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Bones of contention: Ravenna's and Florence's claims to Dante's remains.

Abstract: This article analyzes Florence's final serious attempt, on the eve of national celebrations in honor of Dante and Italy, to retrieve Dante's bones from Ravenna. Breaking down the skillful diplomatic dance performed by the two cities in letters, resolutions, and meeting minutes, it shows how Italy's unification did not favor Florentine claims to Dante's bones; if anything, it gave Ravenna permanent possession of the poet's remains. Ravenna's "great refusal" of Florence's petition set the stage for future wrangling over relics of Italy's secular saint.

Keywords: Dante Alighieri; Florence; Ravenna; Risorgimento; skeletal history; tombs.

Per far bella e completa la festa di Dante e necessaria soprattutto la presema di Dante. (Atto Vannucci, Letter to the President of the Florentine Commission for the Dante Centenary)


If modern nations are what Benedict Anderson has called "imagined communities"--sovereign yet delimited societies arising from the convergence of capitalist production and print technologies on linguistic diversity--then Dante Alighieri is the figure who most effectively enabled others to imagine a unified and independent Italy. Famously called the "Ghibellin fuggiasco" by Ugo Foscolo in "Dei sepolcri" (line 174), Dante embodied a political position that Gabriele Rossetti viewed as prophetic of Italy's transformation into "un sol corpo nazionale" (2:353-54). Giuseppe Mazzini put it even more dramatically when, in a speech to Italian workers in London in 1841, he imagined celebrating the long-sought day of Italy's freedom by raising a statue of the poet on the highest point in Rome, the dedication on its base declaring, "At profeta della nazione italiana, gli italiani degni di lui" (15). Mazzini thus provided a lapidary label to the powerful and nuanced ways in which leading cultural and political voices called on Dante's authoritative status to promote Italian aspirations toward nationhood in the first half of the nineteenth century. Dante's moral authority, political philosophy, and foundational contribution to the Italian language and its literature cemented his role as the nation's ancestral father and prophet. (1)

That Dante lived and died in exile vastly increased the potency of his national symbolism. For Giambattista Vico, burial in the earth (humando) gives meaning and a name--humanitas--to humanity, thus marking one of the universal institutions of civilization (223). With burial and funereal monuments carrying such profound social meaning, as Robert Harrison has shown with examples ranging from ancient gravesites to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, it is only natural that the tomb and mortal remains of Italy's most celebrated writer and exile have inspired Italians to reflect on questions of national identity and homeland. Dante's national symbolism took center stage as Italy prepared to celebrate his six-hundredth birthday in 1865. Following on the heels of the Risorgimento, and with Florence in line to take over from Turin as Italy's capital, the Dante festivities planned by the poet's native city promised to double as a love-fest toasting national independence and unity. (2) At the same time, Florence's desire to crown these celebrations of Dante and Italy by repatriating his mortal remains highlighted the persistence of regional and local tensions within the new and evolving national configuration.

Florence's final serious attempt to bring Dante's bones back to his native city took place when the municipal government sent a formal request to Ravenna in the spring of 1864. On May 7, Giulio Carobbi, the acting Florentine Gonfaloniere, wrote a letter to Gioacchino Rasponi, Mayor of Ravenna, in which he expressed Florence's desire that "le Ceneri del Grande riposassero nella sua Citta" (195-96). Repatriation, Carobbi explained to his counterpart, was "one of the first things that came to mind" to members of the Florentine Commission for the Dante Centenary, the six-hundredth anniversary of Dante's birth to be celebrated in Florence the following year. The Florentine City Council approved formation of this Commission, headed by Gonfaloniere Carobbi himself and consisting of Florence's "piu fervidi cultori di studi danteschi", on November 14, 1863, as part of its overall resolution on the Dante Centenary (Giornale del Centenario 1:3). Although the wish to seek possession of Dante's remains was powerfully felt by all Florentines, the Commission and other city leaders were unsure about how best to express it. In keeping with the democratic spirit of the times, it was public opinion, amplified by the press, that finally forced the city into action.

A number of these public calls for Florence to petition Ravenna for Dante's bones were published in the Giornale del Centenario di Dante Allighieri. Created for the specific purpose of discussing and reporting on plans and activities related to the Centenary celebrations, the periodical, which appeared three times a month from February 1864 to June 1865, also provided a forum for private citizens to air their ideas and hopes for the commemoration. The "Parte Non Officiale" of two issues in 1864 (May 10 and 20) featured four proposals for the Centenary, each of which makes a strong case for seeking repatriation.

