In the Hall of Five Hundred at the Palazzo Vecchio, the city hall of Florence, tourists are craning their necks and staring upward. They’re trying to spot the words “cerca trova” — “seek and you shall find” — on a Vasari mural that figures in the plot of “Inferno,” the latest bestseller by Dan Brown. (Hint: You need binoculars.) In his latest book, Brown has symbologist Robert Langdon racing across Florence in pursuit of a bad guy who’s obsessed with Dante Alighieri, the author of the original “Inferno.”
The hall is magnificent, but I’m in Florence on a different mission: to seek out what’s left of Dante’s medieval world. Would the great poet recognize anything in this city so dominated by Renaissance art and architecture if he were to return? The last time he walked these streets, after all, was 700 years ago.
This morning, when I crossed the L-shaped Piazza della Signoria to reach the Palazzo Vecchio, I was literally following in Dante’s footsteps. Dante would have come to this turn-of-the-14th-century building often when it was known as the Palazzo dei Priori, housing the city’s priors, or municipal councilmen. Dante served as a prior in 1300. But now all that’s left of the poet in this palace is his so-called death mask.
I mount a steep staircase and find the mask near the hall’s back balcony. Not even a real death mask, it’s a reconstruction based on written descriptions and measurements of the poet’s skull. An eerie-looking object, it sits in a box all by itself atop a bureau in a bare, narrow corridor, looking like a discarded artifact. I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for the poet. Among the more dazzling objects of the Renaissance here, he seems like an afterthought. Has Florence forgotten Dante?
Its merchants certainly haven’t. In the three days I’ve been here, I’ve spotted a leather shop called Dante Alighieri that sells guitar-shaped purses, a restaurant that promises Il Paradiso della Pizza, a Hotel Dante and street vendors selling everything from Dante busts to illustrations of Dante’s nine circles of hell.
The city also has plenty of Dante paintings and sculptures that honor the poet. More than 30 plaques emblazoned with Dante’s verses are placed in locations mentioned in his work. At the hotel where I’m staying, housed in a 14th-century structure built only decades after the poet’s death, there are more Dante quotes on the walls and embedded in the tiles (along with the words of other poetic souls, from Steve Jobs to Shakespeare). The Locanda dei Poeti also offers a Dante Alighieri room, an appropriate name for singles accommodations: Dante had a reputation for being a loner.
At least that’s the legend. We actually know only a few facts about the 13th-century poet. We don’t know his exact birth date (Dante tells us that he was born “under the sign of Gemini”), but we do know that in the 33 or so years he lived in Florence, he fought in a battle, joined a political party, fell in love with a woman he met only twice but idealized for the rest of his life, married another woman he had been betrothed to since he was 12, and fathered three children with her.
Oh, and he wrote poetry.
But only when he was exiled in 1302 and condemned to be burned at the stake if he ever returned to Florence did his poems become famous, particularly a three-part masterpiece that he wrote in exile that came to be known as “The Divine Comedy.” It chronicles his three-day journey through hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio) and Heaven (Paradiso) and is dedicated to Beatrice, the object of his amorous obsession.
The rock of Dante
And then there’s the story of how Dante used to sit on a rock watching the construction of Florence’s cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, more famously known as the Duomo, which was begun in 1296. He would reportedly sit alone for hours, writing love poems to Beatrice, and the rock became known as “il sasso di Dante,” or Dante’s rock. One day, a fellow Florentine passed by and asked the poet, “What do you like to eat for breakfast?” Not looking up, Dante replied: “Eggs.” A year later, the same Florentine supposedly found the poet perched on the same rock, again lost in thought, and decided to test the poet’s famous memory. “How?” he asked. “With salt,” Dante quickly answered.
Charmed by that story, I go in search of Dante’s rock on my first day in Florence. I wend my way through the open-air San Lorenzo market, lined with kiosks where hard-sell merchants hawk leather bags and jackets, for the 10-minute walk to the Duomo. The kiosks, I remind myself, are very much in keeping with the spirit of Dante’s time: 13th-century Florence already saw itself as a commercial hub specializing in banking (the Florin was first struck in 1252) and the trade of luxury goods such as leather and gold.
As I pass through the Piazza di San Giovanni, I first come upon a building that Dante would recognize instantly: the octagonal Baptistery of San Giovanni. Inside the basilica that he called his “bel San Giovanni,” I can still see the outline of the raised octagonal baptismal font where he was christened (pieces of the font are in the nearby cathedral museum). And as I gaze up at the figure of Satan chewing on a sinner on the spectacular mosaic ceiling, I know instantly where Dante got his inspiration for the three-headed devil in his Inferno.
