An itinerary that will lead you to discover a lesser known Florence compared to the iconic Florence of the Renaissance: the Florence where Dante Alighieri lived from birth (1265) to exile (1302). For Dante it was inevitably a place of love and pain, which often features in the Divine Comedy.
In these years Florence underwent a period of intense transformation in all fields (cultural, political, religious, artistic, economic, urbanistic) which deeply marked the city’s identity. It was precisely in the later decades of the thirteenth century that the symbolic buildings were built, such as the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Palazzo Vecchio, the Basilica of Santa Croce and of Santa Maria Novella. One of the places, alongside the Baptistery that is most linked to the typical spirituality of Dante’s era is undoubtedly the stunning Romanesque Abbey of San Miniato al Monte, also mentioned in Purgatory (Canto VII). But alongside these places – experienced more or less directly by the Supreme Poet – there exist many other testimonies, from all periods, that document how much the city is strongly interwoven with the spirit of Dante. This is the case of the many portraits of Dante, painted from Medieval times to the nineteenth century; the cycles of paintings more or less inspired by the Comedy; the 33 famous Dante plaques mainly concentrated in the medieval quarter. Keeping the legacy of the Supreme Poet alive and current is the main task, including through the traditional Lectura Dantis, by the Dante Society whose headquarters is in the old Palazzo dell’Arte della Lana (Wool Guild).
“San Giovanni’s lovely baptistery” (Inferno XIX.17), is the affectionate name given to the Florentine Baptistery of San Giovanni by Dante; the place where the poet was baptised, and which he thinks of while hoping to return to his birthtown (Paradise, Canto XXV). Dedicated to the Patron Saint of Florence, San Giovanni Battista (St. John Baptist), the Baptistery is a Romanesque building, of extraordinary interest, in the religious heart of the city. Probably erected in the eleventh century, on ancient remains from the Roman era, it has an octagonal plan. While the outside is conservatively adorned with geometric marble decoration, the inside shines thanks to the grandiose golden mosaic of the dome, dominated by the figure of Christ the Judge, solemn, at the centre of the Last Judgement, probably a source of inspiration for the Comedy.
The typical dishes are simple and straightforward: from the famous “Florentine” steak, thick and rare, to the starters from farming tradition often based on bread such as the Pappa al Pomodoro (tomato and bread soup) and the Ribollita (vegetable and bread soup), all flavoured with extra virgin olive oil. What can we say about the Lampredotto (cow stomach), served in a sandwich, which can be enjoyed from a kiosk in full street food style. The typical desserts are linked to festivals or the season, of which we note the two best; grape schiacciata (flat bread) and Florentine schiacciata (a sponge cake), typical of the Carneval. In terms of wine, this is the land of Chianti, with various DOC and DOCG designations: full-bodied reds, fresh and delicate whites and the famous sweet wine or Vin Santo. The specialities of Florentine cuisine can be tasted in the city in Michelin star restaurants, trattorias or wine cellars, suitable for all budgets.
The memory of Dante lives on through the many portraits dotted around the city, testimony of the extraordinary fame that has always accompanied the Poet, from the fourteenth century until today. The oldest depictions of Dante can be found in the National Museum of Bargello (Chapel of Mary Magdalene, work of Giotto and workshop), in the Palazzo dei Giudici e Notai (on Via del Proconsolo), in the Cappellone degli Spagnoli (Spanish Chapel) of Santa Maria Novella, by Andrea Bonaiuti. One of the most representative painted portraits is undoubtedly Dante and the Divine Comedy (Domenico di Michelino, 1465, Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore). Dante features in the series of frescoes Illustrious People painted around 1450 by Andrea del Castagno, and now visible in the former church of San Piero Scheraggio – part of the Uffizi Gallery – (one of the places used, including by Dante, for political meetings before the construction of the Palazzo dei Priori, i.e. Palazzo Vecchio).
There are also many sculptures, nineteenth century monuments dedicated to him, made in a period in which devotion to the Great Italians of the past was very popular. The Basilica of Santa Croce, Pantheon delle Itale Glorie, still houses two: one is the statue in the churchyard, a work by Enrico Pazzi, inaugurated in the centre of the square for the Dante celebrations of 1865; the other, inside, is the Cenotaph of Dante by Stefano Ricci (1829), a rhetoric monument that shows the Poet alongside the allegories of Italy and Poetry. Dating back to 1842 is the statue of Dante located, alongside other illustrious Tuscans, in one of the 28 niches of the Loggiato Vasariano of the Uffizi gallery.
There are several examples of the controversial funeral mask in the city: at the Museum-House of Dante, in the Palazzo Vecchio and at the Bargello.
Works that you won’t see in the museums; refined, the result of mastery, research innovation and tradition, unique works. These are artisanal handicrafts. Silver, gold, leather, glass, ceramics, silk, essences, embroidery, shoemaking, items that take shape in the artisanal workshops of Florence, especially in Oltrarno. The artisan world is made up of people who conserve and hand down an invaluable human capital.
The artisanal vocation of Florence has lead to the birth of two events dedicated to this sector. Artigianato e Palazzo, which seeks to redevelop the figure of the artisan in present day, and is carried out each year at the Corsini Gardens. The Fortezza da Basso hosts the International Handicraft Exhibition, founded in 1931, with participation from artisans from all over the world.
This quarter is enclosed between Piazza della Signoria square, Orsanmichele church, Torre della Castagna tower, the oratory of Buonomini di San Martino and the Badia Fiorentina church. This is the medieval heart of Florence, with its alleyways and its characteristic house-towers, used for both civil and military purposes. The House of Dante, a nineteenth century replica of a house-tower, houses the museum of the same name that documents the life and works of the supreme poet; it is just a short walk from the Church of Santa Margherita de’ Cerchi (the “Church of Dante”) where, according to tradition, the poet married Gemma Donati and met Beatrice (the Portinary family had its tombs here). The greatest number of Dante plaques are concentrated in this area, with quotes taken from his masterpiece, affixed in the early twentieth century to keep the link between Dante and the places and personalities mentioned in the Comedy alive.