Dante’s Tomb. When Everybody Wants His Remains.

Dante Alighieri by Luca Signorelli (Orvieto Cathedral, 1499-1502)

Dante Alighieri by Luca Signorelli (Orvieto Cathedral, 1499-1502)

Dante’s tomb in Ravenna

The Santa Croce Basilica in Florence is home to the tombs of the most illustrious Florentines. But what’s the story behind Dante’s tomb? Is the poet’s body inside the sarcophagus? The answer is no. On September 14, 1321 Dante Alighieri died in Ravenna falling ill (probably malaria) as he was traveling back from the embassy in Venice. Not even in death was Dante able to enjoy the stability he had so yearned for during his last, most tormented years in exile. The day after his death, his body was buried in a sarcophagus in the San Francesco convent. After a few years, the Florentines began to demand the remains of their most illustrious citizen from Ravenna. This “risk” became more certain when two Florentine popes ascended the pontificate throne. Both were from the Medici family: Leo X (1513-21) and Clement VII (1523-35).

The Florentines claim Dante’s tomb

In 1519, Leo X, following a plea by the very famous Michelangelo, gave his co-citizens permission to remove the bones of the poet in order to take them to Florence. However, when the Tuscan delegation opened the sarcophagus the bones were no longer there. In fact, the Franciscan friars had shortly before put a hole in the wall of the sarcophagus from the cloister behind it. They put the poet’s bones in a safe place. Useless attempts were made to have the bones returned. Dante’s tomb was then heavily guarded. Imagine that when maintenance on the tomb was done in 1692, the workers had to work under surveillance by guards!

Ravenna’s monks hide Dante’s tomb

The bones were closed up in a box in 1677 (today conserved in the Dante museum) by the prior of the convent Antonio Sarti. Only in 1781 were they put in their original urn when the current mausoleum was built. The monks hid them again during Napoleon’s time when the convent was closed. This was to keep the occupational troops from taking them and selling them as spoils of war. They were closed in the wall of the adjoining oratory. The monks subsequently left the city and nothing more was learned about the box. So, from the 1800s, everyone who went to Ravenna to pay homage to Dante ignored the fact that his tomb was empty. If you still want to see Dante’s empty coffin in Florence, take a look at the Classic Tour of Florence, where one of the highlights is actually Santa Croce church.

Dante's tomb. Statue of Dante by Santa Croce Church

Dante’s tomb. Statue of Dante by Santa Croce Church

The mystery of Dante’s tomb

The bones of the great poet were found by accident by a worker on May 27, 1865. They were doing restoration for the seven hundredth anniversary of his birth. Thanks to a young student, who read and translated the phrase on the box, the bones didn’t end up in a common grave. “Dantis ossa a me Fra Antonio Santi hic posita anno 1677 die 18 octobris”. They were the bones of Dante Alighieri. The remains were reassembled and put on public display for a few months in a crystal urn. Then entombed again inside the small funeral temple. During the Second World War the box was again hidden to keep it from being destroyed during bombing. It was removed from the temple on March 23, 1944 and relocated on December 19, 1945. During this period it was buried close to the mausoleum under a mound covered by greenery, which today is marked with a gravestone. In 1829, in hopes that the relics would be returned, a large neo-classic cenotaph was erected in Santa Croce in Florence. It portrays the poet seated and pensive, raised in glory by Italia, as Poesia weeps over the sarcophagus.