Dante’s Bones: How a Poet Invented Italy; by Guy P. Raffa; Harvard University Press; 384 pp., $35.00
The bones and dust of the Roman poet Virgil were jealously guarded by the people of Naples. In the Middle Ages they refused the request of an English scholar to allow the poet’s bones and dust to leave their resting place. The only thing that they would permit to be taken was a book of Virgilian magic that was also found in the tomb, according to Gervase of Tilbury’s Otia Imperialia, the 13th-century miscellany of history, folklore, and geography.
It is likely that Dante Alighieri would have had an acquaintance with the Otia Imperialia, but how likely would it have been that, years later, the story of his own mortal remains would parallel that of Virgil, his literary master and guide?
The story of Dante’s bones is bound up with a fascination with relics. It may be a uniquely European or Italian phenomenon to see in the tangible “left-behind” a meeting place between mortality and immortality. People have revered things that have touched the mortal remains or possessions of famous people. Even a small residue remaining on a piece of paper that enveloped Dante’s skull—looking like nothing but a smear—was accorded great fanfare and a sort of dulia, a reverence accorded to the saints, among 19th century Florentines.
Guy Raffa’s Dante’s Bones: How a Poet Invented Italy is similar to Gervase of Tilbury’s work, in that it is also a miscellany of history, geography, archeology, and folklore. Raffa details the path that Dante’s remains trod in his physical afterlife, from the time of his death to the present, and of the people who wanted a piece of him for themselves.
The author’s examination begins with Dante’s exhumation after a pine chest was discovered in 1865 in one of the walls of Ravenna’s famous Braccioforte Chapel—the traditional resting place of Dante. When workers were excavating the wall, they found the chest covered with these inscriptions:
Denuper revisa die 3 Junij 1677
(“DANTE’S BONES, Recently looked at again on June 3, 1677”)
a me Fre Antonio Santi hic posita
Ano 1677. Die 18 Octobris
(“DANTE’S BONES, placed here by me, Brother Anthony Santi, on October 18, 1677”)
The chapel had been under the care of the Franciscan order for many years, and the location of Dante’s bones had been kept secret by the Franciscans over generations. The bones were rumored to have been moved from their marble tomb in the chapel to an unknown place, to keep them safe during a centuries-long rivalry between the Florentines and the Ravennese over the ownership of Dante’s memory.
This rivalry endured even in the midst of the Risorgimento, the unification of the Italian Peninsula, which was still ongoing when the Italians marked the 600th anniversary of Dante’s birth in 1865. The discovery of Dante’s bones in Ravenna in the same year was the solution to a centuries-old riddle and something akin to archeologist Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb.
The Florentine celebrations for Dante that year were marked with fanfare and the unveiling of artistic monuments to the city’s favorite son—the son whom she had rejected so many centuries earlier. As if to woo him back, this 600th birthday party was one part literary celebration and another part political push for an Italian unification along the geographic lines largely set out by Dante in his works.
The Ravennese had their own claim to Dante, having embraced him and offered him shelter during his exile. Raffa explains how Dante came to Ravenna and the circumstances of his exile, death, and burial by piecing together tidbits from the poet Boccaccio and Dante’s other contemporaries, as well as Dante’s ruminations in his 1313 political treatise De monarchia. It’s a story that involves political intrigue between the Italian political factions of the time—the White Guelphs, Black Guelphs, and the Ghibellines—that were divided in loyalties between the pope and Emperor Frederick.
When Dante died in Ravenna in 1321, an early commentator observed that “he received the sort of singular honors not given since the death of Octavian Caesar.” Dante’s literary achievement as the first great poet of the Italian vernacular was well-known and recognized by the citizens of both Florence and Ravenna. Just as a person will feel remorse over past wrongs when a friend or family member dies, shortly after Dante’s death in 1321 Florence began attempts to reconcile herself with her estranged son, who was now universally recognized as a genius. The succeeding centuries were a contest between two cities trying to outdo the other in honors and celebration for the dead poet.
The physical remains of the poet, his other relics, and their chains of custody form the basis of the rest of Raffa’s narrative, which has the marks of a detective story, tracing the veracity of the relics through an examination of witnesses and archival testimonies.
The story of Dante’s remains is also tied to the Italian people’s desire for dignity and legitimacy. The desire to transcend the bounds of terrestrial life and “to be remembered” is something that has preoccupied Western man since Homer first told of his heroes. The immortality of the poet, assured by the sublimity of his Divine Comedy, was taught to Italian schoolchildren and even in their bedtime stories at Nonna’s knee. As such, the veneration of the poet by the hoi polloi was akin to that of a saint and, in Catholic-in-its-bones-Italy, it is hard to see the difference.
But aside from a few passing references to the popular obsession with Dante, Raffa focuses on the actions of Italian elites and their wish to claim the poet for their own projects. Whether it was a Medici pope attempting the repatriation of Dante’s remains to Florence, or the seeming transformation of Dante from a Guelph to a Ghibelline by the Risorgimentists, or his depiction as a muscular Italian soldier or the prototypical fascist, the leaders of elite movements—especially in the 19th century—seemed to all want a piece of Dante. In Italy, to have Dante was to have legitimacy: in one’s tastes, artistic achievements, political programs, and philosophy. It was not only to brush with immortality, it was to secure it.
One may suggest that the desire to acquire the physical remains of Dante is a uniquely Italian thing, given its Catholic culture. In the Catholic mindset, the tangible does touch the intangible; proximity to greatness makes it possible for one to share in that greatness; the light illumines those who are nearby. A locket of dust from the tomb of Dante is precious because it was on the same spot where his bones laid, and it therefore gives a certain authority and legitimacy to the institution housing it in Rome.
Yet, one could also posit that the desire to behold the remains of great men is also a “catholic” impulse in the sense that it is universal. Many cultures appear to treat relics of the deceased as if those who possess them are endowed with the same immortality as the person whose bodies they came from.
A second-rate novelist like Dan Brown weaving a yarn inspired by Dante’s death mask, or the writers of the popular Netflix program Mad Men lifting Dantean themes to improve their scripts are examples of acolytes lighting their tapers from the sacred fire of the poet. On the other hand, they could merely demonstrate a supreme lack of creativity, bastardizing the original by shamelessly stealing an aspect of the poet to give themselves undeserved legitimacy.
In either event, these are recognitions—similar to those of the Italians of the last 700 years and that of the learned English professor who sought Virgil’s bones in Gervase of Tilbury’s retelling—that great men, their ideas, their effects, and their bones endow one with something of their greatness.
The academic and pedantic nature of Raffa’s study will not appeal to everyone. It will be of interest to Dantephiles and Italophiles and it is published as the former prepare to mark the 700th anniversary of the poet’s death in September of this year.
Noticeably absent is any extended treatment of Dante by church officialdom. For example, while there is a passing reference to Pope Benedict XV’s 1921 encyclical marking the 600th anniversary of Dante’s death—the only literary figure to receive such treatment in such a magisterial document—there are scant other references except when there is a more secular focus. For a land so steeped in the faith, and for an author who dealt so deeply with matters of heaven and hell, the omission of the Roman Catholic Church in Raffa’s work seems strange.
It would be an interesting exercise to consider where in his Divine Comedy Dante might have located all of the individuals in the story that Raffa tells. Something tells me that he would have only been too happy to oblige.