Giovanni Folchi, writing from Florence on February 14, 1864, identifies the new political landscape following Italy's unification as the reason why now--unlike in earlier days, when Italy was a victim of factional rivalries--the time is ripe for Ravenna and Florence to demonstrate their fraternal bond through the repatriation of Dante's remains (Giornale 10:78). Folchi urges Florence's political leadership the Gonfaloniere and members of the City Council--to create a special Commission charged with petitioning Ravenna "pubblicamente e nobilmente" for the return of "le ceneri del Divino Poeta alla sua terra natale, per quindi depositarle nel Panteon dei sommi italiani in Santa Croce". The request for Dante's bones, in Folchi's view, is absolutely necessary for Florence to meet its obligations in holding the Centenary celebrations. He has no doubt that Ravenna will accept such a noble invitation to join with Florence in "triumphantly" transferring Dante's remains to his native city. It would be no small accomplishment if Folchi's confidence were rewarded. By atoning for the historical sin of having condemned Dante to die unjustly in exile, Florentine leaders would prove themselves worthy of not only their city, country, and posterity "ma del mondo civile tutto". Dante's repatriation, in the end, would encourage the poet's admirers throughout the world to worship at his tomb in Florence.

Support for Florentine claims to Dante's bones also comes from other parts of Italy. Professor Niccola Gaetani Tamburini, President of the "Societa degli Amici dell'istruzione popolare in Brescia", raises the issue in his address to the group on December 20, 1863 (Giornale 10:77-78). Viewing the planned celebration of Dante as "una grande riparazione di antica ingratitudine dal Comune di Firenze alia memoria di Dante Allighieri", Tamburini asks: must Dante's remains, which the poet hoped would rest in peace in his "bel San Giovanni" (Inf. 19.17), after five centuries continue to lie outside Florence, "quasi a perpetuita del durissimo esilio?" The answer of course is no, as Ravenna, "altra gemma della risorta patria", must now agree to give Dante's bones to Florence (77). Dante speaks movingly of his desire, if ever his "poema sacro" should overcome the cruelty barring him from his native land, to return there to receive the poet's laurel at his baptismal font (Par. 25.1-9). Tamburini extrapolates on this homecoming wish to surmise that Dante imagined the Florentine Baptistery as his final resting place. He therefore proposes this building, not the church of Santa Croce, as the proper location for the poet's tomb (78). Baptism, after all, opened Dante's soul to its first "rivelazioni del bello e del grande". With his bones entombed there, the poet's earthly journey would come full circle: the site in Dante's native city marking his entrance into faith would hereafter mark the final resting place of his mortal remains as well as, at long last, the end of his exile from Florence.

Nor is enthusiasm for the repatriation of Dante's bones confined to Italy. Julius Braun, a German translator and scholar of Dante, heartily endorses Tamburini's proposal, promising to recommend its publication in the German press, and adds a suggestion or two of his own (Giornale 11:91-92). Writing from Rehme on March 4, 1864, Braun urges the attendance of non-Italians at the Centenary celebrations in Florence (expressing hope that he himself will be there), for Dante "e troppo grande per essere soltanto poeta della sua nazione. Egli appartiene all'universo" (91). "II vostro Dante e si grande", he says, begging pardon for speaking so freely as a foreigner, "che noi lo consideriamo come nostro" (92). Braun also excuses himself for his poor Italian, noting the difference between translating from a language and writing in it, but he has no trouble getting across his main point: "il desiderio di trasportare le ceneri dell'esule a S. Giovanni" (91). Braun knows that Florence would raise a beautiful marble monument over Dante's "sante ossa" in the Baptistery, one that is "degno dell'entusiasmo degli Italiani per il loro grand'uomo" (91). Yet he fears that even the creation of a majestic tomb for Dante in the Baptistery, no doubt a noble gesture, would be insufficient compensation to Ravenna for relinquishing the poet's bones. Observing that the venerable city on the Adriatic, renowned for its basilicas and mausoleums, is itself "un monumento mirabile della storia", Braun thinks Ravenna's gift of Dante's remains--"il piu prezioso de' suoi decori"--would be the greatest sacrifice the city could make "sull'altare della patria nuovamente acquistata" (91).

To honor Dante's glory and Ravenna's sacrifice, Florence (and the rest of Italy) must therefore give something even more worthy of the nation's "piu gran genio" than a grandiose marble monument. And Braun has a bold idea for this gift. As Dante himself created an everlasting work with his Divine Comedy, so Italy should "crown the present greatness and glory of the nation" for future generations by creating a magnificent institute of learning in Dante's name. It is this university, or "Accademia Allighieri", that should be given to Ravenna "in exchange for the holy gift, in exchange for the holy remains of times past, as a fruit-bearing tree of the future" (91). Braun's idea for this gift of a Dante University in Ravenna surely reflects his educational role as a foreign scholar and translator of the poet's works; it also shows, questions of its wisdom or feasibility aside, how local and regional negotiations over Dante's bones so easily spill over into areas of national and international concern.

