We know (see the biography) that Dante was buried in Ravenna in the year 1321. But the story of his mortal remains didn’t end with his physical death. On the contrary, there have been quite a lot of events regarding them; the latest was the piece of news, given by the press on the 19th of July of 1999 that an envelope containing Dante’s ashes has been found by chance in the National Central Library of Florence. There’ve been, as usual, some unclear and inaccuracies regarding the fact and somebody didn’t understood how it really went. Therefore, I’ve tried to collect some information from an Italian newspaper (the Corriere della Sera, which I thank for letting me translate and reproduce passages from three of the articles about the fact) and write them here as a sum up of the fact.
The finding of the envelope
On the day 19/7/1999, the directress of the National Central Library of Florence has showed to the press a small envelope, which is supposed to contain a part of the ashes of Dante Alighieri. The envelope, measuring 11,5 x 7 cm, filled with few grams of gray material, was inserted into a black frame, surrounded by stamps which prove the authenticity of the relic. The directress said that the case has been discovered almost by chance between the shelves of the second floor of the library, among rare books of the XVII century. The founders were two keepers of the library. They noticed an anomalous object stuck between the books, took it out and carried to the directress’s office, where they found out it was something searched for a long time. The envelope was packed together with other objects (i.e. a legal document concerning the authenticity of the find) in a box.
A first comment by the president of the Italian Dantesque Society
Professor Francesco Mazzoni, who is since 1970 the president of the Italian Dantesque Society and also professor of Dantesque philology at the University of Florence, said frankly that the find is just a whopper. He especially claimed that the term "Dante’s ashes" is definitely incorrect, because Dante wasn’t cremated; in the envelope there may be some of the dust of the carpet where Dante’s bones laid.
A sum up of the fortunes of Dante’s remains
In Italy we’re quarrelling, just for a change, on Dante Alighieri’s ashes, a 700 years old Deceased, who can’t be definitely buried for that long.
Professor Francesco Mazzoni, who knows about that Deceased more than anybody else, was definitely right in claiming a whopper the piece of news that maintained the content of the small envelope to be part of Dante’s corpse. Only, he may have used a less severe term, not only out of respect for the discoverer in justified ecstasy in front of the supposed relics, but also in order not to prevent the adding of a new chapter to the soap opera of a skeleton to which, maybe, the owner owes his popularity more than to his sparkling genius.
It all begun immediately after the burial in the Church of the Frati Minori in Ravenna, when Florence (which loves the Florentines only once they’re dead) had the insolence to ask the remains to the people of Ravenna. They just answered that they had protected and fed the Poet. A century and a half later the request was made again, this time with the support of a Florentine Pope, Leone X, so that it was harder to be refused. Therefore, the people of Ravenna answered just inviting anybody to come to collect the remains. But the burial recess was empty. The people of Ravenna, surprised, stated that either the remains had been stolen or Dante himself came to take them back in order to continue his roaming around, after-death. The Pope refused the first hypothesis but was embarrassed about the second one. How could a Pope deny the reincarnation of the soul in the body, which the Church assumed to be true?
In 1865 Italy was just become a Nation and in desperate search for fathers of the country. It was getting ready to celebrate the sixth centenary of the birth of the poet, when a worker, opening an hole between the two chapels Rasponi and Braccioforte, as wrote Santi Muratori, found by chance a wooden box half-decomposed by the damp. He opened it and found inside an almost complete skeleton and a sort of letter report in which Antonio Santi, prior of the monastery, testified that those were Dante’s bones, quickly saved from the arrogance of the city of Florence and of the Pope.
While checking its content, the box was placed on a small carpet. At the end, the sculptor Enrico Pazzi as an act of devotion collected what had remained on the carpet, namely the dust of the box, thinking that there may have remained also some particles of bones. He made that authenticate by the notary Saturnino Malagola, who correctly declared "The dust in here was removed from the carpet where laid the box and the bones of Dante Alighieri". Pazzi divided the dust into six envelopes and gave them to the director of the National Library in 1889. From that moment on we don’t know exactly where the envelopes went, since the recent discovering.
Everything should have been clear from that moment on, if others actions hadn’t come to complicate things. In 1878 Pasquale Miccoli, former town clerk of Ravenna, ordered in his testament to deliver to his successor an envelope containing "several bones, mortal remains of the Divine Poet, purloined in 1865". The legacy was proved to be authentic: the bones were the ones missing from the skeleton of the Great Deceased and made an enormous publicity for the repented purloiner. Shortly after that, the heirs of a person named Mordani carried to the town hall a glass case left by the dead, containing real bones. From that moment on, a lot of fragments followed. In 1921, shortly before the sixth centenary of the death, it was decided to reconstruct the entire skeleton to end the issue. A commission was formed in order to direct the enterprise and to avoid any new purloining.
Taken from the following articles (copyright of the respective owners):
- "Dante Alighieri, le ceneri ritrovate dopo 70 anni" by Wanda Lattes, Corriere della Sera, 20/7/1999.
- "Mazzoni: "Le ceneri di Dante? Sono solo polvere"" by Giulia Borghese, Corriere della Sera, 21/7/1999.
- "Somme ceneri, polveri italiane" by Indro Montanelli, Corriere della Sera, 23/7/1999 (available in original Italian version here).