The Restless Bones of Dante Alighieri

When Dante Alighieri died in Ravenna in September of 1321, he probably hoped to rest his bones for a good long time. A hard life of writing and factious Italian politics had culminated in nearly two decades of exile away from his birthplace in Florence, and it was in exile that he completed his greatest work, an epic of over 14,000 lines he called his Comedy. The poet’s remains did slumber quietly for two centuries in their stone tomb in Ravenna. But starting with the Renaissance, Dante’s mortal coil would find itself at the center of cloak and dagger plots, thefts, and the earthquake turmoil of Italian nation-building. Guy P. Raffa’s latest book, Dante’s BonesHow a Poet Invented Italy, tells us the story of Dante’s “graveyard history,” and shows how the Florentine poet’s dead body became a focal point for an emerging Italy. If the God of Genesis created man and woman out of the dust of the earth, Raffa’s book argues that modern Italy fashioned itself—in part—out of the dust of its greatest writer.

A Strange Afterlife

During Dante’s lifetime, the Italian peninsula suffered the gruesome violence of factional and regional strife. But rivalries and tensions endured long after he died, and occasionally coalesced around his remains. When the city of Florence began to regret banishing the greatest poet of all time, Florentines sought repatriation for Dante’s bones. But Ravenna, where he died in exile, had no interest in surrendering his remains. Raffa recounts the lengths to which Florentines went to recover their native bard. In 1519, after a series of pleas from artists and intellectuals (including Michelangelo), Pope Leo X—a Florentine and the son of Lorenzo de’ Medici—gave his permission to steal Dante’s bones from the Ravennese. Dante himself would have savored the irony of a papally-endorsed grave robbery, but he wouldn’t have been surprised: readers of his Inferno will find it gleefully populated with corrupt pontiffs. The men arrived in Ravenna and, under cover of darkness, secretly opened Dante’s sepulcher. It was empty. The local Franciscans had got wind of this papal plot and preemptively raided the poet’s tomb, burrowing in through the back wall of the chapel monument and removing Dante’s bones one by one.

Thus began a posthumous sojourn of nearly 350 years, during which Dante’s remains rested outside his official grave. The Franciscans kept Dante’s bones a closely-guarded family secret—you might say a skeleton in their closet—handing them down from superior to superior within the order. But when the Napoleonic persecution of religious orders expelled the Franciscans from Ravenna in 1810, the friars apparently thought better of taking their medieval charge into yet another exile; they hollowed out a place in a wall near Dante’s original tomb, tucked his remains inside, sealed it up and departed. For another half-century, Dante’s bones were lost or forgotten in their hiding place.

Meanwhile, the 19th century saw Italian independence and unification, a process that, as Raffa shows, symbolically touched Dante and his relics. Italian republicans venerated Dante as a poet of liberty, and when Italians gathered in Florence in 1865 to celebrate the poet’s 600th birthday, they also celebrated the newly-unified Italian nation (Venice and Rome would be added within a few years). King Victor Emmanuel II himself attended, and the Florentine mayor’s speech celebrated the Dante anniversary event as an affirmation of “the glorious resurrection of the Italian Nation, our indissoluble unity, our independence.” Thus Dante became, as Raffa chronicles, the rallying point for a unified modern Italy.

The plot thickened when Ravenna planned its own festivities later the same year. After all, the city had Dante’s actual body, unlike its rival Florence, although rumors had long circulated that Dante’s tomb was in fact empty. At the end of May 1865, a stonemason renovating Dante’s mortuary chapel for the upcoming event knocked some bricks out of the wall of the neighboring Braccioforte chapel and found a small wooden box. He broke it open, and out spilled a collection of bones. Inscribed on the wooden box were the words Dantis ossa: Dante’s bones, absent since 1519 and actually lost since 1810. An ecstatic Ravenna announced its discovery, and a team of experts studied the remains before displaying them to an adoring public and reburying them with great ceremony in the proper tomb.

Raffa keeps a detached historian’s eye on how Italian political figures used Dante to justify their own vision of the nation, the race, and the culture.