The proposal of Baron Giacomo Baratta, written in Pisa on March 27, 1864, outshines all others for how, in its detailed conception of Dante's repatriated remains, it anticipates the national "sanctification" of the poet that follows the discovery of his bones a year later (Giornale 10:79). The Baron's letter teems with religious terminology, beginning with his rechristening of Florentine political leaders as "i Padri del Comune di Firenze", who have reached the "nobile e santo proposito di chiedere ai Ravennati le ceneri di quel Grande". Baratta, like Folchi and others, blames Italy's history of divisiveness for preventing Ravenna from satisfying earlier Florentine requests for Dante's remains. His confidence in a different outcome is thus also based on the changed political reality, one in which Italian cities, "having finally recognized one another as children of the same mother, join in a loving embrace." Now, he believes, no one can doubt but that Ravenna's "generous care" will allow her Florentine "sister" to "show the world, with an act of the most noble and solemn reparation, how heavy has been the weight of a sin of ingratitude which, until now, the times and political conditions, more than anything else, have prevented her from expiating in deed."

Once Florence and Ravenna agree on this action, Baron Baratta recommends that distinguished citizens from the two cities be chosen to serve together on a special Commission charged with four principal tasks. First and foremost, to establish precisely when and how to remove Dante's remains from their original tomb in Ravenna and place them in the casket to be used for their "translation" to Florence --not coincidentally the technical term (traslazione) for the official transportation of the remains of a saint, typically to a location more appropriate for their veneration by the faithful. A legal instrument would be drawn up to document the legitimacy of this translation, with the text also inscribed in marble or bronze and displayed in the spot "ove quelle ceneri giacquero per tanti anni". Second, to send invitations to representatives of cities and cultural organizations--in Italy and elsewhere--requesting their presence in Ravenna on the day of the "holy ceremony" so that, together, they may "accompany in procession the mortal remains of the Supreme Poet." Third, to ask that the municipal delegates to Ravenna bring a banner or gonfalon exhibiting in color each commune's coat-of-arms. Finally, to do everything necessary to ensure that this celebration of Dante's repatriation be conducted in a manner worthy as much of Italy as of Dante. To this end, the Baron proposes that the Italian government make it as easy as possible for inhabitants of towns along the procession route to greet and honor Dante's remains, thus making the event a "symbol and seal of the harmony of thought and feeling shared by each and every Italian province."

Viewing Dante's proposed repatriation as an event "at once religious and civil," Baron Baratta depicts the desired transfer of Dante's remains from Ravenna to Florence as if it were a national celebration of Dante's sainthood. The procession and the welcoming crowds honor Italy by honoring Dante, the prophet and father of the free and unified nation. Baratta, like Tamburini and Braun, departs from the conventional choice, Santa Croce, and interprets Dante's wishful vision of a triumphant return to his native city (Par. 25.1-9) as if it were an instruction in his will to be buried in the Florentine Baptistery. There would be no need for an elaborate mausoleum or even an ornate epitaph inside the building: a simple stone with the name DANTE would speak more eloquently than any other funereal monument. The Baron's aesthetic ideas are very different when it comes to commemorating the repatriation itself. Here he would call on all of the city's finest architects and artists to combine their talents to build and decorate a triumphal arch, a monument intended to hand down to posterity "il glorioso ricordo della traslazione in patria delle ceneri d'Allighieri". Rising over the spot at which the procession bearing Dante's bones re-entered Florence, this tribute "to the greatest man of the Middle Ages" would make the grandchildren of those that accomplished it "rightly proud of them."

These ambitious plans for Dante's postmortem homecoming by private citizens were ultimately as hypothetical as the exile's wish for a triumphal return to Florence--to be crowned poet at his baptismal font--during his lifetime. Still, they give some indication, through their impassioned pleas and concrete details, of how real and heartfelt were the hopes and aspirations of Florentines and others for Dante's repatriation at this moment in history. How confident they were of success remains an open question (perhaps insistence on praise for the effort--win or lose--betrays a hint of doubt), but it's hard not to conclude that they felt, justifiably or not, this might be their time. Even if it were, they first needed an authoritative sponsor--a spokesperson with impeccable credentials--to convince the Florentine City Council to petition Ravenna for Dante's bones. Florence's effort to repatriate Dante in the early sixteenth century had been a blatant display of power politics as practiced by a wealthy city-state with one of its aristocratic sons (Giovanni de' Medici) occupying the Throne of Saint Peter (as Pope Leo X); that forcible attempt to gain possession of Dante's remains had failed miserably, but memories of such offences can be long. To succeed this time, Florence would have to exploit every nuance of the art of political diplomacy.

