Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Florence Edition: Dante

It's been months since I posted anything new here - much of the summer was spent away from DC. Just for fun, I'll be blogging about a few of the places I visited. I start with Florence.

The theme for this blog entry about Florence is Dante: signs of this renowned poet (d. 1321) can be found all throughout the city.

In the Duomo, this spectacular painting (Domenico di Michelino, 1465) depicts the poet gazing longingly at the city of Florence (he wrote The Divine Comedy while in exile from his beloved home). On the left you see the Inferno and center is Mount Purgatory (as described in the Purgatorio). The celestial spheres of Paradiso are above. This painting beautifully transforms (translates, if you will) the grand scope of the poet's allegory into a clear visual format - although it depicts a city with architecture that Dante would not have known (the dome did not exist as such in his day).

A detail of Dante's book reveals the opening lines of his poem. A little hard to read, since 1. the text appears in all capital letters with no word separations and 2. the spelling differs from most modern editions. The first page (left) reads: "Nel mezzo del chamino di nostra vita / Mi ritrova per una selva scura che la diritta via era smarita" [In the middle of our life's journey / I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight path was lost].

Many other signs evoking the works of Dante are strategically placed around the city; e.g., at one point along the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) crossing the Arno River, we see "in sul passo d'Arno" [at the crossing of the Arno]. Mildly interesting sign, I guess - but without any real context for the quote it seems pretty random. I wonder if most people even notice it.

One place of particular interest for Dante readers is the Casa di Dante, where the poet (most likely) once resided. There's much to love about this wall display - not only does it have a nice diagram of all of Dante's circles of hell, but it also manages to squeeze in the entire text of The Divine Comedy on a single panel in tiny font! And how did those footprints get on the wall?

A Florence location that has become a curious site of pilgrimage is the Chiesa di Santa Margherita de' Cerchi, which is allegedly near the place where Dante first met his beloved Beatrice Portinari (i.e., the subject of his early poetry and, later, his guide in the Paradiso). The entrance sign informs visitors that the church dates from 1032 and Beatrice was buried here.

Inside the church, a painting: "Dante meets Beatrice P., accompanied by her mother Cilia de' Caponsacchi and Monna Tessa" [i.e., nurse in the Portinari household]. In the Vita Nuova, Dante claims he met Beatrice walking down the street with two ladies and this encounter inspired him to write poetry about her. This painting seems to take some liberties here, as Dante claims he was 18 at the time of that meeting (this Dante looks much older).

At the tomb of Beatrice, visitors from around the world leave handwritten letters to her (most of these are written by women who are seeking love and asking Beatrice to intercede). I can't make out all the text here, but the one on the right is in Korean; the one of the left (with lipstick) reads "Dear Beatrice."

The "letters for Beatrice" phenomenon is mysterious and surprisingly recent in origin. For more on Dante's life and work (emphasis on The Divine Comedy), see this excellent website.

P.S. There is a Florence-DC connection I should note! In Meridian Park, you can see a statue of Dante clearly based on the painting in the Duomo (or something very much like it):

This portrayal of Dante looks pretty familiar. I see one major difference between this sculpture and the Duomo painting, though. The Dante in the Duomo holds an open book, but this Dante has his book closed.


  1. Do you happen to know the translation of the bottom of Michelino's work?

  2. Lost in Translation DCApril 4, 2012 at 6:15 PM

    This is my rough translation: "The poet who sang of Heaven (Paradise) and the middle and deepest planes (Purgatory and Hell) and traveled/romaed by means of his soul: here is the learned Dante, from whom Florence (his Florence) often took advice and found fatherly loyalty/affection. No longer can cruel death harm the poet: the portrait/image makes his virtue/excellence live." I might not be exactly right on that final line but this is the gist.