The First World War again put Dante’s tomb and body on center stage. Raffa writes, “Just as the festivities in Florence for Dante’s six hundredth birthday had doubled as a celebration of Italian liberty and unification, so the ceremonies in Ravenna marking the six hundredth anniversary of his death honored the sacrifice of Italian soldiers and sailors in the Great War.” In other words, the birth of Italy and the deaths of its soldiers became conflated with the birth and death of the nation’s great poet. But the September 1921 festivities were disrupted when an army of 3,000 fascist “black shirts” descended on Ravenna, singing a hymn that praised Dante; they attacked leftist groups and intimidated Catholic clergy and lay people. Raffa notes further that “many fascists remained in Ravenna . . . to march in the procession in honor of Dante.” It was a dark prophecy of how Italian fascism would co-opt Dante into its imperial and totalitarian project.

By 1922 Mussolini occupied power and began using Dante as a symbol of fascist Italy. He placed busts of Dante in Italian embassies around the world, authorized government funding to renovate the poet’s tomb, and approved a never-constructed civic temple to Dante in Rome, called the Danteum. Meanwhile, Mussolini’s followers interpreted the dictator himself as the fulfillment of two obscure prophetic passages in Dante’s Comedy. In Inferno, Dante had predicted the coming of a “greyhound” who would renew Italy. In Purgatorio, he prophesied another such redemptive figure with a Roman numerical code believed to spell the Latin word DUX, or “leader,” a word whose Italian derivative happens to be Duce, the title Mussolini took as head of the fascists. It gets worse: in 1938, Hitler and Mussolini exchanged copies of the Comedy as a friendly gesture. As Raffa argues, “Partially through this exchange of Dante gifts, Mussolini and Hitler marked the alliance between fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, formalized in the Pact of Steel a year later.”

Veneration and Desecration

And so it goes—episode after fascinating episode in the strange afterlife of Dante’s poetry and bones. Raffa tells of the skeleton’s narrow escape from repeated Allied bombings of Ravenna; the elaborate wartime security measures that included a reinforced concrete dome and a decoy casket (with unknown human remains for verisimilitude); the insane but rejected scheme to bring Dante’s bones to an Alpine valley stronghold, where the Italian fascists might make their last suicidal stand at the end of the war, while live-radio-broadcasting as they went out in a blaze of glory. Dante’s remains show up in countless colorful and significant moments in modern Italian political history. Perhaps not every episode covered in Raffa’s “graveyard history” really contributes to the invention of Italy, as the subtitle of the book proposes. But it’s an intensively researched, gripping story of Dante’s lively bones that also tells a brisk history of modern Italy.

Raffa keeps a detached historian’s eye on how Italian political figures used Dante to justify their own vision of the nation, the race, and the culture. But he is also an expert reader of Dante’s literature. In 2009 Raffa published the wonderful book, The Complete Danteworlds, a guide to the Comedy that is a must-read for students and teachers of Dante. So Raffa is well aware of just how much violence has been done to Dante’s texts by the people in the history he tells. He rightly gives voice to opposing views. The Catholic ecclesial hierarchy had little sympathy when 19th-century Italian republicans refashioned a devoutly Catholic writer into a more secular “prophet and proponent of the modern nation-state.” Likewise, Raffa points out a “vast gulf” between Dante’s political vision of a peaceful empire led by Christianity and philosophy and Mussolini’s mustard-gassing of Ethiopians to begin modern Italy’s imperial expansion.

Dante’s Bones tells a fascinating story about the afterlife of a brilliant artist. But it also reveals how frequently political figures have distorted the man and his books. How could Hitler and Mussolini see in the Christian poet any likeness to their nightmare project of domination, racism, and murder? Even a cursory glance at the text of Inferno suggests that neither dictator read the book, or if they did, they only read with what Ralph Ellison once called blindness “of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.” These tyrants and their followers were, among many things, bad readers of literature. They treated a literary text as an empty vessel into which they could pour their own vision, as if poetry were meaningless in itself, but useful for powering the ideology of each new generation. It’s a stark lesson to all of us, especially students and teachers of literature, that how we read literature matters. It shows us what happens when we fail to read carefully and to be radically receptive of a text as it really is—when we fail to embrace its otherness, to see through its eyes and not our own. Raffa’s excellent history indirectly shows that when we remake a work of literature in our own image, we may in fact be desecrating the author’s bones.


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