by Matthew Woodworth

Dante spent his final years of exile in Ravenna at the invitation of Guido II da Polenta, also known as Guido Novello, who governed the city. Although Guido is not specifically named in the Comedy, Dante mentions the Polenta family in Inferno 27: “Ravenna stands as it has stood for years/the eagle of Polenta shelters it/and also covers Cervia with his wings [Ravenna sta come stata è molt’ anni:/ l’aguglia da Polenta la si cova,/sì che Cervia ricuopre co’ suoi vanni.].  Another member of the Polenta family, Francesca da Rimini, appears in Inferno V; she was the daughter of Guido Novello’s grandfather, Guido il Vecchio.  Dante maintained friendly relations with the Polenta family until his death in Ravenna in 1321. 

The basilica of San Francesco, located near the center of Ravenna, was the site of Dante’s funeral. The earliest church was built c. 460 by Bishop Neone and was dedicated to the twelve Apostles. By the seventh century, ten of the Apostles had been dropped in favor of just SS. Peter and Paul. Virtually nothing of the first building survives, although the ground plan suggests that it was a reduced-scale version of Old St. Peter’s in Rome.

Around the year 875, the original church was demolished and replaced by a much larger structure. Much of it is still intact, although remodeled at least three times in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. The façade of the main church is very simple, a good example of ninth-century architecture at its most austere. Its appearance is still exactly as Dante would have recognized it: plain courses of brick, a simple round-arched entrance, and a two-part rounded window above. The putlog holes show the insertion of the original scaffolding, still visible as the original decoration scheme (plaster, sculpture, and marble revetment) was never carried out. The tall campanile to the right was heavily restored in 1921, but pictures from the early twentieth century show the tower as it would have appeared to Dante’s funeral-goers in 1321.

San Francesco, Ravenna. Photo by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro. CC 4.0. Available via Wikimedia.

The church assed to the Franciscan order in 1261, hence its current dedication to St. Francis. The interior is largely as built in the ninth century, now stripped of Baroque gloppery that was added in the seventeenth century. It is a simple elevation — still very much in the tradition of the Constantinian basilicas from the fourth century — composed of rounded arcades carried on Ionic columns. Above it, a tall clerestory is separated by a band of blank walling. The latter may originally have carried a frieze of mosaic or fresco. At the east end of the basilica is a rounded apse pierced with simple windows, and originally containing the high altar.

Below the apse is the crypt, sunk below ground level and very prone to flooding. It is not normally open to the public. The appearance of the crypt is still as it was laid out in the ninth century, with freestanding columns and low barrel vaults. Fragments of original mosaics on the floor are intact (reset here in the 1920s), recording that this was to be the original resting place of Bishop Neone.

Crypt of San Francesco. Photo by Jim Forest. CC 2.0.  Available via Flickr

Dante’s tomb lies just off the cloister. Most of the medieval tombs inside the church were cleared out in the Napoleonic era.

Selected Bibliography

Cottignoli, Alfredo and Sebastiana Nobili, eds. Dante e Ravenna. Convegno internazionale di studi “Dante e Ravenna.” Ravenna: Longo Editore, 2019.

Moore, E. “The Tomb of Dante.” The English Historical Review 3, no. 12 (1888): 635-54. Accessed July 5, 2021.

Raffa, Guy P. “Bones of Contention: Ravenna’s and Florence’s Claims to Dante’s Remains.” Italica 92, no. 3 (2015): 565-81. Accessed July 5, 2021.