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Dante’s Dust: A Curious Discovery in Florence’s Central Library

article-imageNational Central Library in Florence (photo by Kaylyn Wernitznig)

In 1999, workers repairing bookshelves on the second floor of Florence’s National Central Library came across a small envelope hidden among some rare 17th-century manuscripts. Notarized documents found alongside the envelope identified its contents as dust from the tomb of Dante Alighieri, the great Italian poet of the Middle Ages. Needless to say, the repairmen—and the librarians—were stunned: How did Dante’s dust end up here, so far from his tomb in Ravenna? 

Dante’s remains led a peripatetic afterlife, which seems only fitting for someone who travelled so much in life. Exiled from his birthplace of Florence in 1302 after a political coup, Dante wandered for years, dying (probably of malaria) in 1321 in Ravenna, where he was buried in a Franciscan church. In the centuries that followed, Florence repeatedly asked for the return of Dante’s body, but Ravenna’s citizens refused to return him to the city that had exiled him. Florence made their most significant attempt in 1519, when they managed to get the backing of both the pope and Michelangelo, who offered to design Dante’s tomb. But still Ravenna refused to let Dante go.

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Dante’s tomb in Ravenna (photo by Husky)

Things took a turn for the strange in 1865, when workers were repairing buildings around the tomb in honor of the sixth centennial of Dante’s birth. While removing part of a wall a few yards away from the tomb, the workers found a dilapidated wooden chest hidden inside the wall. When they lifted it up, one of its rotten planks clattered to the floor, revealing a human skeleton inside. An inscription atop the chest, and another inside, said the remains were “Dantis Ossa”—Dante’s bones. 

Feeling justifiably confused, the officials opened Dante’s tomb. It was empty. After examining the bones, and matching the skull inside with Dante’s death mask, they felt sure their poet had gone wandering again after death. Workers also discovered a hole in the back of the tomb, accessible only from inside the monastery, which had been plastered to hide its existence. Today many scholars believe that the Franscian friars in charge of the tomb were so determined not to let Dante’s bones go that they hid them, perhaps sometime shortly after Michelangelo got involved in 1519.

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Diagram of the location where the chest with Dante’s bones was found, from Studies in Dante

It was dust from the 19th century discovery that ended up in Florence’s library. After the dilapidated chest was discovered in 1865, it was laid out on a carpet for examination. Afterwards, a devoted Dante fan named Enrico Pazzi, a sculptor, came along and collected the dust that remained on the rug. Pazzi divided the dust into six envelopes, four of which have since disappeared. A fifth was found in 1987, inside a medallion in the ceiling of the Italian Senate. 

As for the sixth envelope, the one at Florence’s central library, it was apparently presented to the director of library in 1889 in honor of his efforts to establish a Dante room at the library. Officials said it had last been seen in 1929, when it was shown to a conference of librarians. Library representatives speculated that the envelope had been mislaid during the move to a new building in 1935, although how it got among the 17th century manuscripts, where it was rediscovered in 1999, is anyone’s guess. Today, it’s not entirely clear where in the library—or elsewhere—the rediscovered envelope has ended up, but hopefully, wherever it is, someone has catalogued it correctly.