Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Saint Jerome in His Study, both frescos commissioned by the Vespucci family in 1480 for the Church of the Ognissanti.

Donatello’s stunningly realistic wooden statue of the Penitent Mary Magdalene sculpted for the Baptistry in 1455.

Lorenzo Ghiberti’s 20-foot-tall gilded bronze doors, later renamed the Gates of Paradise by Michelangelo, installed in 1452 on the east side of the Baptistry of Saint John.

If I had been in Florence in 1966 I would most certainly have joined the angeli del fango, the Mud Angel volunteers who had descended on the city to rescue paintings and sculpture, books and artifacts from the water, mud, oil, and debris stirred up by the mighty river.

The Divine Comedy consists of 3 books, one for each of the 3 realms (heaven, purgatory and hell) each of 33 cantos; Hell has 9 circles, Heaven has 9 circles; 3 beasts stand in the way of his salvation, 3 guides lead him to salvation, 3 ladies intercede on his behalf . . .

Fortunately the Church of Santa Margherita dei Cerchi remained undamaged.

I was especially eager to see this truly historical Dante-building erected in 1032. It was here that he married Gemma Donati in 1285. But more importantly, this is where he first saw Beatrice, his lifelong muse and unrequited love.

The moment I saw her I say in all truth that the vital spirit, which dwells in the inmost depths of the heart, began to tremble so violently that I felt the vibration alarmingly in all my pulses, even the weakest of them.

You have to be careful when on the Dante trail (it has been 700 years after all), there is little left that is real Dante, most of what is there is modern, concocted in order to sell tickets or trinkets or books or posters or drinks.

The Sasso di Dante is the stone upon which Dante would sit and watch the cathedral of Florence being built. Seriously! A stone. Like Plymouth Rock only larger.

He even invented a poetic form based on three. The Divine Comedy is 14,233 hendecasyllables in terza rima, 3 lines of iambic pentameter, 1st and 3rd lines rhyming, 2nd line gives the rhyme for the 1st and 3rd lines of the following stanza: ABA BCB CDC . . .

When lo! Love stood before me in a trance:
Recalling what he was fills me with horror.
Joyful Love seemed to me and in his keeping
He held my heart; and in his arms there lay
My lady in a mantle wrapped, and sleeping.
Then he awoke her and, her fear not heeding,
My burning heart fed to her reverently.
Then he departed from my vision, weeping.

Even Beatrice, his innocent unrequited love has gotten herself imbedded in the tourist scene. In her church there is Beatrice’s basket, wherein lovers, particularly brides-to-be, leave notes to Beatrice asking for her guidance in matters of the heart. The basket sets alongside a lovely tombstone:

L´8 GIUGNO 1291


(Under this altar built Folco Portinari family tomb’s June 8, 1291 was buried Beatrice Portinari. Tombstone of Beatrice Portinari)

Of course she’s not really buried here. Most likely she rests with her husband’s family in the cloister of Santa Croce Church. But having her here in Dante’s church helps sell postcards.

I often went in search of her; and I saw that in all her ways she was so praiseworthy and noble that indeed the words of the poet Homer might have been said of her: “She did not seem the daughter of a man, but of a god.”

In fact, I am a bit ashamed to admit I myself purchased a bust of Dante for 27 Euros in the Casa de Dante; it will look so imposing on a shelf of my library alongside my bust of Shakespeare.

There are many statues of Dante (almost as ubiquitous as Michelangelo Davids) throughout Florence. The largest and most imposing stands out front of the Basilica di Santa Croce. Here he looks stern, fierce and frightening like a conquering general.

There is another statue of him inside the Basilica di Santa Croce, atop his cenotaph (empty tomb – he’s buried in Ravenna) looking stern and fierce still, but also tired.

I was surprised to learn that Rodin’s The Thinker actually began as The Poet representing Dante musing over his Divine Comedy atop Rodin’s bronze doors called The Gates of Hell.

It is difficult to imagine that this too was planned, but Dante populates the Commedia with 3,300 people. (Aristotle is mentioned more than 300 times.)

Arnaut Daniel, Bertran de Born, Sordello, Horace, Homer, Lucan, Ovid, Juvenal, Boethius, Brunetto Latini, Guido Guinicelli, Guido Cavalcanti, and Virgil – all poets mentioned in The Commedia.

Today the original Thinker resides in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Other bronze casts can be found in Zurich, Tokyo, Seoul, Philadelphia, and at the B. Gerald Cantor Rodin Sculpture Garden at Stanford University.

Dante belonged to the White Guelph party (don’t ask, it’s way too complicated) which was defeated by the Black Guelphs and he was condemned to permanent exile from his beloved Florence (had he returned he would’ve been burned at the stake).

Pope Boniface VIII who exiled Dante from Florence in the year 1302 has a hole reserved for him when he dies in the Eighth Circle of The Inferno damned forever for the sin of simony. Doesn’t pay to get on Dante’s bad side.

In 2008, 687 years after he died, Florence finally overturned Dante’s sentence of exile allowing him to return to the city of his birth. However, Ravenna where he died is not about to relinquish his remains.

Verily I saw and still have in mine eye
A headless trunk that followed in the tread
Of the others of that desolate company.
And by the hair it held the severed head
That in its hand was like a lantern swayed,
And as it looked at us, Oh me! it said.

Originally published:
Issue Seventy-Three
July 2016

“Seems I’ve been writing poetry for so long that Methuselah should be taking notice, but in reality, time is simply doing its thing streaking ahead blithely pulling all of us along for the wild ride whether we like it or not; reminds me, I’ve published 15 chapbooks over the years, the last one being “when Patti would fall asleep” by Liquid Paper Press in 2003, guess it’s time to work on another one.” — Michael Estabrook.

More from Michael Estabrook can be found in the Vault of Smoke.

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