A Stroll through Dante’s Florence
The heart of Medieval Florence include the so called “Dante’s District“, where he was born and lived before being sent into exile.
The heart of Medieval Florence starts from one side of the ‘Corso’, a long straight street part of the Roman Decumanus, until 1858 the location of the annual horse races (‘corsa’ in Italian) from hence the name; and it stretches to the ‘Bargello Palace’ including the so called “Dante’s District“.
When the ‘Supreme Poet’ was alive many of the monuments composing the district did not exist or they had just begun to be built. And yet, it is undeniable that the spirit of Dante seems to hover over this neighborhood where he was born and lived before being sent into exile.
In the middle of this ancient triangle you can find the site of the 13th century houses of the Alighieri family, according to many documents of the time.
Dante Alighieri (Florence 1265 – Ravenna 1321) is universally known as the author of the Divine Comedy, a poem that for its grandeur of construction, power, variety of form and immense richness of expression is acknowledged as one of the supreme masterpieces of literature.
The ‘Comedy’ is also considered the literary work that officially gave birth to the Italian language. Dante, like many Florentines of his day, was involved in the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict and he also fought as a Guelph knight in the Battle of Campaldino in 1289 opposing Florence in support of Arezzo.
After defeating the Ghibellines, the Guelphs divided into two factions: the White Guelphs, wanting more freedom from Rome, and the Black Guelphs, strongly supporting the Pope’s policy.
The Blacks finally took power in Florence and expelled the Whites, therefore Dante was condemned to perpetual exile. All his properties were confiscated and if he’d returned to Florence he could be burnt at the stake as an heretic. A little curiosity: it’s only in 2008 that the city council of Florence finally passed a motion rescinding Dante’s sentence!
The so called “Dante’s House” in Florence is a well-made historical imitation: it looks like a Medieval house, but was built in 1911 over some pre-existing buildings as a museum dedicated to the Father of the Italian Language and has exhibits related to the life and work of the poet.
Documentary evidence tells us that the site were Dante lived is a few yards away on the same street, in the ancient tower-houses which have been lowered. In one of these buildings there is a renowned and very old restaurant called “Pennello” (paint brush) which was opened by the Renaissance painter Albertinelli.
After the poet’s death, his brother Francesco sold part of the house in 1332 to the Mardolli Family while the rest of the building continued to belong for a few more years to Dante’s son Jacopo, who after all the family’s problems, took charge of his family’s financial affairs and finally in 1343 he was able to retake possession of his father’s confiscated properties.
The division of the Alighieri houses soon led to them falling into decay. Popular tradition however always remembered and indicated this group of buildings, in the very heart of Medieval Florence, as having been the birthplace of the Divine Poet.
In the same tiny section, the Romanesque Church of S. Margherita is called ‘the church of Dante’, as it was where the poet married Gemma Donati and according to the tradition, when he was only nine years old, he also met here his muse: Beatrice Portinari.
Fact is that this is where Beatrice’s father Folco Portinari was buried. In the little church there is also a reproduction of the tombstone of Monna Tessa, the family servant who inspired the foundation of the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova and then carried out by Folco in her name.
In spite of the commemorative plaque, the theory that Beatrice herself was buried here is mostly unlikely because, as she married into the Bardi Family, she was most probably laid to rest in her husband’s family tomb, in the Cloister of Medieval Florence.
Her supposed ‘tomb’ in S. Margherita is however constantly covered by flowers, notes and little letters left by the visitors asking her to help them with their love lives, as she’s the symbol, in the Italian culture, of pure, everlasting love.