Discover the Florence of Dante Alighieri with our itinerary: from the place he was born and baptised, to the church where he first met the platonic love of his life, Beatrice.
The Florence in which Dante lived would have looked very different from the one we see today. It had no magnificent buildings. There were no great Cathedral, no mighty Palazzo Vecchio in Piazza Signoria. Medieval Florence was filled with botteghe, small churches, and enclosed gardens.The powerful families were competing to build the tallest defensive towers. It was a crowded, disorganised space.
Geographically, the Florence of Dante Alighieri consisted of the area around Via del Corso, Via Alighieri and Via dei Cimatori just behind Piazza Signoria.
Casa di Dante Museum and the Baptistry – the first years
1. Dante House, Via Santa Margherita 1
First things first. Where exactly was Dante born? In Florence there’s a Dante House museum, but don’t expect to see the place where the poet took his first steps. His real house, though no longer around, would have stood very close to this spot, probably in Via Alighieri. The museum makes for an interesting visit though. Hosted in a 20th century mock medieval building, it pays homage to Dante and his work.
2. The Baptistry, Piazza Duomo
Dante’s date of birth, said to be 1265, is not certain either. But we know for a fact where he was baptised. You’ll find this place in Piazza Duomo. It’s the magnificent Baptistry, which Dante Alighieri mentions affectionately in the Divine Comedy. His “bel San Giovanni” is one of the oldest religious buildings in the city, much more ancient than his bigger brother the Duomo. At that time it was also the most important building in Florence, where religious and civil ceremonies regularly took place.
Inside the Baptistry, you’ll see some magnificent mosaics in the ceiling, and a baptismal font. This was not the original basin from Dante’s time. That was replaced in 1576 for the baptism of the son of Francesco I de’ Medici, ruler of the city.
If you are visiting the baptistry, a joint ticket will also allow you to see the Cathedral’s Dome and the Museo Opera Duomo.
Courtly Love in Medieval Florence: Dante and Beatrice
3. Santa Margherita dei Cerchi Church
Church Santa Margherita dei Cerchi is known as “Dante’s church“. Tradition has it that Dante met his beloved Beatrice – the muse that inspired him throughout all his life – in this small church. Tucked away in via Santa Margherita. He had the first glimpse of her when he was 9 years old, and then again 9 years later. His love was purely platonic however, a feeling closer to spiritual awakening than carnal passion.
In reality Dante never mentioned having spoken to Beatrice. His was an adoration made up of glances and silence, as she was for him more angel than woman, “a queen of virtue” with emerald eyes. She got married and died very young, at 24. In the Divine Comedy it is Beatrice who guides the poet through Paradise.
4. Beatrice’s house
In the Church of Santa Margherita you can see Beatrice’s tomb, but it’s just a tribute. Her body is likely to be buried in her husband’s church of Santa Croce. The location of the house where she grew up is marked with a marble sign at number 6 in Via del Corso.
The Florence of Dante Alighieri the politician
5. Castagna Tower and 6. San Martino Church
Dante got into politics at the age of thirty. Florence was going through a very turbulent period, with divisions between political factions, rival powerful families, nobles and commoners. He didn’t like modern Florence with all its new money and corruption. But for a brief period of time he took part in the government, having being elected prior in 1300. Where would he go for his meetings? Not far from his house.
At that time the priors used to meet in the pokey Torre della Castagna. This tall tower protected the priors in case of an attack. We can still see it today at the corner of Piazza San Martino in front of the small San Martino Church, usually indicated as the church where he got married to Gemma Donati. A much more realistic love but much less celebrated. Funny enough, Dante didn’t write a single word about his wife.
Dante’s statue and his tomb in the Santa Croce Church
7. Piazza Santa Croce and Church
Outside the Church of Santa Croce stands a grim and scowling Dante Alighieri. It’s a marble statue created in 1865 to celebrate the 600 year anniversary of his birth. The construction work for the church would have just started when Dante was exiled by his political opponents that took over Florence. In 1301 he was forced to leave his city never to come back.
Inside the church you’ll find a cenotaph that commemorates Dante. But his remains are in Ravenna where he spent his last years and died in 1321. The city of Florence wanted to pay tribute to him in this church where all the big names are buried, Michelangelo and Galileo amongst others.
Although the poet isn’t buried in Florence, the city owns one of his death masks that you can see in Palazzo Vecchio. Out of interest this is the very same mask that makes an appearance in Dan Brown’s “Inferno”.
Did you know?
In the Florence of Dante Alighieri the Duomo, Santa Croce and Palazzo Vecchio were in the first stages of being built. Dante would have walked in the workshops and admired the scale of these impressive projects. There’s even a sasso di dante (‘stone of Dante’) in Piazza Duomo where he supposedly used to sit and watch the cathedral come to life.