Visiting Dante

The meeting of Dante and Beatrice in the 14 C illustrated Codex

Dante Alighieri and Beatrice Portinari are probably, with Romeo and Juliet, one of the most famous pairs of lovers in literature.  And the first lines of Dante's Divine Comedy have got to be some of the most famous opening lines in poetry

‘Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
che la diritta via era smarrita.’
Which roughly translates:

‘At the midpoint of my life,
I found myself in a dark wood
and the true path was lost to me.’

This is the fourteenth century codex of Dante’s Divina Commedia  in the Dante museum.  It was written between 1308 and 1321 in exile (Dante's family were on the wrong side of a power struggle in Florence) and it's written in the Tuscan dialect that is now standard Italian.

Difficult to translate ‘la diritta via’ - diritta just means straight or direct, but Dante seems to be using it metaphorically to mean ‘the straight way’ in biblical terms, which implies true faith. And then ‘smarrita’ - which means to lose, but if you lose something you would usually say ‘perdere’ - ‘smarrita’ implies an element of confusion and bewilderment. Translation is so difficult!

Dante is to Italy what Shakespeare is to England. He first met Beatrice when they were children of 8 and 9  and was powerfully attracted to her, but he was already betrothed by his parents to the daughter of another powerful Italian family, so they were never destined to have a future together.  They met again when Dante was 18 and Beatrice 17 and he was just as struck by her then as he had been before.  Beatrice died at the age of 24 and Dante seems to have spent much of his later life thinking about what might have been.
Dante lived among the murky politics of fourteenth century Florence, where every family with money had a fortified tower house to protect themselves and their goods from their neighbours. The heads of families were warlords and women were married off to provide strategic alliances as towns fought against towns.  One of Dante's sisters was snatched from a nunnery to clinch just such a deal.

La Casa di Dante

We went to Florence yesterday - just an hour and a half train ride from where we’re staying. You can’t go to Florence without going to visit Casa di Dante - no one knows if his family ever lived here, but it’s a house associated with his family.

Beatrice' tomb

And round the corner is the small, but ancient, church where Beatrice’s family worshipped and where she is buried. Her tomb is permanently decked with flowers and in front of it there are baskets and baskets of requests in a dozen different languages.  Some of the messages are very poignant.

The effect is rather spoiled by the electric candles that have now replaced the wax variety - much cleaner and more efficient I suppose, but they lack the symbolism - physically lighting the candle and watching it flicker (and sometimes go out) has a deep emotional significance.

We walked through Florence and would have loved to go into the Duomo - it is so impressive (despite the inevitable scaffolding), hemmed in by other buildings, towering over everything.

But the queues to get in stretched round the block (and this is only a Wednesday in April!) - you can’t waste time in sunny Florence queuing!

So we walked down to the piazza in front of the Uffizi, which has some wonderful sculpture just standing there waiting to be admired, and we had a glass of wine and looked at ‘David’ (and the queues for the Uffizi!) for an hour or so before getting the train home.

On the train we downloaded the whole of the Divine Comedy with illustrations by Gustave Dore onto the Kindle (the joys of 3G!) for only £1.39 and read some of it.  The 19th century translation isn't very good, but at least it gives the meaning - and the illustrations are wonderful.  The complete Italian version cost 69 pence so between the two we had the whole experience.

Gustave Dore - Dante and Beatrice


  1. Interesting,thank you.Refreshing post.

  2. Lovely post Kathleen! So many pathways you take me down. And you've convinced me re. an E-reader now....

  3. Beautiful.

    Queues are the curse of tourism. I didn't go into the Louvre last time I was in Paris because of the line. Sunshine along the Seine seemed much more appealing.


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