Three of History’s Most Scandalous Exhumations

Political enemies have long dug up famous figures’ remains as vengeance.

1/21/2022 9:00:00 AM

Political enemies have long dug up famous figures’ remains as vengeance.

Political enemies have long dug up famous figures’ remains as vengeance.

La divina commedia, orThe Divine Comedy, and is undoubtedly one of the most famous writers of all time. His death, it turns out, was nearly as interesting as his well-studied life.Born in Florence, Italy in 1265, Dante grew up fiercely proud of his city and its development. At the time, Italy was a fractious region: One was typically not loyal to the peninsula as a whole (which was

not yet unifiedas a country), but to their city. He fought for Florence as a cavalryman, got married there, and did much of his writing there. He formed many of his closest and earliest friendships with leading Florentian intellectuals, such as Guido Cavalcanti, a famous poet.

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over the body of Italy’s so-called secular saint, Dante Alighieri. He authored La divina commedia , or The Divine Comedy , and is undoubtedly one of the most famous writers of all time. His death, it turns out, was nearly as interesting as his well-studied life. Born in Florence, Italy in 1265, Dante grew up fiercely proud of his city and its development. At the time, Italy was a fractious region: One was typically not loyal to the peninsula as a whole (which was not yet unified as a country), but to their city. He fought for Florence as a cavalryman, got married there, and did much of his writing there. He formed many of his closest and earliest friendships with leading Florentian intellectuals, such as Guido Cavalcanti, a famous poet. It wouldn’t last, though. Florence’s political strife saw him exiled in 1302. After an effort to enact a military return failed, he turned to his work hoping his writing could secure his return. But it was not to be. Dante died in 1321 in Ravenna, Italy, the final city of his exile. Dante’s fame soon burgeoned, and Florence began its attempts to reclaim its abandoned son. Two efforts in 1396 and 1429 failed. In 1519, Florence petitioned the pope to return Dante’s bones. The pope agreed. But there was a surprise awaiting the papal delegation. When they arrived at the Basilica of San Francesco, they found the sarcophagus empty. Dante’s bones had been kept by Franciscan friars who, upon hearing the news of the incoming delegation, hid them in a hole in the wall before moving them into the monastery. There they remained until 1677, when a friar recognized the bones and put them on display. A mausoleum was constructed for Dante’s remains in Ravenna in 1782, and they were transferred there. But in 1810, Napoleon Bonaparte, who was at this time at the height of his powers and losing patience with the Church, called for the suppression of religious orders: Properties held by these rulings were to be seized by the state and sold. Italy then fell under Napoleon’s sway, so to avoid tomb looting the friars moved the body into what was once a doorway between the Basilica and the Braccioforte Chapel. His bones weren’t found until 1865, when they were reassembled and buried. There was to be but one more, brief disruption: The bones were removed in 1944 and buried nearby to keep them safe from bombing during the First World War. But they were returned in 1945. Florence never did reclaim its errant son: The Basilica of Santa Croce’s magnificent tomb now sits empty. But every year, on the anniversary of Dante’s death, his hometown sends olive oil to be burned in a donated lamp in Ravenna. Exhuming Evita