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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.