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The City of Rome in Dante's Divine Comedy

From: Essays in Medieval Studies
Volume 28, 2012
pp. 51-68 | 10.1353/ems.2012.0003

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In the Earthly Paradise atop the Mountain of Purgatory Beatrice announces to Dante the Pilgrim both his eventual salvation and his divine mission—to make known through his poem what he will witness momentarily in the tableau vivant of the history of the Church (the carro "chariot"):

Qui sarai tu poco tempo silvano;
e sarai meco sanza fine cive
di quella Roma onde Cristo è romano.
Però, in pro del mondo che mal vive,
al carro tieni or li occhi, e quel che vedi,
ritornato di là, fa che tu scrive.

(Purg. 32:100-05)

[Here for a time you shall be a woodsman / and then forever a citizen with me / of that Rome where Christ Himself is Roman. / Therefore, to serve the world that lives so ill, / keep your eyes upon the chariot and write down / what now you see here once you have gone back.]

By depicting Heaven, the Celestial Jerusalem, as Rome, where all the blessed are citizens, Dante demonstrates his conviction that the Eternal City is the proper seat of temporal and spiritual power. In this essay I intend to examine the ways in which the Florentine poet incorporates the physical city of Rome and her monuments, both ancient and medieval, in the Divine Comedy. While not rehearsing familiar territory (the use of Rome in Dante's works as a cultural metaphor, as the home of Empire and Church, and as a locus of literature, particularly Virgil's Aeneid), this investigation will consider the shaping effect of the Roman cityscape on Dante, who from his youth was well aware of the historical connection between Rome and Florence, particularly in terms of city planning.

In his chronicle of the history of Florence from its origins to 1348, the year of his death in the Black Plague, Giovanni Villani frequently refers to the Tuscan city as the "figliuola e fattura di Roma" (II.iv.2: "daughter and creature of Rome") or as "la piccola Roma" (II.i.72: "the little Rome"), while noting that specific urban sites were built "al modo di Roma" ("following the model of Rome"). According to legend, Florence was destroyed in the fifth or sixth century, either by Attila the Hun or by Totila the Ostrogoth, and Villani reports (NC IV.i.53-54) that in early April, 801, the newly-crowned Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne rebuilt the city, consciously modeling it on the urban plan of Rome (NC IV.ii.3: "figurandola al modo di Roma"). It was in this city so steeped in "Roman-ness" that Dante spent the first thirty-six years of his life, and his admiration and appreciation of Rome and the Roman heritage are central features of his thought and works.

What did Dante know first-hand about the physical city of Rome—the buildings, art, and topography? In October/November of 1301 he traveled to Rome as part of a special Florentine delegation to determine the designs of Pope Boniface VIII on his native city. We may assume that during his sojourn Dante behaved as virtually all visitors would have, exploring the city, marveling over the remnants of its ancient past, and viewing its contemporary condition and artistic heritage. It is, of course, difficult if not impossible to know exactly how Rome would have appeared to Dante, so many changes have taken place between then and now. Nevertheless, it is possible to reconstruct the shape of the medieval city through early guide books, itineraries and other accounts (the Einsiedeln Itinerary, the Mirabilia Urbis Romae, Master Gregorius's Narracio de Mirabilibus Urbis Romae), and through artistic representations.

In terms of works of art, Dante may have seen the mid-thirteenth-century fresco cycle in the church of the Santi Quattro Coronati that depicts, from the papal perspective, those events in the intersecting lives of Pope Sylvester and Constantine leading to the latter's "Donation." Dante viewed clerical corruption as a direct consequence of the Donation and inveighed against the first Christian emperor in Inferno 19, the canto of the simonists:

Ahi, Costantin, di quanto mal fu matre,
non la tua conversion, ma quella dote
che da te prese il primo ricco patre!

(Inf. 19:115-17)

[Ah, Constantine, to...

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