Hollywood stars such as Ron Howard, Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, and author Dan Brown recently gathered overseas for a special event: the world premiere of the movie Inferno in Florence. It got us thinking about Dante Alighieri and his great work, which are the subjects of our Dante in Florence Tour. And so we sat down with some of the docents who lead this and our other Florence walking tours and asked them to guide us around the city in the shoes of Dante.
Inferno in Florence – The Badia
The Badia, a 10th-century Benedictine abbey founded by Countess Willa of Tuscany, is nestled within the neighborhood where Dante grew up. It’s on the corner of where Via Dante Alighieri meets Via Proconsolo and just up the road from the Torre del Castagno, the Casa Dante museum and across the street from the 13th century Bargello, today known as the National Museum of Bargello.
The building can be easily missed by people traveling through this area, as its original structure has been modified over the centuries. However, a brief step up into the Badia’s atrium is worth the visit, especially if you’re looking to get away from the bustling trafficked roads surrounding the Dante quarter.
Its famous panel, the Badia Polyptych by Dante’s contemporary, Giotto, is now in the Uffizi Gallery, and even there almost hidden and often unnoticed by visitors as it hangs behind the larger Maestà paintings in the 13th century room of the museum.
It was here, in the chapel of Santo Stefano next door, that Giovanni Boccaccio in 1373 gave his lectures on Dante’s Divine Comedy. The Badia today is still home to Filippino Lippi’s painting, The Virgin Appearing to Saint Bernard from 1485, painted in the same years in which Botticelli created his Map of Hell while illustrating the Divine Comedy – the map by Botticelli being another highlight of Brown’s novel.
If you take a look up from the street where the taxis and small buses whisk down the narrow road of Via Dante Alighieri you will see one of the thirty Dante plaques that dot the buildings and monuments of Florence. The poetic passage from the Paradiso by Cacciagduida, Dante’s ancestor, marks the medieval Florentine workday beginning and ending with the ringing of the Badia bell.
San Pier Scheraggio
Another often overlooked piece is the San Pier Schieraggio’s plaque on the side of the Uffizi coming from Via della Ninna. It states that within its walls Dante’s voice once echoed as he and others such as Giovanni Boccaccio later once gave public lectures from its pulpit. Giorgio Vasari at the request of Grand Duke Cosimo I built the 16th century Uffizi above the 11th century church, which doesn’t exist anymore.
Inside at one time was the artist Cimabue’s famed Madonna of the Ninna Nanna, or Lullaby Madonna, for her delicate maternal pose holding a sleepy baby Jesus. It was so popular that the street that runs along the Uffizi and Palazzo Vecchio is known as Via della Ninna today.
Only a few times a year for occasional conferences or art exhibits will you be able to walk into the remains of the church whose doors are at the left side of the Uffizi’s first corridor next to the statues of Cosimo the Elder and Lorenzo the Magnificent.
However, if you really want to search for this fragment of Florence’s medieval past, consider an Uffizi Gallery Tour: in fact the museums’ restrooms were incorporated in the old crypt of the church just beyond the bag deposit and down the stairs. At the top of the stair ramp, note the sign with multimedia images that provide the visitor with a visual example of what the street around the Uffizi would have looked like during Dante’s time, and the subsequent 16th century construction of the building on top.
Via delle Oche
On Via della Oche, the short stretch of the street parallel to Florence’s Duomo, you’ll find some of the tower houses of Dante’s time. The plaques placed high up on them bear passages from the Paradiso.
As Via delle Oche turns onto Via dello Studio, not only do you have one of the most captivating views in the city of Arnolfo di Cambio’s cathedral and Brunelleschi’s dome from a side street, but also a few local shops that in Florence are worth the visit, especially for Dante enthusiasts.
One is the local English bookshop, Paperbook Exchange. This friendly bookstore offers a perfect browsing post for several editions of the many English translations of the Divine Comedy. But here anyone wanting to read more about the famous Dante plaques can find what they’re looking for, such as The Dante Plaques: a Florentine itinerary from the Divine Comedy by Foresto Niccolai. And if there was ever any paperback book of poetry that invites scribbling notes on while exploring the actual setting of the literary masterpiece, and earmarking it, is Dante’s Inferno.
The store is also well stocked with other English language books on guides of the city, local news and events sources in English and children’s itinerary books as well as Renaissance art themed coloring books for families. Or browse the many beautiful culinary books on Italian cuisine. Gluttony, too, of course, has its role in Dante’s Comedy!
Continuing on to Via dello Studio, there is the historic shop, Zecchi, on the right side of the street. It sells pigments, paper, notebooks and supplies for artists and writers alike. Here one can find lapis lazuli, gold leaf and various pigments that inspired the paintings and frescos so renowned in Dante’s world. The window display is worth the lingering glance for its artist’s tools and bottles of pigments. After all, when Dante lived, the painters and writers were part of the same guild, the Arte dei Medici e Speziali (The Guild of the Doctors and Apothecaries) as the apothecary shops were the original suppliers of their pigments.