Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost.”. I was little more than a child when I learned the opening lines of the Divine Comedy, the most famous poem by Italy’s most famous poet of all time, Dante Alighieri. However, much more recently I discovered that Dante had many connections with my hometown of Verona. What better opportunity could there be to reminisce about him (or rediscover him), in the very places he frequented, than this year, the 750th anniversary of his birth?
Dante spent two periods of time in Verona. In particular, he found a home here from 1312 to 1319, after being exiled from his birthplace of Florence, where the Guelph faction, loyal to the Pope, had seized power. Verona, however, like Dante, was Ghibelline, and therefore loyal to the Emperor. Moreover, it was ruled by an enlightened sovereign, Cangrande Della Scala, a lover of arts and humanities and a pioneering Renaissance art patron.
Cangrande frequently hosted artists and writers in his palace (the “Palazzo degli Scaligeri”, now home to the Prefecture of Verona), which overlooks Piazza dei Signori. Today everyone in Verona knows this square as Piazza Dante because of the statue of the Great Poet in his typical contemplative pose.
When I stroll through the square I like to think that what I can see today is rather similar to what Dante’s eyes saw. Who knows how many times the Poet strolled through the two beautiful medieval courtyards connected to the square: the Mercato Vecchio (Old Market), where the ancient Court House stands, with its Scala della Ragione (Stairs of Reason), now housing the Modern Art Gallery of Verona; and the courtyard of Palazzo del Capitanio (commissioned by Cansignorio, a successor of Cangrande), home to the Scaligero Photography Center, and an underground exhibition space in the ruins of a Roman villa.
As his home city of Florence was burning, Dante found an oasis of peace in Verona that enabled him to complete his masterpiece. In fact, he wrote Paradise, the third canticle of the Divine Comedy, which he purposely dedicated to Cangrande, in the Capitular Library. In Dante’s days, this library, one of the most ancient in the world, was already 1000 years old. It stands beside the Duomo and its shelves preserve precious manuscripts on the history of the town and the Church. I visited it for the first time when I was still at school and was very impressed by the “Raterian Iconography”, the first illustrated map of Verona, which dates back to the 13th century and is now reproduced on many souvenirs.
In the Divine Comedy, more than one trace can be found of Dante’s lengthy stays in Verona. The Inferno mentions the Palio del Drappo Verde (Green Cloth Race), an ancient horse race through the streets of the city that is older than Siena’s Palio. After being abolished when the French ruled Verona, the Palio was reinstated in 2008, on the 600th anniversary of the first race: it is held every year between February and March.
In a triplet of his Purgatory, Dante refers to the Montecchi and Cappelletti families, whose rivalry amid Verona’s narrow alleys would later constitute the backdrop for William Shakespeare’s tragedy on the forbidden yet everlasting love between a certain Romeo Montecchi and his beloved Giulietta Capuleti. But that’s another story…