Supporters of proposals to seek repatriation of Dante's bones found their man in Atto Vannucci. Born near Pistoia in 1810, Vannucci was a liberal Catholic intellectual and priest who taught classical literature and ancient history while also playing a major role in promoting Italian independence and unification. Vannucci directed and wrote for political journals supporting the uprisings of 1848, after which he served in the provisional Tuscan government in 1849. Following the restoration of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, he went into exile, residing in France, England, and Switzerland, before returning in 1854. In Florence he devoted himself to political journalism in support of the Risorgimento. In 1859 he was appointed director of the city's Biblioteca Magliabechiana and professor of Latin literature at the Istituto di Studi Superiori, and in 1860 he was elected as a Florentine Deputy to the Italian Parliament. Given this resume, it is little wonder that members of the Florentine Commission for the Dante Centenary, delighted to show their distinguished compatriot the high regard in which they held him, unanimously proposed that "the most eminent Professor Atto Vannucci" join their ranks.

The first page of the Giornale del Centenario on May 20, 1864, featured, this time under the rubric "Parte Officiale", a letter that Atto Vannucci wrote on April 15 to the President of the Florentine Commission for the Dante Centenary, Gonfaloniere Carobbi (11:85-86). He wrote the day after he had presented his proposals orally to the entire Commission, "ripetendo i voti gia espressi da varii giornali e da piu cittadini italiani" (85). Vannucci wastes no time in declaring the primary importance of securing Dante's remains in time for the events planned for May of the following year:
   Per far bella e completa la festa di Dante e necessaria soprattutto
   la presenza di Dante. Ora come egli, anche da morto, rimane sempre
   lontano da questa sua patria; a me pare che prima di ogni altra
   cosa la Commissione per le feste debba occuparsi a far pratiche
   perche la solennite centenaria si apra coll'entrata in Firenze
   delle sue ossa, richiamate alla fine dall'esilio che dura da cinque
   secoli e mezzo (85).

Drawing people to Florence from all over the world, the return of Dante's bones would make the celebration of his six-hundredth birthday "among the greatest and most solemn festivities that had ever been seen."

To support this grandiose claim, Vannucci pulls out all the stops in arguing for repatriation. He repeats several points made by Folchi, Tamburini, Braun, and Baratta, but does so more eloquently and authoritatively. His confidence that Florence will succeed derives from his confidence in the new political order, his belief that, no longer "enslaved and divided," Italy has overcome the "iniquity" and "ill fortune" that prevented the restitution of Dante's remains in earlier times. Now that circumstances have changed, "one can hope for that which was then not possible" (86). Dante himself, Vannucci adroitly adds, played a major if indirect role in helping to bring about these changes as the "inspired prophet and proud champion of Italian unity and independence." It was the medieval poet, after all, who used his formidable intellect and imagination to "prepare for the times and conditions" that only the Italians of Vannucci's fortunate generation have been allowed to witness. Dante's unique place in Italian political and cultural history makes the repatriation of his bones that much more desirable and--to Vannucci and other Florentines--more likely at this point in time.

With Italian unification (and Dante's role in foreseeing and inspiring it) as the foundation of his argument for repatriation, Vannucci wisely calls on the support of other cities. He proposes that eminent Florentines be joined by distinguished citizens throughout Italy in the petition for Dante's bones, using "tutti i mezzi creduti migliori a raggiunger l'intento" (86). The success of this strategy seems guaranteed, for Ravenna "would gladly agree to this honest request made in the name of mother Florence and the entire great Italian nation." But in attempting to expand the Florentine desire for Dante's bones into a national campaign, Vannucci plays a risky double game. So great is Dante's significance in Italian history that his mortal remains rightly belong to all of Italy; yet, insists Vannucci, "Dante's ashes," when all is said and done, "belong to us"--Florence --"in particular." This recourse to the national argument in the service of a local initiative, as we shall see, can cut both ways.

Vannucci's proposal, unlike others, does not single out a specific location in Florence for the placement of Dante's tomb. Perhaps he thinks of Santa Croce as the obvious choice almost by default. Not only does the Franciscan church already house Stefano Ricci's monument to Dante (the cenotaph installed in 1830) and hold the remains of other illustrious Italians (including Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Galileo), but Enrico Pazzi's colossal statue of Dante is soon to occupy the center of the piazza directly in front of the church. Indeed, the unveiling of Pazzi's work (another Florentine initiative with support, this time financial, from all over Italy) is planned for the opening day of the Dante festivities in 1865. Vannucci in fact envisions a trio of noble initiatives combining to give a "solemn beginning" to the Centenary celebration: inauguration of Pazzi's marble statue, restoration of the house in which Dante had been born, and, most important, repatriation of the poet's bones. With Dante's return from exile to his "bel San Giovanni," Italians will flock to Florence in 1865 "to affirm again, swearing on the sacred bones, the unity of Italy" (86).

But if Florence should fail yet again to gain possession of Dante's bones? The effort in this case is its own reward. Her citizens will be free of blame for having tried, thus fulfilling nothing less than a "sacred duty." Vannucci thus makes it very difficult--well nigh impossible--for his fellow Florentines to oppose his proposal to seek repatriation of Dante's bones from Ravenna. To do so, one would risk being labeled unpatriotic if not sacrilegious. Still, the force and passion of his rhetoric notwithstanding, Vannucci follows official protocol and works through the proper chain of command, making his proposal to members of the special Commission for the Dante Centenary, of which he is part, and asking that they seek its approval by the Florentine City Council. It clearly doesn't hurt his cause that the Florentine Gonfaloniere--effectively, head of the city on these matters--is also, de facto, president of the Commission to which Vannucci makes his appeal.

It came as no surprise, then, that the Commission voted unanimously in favor of Vannucci's proposal, as recorded in the minutes of the meeting held on April 14, 1864 (Giornale 11:86-88). And this was no ordinary set of minutes. Such written reports are typically thought to provide far less than the verbal content--announcements, proposals, questions, motions, discussions, votes, and so on--they are supposed to summarize. They certainly aren't expected to expand and embellish upon what was said and done at the meeting. A dry, bare bones account of what transpired--most crucially, what was decided--is usually what is required (and what is best). Guido Corsini, the secretary of the Commission and director of the Giornale del Centenario, clearly had a different conception of this part of his job. (3) To his credit or blame, Corsini manages to ratchet up Vannucci's already powerful rhetoric calling for the city of Florence to petition Ravenna for the transfer of Dante's bones. Reminding his Florentine readers (including members of the City Council) that "Dante e sempre in esilio", the secretary declares it their "dovere sacrosanto" not just to seek repatriation (as Vannucci argues) but to accomplish it no matter how "insurmountable the obstacles" and poor the prospects of success might appear to be. Only by achieving this will they "render full justice to Father Alighieri." Corsini credits the "santo amore" binding Dante to Florence with imparting something "quasi divino" to the poet insofar as the city--its comforts, its beautiful language, even its factional politics--enabled him to construct "quel monumento miracoloso della Commedia". Drawn by this love, Dante yearns to return to Florence "col corpo" as he frequently did "coll'animo" (87).

So strong in fact is Dante's desire to return physically to Florence that Corsini, in a flash of creativity, imagines the poet imagining the very repatriation of his bones that Florence seeks. In this extraordinary scene, Dante has a consoling vision of all of Italy "surrounding the bones of her prophet"; he foresees her cities, which "once vied with one another in hostility, now vying in affection to gather the bones with devotion in her Florence, close to delightful memories, in sight of those hills caressed by pleasant breezes, by a nurturing sun" (87). By design or not, Corsini's lyrical fantasy of patriotic devotion to the poet's bones resonates with one of the most tender moments in the "miraculous" poem, a moment truly born of Dante's love of Florence. In the seventh circle of Hell, the character Dante witnesses ferocious dogs chasing the shades of two men through the wood of the suicides. The hounds catch and tear apart their prey, men condemned to hell for the violent dissipation of their possessions; before being mauled, one shade crashes into a suicide-plant (the souls of suicides take the form of stunted trees and bushes), breaking and scattering its branches and leaves. Weeping and bleeding from its severed limbs, the bush identifies himself as a citizen of Florence who hanged himself in his home, and he begs Dante and his guide, Virgil, to "gather" his broken pieces (Inf. 13.139-44). Dante complies, and he does so with compassion inspired by love of his native city:

Poi che la carita del natio loco mi strinse, raunai le fronde sparte e rende'le a colui, ch'era gia floco (Inf. 14.1-3).

Dante's noble gesture of collecting and returning the broken branches and scattered leaves to the anguished Florentine suicide is a strangely apt image of how secretary Corsini imagines Ravenna's restitution of the poet's bones to Florence. We have come a long way indeed from the typical minutes of a committee meeting.

Corsini's account also goes beyond Vannucci's proposal in stressing the need and ultimate likelihood of success. With the emergence of Italy as an independent, unified nation--as Corsini believes Dante wished to happen--any objection to the "great and clear necessity" of bringing Dante's bones to Florence could only be "questionable and petty" (87). Still, he follows Vannucci in taking care to encourage approval of the repatriation proposal (at this point, by the City Council) by qualifying his optimism. Irrespective of Ravenna's response, he tells the Florentine leadership, "you will have proven yourselves worthy of the great city, if you exert every last ounce of strength and press forward with all legitimate means to attain the greatest compensation that Florence could offer her Divine Poet" (88). On April 21, 1864, one week after Vannucci's proposal (and Corsini's embellished account of it), the Florentine City Council strove to make good on this "compensation" by forming a special committee charged with drafting a resolution to petition Ravenna for Dante's remains (Del Lungo 196-97). The three committee members--Gino Capponi, Ermolao Rubieri, and Andrea Lorini--read their resolution at the meeting of the City Council on May 4, 1864. Fully aware that their task was not just to win over their compatriots but ultimately to persuade Ravenna to relinquish Dante's remains, they emphasized Florence's culpability for the fact that Dante's bones lie elsewhere and Florence's responsibility now to rectify the situation.

Indeed, the three main reasons--or "considerando"--used to justify the petition for Dante's remains all center on the iniquity of Dante's exile from Florence. The first consideration observes that it is the duty of later generations to right the wrongs of their ancestors by "healing, insofar as they are able, the consequences of those wrongs." One of these harmful effects, the second consideration states, is that the "sacred disposition of Dante Alighieri's bones in Ravenna is testimony--and at the same time a perpetuation--of the unjust exile suffered by [Florence's] greatest citizen." As Florence now prepares to celebrate the six-hundredth anniversary of Dante's birth, declares the third consideration, the city cannot help but renew its vow--made centuries ago but never forgotten--"to rectify that permanent effect of an ancestral wrong." Florence therefore sends this entreaty to Ravenna, seeking to obtain "as a fraternal gift, one as noble as it must be sorrowful, the restitution of Dante's bones." To show their gratitude for such good will on the part of Ravenna, the Florentine City Council requests permission to place a commemorative plaque expressing this sentiment in the spot where Dante's (hopefully) repatriated bones had once reposed.

The resolution easily accomplished its first task. The Florentine City Council overwhelmingly approved it, with twenty-two votes in favor and only one against. Now it was the job of Giulio Carobbi, as Gonfaloniere of Florence and President of the Commission for the Dante Centenary, to make a formal petition to Ravenna for repatriation of "le Ceneri del Grande" (Del Lungo 195-96). Charged with executing the "honorable task" of communicating Florence's request, Carobbi wrote to the Mayor of Ravenna, Gioacchino Rasponi, just three days after the City Council meeting. With this letter of May 7, 1864, Carobbi places a copy of the approved Florentine resolution in his "most illustrious" correspondent's "precious hands," urging him to use "all his influence" to obtain a "happy outcome for the Florentine request." The Gonfaloniere, however, tweaks the resolution in a small but significant way. Whereas the resolution takes as a given the guilt of the men who exiled Dante, Carobbi, in the final words of his letter, explains that present-day Florentines seek repatriation "to make amends not so much for the wrongs committed by their forebears as for the wretched times in which they lived." Shifting emphasis for blame from people to the times in which they lived may be an instance of splitting hairs, and likely made no difference in the outcome of the petition, but it couldn't have helped the Florentine cause.

The Ball is Now in Ravenna's Court.

Less than two weeks later, Mayor Rasponi acknowledges receipt of the Florentine documents (Del Lungo 197-98). Writing to Gonfaloniere Carobbi on May 18, 1864, Rasponi says he immediately informed Ravenna's Executive Council of Carobbi's "nota" and assures him that the matter will be examined by the City Council, in whose power lies the decision. But the Mayor's elegant reply--what he says and how he says it, as well as what he leaves unsaid--does not bode well for Florence.

Confident that the Florentines could not have acted without being aware of the "gravity and delicate nature of the request," Rasponi trusts they will understand that Ravenna requires adequate time to reach a decision based on "careful examination of all relevant matters" (198). It is no accident that he never identifies the contents of the Florentine request, what it is they actually want (Dante's bones). Still, in a preview of the strategy that will characterize Ravenna's resolution, he neatly manages to rebut one of Gonfaloniere Carobbi's points in favor of the petition. Carobbi had praised the role of public opinion in influencing the Florentine government to go forward with the request for Dante's remains; he was particularly pleased to note now support for the initiative crossed class and social lines. Rasponi now turns this same factor to his advantage, arguing instead that, while public opinion "rightly reigns supreme wherever social and political civility flourishes," the determination of a matter of such delicate importance as the disposition of Dante's bones must be made "without regard" for it (198).

Mayor Rasponi also shows himself an able practitioner of that dreaded, timeworn line that so often accompanies bad news in diplomatic negotiations as well as in romantic relationships. Sure to approve the "sentimento italiano e nobile" that inspired Florence to seek Dante's bones, he expresses his "profonda fiducia" that, no matter what Ravenna decides, its decision will only strengthen "quei vincoli di amicizia e fratellanza politica" between the two cities. He identifies a strong basis for their friendship, already "flourishing with Italy's resurgent fortunes," in the "profound, nearly religious, veneration that Ravenna and Florence profess for the great Italian Prophet Dante Alighieri" (198). Even and especially if we refuse your request, he basically says to Florence, "I hope we can still be friends."

Given the tenor of this initial response to the Florentine petition, Ravenna's eventual decision would seem a foregone conclusion, little more than an afterthought. Be that as it may, the gravity of the matter of Dante's repatriation--and the seriousness with which Florence presented its case--warrants a proportionally compelling argument by the city asked to relinquish the poet's bones. Ravenna does not disappoint.

On Wednesday, July 27, 1864, over two months after confirming receipt of the Florentine petition, Mayor Rasponi calls an extraordinary meeting of the City Council of Ravenna so it can complete discussion and deliberation of items left unresolved from the regularly scheduled meeting two days earlier. Called for 11:30 a.m., the meeting is attended by only twenty-one of the thirty-seven councilors (one of whom arrives late), just enough to meet the Council's legal requirement for a quorum (twenty members) (Ricci 505-08). Undoubtedly, the main item on the agenda is the "Communication of the request by the Florentine Council concerning the bones of Dante Allighieri, and the resulting determination" (506). The meeting is opened to the public and, after minutes of the previous meeting have been approved, Rasponi reads the Florentine resolution of May 4 and Gonfaloniere Carobbi's accompanying "note" of May 7.

The minutes of this meeting, unlike Guido Corsini's loquacious account of Atto Vannucci's proposal at the Florentine meeting of April 14, are a model of reticence. Without revealing the sources or contents of "alcune osservazioni" made on the Florentine petition, the minutes tell us only that these comments met with the approval of the entire City Council. Rasponi, President of the Council, then proposes a resolution that is clearly the product of considerable time and effort. In truth, the odds of Florence gaining possession of Dante's remains at this point in time are slimmer than those of a successful Hail Mary pass. The approaching Dante Centenary, if anything, only makes it less likely that Ravenna would relinquish the bones of Italy's "Father Alighieri," a man who, exiled from Florence, took refuge in Ravenna, where he died and was buried. It is therefore predictable that the proposed resolution denies the Florentine request; perhaps the only surprise is how far apart the two cities are on the issue. Using language that would make even the most well-crafted rejection letter sound lame, the Ravennese resolution unequivocally denies the transfer of Dante's bones while deftly couching this refusal in the most self-serving yet noble terms. Here Ravenna shows itself more than equal to Florence in the art of passive-aggressive politics.

The resolution skillfully rebuts each of the Florentine considerations by recasting them from the perspective of Ravenna's interests. Matching up point by point, the two resolutions appear as mirror opposites of one another. In its first consideration, Florence observes the general principle that it is the duty of the living to atone for wrongs of their ancestors by repairing the effects of those wrongs (i.e., we must bring Dante, who was unjustly banished by our forebears, back home to Florence); Ravenna counters that later generations are obliged to perform deeds that honor their ancestors (i.e., we must pay tribute to our forebears for having provided a refuge for Dante in Ravenna). In its second consideration, Florence laments the "sacred deposit of Dante Alighieri's bones in Ravenna" as "testimony and perpetuation" of his unjust exile; Ravenna brilliantly turns the national argument on its head by arguing that, in the newly united Italy (where all Italian cities are bound by a "single law"), the "deposit of the sacred bones" of Dante in Ravenna can no longer be considered a "perpetuation" of his exile--i.e., now that Dante is as much at home in Ravenna as he is in Florence (or anywhere else in Italy, for that matter), the very notion of exile has meaning only outside the borders of Italy. In its third consideration, Florence declares that, in preparing for celebrations of Dante's Sixth Centenary, it would be remiss not to renew the vow of its forebears to repatriate Dante's remains; Ravenna insists that it would not properly honor the memory of "the great Italian" during his Centenary if it were "to abandon to another those sacred remains that were and are the object of such veneration and love by the citizens of Ravenna" (507-08).

It naturally follows from this set of three matching-contrasting considerations that the conclusions of the two resolutions similarly reflect one another in opposition. So Florence resolves to ask Ravenna for the "fraternal gift" of Dante's bones, a gift "as noble as it must be sorrowful" to give; in reply, the City Council of Ravenna instructs the Executive Council to send, in Ravenna's name, a "fraternal word" to the City Council of Florence "expressing regret for not being able grant its request" (508). Game. Set. Match.

Proving itself once again adept at fending off a Florentine initiative to gain possession of Dante's bones, Ravenna handily wins this contest. Particularly effective is how the city's rejection completely undermines Florence's use of Italian unification--the presumed end of regional and local hostilities--as an argument for transferring Dante's bones. In Ravenna's new Italy, the same political reconfiguration that gave such hope to proponents of repatriation, Florence has become just any old "someone else" (altrui). Bolstered by facts on the ground that should put an end to the matter once and for all, Ravenna's leaders expertly employ the rhetoric of diplomacy with a polite yet firm hand: with Italy now united, Dante is no longer in exile, he is at home--in Italy--whether he lies in Ravenna, Florence, or anywhere else on Italian soil. Gone then is Florence's rationale to seek Dante's bones. Ravenna's argument demonstrates as well as any other just how thoroughly, with Italian unification, Dante's status as a national figure--the "father and prophet" of Italy--has taken hold in Italian consciousness. Celebration of the poet's quintessential Italianness comes, in this case, at Florence's expense.

Ravenna gave no quarter in its formal rejection of Florence's petition to receive Dante's bones. After Mayor Rasponi, as head of the City Council, had read the resolution that so skillfully dismantled the Florentine case for repatriation, it was put to a vote of the Council, with those in favor asked to rise. No one stayed seated (Ricci 508). This unanimous decision, moreover, took place in an open meeting and could thus be construed as a vote of the Ravennese public. Nothing here occurred in secret. Rasponi does not fail to make this point in the final words of the short cover letter he writes to accompany the resolution when he sends a copy of it to Gonfaloniere Carobbi on August 11, 1864 (Del Lungo 199). Since the resolution, adopted on July 27, had already been published in the Giornale del Centenario on August 10, Rasponi's communication the following day is a mere formality. Yet it gives Ravenna one more opportunity to frame the competing claims for Dante's bones in its own terms. As Ravenna's "great refusal" had confronted Florence's petition head-on, turning its arguments completely around, so Mayor Rasponi's succinct letter responds in kind to Gonfaloniere Carobbi's "note" of May 4.

Thus Rasponi recasts the Florentine "wish that the Remains of the Great One repose in his City" as "the surrender to Florence of Dante's precious remains." Likewise, Carobbi's pleasure in reporting the role of the public--across social divisions--in urging the Florentine petition for Dante's bones is now countered by Rasponi's proud claim that the resolution denying the request "is inspired primarily by the reverence that the citizens of Ravenna profess for the memory of the great Italian poet." "As much as it pains him," Rasponi writes Carobbi, "not to be able to give a more satisfying answer," he has no choice but to convey Ravenna's resolution, approved unanimously and in public, not to grant Florence's petition for Dante's bones.

Ravenna's expert maneuvering put an end to any real possibility that Dante's bones would ever be transferred--or "translated"--to Florence. At least no such wholesale transfer of the poet's skeleton from Ravenna would likely occur, and certainly not in an open manner. But in 1864 neither city was aware of the uncomfortable fact that Dante's tomb was empty: as Florence and Ravenna performed their graceful yet ruthless diplomatic dance, his bones lay elsewhere, still waiting to be unceremoniously found. The unexpected discovery on May 27, 1865, less than two weeks after Florentine celebrations of the Dante Centenary, created fresh opportunities for the extraction and "translation" of material from Dante's physical afterlife--although on a smaller scale than the bulk of the poet's skeleton. Despite the reduced size of the material in question, it rekindled debate between Florence and Ravenna over Dante's remains and played a large role in promoting his cult in other times and places. Most of how this came about would not be known until reports of these wandering Dante relics came to light at the very beginning and the very end of the twentieth century (e.g., Perroni-Grande; Pampaloni). But it was during the euphoric, chaotic days immediately after the discovery of Dante's bones in 1865 that the course was set for these later chapters of his graveyard history. (4)

Florence, meanwhile, had to rest content with Stefano Ricci's cenotaph, installed in Santa Croce in 1830, and Enrico Pazzi's colossal statue, unveiled in Piazza Santa Croce on May 14, 1865. Italy's unification did not favor Florentine claims to Dante's bones; if anything, it sealed the deal on Ravenna's permanent possession of the poet's remains, his tomb there effectively writing his exile in stone. Yet Ravenna's "great refusal" of Florence's petition in 1864 may have been a blessing in disguise. If the sepulcher had been transported from Ravenna, to take its place among the funereal marbles of Santa Croce, Florence would have had not one but two tombs bearing Dante's name but not his bones.


University of Texas at Austin


(1) Liberal proponents of "new Italy" in the nineteenth century regularly praised Dante as a prophetic father inspiring national consciousness. See Bruers, Davis, and Ciccarelli.

(2) For the Dante festivities in Florence, see the eyewitness account of Barlow and the studies by Yousefzadeh, Rajna, and Schulze (98-107).

3 Corsini also directed La Festa di Dante, another periodical published for the Dante Centenary under the auspices of the Florentine Commission. Aimed at preparing less educated Italians for the celebrations by introducing them to Dante's life, works, and legacy, La Festa appeared on Sundays from May 1864 to June 1865. On the two official Florentine periodicals and other press coverage of the Centenary, see Yousefzadeh 131-57.

(4) This article is part of a larger project on Dante's graveyard history and its significance. I am grateful to the National Endowment for the Flumanities and the American Council of Learned Societies for awarding research fellowships in support of this work.


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