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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Marks, MA

A Brief History of the Monument to Dante in Florence

What is the Monument to Dante?

The Monument to Dante is a 19th-century monument to a great literary figure.

Monument to Dante

Rufus46, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Monument to Dante History

This graceful monument was erected in the late 19th century and serves to commemorate one of Italy’s most influential literary figures, Dante Alighieri, sometimes referred to simply as ‘il Sommo Poeta’ (or ‘the Supreme Poet’). He is most famously the author of the Divine Comedy: a three-part work that narrates the story of the poet’s journey through the afterlife (including Hell, Purgatory and Paradise), guided by the ghost of the ancient Roman poet Virgil, to find his lost love, Beatrice. The work set the benchmark for the Italian language of today. Moreover, the Divine Comedy was a formative influence on some of the most famous writers of all time, including Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton.

Dante was born into a noble (but no longer wealthy) family in Florence in the 13th century. As a young man, he was a scholar and enthusiastically studied ancient works of literature and philosophy, which would later inform his poetry. He fought in the Guelph–Ghibelline conflict of the late 13th century, which resulted in his lifetime exile from his home city. It’s thought that it was during this exile that he conceived the idea of his great masterpiece. Dante died aged 56 in the city of Ravenna, where he’s buried in a tomb next to the Basilica di San Francesco. His grave there bears a resentful reference to the hometown that exiled him: ‘Florence, mother of little love’.

Centuries later, once Dante had become canonised as a literary icon, the city of Florence grew to regret its severity towards him. The writer is now recognised as a figurehead of the country’s historical and cultural landscape, and many requests have been made to the city of Ravenna for Dante’s remains to be relocated to Florence – although these have all been rejected.

Instead, in 1829 the Florentine authorities erected an unoccupied tomb here in the Basilica di Santa Croce and emblazoned it with an apology that promises to ‘honour the most exalted poet’. A few decades later, on the 600th anniversary of Dante’s birth, a second monument, the one you see before you, was installed in the centre of the piazza (but later moved to its present position due to a flood). The figure is the work of Enrico Pazzi, a Florentine sculptor. However, ironically, the pedestal it stands on was designed by Luigi del Sarto, a sculptor from the rival city of Ravenna.

The statue shows the figure of Dante with an eagle by his side. The bird represents the Roman Empire, rising from its ashes, and symbolises the indebtedness of Dante’s poetry to classical authors. Below the pedestal are four lions holding shields (or Marzocchi), emblematic of the Medici family, long-time rulers of Florence. Engraved upon them are the names of Dante’s poetic works, and below the lions are the insignia of the various cities who contributed to the commissioning of the sculpture.

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