RAVENNA, the former capital of the Byzantine Empire and treasure trove of world-renowned mosaics, had a special place in Dante’s life.
After he was exiled in 1302, his incessant quest for refuge took him to Forlì, Padova, Treviso, Lunigiana, Casentino, Lucca, Verona and, finally, Ravenna in 1318.
Dante’s final years were peaceful, spent at the court of Guido Novello Da Polenta. It was a time of family life, diplomatic missions and writing the Paradise. He also established a literary circle frequented by his sons and various young local literati, finally dying during the night of 13 and 14 September 1321.
These are the must-see Dante highlights in Ravenna:
- Dante’s Tomb: affectionately known by the locals as the zuccheriera – the sugar bowl – for its pale colour and rounded shape, it was completed in 1781 in immaculate neoclassical style. The architrave bears the inscription “Dantis poetae sepulcrum” (the tomb of Dante the poet). Every year, the anniversary of his death is marked by the Oil Ceremony, Florence’s tribute to its exile, on 13 September. The Tuscan capital has provided a lamp and the oil to keep it burning constantly at the great poet’s tomb as a gift since 1908.
- St Francis’ Basilica: this magnificent 14th-century religious and cultural landmark was the setting for his funerals. Visitors to this humble yet solemn place can also enjoy a delightful surprise: water has invaded the mosaic floors of the crypt (they’re below sea level), and goldfish swim nonchalantly around. Every year, a ceremony commemorates his death.
- The Dante Museum: inside the Franciscans’ Dante Centre, the evocative setting of the old cloisters (opened in 1921 on the 6th centenary of the poet’s death) is a mine of Dante-esque iconography. There are memories aplenty of his funerary monument and the story of how the poet’s bones were moved. It also offers versions of the Divine Comedy in several languages, to engage visitors of all ages and nationalities.
- The Quadrarco di Braccioforte: this small four-arched oratorio between Dante’s tomb and St Francis’ Basilica housed the poet’s remains during World War II, near the mound.
- The Da Polenta House: dating from the 1200s, it belonged to the family that took Dante in.
- The Classe Pinewood (a few miles from town): an inspiration for the enchanted forest in the earthly Paradise where Dante and Virgil walked, a place redolent with fragrant flowers and pine trees, where the air gently flutters the fronds (Purgatory, Canto XXVIII).
A souvenir to take home: a Dante-themed mosaic.
A postcard to send: take a selfie in front of the Dante murals by Brazilian street artist Kobra.
Ravenna, we mustn’t forget, figures prominently in the Divine Comedy. It is mentioned both by name and through poetic allusion. Francesca da Rimini – daughter of Guido Da Polenta (Renaissance Lord of Ravenna) and wife of Giangiotto Malatesta – is the best-known of the many Ravenna notables who appear on Dante’s journey, and his sympathetic portrayal of her is rightly famous.