Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Inferno XVI: Dante's Tomb


The full text of the canto in Italian/English

It is heartening for the mortal to learn that not even Dante Alighieri got everything always right, and that the sixteenth canto of the Divine Comedy is something of a dud; little more than the B-side of the fifteenth. Dante meets more sodomites, and not in the fun way. They converse. They go their separate ways. Then at the end something unusual and rather mystical happens which I’ll get to at the end of this post. But seeing as I don’t want to go into the full details of the canto, I’ll tell you a little bit about Dante’s tomb, which I visited during my recent trip to Italy.

Entering the 'zone of silence'
Dante was as adventurous in death as he was in life. As you might recall, he wrote the Comedy whilst in exile, and was never allowed to return to his native and beloved Florence. He was in Rome when the sentence was issued, in 1302, and spent the rest of his life travelling from court to court in search of employment and protection. He lived in Verona, Treviso, Padua, the region known as Lunigiana, and finally Ravenna, where he completed the Paradiso some time before 1321. He died there at the age of 56, following a diplomatic mission to Venice, and was laid to rest in a Roman-era sarcophagus near the basilica of Saint Francis.

Then the Comedy became a hit, and Boccaccio started lecturing in Florence about it, and soon the city decided they would like to take him back after all. They made a first attempt in 1396, but were rebuffed, then again in 1428 and 1476. Finally, tired of asking politely, they got Pope Leo X – a native of Florence and son of Lorenzo de' Medici – to issue an order for the transfer of Dante’s body to his native city (Ravenna at this time was part of the Papal State). Michelangelo was at the ready, anxious to sculpt a monument in honour of the great poet. But when the Florentine envoys opened the sarcophagus, they found that it was empty. It transpired that the local Franciscan monks had stolen the body from inside the sarcophagus by drilling a hole on the other side of the wall against which it rested, Ocean’s Eleven-style. The envoys had no authority to order Franciscan monks around, and so Dante’s remains were placed under their protection.

And that would be fine, except the monks moved him around so many times that eventually they lost him. It happened some time after 1810, when the body was removed from the sarcophagus in its recently built new chapel for fear that Napoleon’s troops might steal it, as was their wont. The body was placed in a wooden box and hidden inside a wall but the monks didn’t keep good records and the precautionary shift was soon forgotten. So for the best part of the 19th century everyone simply assumed that the empty sarcophagus still contained Dante’s remains.


The box was found by accident in 1865, during the restoration of the chapel, and a student was quick enough to read the words “Ossa Dantis” (Dante’s bones) on the inscription before the find could be labelled as a generic bag of bones and placed in a common ossuary.

We’re not done. Dante was moved again during the Second World War, for fear that the tomb might be bombed, and placed in the adjoining cloister, under a plaque that still commemorates this fact.


Most recently, the tomb was found to have been included among the Italian targets of ISIS, which is mad at him for his depiction of Mohammed in Canto XVIII (maybe we’ll get there this year). It is now protected by a camera, installed in 2016 not just for security but also for counting visitors, including those who just pop their head past the rope to take a quick peek.


Today, Dante rests in a small, unassuming chapel, far less pompous than the cenotaph that the Florentines built in 1821, when they still harboured some residual hope that he might be returned to them. The sarcophagus still bears the epitaph dictated by Bernando da Canaccio in 1366, in a rather inapposite Latin, and that describes him as ‘Dante, exiled from his native land, born of Florence, a mother who loved him little.’ The chapel is lit at all times by a small lantern, fuelled by olive oil donated by the Florentines every year during a special ceremony on the second Sunday in September. I find this detail quite tender – his city rejected him, but they still light his room – as I do the fact that Dante’s Tomb is part of a special “zone of silence”, whereby the adjoining streets are kept quiet by the city’s authorities as a mark of respect.


We have come to the end of the sixteenth canto of the Inferno. It is less than 24 hours since Dante’s journey began. Virgil and Dante have reached a waterfall – except it’s not water, for the Phlegethon runs with blood of the damned. There is no apparent passage for travelling safely out of the seventh circle and into the eighth. Instead, Virgil asks Dante to pass him the cord he keeps around his waist and throws it over the fall. This strange incantation soon bears its fruit, as Dante begins to discern through the spray a meravigliosa figura (‘marvellous figure’) that – always loving a cliff-hanger – he stops just short of naming or describing.


Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV.