Thursday, 16 August 2018
Dante in Ravenna
The shady Zona Dantesca/del Silenzio around the poet's local church, San Francesco, quickly became my favourite refuge from the sun, if not the humidity, during my charmed time in Ravenna.
Of course there's the wonder of the tomb itself, a symbol of the ongoing homages to the master combining an 18th century exterior by Camillo Moriglia
with Pietro Lombardo's 1483 original, including a fine relief.
The story of Dante's bones and their various shakeups since he died in 1321 after three presumably tranquil years under the patronage of Guido Novello di Polenta - the Polentas of Ravenna are buried and have memorials like this one in Dante's parish church, San Francesco -
is a fascinating one, and it's comprehensively told in the displays of the Dante Museum on the first floor of the Centro Dantesco.
While there is an active courting of the non-Dante-reading public with some of the displays,
the right wall of the 'Inferno' room tells the history. On Polenta's orders, Dante's remains were placed in a marble sarcophagus lodged in the Chapel of the Madonna between the church and the convent. In 1519, alarmed that the Florentines wanted to reclaim the bones of their exiled poet, the monks remove them to a sepulchre installed within the walls. Another monk rediscovered them in 1677 and had them placed in a wooden box with this inscription.
The box in turn was walled up when the fraternity was banished in the Napoleonic invasion in 1810 and not discovered until 1863, when a workman came across them. Great celebrations in Ravenna, and a public display of the bones, announced on this poster,
before they were lodged in the 18th century chapel. In wartime, the bones were moved yet again
and finally back again. Amen.
The museum has one original room decorated in 1921 by the Dante Society of Montevideo (!)
and fine views over the cloister of San Francesco's monastery (the monks moved back in a century and a half after their evacuation).
The next courtyard belongs to the Palazzo Rasponi where Byron lived - there was a Byron conference going on in the rooms adjoining the museum - and here we gathered on the first morning for what turned out to be a pretentious 'homage to Dante' by a 'poet' and a loud band (who were better). I didn't stay for long; the audience, however, was more interesting. One of these ladies was with a strapping 'figlio di momma', not pictured.
If that Dante event was a disappointment, there was a major compensation later that afternoon - on my way back along the main shopping drag from San Vitale, I came across the splendid reciter doing all the voices from memory, giving us the whole of the canto about Cacciaguida.
I was hoping to see him again on subsequent days, but I didn't.
The square of San Francesco is a lovely one, lined by trees and a pretty garden on one side and with a very good cafe-restaurant under the arches on the other.
Our Virgil in the Warburg Dante classes, Dr Alessandro Scafi, was responsible for choosing the quotations from the Divina Commedia carved into the stones. He wanted a sense of a passage from profane to sacred as one approaches the central west door of the church, in front of which we read 'Va, e andando ascolta' - 'Go, and listen as you do so'.
'Venite: qui si varca', 'Come: here is the crossing', are the words of the angel in Purgatorio 19:43.
And then there are the beautiful last four lines of its final Canto:
Io ritornai da la santissima onda
rifatto si come piante novelle
rinovellate di novella fronda,
puro e disposto a salire le stelle.
(I returned from the most holy wave refreshed, as new plants are renewed with new leaves, pure and made ready to rise to the stars).
There is also a Dantesque inscription on the ex Casa del Mutilato on Piazza Kennedy, a Mussolini-era experiment from the years 1937-9 built in the demolished Jewish Quarter and now refurbished. Strictly speaking it's 'de l'alto scende virtù che m'aiuta'. 'from on high descends a power that helps me; line 68 of Purgatorio's Canto I.
The interior of San Francesco may seem a little gloomy compared to the mosaiced glories of other buildings in Ravenna, its sales table manned by two old ladies who had a little difficulty giving me the right change for the postcards I bought. But it has atmosphere, with its 22 columns of Greek marble and a splendid roof
and a treasure you might miss if you gave the building only a cursory glance: the crypt of Bishop Neon's fifth century original with a mosaic pavement now affected by Ravenna's rising water levels.
This only makes what you see through a grille below the high altar the more picturesque; and the goldfish are there for practical reasons, feeding on the algae which might otherwise destroy the mosaics.
That more or less concludes my Dante instalments. I don't want to leave him behind. I have yet to make headway with the dual-language edition of Vita Nuova, and I'll certainly return to the Scafi-Took spectacular next 'term' for the earlier Inferno classes I missed by joining late. As for the lead image, it's part of a splendid mural over one side of the boarded-up central market place, also featuring other Ravenna-connected celebrities. Insertion: a bit of classy graffiti elsewhere, presumably a take on Dante and Beatrice.
And there are several fine cafes and restaurants on the other side of the street, which the Ravenati frequent with their dogs - as regular a feature of the city as the bicycles.