Across the way is the Duomo (completed in 1436) and the Tower of Giotto (which wasn’t yet built when Dante lived in Florence). I stop to tour the crypt beneath the Duomo to see the parts of the walls and traces of the mosaic floor of the church it replaced (and that Dante attended), which itself was built on Roman ruins.
And that rock of Dante’s? I think I’ve found it in a small piazza on the north side of the Duomo, between a bistro called Il Sasso di Dante and a fruit stand with a hand-painted sign that humorously proclaims, “Qui mangiava Dante la frutta (Dante ate fruit here).” There’s a rock with a metal label written in Fiorentino, the dialect that Dante used that became the basis of modern Italian, that claims it is the true rock of Dante. But a barista confesses to me that the rock’s a fake. He directs me to a building around the corner in the Piazza del Duomo, where a simple plaque on the wall marks the spot where the actual rock once stood.
Faux Dante sites dot city
Alas, that first rock of Dante isn’t the only faux site I’ll find in Florence. The nearby Casa di Dante also turns out to be a red herring. The restored medieval building most certainly never was Dante’s home, although it is in Dante’s neighborhood. Most Dante scholars place the Alighieri house, long since torn down, in the Piazza San Martino, next to the Torre della Castagna, one of the city’s best-preserved medieval towers. Dante himself wrote that he was born in the shadow of the Badia Fiorentina, a Benedictine monastery just down the street. The area, halfway between the Duomo and the Piazza della Signoria, with its maze of alleys, still retains a medieval flavor.
And the Casa di Dante, which houses the Dante Museum, is a great way to get the feel of how a typical nobleman lived in the 1200s. The museum doesn’t have any Dante artifacts, but there’s a fascinating painting showing the city as it would have looked in Dante’s day, with its forest of towers and the Ponte Vecchio spanning the Arno. There’s also a replica of a nobleman’s bedroom. The gift shop’s best-selling item? “Copies of ‘The Divine Comedy’ in English,” the museum’s Tullia Carlino tells me.
Leaving the museum, I spot a sign to “Dante’s Church.” The tiny church — its real name is Santa Margherita dei Cerchi — has become a pilgrimage site for, well, it’s hard to say for what. Unrequited love? Cheesy paintings? (One illustrates Dante meeting Pinocchio.) Legend says that this is where the poet first saw Beatrice Portinari, his poetic inspiration. Tragically, she died at 24 and may (or may not) be buried in the church. The uncertainty doesn’t stop tormented lovers from putting notes to her in a basket set out in front of her presumed gravesite. This is also the church where Dante married Gemma Donati, whom he never mentions in “The Divine Comedy.”
A stunning view
Another church that Dante frequented seems more in keeping with his soaring poetry: San Miniato al Monte, perched on a hillside overlooking the city. To reach the church, whose marble facade of geometric patterns has changed little since Dante came to admire its mosaics, I take the No. 12 bus from the train station in time to make 6 p.m. vespers and enjoy the stunning view.
Looking down on the city’s historic center, I think about how small this city-state was just as the Middle Ages were giving way to the early Renaissance. In Dante’s time, a fortified wall encircled what is now the historic center. For his studies with the Dominicans and Franciscans, he had to risk the danger of going into unprotected territory to visit two churches that were then outside the city walls: Santa Maria Novella in the west and Santa Croce to the east. Now, I can easily walk to both with no concerns.
I visit Santa Croce on my last day in Florence. The square’s scowling Dante, a massive 19th-century statue of the poet, stands guard to the left of the church.
Inside Santa Croce, Dante’s “tomb” is still empty. For centuries, the city of Ravenna, where Dante died in 1321, has refused to give up his bones — even resorting to hiding them when Pope Leo X, at the suggestion of Michelangelo, ordered their return to Florence in 1519. Florence, after all, only got around to lifting that death sentence against Dante in 2008. No wonder he looks so grumpy.
Or perhaps the churlish Dante is just trying to tell us not to bother looking for him in all the faux Dante places in Florence, but rather in the beauty of his beloved city. Dante’s Florence lives side by side with Renaissance Florence and all the periods that have followed.
This city doesn’t obliterate its past; it builds on it. Search for Dante, and you’ll find Florence.